Homosexuality in the Medieval world

Carrying on from my last post, I came across this brilliant comic by Humon about definitions of sexuality in Medieval Christian monasticism, which really nails what I was talking about that our terminology just doesn’t make sense when talking about sex in a historical context.  Obviously this is talking about Christianity, but the idea of lust and sexual acts as being points of concern, rather than kinds of sexuality, definitely applies to Islam, as well.  Check it out!










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Homosexuality in Islam

Umar asked:

Hey Jessica,

I was wondering if you could make a post about homosexuality in Islamic history, i.e how open has it been, what were the reactions, etc.


Okay, I guess to start with I should warn everyone that this post will have discussions of sex, including sex between same-gender and non-gender-sex partners.  I don’t intend to go into any particular detail, but if you’re squicked out by sex in general, or by the existence of homosexuality and queer identity, you should probably stop reading.

Also, for the sake of clarity, I’m going to use gender to describe the division between homosexuality and heterosexuality – heterosexual people prefer to have sex with non-same-gender partners, homosexual people prefer to have sex with same-gender people.  It’s not a perfect division, but I strongly dislike the term ‘same-sex,’ as I find it really transphobic.  I use ‘queer’ as a blanket term for all non-straight identities, although for the sake of the current discussion, I’m not really going to talk about asexuality.  Queer studies is the academic field that considers the role of non-straight identity in the humanities and social sciences – it should be point out, it’s not my field, and so I’m coming into this predominantly as a historian whose done a bit of extra reading.

Also, as a historian, I should point out that any discussion of homosexuaily in history needs to come with a couple of caveats.  Firstly, there have been times throughout history and around the world when non-straight behavior was considered a sin, a crime, or a mental illness, and so understandably, non-straight people have often tried hard not to be identified.  Moreover, one of the major periods for believing homosexuality was a sign of mental illness was the 19th century, when many of the standards for editing, translating, and interpreting Medieval texts also date from, so many of the works that come down to us have been re-interpreted through a Victorian mindset.

Secondly, sexual identity and sexual preference are ultimately abstract concepts that only exist inside your head.  No matter what people think, there’s no outward evidence to mark someone as queer (any more than there is for marking people as straight).  The best we can do is interpret what people said about themselves, what they’re reported to have done, and what other people say about them.  The key word here is ‘interpret’ – even in cases where we have reports in historical texts about people who seem to understand each other as the same gender having sex, plenty of people have argued that we’re ‘reading homosexuality into the text,’ and technically they’re right – it could be a literary device, it could be a literary invention, it could be meant as a compliment (during periods when homosexuality was seen as a positive) or as an insult (in times when it was considered a negative).  These problems with interpretation even arise within the queer community and in the field of queer studies – for example, for much of the late twentieth century, it was common to say that figures like Marlon  Brando or Kate Hepburn were gay and in the closet because they were reported to have had sexual relations with both men and women – the claim being that the relations with same-gender partners revealed their homosexuality and relations with non-same-gender partners were them keeping up appearances.  More recently, more and more people have started to argue that we should see them as bi or pansexual, interpreting the relations with both same-gender and non-same-gender partners through the same lens of queer identity.  Ultimately we can’t really know the truth – for living people, we can just ask them and they can tell us, “Oh, actually I identify as pan and aro” (and once they have told us, we should believe them!), but for historical figures, we’re stuck with all of the limitations of interpretation.

That being said, there is significant evidence that non-straight behavior was common in Medieval Islam.  To start with, it’s banned in Islamic law, and in general, you only write laws to ban things that are actually happening.  As outlined in a great article (in Variety of all places?) by Jonathan Brown at Georgetown, non-straight sex legally falls under sex outside of marriage (although potentially would have been legal between two married couples, except in the case of anal penetration, which was specifically prohibited), and so was illegal because all sex acts outside of marriage were illegal.   That there are occasional references specifically to non-straight sex acts in the legal literature, including giving suggested parallels for appropriate punishments, implies that cases involving non-straight sex acts arose often enough for jurists to need a standard and precedence for judging them.

In terms of attitudes towards homosexuality, the best example I can think of is Medieval wine poetry, a genre of Arabic poetry popular in the ninth and tenth centuries, a period which coincides with the emergence of a distinct urban culture, particular around the caliphal court in Baghdad.  Court poets, the best known being Abu Nuwas, would write of the court’s exploits, sneaking into the monasteries in the Christian quarter of the city to drink wine and make love to the young monastic novices.  Again, many people have argued that the imagery in these poems is purely literary, and it is the case that several court poets were executed, in some cases supposedly for heresy, although there is every reason to think court intrigue played a role, as well.  Nevertheless, the popularity of this poetry, including its continued circulation for several centuries after the genre itself died off (along with the Baghdadi court, which started to lose power after the tenth century) all suggest that the imagery of the poems played a genuine cultural role in Muslim society.

