You believe what you believe.

Dear [Jessica]:

Since my initial contact with you I have made a sincere effort to learn more – not become an expert – just to learn more so that I might better understand Islam, “average Muslims”, Islamists, and Islamicists. In the past eight months I have read the Qur’an in several versions, including Rodwell, Yusuf Ali, Ali with commentaries, Pickthall, Mohsin Khan, the Qur’an in Modern English, and at present trying to plow through Qutb’s 18-volumes of pure torture. My library now would surely make a casual observer believe that I’m a Muslim . . . which I decidedly am not.

All this and spare-time entangling with the various ahadith collections in our local libraries and on the internet, Reliance of the Traveller, The Life of Muhammad translated by A. Guillaume (a most difficult read), and a variety of commentaries on Islam by Muslims and non-Muslims.

Now that I’ve soaked up as much on Islam as my Christian heart and brain can stand, I’ve started going through your posts since the beginning. My first question to you is: When did you change from being an advocate to being an acolyte to being an apostle? It’s hard to find the exact time, but somewhere along the way you seem to have lost your objectivity, one of the essentials for what you claim to be – an intellectual.

The second question is: Why the stubborn insistence that there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism? Yes, many feel that that is a tautology, but many of us also recognize that the world is aflame and awash in bodyless heads, and at the center of that flame is one common factor – Islam. To say that the Old Testament catalogs such things as stonings and beheadings is a red herring, since those things have not been practiced for millennia. To condemn the Crusades is to forget that had Muslims not conquered the so-called Christian lands of the Middle East, North Africa, and much of Europe, there would have been no need for the Crusades.

The third question: Does not abrogation nullify most of the “be-good-to-non-Muslims” parts of the Qur’an (those ‘revelations’ from Mecca) so that we non-Muslims are at best dhimmis?

And, by the way, I like the way your latest post correspondent spelled ‘litterature’ since that appears to be mostly what ahadith musings are.

Finally, I have given up all hope on Islam, since to me there is no way for the world to live in peace as long as there is the fervent Muslim belief that the Qur’an is the word-for-word, unchanging and unchangeable word of Allah. As long as the Qur’an (and its author Muhammed) are standards to which Muslims aspire, there is no hope, and academics who tell us otherwise are doing us no favors.

You write well, and you have certainly caused me to do a lot of research I would else not have done, so for that I thank you. But please, don’t go much farther across that line between Islamicist and Islamist.

Lee Skinner

Hi Lee,

I admit, I’m having a hard time coming up with how to respond to your questions, but I shall do my best.  To your first question, I certainly can’t give you a date as I was unaware I had become an apostle of Islam (honestly, I’m enough of a nerd that calling me an acolyte makes me feel like a follower of Magneto).  To the best of my knowledge, I have never preached Muslim teachings, I’ve never spoken in a mosque or delivered a khutba, and I’ve never encouraged or even suggested that someone convert to Islam.  I certainly wouldn’t be angry or disappointed with someone choosing to become a Muslim, but mostly I feel that any given person’s religion really isn’t any of my business.

Which I suppose is the larger theme of my response – I’m sorry you sound frustrated with the time you’ve spent studying Islam.  Certainly I have not had the same experience; I’m in my field largely because I enjoy the subject.  As an intellectual – or, I guess, a former intellectual – I would be tempted to suggest that your experiences are the result of acquired wisdom, the human tendency to judge what we learn against what we already know.  No one can start a subject ex nihilo, and we experience what we learn through the lens of what we already know, as well as through the lens of our expectations and assumptions.  Since it sounds like you went into your studies looking for counter-evidence to the idea that Islam is essentially a violent religion, academically I would be tempted to argue that this essential bias – that Islam is a violent religion – corrupted your studies, pressuring you, either consciously or subconsciously, towards interpreting the material as the product of a violent religion.

However, none of that is really my concern.  I did not go into my work expecting that I would be able to convince everyone, or even anyone.  Teaching is not coercion.  I can give you information, suggest sources, and discuss the various established schools of interpretation, but if after all of that, you are still certain that Islam is evil, that’s on you.

Similarly, in terms of objectivity, you’re entirely right – I have none.  I don’t think I ever claimed to be objective.  I’m a bit distant from my subject because I’m not a Muslim, nor did I grow up in a Muslim country or in a Muslim community, but in a decade working in Islamic studies, I have known loads of practicing and nonpracticing Muslims, many of whom I consider friends and love and care for deeply.  My experiences with them absolutely impact my experience of Islam as a movement, a culture, and a religion, as does, incidentally, my personal experiences with Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Hellenic Polytheists, Druids, Taoists, atheists and agnostics.  You’re also correct that I was, and I’d say still am an advocate for Muslim communities living in the West – from my own experiences and from what I’ve been told by participants of various faiths – who, due to the influence they’ve had on me, I am inclined to believe at their word – I think that in the US, there is a real difference in how ‘freedom of religion’ works, depending on your religion, and that American Muslims often get the short end of the stick in that exchange.  I have no intention of hiding my beliefs or opinions on the matter – not only do I not consider them inhibitors to my research, I think they’re integral to giving my work a real-world relevance.

Again, as a former intellectual and trained historian, I could point to the links between the modern emphasis on “objectivity” as being necessary for the study of the humanities and social sciences and the history of Western Imperialism, as traced through the history of anthropology and sociology.  Or as an advocate, I could talk about how “objectivity” can be used by oppressive forces to silence victims from expressing their own experiences.  But it’s clear there’s no point. I don’t intend to justify these choices.  This is my blog.  I write it in my free time.  I write it because I think it might be useful for some people, and I continue writing it because I’ve gotten enough feedback to maintain that belief.

