paleo Ideofact

Thursday, December 12, 2002
There's more to life than books you know...
...but not much more. Alexandra of Out of Lascaux has an interesting post on how much we read, which I wanted to comment on (the Wahhabis kept me from it), but is worth pointing out in any case. Also, don't miss her informative post on the Candle Light painters (which may take a little time to load...).

Wednesday, December 11, 2002
Some years ago, in one of those bachelor discussions with friends late into the night for which blogging is a poor substitute, I offered some particularly harsh aesthetic judgment about some trifle -- perhaps a film or a pop song -- which prompted one of my friends to suggest I was a latter day Jonathan Edwards. That broke us all up (until recently I still got emails addressed to "Cotton Allison" from him), and led to a brief discussion of the early American Puritan father and his sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. To which another friend, who knows much more about this stuff than I do, remarked, "Yeah, but al-Wahhab would have eaten Edwards for breakfast." And that was my introduction to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th Century founder of the Wahhabi sect of Islam.

Over at Unmedia, the spirited discussion continues, prompted by what I feel is the faulty assertion that Wahhabism, for Islam, is the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation.

Superficially, the comparison seems apt. Like Luther and Calvin and Tyndale, al-Wahhab demanded fidelity to the text, to a return to the revelation as it was understood by the first practicioners of the religion, for a rejection of innovations that occurred centuries after the revelation. Or as Aziz's commentator, Ikram Saeed, writes,
Traditional Sunni Islam has four Madhabs (schools of thought), and the interpretation of religion is only permitted by religious scholars in that Madhab. To become a scholar requires many years of work, and an understanding of some 1400 years of religious thought and commentary. Traditional Sunni-ism is somewhat centralized and "Catholic" (though not nearly as mush as Shi'ism -- "the fifth madhab?").

Wahabis smash this hierarchy, and go extreme "protestant" They argue that the 1400 years of interpretation has clouded and distorted the original message of the Prophet. Muslims need to go back to the fundamentals, to Islam the way it was practiced at the time of the prophet. Each Muslim should read the Quran, and particularly the Hadiths, and reach his own, correct, understanding.
Mr. Saaed seems like a thoughtful man, but I respectfully disagree with his characterization of Wahhabism. I also think the drawing of historical parallels should be done with the greatest of care. So let's take a moment to (as briefly as I can) compare and contrast the Reformation with Wahhabism.

The Reformation was inititally just that -- aimed at reforming a temporal institution, the Catholic Church, which wielded both spiritual and temporal power. In the realms of Latin Christendom, which corresponded roughly to what we think of as Western Europe, the Church exercised this power in a manner we might associate with the Communist governments of the last century. For example, the Cathars or Albigensians, which, depending on your viewpoint, was either a Christian heresy or a new syncretic religion drawing on Gnostic sources, were brutally suppressed in central France. In 1208, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade against the Cathars (the word was not exclusively applied to those fighting the Saracens in the Holy Land); during the course of that war, the memorable phrase, "Kill them all. God will sort them out," was uttered during the siege of Bezeirs by Arnaud Aimery, the Papal legate. Some 7,000 people -- devout Catholics and Catharist heretic alike -- were put to the sword.

Other repressions followed -- the Waldensians, the Hussites and the Lollards (proto-Protestants) spring to mind.

At the same time it was justifying its use of force with its monopoly on religious interpretation, the Catholic Church suppressed the very book which it was interpreting. As incomprehensible as it may seem, the Church regarded the Bible as a threat to its own authority, and executed anyone brazen enough to attempt to translate it into a vernacular language. The Church sold indulgences, the clergy were poorly educated in Christian principals, etc. etc. The abuses were rampant.

Enter the reformers. Luther debated his 95 theses, and hoped to work within the Church for change. Similarly, William Tyndale sought the support of a Catholic bishop to get started on his English translation of the Bible. Luther ended up branded a heretic, and Tyndale's Bibles were burnt in London (at the behest of that notable humanist, Sir Thomas More).

I don't think the Islamic world found itself in the same circumstances when al-Wahhab began his proseletyzing. I do not think the Qur'an was regarded as a subversive work by the religious authorities of the day (to suggest so would be blasphemy). Compared to Latin Christendom, the realms of Islam saw few episodes like that of the Cathars or the Lollards (there were some).