There are also several cases of major Muslim leaders who were reportedly queer – for example, ‘Ala ad-Din Muhammad III, one of the Nizari Isma’ili Imams, and al-Hakam II, caliph of the new Umayyad caliphate in Andalusia, but again, since homosexuality is sometimes used as an analogy for positive or negative behavior, it’s hard to judge if these accounts are historically accurate.  ‘Ala ad-Din Muhammad III in particular was a hated ruler who was eventually overthrown, so it’s tempting to see accounts of his homosexuality as part of a broader smear campaign.  Similarly, Western accounts of the Ottoman court include claims of homosexual behavior, going back as far as Mehmet the Conqueror in the 15th century, but again, it’s hard to know if those accounts speak to any reality, or simply represent Western interests in portraying the Ottomans as decadent and corrupt.

I have to admit, as a historian, I’m always struck by the same feeling in researching homosexuality in the past, namely, that people just didn’t care.  There is historical evidence to suggest that queer people have always existed and faced varying levels of resistance or acceptance by society more generally, but I think one of the problems in any discussion of homosexuality in a historical context is that the modern age is way more focused on the individuality and individual behavior than the pre-modern world.  For the most part, the pre-modern world just didn’t care what people did at home or what they thought or felt.  As noted by Professor Brown, “the focus on actions in the Shariah means that desires or inclinations have no legal substance.”  The idea of investigating people’s ‘identities’ just doesn’t really make sense in most times and places historically – leader’s identities were important because they played a special role in major decision-making, including, in the Muslim world, in serving as a representative of God’s Will on earth, but the identity of ordinary people just wasn’t something anyone thought about or wrote about.  That a poet would write about the beauty of a man’s lips and that another man would enjoy that poem just didn’t mean anything to them the way it does to us (or, at least, not in a way that’s been preserved in written sources).

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Abrahamic Monotheism: Do they all worship the same God?

First off, thanks to my mother for flagging these articles for me – I was off sleeping late and playing video games over the winter intercession, and completely missed big news in the world of teaching theology!

So as some of you may have heard, in early December, Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at the private, liberal, evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, posted on facebook an idea for what she called “embodied solidarity” between Muslims and Christians, in particular between believing women of both faiths, that for the winter holidays, non-Muslim women should appear in public and travel wearing the hijab, in solidarity with Muslim women who often face harassment and recrimination and, in airports, detainment, simply for wearing a headscarf or veil.

In explaining her “embodied solidarity,” she said of Islam that, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”  

Wheaton College, in response, placed Professor Hawkins on paid administrative leave and, as of last week, has announced that they have begun the termination process (a very lengthy process for tenured faculty that will probably take several months if not a full year).  In their public statement, they said that their decision to suspend Professor Hawkins had nothing to do with her “embodied solidarity” of wearing the hijab, but rather her theological claims, which “seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.”  This has spurred a wave of responses from other scholars in religious studies about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, including a feature piece in the Wall Street Journal by Stephen Prothero at BU, who defended Wheaton’s choice, saying, “no doubt Christians should strive to understand the Islamic faith fully, and vice versa. But pretend pluralism, feigning that all or most religious traditions hinge on the same truth, is no solution for the squabble at Wheaton or anywhere else,” and that while Professor Hawkins was expressing her freedom of religion, “Wheaton shares the same liberty to defend its Christian identity in a nation in which the “Star Wars” saga is more widely known than is the passion of Jesus.”

To start with, I’d really like Professor Prothero to offer a citation on that whole Star Wars claim, as I would have thought most Americans could more accurately paraphrase the Passion story than Star Wars (especially if we’re talking the whole series, since we’ve all collected burned the Prequels from our memory).  But more than possibly misrepresenting how mainstream nerd culture has become, there are several points about both Wheaton’s and the general academy’s responses to this issue that I think are worth pointing out.

The first, and most important, is that in none of these discussions of who worships what God have I seen a single person mention Judaism.  This is important because while Christians are often strongly resistant to the idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, they’re often all too ready to cite ‘Judeo-Christian’ traditions or values, concepts that, as I’ve talked about before, do not really exist and which many Jewish communities adamantly reject (for example here and here).

It’s important to recognize the similarities between how Christianity responds to the Muslim idea of People of the Book and how Judaism responds to the Christian idea of Judeo-Christian values because it highlights one of the most significant aspects of how religions that share historical elements relate to one another, namely, that it’s much easier for the newer ones to claim association to the older than vice versa because purifying or correcting what came before is a standard religious claim.  Without it, there would be significantly fewer religions, as many religions start out as offshoots of existing traditions, claiming a new revelation or corrected interpretation that brings the tradition back in line with what the original founders ‘really meant.’  These claims of correction are obviously going to be rejected by the group that doesn’t change, however, as they imply that everything they’re currently doing is wrong.  Nevertheless, these new faiths can only arise because they share a history with the older community – the presence of these points of innovation/correction (depending whose view you want to take) are evidence of a shared past.

