Theoblogical (which is generally cool and worth a read) posted an article about Geert Wilders’ rally in Tennessee this week – as we’re coming up on “Draw Muhammad Day”, I’m going to talk about that and Mr Wilder separately, but one of the other panelists at this rally was Dr Bill Warner, a self-styled ‘expert’ in political Islam. On his website, Dr Warner has come up with five principles of Islam that he argues are the crux of Islamic belief. To be fair to Dr Warner, they are all vaguely accurate, but misrepresented.
I’ve said before that one of the difficulties with how Islam is presented in western public life is that we don’t always vet our sources, and Dr Warner is a perfect example. He is a doctor and professor. Of applied physics. He says on his website that he “has had a lifelong interest in religion and its effect on history,” but this really isn’t the same thing as holding academic training in the field of religious history. Most importantly, from his work, I can see no evidence to suggest that Dr Warner has any background in Arabic or philosophy of religion, and so I would argue that he lacks the methodological tools necessary for advanced study in religious history.
His five principles (which I presume are modeled on the Five Pillars, which, to be technical, are a Sunni concept, not a Muslim concept generally – a topic for another day) are as follows, with some comments from me following each:
1.) the Trilogy: the Qur’an, sira (biographies of the Prophet (peace be upon him)) and hadith are the basis of Islam.
While it’s true that these certainly make up the basis for Islamic history and legal writing, they are not the sum total of Islamic sources, even for the earliest period of Islamic history. There is also poetry, historical writing, administrative writing, and early legal precepts, all of which make of up the core texts of Islamic sources, and all of which are integrated into Islamic thought in the centuries that followed. In addition, the sira and the hadith are not individual books; they’re genres of writing. Although the sira of Ibn Ishaq and the hadith of al-Bukhari are among the most widely accepted examples of each, they are not the only ones, nor the only accepted ones. They are, however, among the only ones that have been translated into English.
2.) Political Islam: “the doctrine that relates to the nonbeliever, the kafir”
Certainly it is the case that doctrinal, believers go to Paradise and nonbelievers do not. That’s generally true of every religion, or at least, every religion that has a concept of an afterlife (and not, for example, reincarnation after death).
Intriguingly, Islam has a concept of Hell as temporary, which is rare for the Abrahamic faiths. According to most Muslim scholars, people in Hell suffer only for a period of time set by their sins and wrongdoing in life. Obviously in the case of the nonbelievers, this would be a very long time as their wrongdoing is very serious, but still, it’s unusual that the division of damned in the afterlife is not understood as permanent.
I have no idea how Dr Warner got his figure that the Qur’an is 61% about kufr. The Qur’an is certainly mostly about belief, but at least my inkling is that those discussions of belief are mostly directed internally, at the Muslims, not externally at other people. (But I’m not going to go count. Sorry, internets, but I don’t love you that much.)
Okay, firstly, a totally niggling point, but perhaps further evidence that Dr Warner does not know Arabic – kafir is singular, the plural is kufr. There’s really no need to Anglicize it if you’re going to use the Arabic term. More importantly, kafir is NOT the only term used in the Qur’an or in early Arabic literature to describe non-Muslim people. In addition to the general terms for different religious groups (“Jew”, “Christian” (who are called “nazarites” in Arabic, due to Jesus’s epithet – “Jesus of Nazareth”), etc), one of the most common term is actually “mushrikun”. Mushrikun has no direct English parallel, but means literally “one who attributes partners or likenesses to God” (a bit of a mouthful, which is why it’s usually not translated by Islamicists). The Arabian polytheists were mushrikun because they prayed to idols along with Allah. Christians are also sometimes called mushrikun because of the Trinity, which some Muslims thought meant they worshiped the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost as separate entities.
Also, People of the Book is not equivalent to kufr – in fact, that’s really the most important distinction. People of the Book (ahl al-kitab) are protected from attempts at conversion, whereas kufr are not, so People of the Book get to live in Muslim territory unmolested. They have to pay a headtax (the jizya), but at least according to some scholars, this would have been equal or less than the zakat (the poor due paid by Muslims), so they might still have been making out on the deal.
But even kufr should not be treated as Dr Warner describes – there are rules for warfare, which are laid out in the early histories (which presumably he hasn’t read as they aren’t translated into English – if I ever get really bored, or a grant to do so, I really want to translate some of the early histories as they are incredibly important for understanding the nature of the early Islamic community).
4.) Dualism – by which he appears to mean contradictions in the Qur’an/in Islamic thought
Again, another niggling point, but that’s not what dualism means, which any expert on religious history should know – dualism is one of four options for theousia, or the formulation of God in a religion, where there are two equally powerful Gods, usually one good and one evil, who duel against each other for the world. Zoroastrianism, the religion of Persia at the rise of Islam, is dualist (and for anyone questioning my use of the word ‘is’ in that sentence, meet the Parsi).
The idea that complexity or even contradiction is unique to Islam is just silly – religions are massive, complicated philosophical structures and rarely adhere to direct lines of argument. That’s exactly why theology exists – it tracks the continuing attempts of a religious community to understand it’s own basic texts. In the same way that you can’t sit down, read the whole of Platonic philosophy, and have it all be straightforward, you can’t sit down a read religious texts and have it all be straightforward. Personally, I consider that part of the fun, but I also like to read Plato in my free time.
5.) Submission – Islam means submission and Muslim means one who submitted.
Linguistically, yes, and this is one of those ‘fun’ conversations you have with yourself when translating early works, as to whether you should translate the verb ‘aslama’ as ‘to submit’ or ‘to become a Muslim’ (and by ‘fun’, I mean tedious). But to be super-pedantic, the terms do also mean Islam and Muslim – the meaning of words evolves over time, and words, particularly words for abstract concepts, do not have singular, distinct meanings. Although the words might have meant ‘submission’ to someone in the seventh century doesn’t mean that’s what people now mean when they call about Islam. In the same way, when we talk about Judaism, we aren’t talking about the nation of Judea, we’re talking about a world religion.
And incidentally, the concept of submission seems to have worked to the advantage of creating a peaceful, balanced state in the first centuries of Islam. Again, looking at the early histories, cities or large communities of people submit, and are called Muslims, but are also called Jews and Christians at the same time, suggesting that it was possible to be part of the Muslim state without conversion. There’s very little evidence that the Muslims were interested in annihilating local cultures or societies; instead, it was a question of integration and cohabitation.
So yeah, I guess, the moral of this story is – the early Muslim histories are really cool. They should be translated into English, but aren’t. Unless you have access to a nineteenth century edition produced by William Nassau Lees when he was an Army Chaplain in Calcutta. Seriously, that’s the last time this stuff was looked at. I love my field.
 I honestly wish I could say thank you to Theoblogical for pointing me to his blog – I admit, it’s the sort of thing I should probably know exists – but really, after reading several entries over the last few days, my head hurts.
 The four options are monotheism, dualism, polytheism or pantheism. Pretty much every religion falls into one of those categories, although some scholars include shamanic as it’s own category. If you want a definition of any of the other three, leave a comment.
 Seriously. One time I was reading Plato by a pool. I got made fun of a lot.