Tag Archives: Muhammad

Found: The Birmingham Qur’an (N=1)

It is six weeks since the news first broke of a fragmentary Qur’an manuscript whose radiocarbon dating (95% accuracy) is between 568 and 645.  Early reports declared how much the discovery supported traditional Muslim accounts of the origins of the Qur’an, but this week the news media went abuzz with claims that the Qur’an may in fact predate Muhammad and debunk Islam’s account of its own origins.  (N. B.: The article was first published in the Times of London, but linking to paywalls is unhelpful.)  Some scholars (such as Georgetown Prof. Jonathan Brown) have now published critiques of the counter-claims, and the buzz continues apace.

Before we get too carried away, it’s important to remember that this is a single manuscript.  Statisticians derisively refer to the conclusions which can be reached when the number of data points N = 1.  Such a datum is not “statistically significant.”  While statistical significance is not the only measure of historical evidence (and indeed, most ancient and early medieval history does not achieve statistical significance), it does suggest that we might usefully remember the limits of what we are looking at here. Continue reading

Is ISIS Medieval?

A while ago I read a thought-provoking discussion of the goals of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and how that jihadist group draws from pre-modern Islamic religious texts in formulating its tactics and its appeal to violent extremist Muslims.  The author is at his provocative best in likening well-intentioned Western liberal attempts to define ISIS as un-Islamic as a kind of takfirism, or labeling certain Muslims as unbelievers.  I think he misses the point when he delegitimizes practicing Muslims for describing ISIS as un-Islamic, and indeed, his article provoked a firestorm of criticisms, refutations, and abuse over the use of the term “Islamic” for ISIS.  For practitioners, islam is submission to God’s will, and if ISIS is going against God’s will, then they are ipso facto not islam.  It does not require historical naivete (or, as Prof. Haykel evocatively termed it, “a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” although see his clarification here) to acknowledge that many things historically practiced by Muslims are inconsistent with what most modern Muslims understand to be God’s will.  However, the real bone I want to pick with the article is the way it simply accepts the Salafi account of what medieval Islam was, an account which is itself revisionist history.

Put simply, the “medieval Islam” to which ISIS and other Salafis appeal never existed as such.  Too many scholars play along with this modern chimera, though they know better, and thus are complicit in a cultural genocide which is reducing the fascinatingly diverse pre-modern Middle East to a one-dimensional textbook description of Sunni Arab Islam, complete with five pillars evidently erected by Muhammad himself. Continue reading

A Surfeit of Calendars in the Middle East

The story is related of Hulegu, the Mongol conqueror of Baghdad in 1258, that he once encountered a band of Qalandar sufis.  Those were the wild and woolly ones, who deliberately flouted social conventions and even the sharia in various ways to show how holy they really were.  Hulegu asked the Muslim leader Nasir al-Din Tusi, who was accompanying him, who these social misfits were, and Tusi replied that they were the excess waste of society.  So Hulegu ordered them all killed.  I am not a Mongol general, but after a frustrating series of miscalculations I can harbor similar feelings as Tusi to the plethora of calendars in the Middle East.

Most societies have found it useful to have a common calendar, and many indeed come to regard their shared ways of marking time as so natural that they forget the existence of alternatives.  Years, months, and days are simply natural phenomena with uncomplicated definitions.  Until one encounters a radically different calendar. Continue reading

Constructed Social Phenomena: The Right Metaphor?

Recently I had the privilege to finally pick up a classic text in the social scientific study of religion, Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967).  Berger was an early leader in the development of sociological thought which took seriously the ways in which social phenomena are not “given” or “natural” but instead “constructed.”  His views have influenced sociologists and non-sociologists alike, and it is now common to refer to phenomena long regarded as immutable and natural (such as gender) as cultural constructs.  This theoretical move usefully highlights the contingency of phenomena widely, and perhaps necessarily, taken for granted.

Without diminishing Berger’s accomplishment, I found myself wondering whether construction was the right metaphor.  It was an obvious choice: in common English parlance the opposite of “natural” is frequently “artificial” (as in sweeteners), and the lack of a useful English verb corresponding to “artificial” might lead to considering related activities of making or building.  And constructions have the advantage of not also appearing in nature, so the opposition is immediate and readily intelligible.  On the other hand, there are four ways where I think the metaphor of construction can (and probably has) misled scholars when thinking about societies and cultures: deliberation, individuality, stability, and questions of origins. Continue reading

The Qur’an in What Context?

The Qur’an is a very strange document.  Although it is often likened to the New Testament, this has merely to do with its sacred status among its reading community, and does not shed much of any light on the Qur’an itself, how to interpret it, or how it developed.  While the New Testament is mostly composed of narrative, and secondly of letters of exhortation from the first generation of Christian leaders, the Qur’an is composed, it is claimed, entirely of God’s words which he revealed (or more literally, “sent down”) through the mediation of the angel Jibril, aka Gabriel.  Any narrative in the Qur’an is framed as a story which God, through Jibril, is telling Muhammad. Continue reading

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

Yemen at Center Stage

Yemen does not exactly loom large in the world consciousness, and certainly not among the many Westerners who would have a hard time placing it on a map.  US foreign policy toward the country has often been an adjunct to US relations with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s far richer and larger neighbor to the north and a key US ally.

But a recent flight afforded me the time to begin reading Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, which places Yemen and Yemeni politics in the center of global politics and terrorist networks, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to 2012, when the book came out, and from jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya to bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  Although Yemen is often portrayed as a remote backwater of the Arabian peninsula, Johnsen brings together many strands of international history over the past three decades by drawing links from his detailed familiarity with Yemen’s great families.  Even Osama bin Laden, usually identified as a Saudi, was a younger son of a Yemeni pauper-turned-billionaire who made some useful connections with the Saudi royal family.

I am only about a quarter of the way through the book, but it is a real eye-opener regarding the numerous connections between disparate parts of the contemporary Arab world and the inner workings of various different terrorist organizations.  I am particularly struck by the degree to which family, clan, and tribe shape such a large portion of organizations usually designated religious, which may reveal my own blindspots as a member of an anonymizing and impersonal modern Western society.  Johnsen also points out occasional clues missed or misunderstood by counter-terrorism officials, and analyzes a dispute between the lead FBI investigator and the US ambassador to Yemen following the bombing of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000.  But he does so without succumbing to 20/20 hindsight; instead, his narrative helps readers understand the ambiguity of many of the pieces of evidence before their interpretation became indelibly clear in specific attacks.

The book is very readable and engaging.  The action is fast.  Readers unfamiliar with Arabic names may have trouble keeping track of the many actors involved, often with similar names.  Such readers will find a helpful appendix with brief bios of “Principal Characters”; no doubt the author would have liked to include more than made it in.  There is also a very useful map of Yemen just after the table of contents, which will be essential for readers who have not familiarized themselves with the terrain of the southernmost tip of the Arabian peninsula.