Understanding this process of innovation/correction for the establishment of new religious traditions also brings me to the second point that I think is missing from every discussion of Professor Hawkins’ statement – by asking if Christians and Muslims worship the same God, you’re making a really big leap in assuming that all Christians and all Muslims worship the same God.  

For Islam, I would be more inclined to say that yes, all Muslims worship the same God – that’s because most of the major divisions that led to the creation of new sects in Islam had to do with either orthopraxis (debates over how the religion should be practiced) or authority (how the communities should identify leaders), not theousia (how the nature of God is defined).  There are some Sufi traditions that I think you could probably make a case for having their own theousia, but it’s definitely not an issue that arises routinely in Islam.

However, for Christianity, theousia remained the central point of dispute for easily the first 800 years of Christian history, and elements of it even filtered into the debates of the Reformation, counter-Reformation, and the American Great Revivals.  Wheaton has argued that Hawkins’ statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God contradicted its statement of faith, but I can think of at least a half-dozen Christian communities that would take issue with one or more of their definition of Christianity: Catholics could certainly take issue with their description of the Bible as “final authority in all they say” and that the description of Jesus’ intercession make no mention of transubstantiation; none of the churches in the Middle East or India ever accepted that Jesus “was true God and true man,” and a number of churches (Latter day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists, for example) could take issue with their limiting “scripture” to the books of the Old and New Testament.  

If we define “worshipping the same God” as “holding the exact same definition of theousia and practicing the worship of that God in all of the same ways,” then no one worships the same God.  Even two churches who both share the same denomination may hold slightly different services or practices.  There’s no reason to highlight the differences between Christianity and Islam when those same divisions exist between all of the Abrahamic faiths (including Judaism, which isn’t included in these discussions nearly often enough, plus all of the ones no one ever talks about, like the Mandeans, Druze, and Bahai), and debatably between sects of any one of the Abrahamic faiths, as well.

And yet, it is still the case that nearly all of the monotheist traditions that exist in the world today all share a common ancestry.  Monotheism is nearly exclusively a Middle Eastern innovation, with each new iteration growing out of debates within and between its theological forebears.  Whether that’s a good enough reason for members of those faiths to consider each other brothers and sisters isn’t up to me to decide, but it seems like they should at least be prepared to accept the historical reality that they are, at least, theological cousins.

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Authority and Orientalism in the Media

Happy New Gregorian Calendar!  I hope everyone enjoyed a season of merriment, relaxation, and, if you’re anything like me, playing videogames until your fingers hurt.  That’s what the holidays are all about, right?

Not everyone was relaxing for the last two weeks, however – the LA Times apparently spent their downtime recruiting for a new Middle East correspondent, in a job description so overflowing with cliches I’m honestly amazed it doesn’t have the word ‘Orient’ in it anywhere.  The original ad has since been revised and reposted, but thankfully Sarah Moawad preserved the original on Muftah, along with her own fantastic cover letter in response.  Go read it now – it’s definitely worth it!

I agree with Sarah’s analysis that it seems unlikely that the ad is a sign that the LA Times is overrun with Orientalists – it seems far more plausible that the ad is the result of the slow conglomeration of a lot of subconscious prejudice.  It’s also not surprising that so many of the jokes about the posting on social media focus on Aladdin, as it’s easy to imagine that at least one person in HR was humming “Arabian Nights” when they posted this.  However, I think the fact that this ad exists in the twenty-first century – and made it all the way to print and received criticism before it was changed – also signals an important, albeit depressing, reality about authority and expertise in the modern age.

In general, I’d guess that most of us today consider ourselves more savvy and more skeptical about authority than generations past; however, the reality is far more complicated.  All of us have people we treat as authorities, and often those figures receive that position of authority not due to their training or background, but by circumstance.  News media has always been one of the places this plays out – I’d guess that most of us feel more skeptical of the news than our parents or grandparents were, but we probably can all still name one or two news reporters who we tend to believe, and even quote, generally without fact-checking them first.  Whether it’s Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow, we all still have authority figures who we accept as authorities without necessarily thinking a great deal about how much of an expert they could really be.

The LA Times posting demonstrates just how far removed from experts reporters can be, however.  Even the revised version, from which almost all of the Orientalist language has been removed, does little to suggest that the postholder will be an ‘expert’ in any sense of the word.  Fluency in Arabic is still preferred, but not required, and they’ll still be expected to ‘wander back roads,’ which may be a great way to write country songs, but actually is not the best way to learn about geopolitical conflict.  It’s easy to imagine that the postholder of the position could become an expert in the Middle East from wandering the back roads and eventually picking up the language, but how long do we expect that would take?  Five years?  Ten?  In that period of time, this same person could have published hundreds of articles about the Middle East while still being, essentially, a layman.