Secondly, there is a vast difference between Luther or Calvin, both of whom left hundreds of thousands of words of doctrine, and al-Wahhab. Hamid Algar, who's quite friendly to Qutb's Islamism, wrote in Wahhabism: A Critical Essay:
A brief digression on what might be charitably termed the scholarly output of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab will be in order at this point. All of his works are extremely slight, in terms of both content and bulk. In order to justify his encomium for Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab, al-Faruqi appended to his translation of each chapter of the Kitab al-Tauhid a list of "further issues" he drew up himself, implying that the author had originally discussed some fo the "issues" arising from hadith in the book; he had not. ...It seems that the custodians of Wahhabism, embarrassed by the slightness of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab's opus, have come to regard the expansion of its girth as a necessity.
Finally, there is this, from Madawi al-Rasheed's work A History of Saudi Arabia:
According to one source:
Muhammad ibn Sa'ud greeted Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab and said, 'This oasis is yours, do not fear your enemies. By the name of God, if all Najd was summoned to throw you out, we will never agree to expel you." Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab replied, 'You are the settlement's chief and wise man. I want you to grant me an oath that you will perform jihad (holy war) against the unbelievers. In return you will be imam, leader of the Muslim community and I will be leader in religious matters.
According to this narrative, the Sa'udi ruler agreed to support the reformer's demand for jihad, a war against non-Muslims and those Muslims whose Islam did not conform to the reformer's teachings. In return the Sa'udi amir was acknowledged as political leader of the Muslim community. Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab was guaranteed control over religious interpretation. The reformer started teaching his religious message in a mosque, specially built for him.
It seems to me that al-Wahhab has more in common with the Popes, who insisted that theirs was the only legitimate Christian message and resorted to the sword when others didn't agree with them, than the Reformers. But I wouldn't want to offer such an unqualified comparison...

Update: I was really flip in the ending, and shouldn't have been. Obviously, I don't think there are really parallels between al-Wahhab and the Papacy. Nor am I an unqualified fan of the Reformation, which, like everything else involving flawed humans, had its good points and its bad points.

Incomprehensible ramblings
It's late, I'm tired, and I still have actual work to do, so if you'll indulge me I'll make my two or three points on various topics without rambling on too long.

The discussion continues in the comments section over at Unmedia on the question of whether Wahhabism is for Islam the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation. Aziz emailed me to say that he didn't mean to trivialize the Reformation. For what it's worth, I just meant to rib Aziz a little in the post immediately below -- I probably didn't strike quite the right tone. I enjoy his writings tremendously, and I probably made an already-difficult-to-follow post (the one on Isaac Casaubon immediately below) completely incomprehensible.

Originally I just wanted to note that bias isn't necessarily a bad thing in a scholar. Casaubon's analysis of the Hermetica more or less ended the influence it enjoyed among the Renaissance elite; that he undertook that analysis as an attack on a Counter-Reformation work does not invalidate his findings.

Beyond that, I always find such stories fascinating. That a Protestant from Geneva writing a polemical religious work for an English King should break the grip of magic, helping to usher in the modern era (perhaps without fully grasping the implications of his work) is yet another instance of history not being quite what we think it is.

Monday, December 09, 2002
Bias 2: Isaac Casaubon
Occasionally, I'm surprised by what I find floating around in the blogosphere. Take this post by Aziz Poonawalla, in which he quotes this reader's comment approvingly:
And, for Christians who know their own religious history, this shouldn't be surprising. Calvin was an intolerant religious bigot. And Luther has long been accused of being a grade 'A' anti-semite. Both Luther and Calvin launched Europe into 300 years of religious warfare (that still continues in N.Ireland).

300 years of religious warfare -- is that the reformation Den Beste wants?


The Christian Reformation occurred as a reaction to corruption in the catholic church, not as a reaction to strict morals. If anthing, teetotalling moralistic protestants were more violent and more strict than Catholics.
A little odd that someone who argues that the media does a poor job of covering Islam (I happen to agree with him on this point) would feel that it's all right to reduce a religious movement to nothing more than 300 years of religious warfare, and characterize Luther solely as an anti-Semite, or Calvin as nothing more than a religious bigot. (There's an interesting debate in the comments section worth reading; some comments note that the ideas of religious freedom and tolerance spring from the Reformation, so I won't bother to go into that here.)