To your second question, I don’t believe there is no such thing as “Islamic terrorism.”  Actually, I’ve talked a couple of times recently about how there absolutely are groups that attach Islamic terminology and imagery to acts of violent abuse.  However, I maintain my belief that the term “Islamic terrorism” is unhelpful, both because it distracts from the fact that thousands of the victims of these groups are Muslims, and because it’s all too often used as if the first word explains the second, that we don’t need to understand how and why terrorist organizations have emerged and gained power in the last half century because they’re “Islamic.”

It’s unhelpful for exactly the reason you yourself have illustrated, because not every flame or headless body is the result of someone calling themselves a Muslim.  Thousands of Americans have been gunned down and beaten to death by police officers who share, at best, a civic religion.  Thousands of queer people in Uganda have lived in fear of horrific deaths due to laws that, at least on the face of them, claim to be Christian (a claim which is similarly linked to the history of Western Imperialism – check out this fantastic report by John Oliver and interview with Pepe Julian Onziema for more).  And basically everyone in North Korea lives in constant fear and suffering without a single reference to Islamic law.

However, again, these arguments are pointless because I will continue to see the term as unhelpful and you will continue to believe that violence is an essential part of Islam.

And to your third point, if you’re asking technically are they all abrogated, then the answer is no.  To the best of my knowledge, no classical Islamic scholar claimed that 5:82 or 42:13 were abrogated.

If you want to talk anecdotally, I’ve never known any Muslim to treat me like a dhimmi.  I’m not even sure what that would mean.  I’ve known some who wanted to discuss religion with me – their own, others, what I’ve been researching – and given that I write and publish on the topic, I’ve generally been happy to entertain their interest.  Even when I’ve traveled in the Middle East, no Muslim has ever demanded a poll-tax from me, required me to reveal the lineage of my father’s line, drilled me on Islamic law, or even required me to keep my head covered, except in order to visit the Umayyad mosque in Damascus (which is a major Muslim shrine).  They have asked to take a picture with me, asked me where I’m from and how my trip is going, offered me tea and chocolate, and let me play with their children while their parents pray.  Again, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that these experiences have informed my research, and I have no intention of trying to surgically remove the effects of these experiences from my intellectual life.

I’m sorry you found your studies fruitless, and that you feel you cannot live in a world where Muslims believe in the Qur’an as the Word of God.  If you genuinely feel you can’t live in this world and that there is no hope, then I implore you to speak to a therapist, or to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1 (800) 273-8255) or the Samaritans (1 (877) 870-4673).  Even if you don’t think you’re in any danger from yourself, please call one of those numbers – there will be no downside for you.  At worst, you have a pleasant chat with some truly wonderful people.  If you find you feel afraid or anxious about the state of the world, speaking to a therapist or joining a therapy group like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may help you develop ways to cope with those feelings.

I appreciate whatever concern for my emotional or spiritual well-being was intended in your warning that I might slip from being an Islamicist to an Islamist, but I as I hope I’ve demonstrated, this is really not an imminent threat.  I feel no personal investment in your becoming a Muslim, following Islamic law, or even agreeing with a single word I’ve written.  I can offer guidance for studying Islam, and answers to specific questions based on my interpretation of the available sources and secondary methodologies, but at the end of the day, you believe what you believe.  And I will remain, I expect for some time, an Islamcist.

With kind regards,

Jessica

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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5 Responses to You believe what you believe.

  1. Michael Mock says:

    Bah. I can’t seem to format the italics and the link right. If our hostess would kill off this entire attempt at a response, I’d appreciate it. I’m going to take one more shot at it below.

  2. Michael Mock says:

    “Finally, I have given up all hope on Islam, since to me there is no way for the world to live in peace as long as there is the fervent Muslim belief that the Qur’an is the word-for-word, unchanging and unchangeable word of Allah.”

    You know what? I’ve heard almost exactly the same sentiment, word for word, from North American atheists in regard to Christians and the Bible. Like, “Finally, I have given up all hope on religion, since to me there is no way for the world to live in peace as long as there is the fervent Christian belief that the Bible is the word-for-word, unchanging and unchangeable word of God.” So reading it here, from a Christian in reference to Islam, made blink a few times and look really puzzled. Hearing my fellow atheists talk that way about Christians contradicts the vast majority of my experience with Christians, and your comment contradicts all my experience with Muslims. (I’m in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas, so I’m positively awash in Christians — and we have no shortage of Muslims here, either; there are at least two that I work with regularly at my job.)

    Now, you can argue that American Christianity is more peaceful than, say, Islam in the Middle East… but I think it’s worth considering that American religion — Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. etc. — is generally more peaceful than religions (any religions) in more violent areas, i.e. that it may be less a matter of the religion than the surrounding culture and sociopolitical circumstances. You can, I suppose, dismiss the idea of Christians being responsible for systematic violence again non-Christians as something that has “not been practiced for millennia”, but you’d be wrong. Those just aren’t the sorts of things that make their ways into Western news media.

    • It’s interesting you say that because when I read the original version, I thought that it was such a foreign concept to me, but when you reframe it as being about Christians, yes, I realize I went through that phase, as well. I grew up in Phoenix, surrounded by a really large Evangelical Christian community, and I remember that the more I learned about their beliefs, the more I felt threatened by them. However, at some point, I realized that not only were they not a threat to me, they had been believing the same thing the whole time. I just wasn’t aware of it.

      The same goes for Islam. That the Qur’an is the Word of God is a fundamental tenant of Islam – Muslims have believed that for probably at least a millennium. And in all that time, the world hasn’t ended. But we’re just now starting to see Islam play a role in public life in North America, and as people are exposed to it, some people are really scared. But that doesn’t mean anything has actually changed.

      And yes, unfortunately no religious community is safe from oppression and violence.

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