Despite living in a society that puts more and more emphasis on higher education and training as necessary for any career, we seem to have doubled-down on the idea that ‘expertise’ can be substituted with ‘commitment’ or ‘passion.’  Indeed, this belief has always been part of the American identity – we all grew up knowing that you don’t need to be a big city lawyer or have a bunch of fancy degrees to be successful, you just have to believe in yourself, pull yourself up by bootstraps, put your mind to it, etc.  These cliches are great as motivators, but it’s terrifying to think we’re actually now believing them, and believing that anyone can do anything.  Anyone can, but there needs to be a lot of steps in between, and we need to understand that authority and expertise are the outcome of these steps, not the result of the passion to undertake them.  Without that, we’re left to hear about geopolitical change from someone who spent their days wandering the backstreets of Cairo, asking for directions in broken Arabic because we don’t have any better options.

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Six Things to Know about Mass Conversion

Last week, I had the pleasure of driving out to Rhode Island and back with some of my coworkers for a meeting, and on the way back, they asked to hear a bit more about my research.  Nearly everyone I’m working with at the moment is a research scientist, and so we’ve had lots of conversations about the differences in how research is done in the sciences versus the humanities.  But this conversation struck on a topic that I was surprised to realize I haven’t talked about here – is Europe going to convert to Islam?

In the car, this came up in the context of talking about Islamophobia, and whether fears of mass conversion were a valid defense for apparently-Islamophoic behavior.  In trying to explain why I didn’t think that argument held water, I realized just how many complications there are in talking about mass conversion as a possible future event.  So I thought I’d compile some of those points here (in a list, because who doesn’t love lists?!):

Six things to know about mass conversion:

  1.  Academics tend to assume mass conversion is an organic event.
  1.  It’s important to differentiate between spiritual conversion and social conversion.
  1.  Social conversion rarely involves the complete abolishment of previous traditions; a new, amalgamated culture is more likely.
  1.  Missionizing is actually pretty ineffective (presuming it’s not back by military force).
  1.  That’s because most people convert for pragmatic reasons.
  1.  Exposure to other religious traditions is not the same as conversion, but is actually a requirement of offering freedom of religion.

Starting with the top: we academics tend to assume mass conversion is an organic event.  By that, I mean that when we study mass conversion in a historical context, we tend to look for reasons why it was successful, particular in terms of social adaptation and social advancement, presuming that you can’t actually just will people to change their religion. We do so mostly because historically, that perspective seems the most accurate.  We have plenty of examples of people preserving in their religion despite legal repression (eg. alternating groups of Protestants and Catholics in the UK), social pressure to convert (eg. Christianity in the first two centuries of Muslim rule), or both (eg. Jews in both Europe and, at various points, North America, as well as native communities in North America, Africa, and Australia).  Forced conversion is generally ineffective and, at best, forces people to hide the practice of their religion rather than abandon it entirely.  

By comparison, mass conversions of large populations or regions are relatively rare historically, and in studying them, we often find complex combinations of social pressures, financial benefits, cultural shifts, and political machinations that lead to them.  Even with all of these features, we still don’t really know why they happen, and so we tend to fall back on the explanation of phenomenology – that that tradition fit those people in that moment, for whatever reason. Indeed, that’s exactly why I study what I do, because although we know that at some point the Middle East went from being predominantly Christian to predominantly Muslim, we can’t really pin down exactly when or exactly why.  So when asked if Europe is going to convert to Islam, as a scholar, my answer is just ‘maybe?  If it’s a good fit?’  I don’t see a future in which a mass conversion can take place that doesn’t fit with the general wants and needs of the population, which is clearly what people are afraid of in talking about conversion in Europe.

Indeed, before we can even ask if Europe will convert, it’s important to differentiate between spiritual conversion and social conversion.  This point goes hand-in-hand with how academics study mass conversion.  When we talk about mass conversion, at best we’re expecting mass social conversion, meaning that the majority of the population all come to participate in the practices and rituals of the same, new religion and/or the ruling party enforces a new religion as a new civic religion, which people have to swear public allegiance to in order to maintain their citizenship/identity within that society.  Spiritual conversion is what someone actually believes in their heart about the nature of the divine, and this we, as scholars, know very little about.  People have to write about what they really believe and then somehow preserve that documentation to come back to us, and that just doesn’t happen very often.  When it does, we find examples of people pretending to convert, as I just discussed, hiding their true religion while outwardly appearing to have given in to social conversion.  However, it’s unclear if we should count this kind of multi-layered religious identity as ‘mass conversion,’ if people are performing a religion socially that they don’t really believe spiritually.