I thought it worth noting one of those episodes occasioned by the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the intellectual struggle that it spawned. As Francis Yates wrote in her seminal work, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition:
Some discoveries of basic importance for the history of thought seem to pass relatively unnoticed.
Indeed. Yates was writing particularly of the work of a biased scholar to whom we owe much and of whom we think little:
No one speaks of the "pre-Casaubon era" or of the "post-Casaubon era" and yet the dating by Isaac Casaubon in 1614 of the Hermetic writings as not the work of a very ancient Egyptian priest but written in post-Christian times, is a watershed separating the Renaissance world from the modern world. It shattered at once the build-up of Renaissance Neoplatonism with its basis in the prisci theologi of whom Hermes Trismegistus was the chief. It shattered the whole position of the Renaissance Magus and Renaissance magic with its Hermetic-Cabalist foundation, based on the ancient "Egyptian" philosophy and Cabalism. It shattered even the non-magical Hermetic movement of the sixteenth century. It shattered the position of an extremist Hermetist, such as Giordano Bruno had been, whose whole platform of a return to a better "Egyptian" pre-Judaic and pre-Christian philosophy and magical religion was exploded by the discovery that the writings of the holy ancient Egyptian must be dated, not only long after Moses but also long after Christ. It shattered, too, the basis of all attempts to build a natural theology on Hermetism, such as that to which Campanella had pinned his hopes.
I've written about Hermetism and Hermes Trismegistus before, most notably here and here. To recap briefly, Hermes Trismegistus was considered to be an ancient Egyptian priest, who lived perhaps a generation or two after Moses. His work, the Corpus Hermiticum, was thought to be an ancient prophecy of the coming of Christ, and Hermes was regarded by Lactantius, an early Church father, as the gentile prophet. When a Greek copy of the work was acquired by Cosimo de' Medici in 1460, he had his personal translator suspend work on the Platonic dialogues and take up the Hermetica. The work was influential among various Renaissance thinkers, who found its authority in its antiquity. The belief was that Plato and the Gospels were influenced by the Hermetica. Various bizarre notions sprung up around its natural magic -- Umberto Eco in Foucault's Pendulum summarizes it this way:
I devoted myself to Renaissance philosophers and I discovered that the men of secular modernity, once they had emerged from the darkness of the Middle Ages, had found nothing better to do than devote themselves to cabala and magic.

After two years spent with Neoplatonists who chanted formulas designed to convince nature to do things she had no intention of doing...
This by and large is an accurate portrait of the kinds of things Renaissance mages busied themselves with -- the whole alchemical lead into gold type stuff. And the Corpus Hermiticum was a source for a good deal of this kind of thinking.

In 1610, King James I of England (the King James of the King James Bible) asked Isaac Casaubon, a brilliant scholar of Greek who happened to be born in Protestant Geneva in 1559, to rebut the Counter-Reformation work of one Cesare Baronius, called Annales Ecclisiastici. Baronius recounted and defended official Church dogma; in the first volume of his 12 volume opus, he accepted the early dating of the Hermetica. Casaubon, in pointing out the errors of Baronius' work (from a biased Protestant view), decided to subject the Hermetica to textual analysis. He noted that the work, which quoted or paraphrased Platonic and neoplatonist ideas, was not itself quoted in any extant earlier works; that it made reference to things which dated to the centuries after Christ; that it was written in a late Greek style and not an early Greek style. He concluded that it was not a work of great antiquity, but most likely a Christian forgery -- cooked up to sell the notion of an ancient prophecy of Christ. (Most likely, it was a work of non-Christian gnostics, but that's another story.)

Casaubon's work, undertaken for the biased purpose of attacking Catholic dogma, had a greater impact than merely scoring polemical points for the Protestant cause. His debunking made magic, the practice of which was considered a lofty intellectual pursuit thanks to the Hermetica, a less-than-respectable pasttime. The hermetic universe of Giordano Bruno gave way to Newtonian physics, alchemy surrendered to chemistry. Or, as Yates puts it:
...with [the Corpus Hermeticum] there fell a major ally in the justification for magic...
Not a bad day's work for a biased scholar, and not an insignificant achievement of the Reformation.