It’s probably also worth noting that Europe’s current identity as a ‘Christian’ region is itself an example of this multi-layered identity.  We call Europe Christian mostly because historically its rulers instituted various Christian sects as the national religion.  Europe has never been 100% Christian, as there has always been some non-Christians living in Europe, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others.  And there are plenty of Europeans who call themselves Christians and who may participate in public Christian rituals like Christmas and Easter who, in their hearts, are actually agnostics or atheists.

This multi-layered identity also demonstrates how social conversion rarely involves the complete abolishment of previous traditions; a new, amalgamated culture is more likely.  Even while Europeans may call themselves Christian because they participate in rituals at Christmas or Easter, many of those rituals are actually lifted from the pre-Christian religions and societies of Europe.  There’s nothing in the Bible about Christmas trees, putting out your shoes to get chocolates, or bunnies who carry eggs.  People liked these traditions, so even as they took on a new public religious identity, they kept practicing them, giving them a Christian veneer to explain their relevance.  Perhaps the best example of this in the Christian tradition is the worship of saints – even as Greeks and Romans started to accept Christianity as the new imperial religion, they missed being able to pray to specific deities for specific problems, and so the cult of saints was born, and instead of praying to Apollo for healing, you could pray to a saint for the same.

Even if Islam became large enough, socially-powerful enough, and popular enough for the majority of Europe to accept Islam as the new public or civic religion, it’s very unlikely that Europeans would suddenly adopt Middle Eastern or Asian social practices along with it.  It’s much more likely that Christmas decorations and St. Nick would take on a Muslim persona, so that Europeans could continue to give each other presents in December.  Basically, if Europe did convert, it would be to a European kind of Islam, not a Middle Eastern one, just as they did with Christianity more than a millennium ago.

How that conversion is going to take place, however, will have more to do with demographics and adaptiveness of Islam than with direct missionizing, as missionizing is actually pretty ineffective (presuming it’s not back by military force).  

So missionizing is hard to talk about because so much of the history of modern missionizing is tied up with Western imperialism, which carried with it tremendous legal, military, political, social, and cultural authority.  So while 19th and 20th century missions in Africa and East Asia were often successful, it’s debatable if these successes had anything at all to do with the religion they were trying to spread.

The rise of Muslim missionizing in Europe is much more like the worldwide missionizing of the Church of Latter Day Saints or the American Transcendental Buddhist and Hare Krishna missionaries in North America.  These movements have had some success in increasing the numbers of their own faith, but have had almost no success in swaying the dominate religion in the areas in which they work.  There are, to date, no LDS-identified nations, and although there are a handful of cities in North America that are predominantly American Transcendental Buddhist or Hare Krishna (Fairfield, Iowa and New Vrindaban, West Virginia, for example, respectively), these movements have had relatively little effect on North American culture and society, and are still almost always presented in mainstream culture as exotic or foreign. Given sufficient immigration and missionizing, it’s possible that whole cities in Europe might become primarily Muslim, but there’s a huge difference between that and ‘Europe’ as a whole converting.

Indeed, immigration will probably play a bigger role, as most people convert for pragmatic reasons.  The rise of Islam in Europe in this century is tied in part to increased immigration, not native conversion.  If it were to move to native conversion, based on research into conversion in other communities, we would expect to see practical reasons for that native conversion.  Again, LDS is a useful example here – although LDS has a massive missionary program, people’s reasons for converting often focus on the church’s active social component, that it offers a ready-made community, and often provides family care and recreation activities.  In some cases, the church has even supported their members financial in cases of serious injury or sudden job loss.  Similarly, in his seminal work, Transforming the American Religion, Alan Wolfe discusses pragmatic conversion, noting interviews with individuals who changed denominations due to issues like how far a drive it was to attend, what the preacher was like, or how the services were run.  Although these latter two are sort of religious in nature, they also highlight how practical people can be in how they practice their religion.

Unfortunately, this point actually supports the idea that conversion in Europe might result in increased extremism, as Islamist groups have been very successful in leveraging their roles as social support systems to drive recruitment in the Middle East.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was particularly successful in the 20th century in serving as a local support system for communities who lacked government intervention, opening schools and clinics in Egypt and the neighboring region, and even buying Christmas trees for Palestinian Christians.  However, this avenue is also easily prevented if local governments are willing to provide sufficient resources and equal access to their minority communities.  Most European nations are good on the former, providing public housing, healthcare, and education, and so would only need to work at making sure minority communities have equal access to these resources.

However, although European countries should be acting to reduce discrimination, doing so will probably not stop people from becoming Muslims or from missionizing for Islam, and we shouldn’t want it to because exposure to other religious traditions is not the same as conversion, but is actually a requirement of offering freedom of religion.  We’re really good about this when it comes to freedom of speech, and really bad at it when it comes to freedom of religion.  We understand that freedom of speech means public speech, that people have to have the right to go into the park or on TV and make statements we disagree with.  We don’t have to listen to them, but we can’t stop them, either.

Well, the same goes for religion – people have to be able to practice their religion publicly, and that includes missionizing.  You have the right to politely decline and walk away, but you don’t have the right to stop them from trying to missionize to you in the first place.

I’m not sure when we as a society decided that “separation of church and state” means separation of religion from the public sphere, but freedom pretty much only exists in the public sphere.  If we only allow people to practice their religion privately, then we’re back to the social versus spiritual religion problem, except that we’re effectively enforcing atheism as a civic religion.

Don’t get me wrong, being prostelytized to can be annoying, but so can people wanting you to sign a petition or hear their political platform or calling you a jerk, and yet we recognize that these things are annoying but necessary for maintaining a free society.  Furthermore, allowing religion in the public sphere won’t mean people can force you to convert because we already know that freedom needs to be limited by individual safety – that’s why it’s not free speech to shout fire in a crowded theater unless there’s actually a fire, no matter how much you feel the need to celebrate the existence of combustion.  People have to have the right to freely express their beliefs – even extremist beliefs – in order to be free.  That means a sign of a truly religiously free society would be that we’re all a little bit exposed to a whole lot of religions, in the same way that we’re all a little bit exposed to a whole lot of ideas.

So will Europe convert to Islam?  Maybe, if enough people find social or cultural fulfillment in Muslim beliefs, and the movement is wide-sweeping enough to either convert the majority of the population or take hold of the civic religion.  Even then, it seems unlikely we’ll see Europe abandon Father Christmas or wearing candles as hats.  More likely, French haute couture would start producing designer hijabs and Austrians would start making schnitzel with lamb.  

Whether or not Islam continues to expand in Europe, however, hopefully what we will see in the next few decades is European nations ensuring true free access to government resources and true freedom of religion, including the expression of radical or unpopular ideas.  And it’s important for the global community to recognize that those changes won’t be a sign of Europe’s imminent conversion to anything but true liberalism.

So there you have it: mass conversion – a confusing concept, and a generally unlikely historical outcome.  I hope you enjoyed it!  This is also going to be my last post of the year – a couple of people have emailed me with questions, and I’ll answer these first thing in January.  In the meantime, merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, and I’ll see you all in 2016!

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Islam and evolution

Umar asked:

Hi there,

I am a Muslim, but I’m struggling to reconcile evolution with my religion. I completely accept the evidence for evolution, and honestly, I’m more likely to give up my religion than I am to take up creationism. Despite this though, I am a firm Muslim, and would certainly not like to leave Islam.

I find it difficult to believe in a metaphorical Adam and Eve. The Quran specifically calls them prophets, so how can prophets, whom we revere, and attach the suffix A.S to, be a metaphor?

Similarly, science tells us that Noah’s ark and the flood are not tenable. How can Noah be a metaphor when we regard him as a prophet?

Many Christians talk about how Thomas Aquinas mentioned how the Genesis story was not meant to be taken literally. Is there an Islamic precedent for regarding Adam and Noah as metaphorical?

I know you are not a scientist, but I am really hoping you can help me in this journey.

Thank you,


Hi Umar,

First, my apologies both for the delay in this reply and for the substance, which I fear will only be a very early starting point for what is a very big issue.

Also, I feel I should admit that I’m always quite nervous to respond when people ask me questions about religion that stem from their own conflicts of faith because I am, myself, an agnostic, meaning I’ve never managed to resolve any of these questions to my own satisfaction, so I feel like my response can’t be much better than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

However, your question is an important one, so I will do my best to point to some of the themes I’ve found in reading around this topic that I think might help.  To start with, you are definitely not alone in having these questions, and there seems to be a range of responses of how other Muslims have found parallels between the stories of the Qur’an and the messages of scientific research.  I’d suggest checking out Islamic Theory of Evolution by T.O. Shanavas, articles by Usaama al-Azami, and keep an eye out for the forthcoming Anila Asghar (ed.), Islam and evolution education: Historical and contemporary perspectives.  For what it’s worth, these are also questions that Muslims have always had and used to further expand their own understand of God’s message – Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was a contemporary of Darwin who defended that latter’s research, pointing quite rightly to many of the themes of The Origin of Species as being no different from work done by Medieval Islamic biologists and naturalists.  All of this is just to say that I don’t think these questions are either frivolous or blasphemous, but important for understanding how we as humans can understand God’s plan.

In my own reading of both Christian and Muslim responses to evolution, I think the theme that resonates the most with me is that any wisdom, including divine revelation, needs to be comprehensible to the community who receives it in order to be effective.  It’s no good sending Sagan’s Brief History of Time to Ancient Rome – even if it were translated into Latin, there are way too many concepts that just aren’t going to translate.  

I think this is particularly important in thinking about the messages of the Qur’an because if the Qur’an is the final revelation humanity will ever receive from God, then it would make sense that it carries within it many layers of wisdom, so that as we become more intelligent and understand more about the world, we can find more and more wisdom in it.

Take the story of Noah, for example.  On the one hand, that something similar could have happened on a small scale is not impossible.  That would be the first level of meaning, a rather amazing story that highlights both the impressive capacity of humans when we set ourselves to a task and the tremendous power of God to change the world through our actions.  But the story of the flood is also not a bad way to introduce the idea of mass extinction to a population who don’t yet know nearly enough about geography, geology, or biology to understand it in full.  They wouldn’t understand all of the dynamics of mass extinction if you just gave them all of the science in a giant info dump, but they’ll remember the crazy story about a man and a giant boat.  And in a few thousand years, they will know more about science, and understand that mass extinction is possible, and maybe they’ll read that story again and realize that Noah was able to save the human race because he was willing to act as steward for every other species and save them, a rather painful lesson we’re currently being taught by global climate change.

I feel like the story of Adam and Eve could be similarly multi-leveled.  We may have evolved from apes, but there was still a first human, particularly in terms of human consciousness, the sentience that allows us to love and fear and hope and doubt.  In the sense of awareness, there was some ape-person whose consciousness first emerged from the shapeless void of pure survival instinct.  If we take the ‘personhood’ of the Genesis story as consciousness, I think it actually makes a great of sense – it’s not hard to imagine that the first self-aware human would look at his ape-cousins and believe them to be more peaceful and more content.  Anyone who has experienced heartbreak or dread about the future can understand how consciousness could be considered a curse.  From this angle, the Qur’anic version of the Genesis story is particularly powerful – God recognizes that the first few humans have emerged from the peaceful garden of non-sentience to the fear and anxiety of sentience, and so sends Gabriel to them to ease their minds and explain that this is merely the next step in their existence, and that while it will bring with it pain and fear, it also carries the potential for incredible new experiences, like love, hope, and faith.

I’m not sure if any of that helps – I appreciate that I’ve much more talked around your question than actually addressed it – but hopefully the writers I’ve suggested can offer some more substantial guidance.  I think it’s also worth remembering that we still don’t know everything – I think we have a tendency to compare ourselves to communities in the past and pride ourselves on how much more clever we are than them, and forget that in a few generations, someone will do the same with us.  We may yet find new information that draws further parallels between the Qur’an and modern science, but we can only do so by continuing to ask challenging questions and to continue to revisit the text with new, more learned eyes.

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Imaginary Islamophobic strawmen: Islamic extremism

Welcome back to conversations with an imaginary Islamophobic strawman, in which I address some of the common underlying assumptions I see arising in how we as Westerns talk about Islam.  I call these strawman arguments because I am essentially claiming that these concepts are common and exist beyond the few examples I’m going to cite below, but I’m not going to pull a thousand citations to prove their widespread penetration in Western thought because, well, because I’m lazy and not getting paid to do this.

In this edition, following on from my last post responding to missionizing atheism, I want to talk about a particular form of casual Islamophobia, namely, the tendency by Western authors to reference “Islamic extremism” “jihadism” or “al-Qaeda/the Taliban/ISIS” as a shorthand for dangerous, extreme, and violent beliefs.

I’ve talked before about how we in the West have adopted “al-Qadea” or “mullahs” as a kind of metonymy for repressive or oppressive beliefs, and how problematic this tendency is given that most people in the West know little else about Islam, and so it’s easy for the metonymic reference to bleed over into the massively broad realm of ‘literally anything to do with Islam.’  At its core, I think the use of “Islamic extremism” as a shorthand is one example of this, an expression of our own internal association of “repressive thought” and “literally anything to do with Islam.”  I think it’s worth discussing on its own, however, because in how it’s used, it seems to come up most often in defense of ‘Western’ ideals, either as a justification for Islamophobia (particular in defense of pre-emptive Islamophobia, as if hating people will somehow prevent them from joining an extreme, rather than promote it), or, rather contradictory, in defense of freedom of speech as essentially a Western ideal not found elsewhere in the world.

For examples of the first trope, that Islamic extremism is such a serious problem that we as Westerns need to be pre-emptively Islamophobic, pretty much any article from Britain’s Daily Mail would suffice.  Most recently, there’s also this gem from Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, that, “’for too long, we’ve been so frightened of causing offence that we haven’t looked hard enough at what is going on in our communities.  This passive tolerance has turned us into a less integrated country; it’s put our children in danger. It is unforgiveable.”

On the one hand, the idea that we can out-prejudice someone is simply ridiculous.  There is absolutely no reason to think that extremism happens because we as society “go easy” on people.  In fact, the opposite may be true – certainly marginalization is a powerful tool for creating enemies of the state.  If people feel like they’re being expected to adhere to society’s laws while failing to be protected or being unfairly targeted by those laws, it makes sense that they might turn against that society (a fact that America’s Founding Fathers might be better able to explain).  On the other hand, that prejudice is necessary in order to resist extremism has been a trope of nearly every conservative cultural movement, from claims that counter-cultural movements ‘support’ Soviet communism during the Red Scare to the modern use of ‘political correctness’ as a shorthand for ‘excessive’ attention to diversity and multiculturalism.

As I said before, the second trope, that the continuation of Islamic extremism says something about how committed we in the West are to freedom of expression would seem, at first, contradictory with this first trope.  However, I think in reality they’re more complimentary.  The continued emphasis on Islamic extremism as why it’s okay to hate Muslims also makes it easy to use Islamic extremism as an analogy for, effectively, the worst thing anyone can believe.  This analogy, in turn, allows Westerns to frame arguments about freedom of speech around Islamic extremism, essentially using it as a shorthand for ‘the most extreme thing ever.’

As it happens, the subject of my last post offers a great example of the second trope: “Imagine, for example, a jihadist whose interpretation of the Koran suggested that he should be allowed to behead infidels and apostates. Should he be allowed to break the law? Or—to consider a less extreme case—imagine an Islamic-fundamentalist county clerk who would not let unmarried men and women enter the courthouse together, or grant marriage licenses to unveiled women.”

In order to understand how this metaphor works, it’s important to stress that none of these things have actually happened.  The extremism the author wants to address is being carried about by a Christian evangelical, but her actions are somehow not extreme enough to make his point, and so the author feels the need to step things up by inventing a challenge to religious freedom coming from a Muslim, instead.  In fact, his examples make very little sense from the point of view of real Islamic practice – a county clerk couldn’t claim religious exclusion to behead people because that’s not how the criminal justice system works, and the ‘less extreme cases’ are just illogical – to start with, Islam doesn’t have a tradition of issuing marriage licenses, so there’s no ‘Islamic’ principle a Muslim county clerk could violate, and also there’s no law against men and women entering public buildings together (can you imagine the constant delays if there were?!) and Muslim leaders routinely married unveiled women, both because there’s no universal agreement about wearing veils and because Muslim men can legally marry non-Muslim women.  Yet all of these claims should Islamic-ish enough for the author to make his point, that Islamic belief is the very limit of religious freedom and free speech that we would ever encounter.

The problems with this trope are two-fold.  First, by setting up the West as the defenders of freedom EVEN FOR ISLAMIC THOUGHT, we’re creating a powerful myth that actually stands exactly against the reality of the situation.  As I talked about before with the rise of ‘foreign law’ laws, Muslims are constantly being told that their beliefs have no place in the public sphere in the West.  Indeed, in one of the rare cases where Islamic extremism actually did get a considerable public voice in the West, concerns of ‘public safety’ and ‘national security’ pretty much always trump free expression – for example, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebo murders in France, when France investigated and jailed people for expressing support of the killers as “defending terrorism,” including a 16-year-old boy who posted a Charlie Hebo-style cartoon of the cartoonist full of bullet holes.  Freedom of speech should be measured by how a society balances freedom versus security, but the reality of the Western conception of ‘Islamic extremism,’ security remains almost exclusively the primary concern.

This claim to defend beliefs EVEN AS EXTREME as Islam while actually completely failing to do so also leads to the second problem with this trope, that by marking ‘Islamic extremism’ out as ‘the most extreme beliefs ever,’ we set ourselves up to both massively over-estimate the danger posed by anything vaguely Islamic and under-estimate the danger from other extremist organization.  The resistance to ‘Islamic extremism’ is particularly surprising in the American context given our genuine liberality in extending legal protection to extremist organizations like the KKK and the Arian Nation.  Investigations into the white supremacist movement have consistently demonstrated that these organizations actively recruit new members to expand their ranks, and that at least some people within these organizations defend and even encourage acts of violence against American citizens, exactly the same conditions that make us willing to limit the freedom of Muslims, and yet white supremacism has consistently received legal protection on the basis that the net benefit of preserving truly free speech in this country trumps the danger posed by their organizations and their recruitment.

Thus, by relying on the idea that ‘Islamic extremism’ is the most extreme extremism, in order to justify our own Islamophobia, we’re also setting ourselves and our community up for serious danger by essentially all extremism that is not Islamic as not that extreme.  

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