paleo Ideofact

Wednesday, December 25, 2002
Merry Christmas
And note that blogging will be light the next few days.

Tuesday, December 24, 2002
My betters teach me
Sorry, you'll have to read the last graph of the previous post to understand the headline.

I'm deeply disturbed that there's a whole school of crackpots out there that, lo these many years, I have been blissfully unaware of. I say this because collecting crackpots is something of a minor preoccupation of mine. But the inestimable H.D. Miller writes about "one of the loonier historical theories currently kicking about the Bizarro Academy," which I mentioned a few posts down -- the whole idea of missing time.

Having read H.D.'s post, I'm beginning to think that while I should write to my alma mater requesting a tuition refund for all those early Middle Ages classes I took, I should be willing to settle for a fraction thereof...hell, I'd settle for a free baseball cap with my school's logo on it...

Monday, December 23, 2002
On the other hand (I'm referencing the post immediately below), I'm getting a little sick and tired of my betters perpetually asserting that, because I was fortunate enough to be born in the United States, or that because I am (nominally in my case) Christian, or that because I am Western, therefore I must be utterly ignorant of Islam. A case in point is the slim volume Jesus and Muhammad: The Parallel Sayings, which I bought on an impulse (I rarely need more of an excuse than that) when I was Christmas shopping the other day.

The book has an introduction by one Dr. Kenneth Atkinson, who wastes no time in informing the reader,
Although Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all began in the Middle East, only Islam is widely portrayed as a Middle Eastern religion. This shows how little many Westerners actually know about Islam. Most Muslims, like the majority of Jews and Christians, actually live outside the Middle East.
Thank you, Dr. Atkinson, for your ability to keenly perceive the obvious. Although why he imagines that Judaism is not portrayed as a Middle Eastern religion is beyond me; we all know that Christians regard the scene of the nativity as Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, so I suppose he's correct on that score. Dr. Atkinson goes on to write,
Because our rapdily emerging global civilization is now, for the first time in history bringing Muslims and Christians into close contact with one another, it is essential that Christians and Muslims learn how to get along.
Who is the harbinger of ignorance now, dear Dr. Atkinson? Is your claim that the longstanding Christian communities in the Middle East, including Coptic Christians in Egypt and Marionite Christians in Lebanon and Syrian, were not in close contact with their Muslim neighbors from the 7th century c.e. onwards? Andalusian Spain? The Balkans? Budapest? India? Napoleon in Egypt? The post-World War One European administration of much of the Middle East? No, none of that was close contact.

I am also somewhat troubled by this bit, near the end, when my better tries to explain that, after all, the Qur'an and the New Testament have the same message after all:
The New Testament in numerous places describes Jesus' receptiveness to others, a message that is frequently overlooked by many Christians. Islam also speaks openly of other faiths. The Koran challenges us to a religious competition in goodness. The Koran even extends to Christians and Jews, called the "People of the Book," the following invitation: "O People of the Book! Let us come to common terms between you and us, so that we will worship none but God, that we will not associate partners with Him" (Koran 3:64). The Koran's call for all religions to live a righteous life is an invitation that people of all faith traditions should be willing to accept.
Well, not quite. The key words in the quoted passage are "that we will not associate parnters with Him," which is in essence a call for Christians to cease assigning any divine attributes to Christ, or rather, to believe that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his last messenger. I have no problem with Muslims believing this, but it's not quite something that a Christian believe without abandoning his religion. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.
The good Dr. Atkinson is apparently unaware that there are major theological differences between Islam and Christianity.

I do not mean to endorse one belief over the other -- I am, in Shaw's memorable formulation, little more than a worldly wiseman who will pay lip service to any religion that doesn't inconvenience me too much (As Homer Simpson would say, "That's all I ask.") But I am occasionally curious about these things, and I turn to books and scholars for some enlightenment. I expect, in other words, my betters to teach me. And Dr. Atkinson, in his treacly introduction, proves only that a poor idiot like me knows a good deal more about this stuff than he appears to.

Sunday, December 22, 2002
Aziz has a lengthy post occasioned by a reaction to the recent PBS documentary on the the life of Muhammad. I saw about half of the show when it was on, and while it didn't break any new ground for me (and I doubt it did for Aziz either), I found it interesting and worth watching. I also caught a bit of The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Work of C.S. Lewis the next night, I think, and found it to be not much different than the treatment of Muhammad: It took a religious thinker, and respectfully treated his works and ideas, with plenty of encomiums from supporters. I don't mean to compare Lewis and Muhammad, by any means, but the approach of the programs was fairly similar (although I imagine the Muhammad documentary had a bigger budget).

Aziz's broader point, which I take to be this...
I think there is an expectation that since some of Islam's followers have done such horrible things, that there must be a corresponding taint on the image of the founder of the faith to explain it. ....
...coupled with this...
The fact is that any attempt at bringing information about Islam to light that doesn't fit with this dark portrayal will automatically be dismissed as "propaganda".

And the existence of "moderate" muslims is irrelevant. This is why we, as "moderate" muslims, should stop wasting our time. The battle is long lost.
...does ring somewhat true (and note that I'm assuming that the last line of this, which is really directed against a particular blogger, involves a certain amount of blowing off steam -- I can't imagine Aziz seriously means what he says here). I remember the controversy that ensued when the University of North Carolina, I think it was, decided to require its incoming freshmen to read Michael Sells' work, Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations. Now, for what it is worth, I am generally opposed to specific requirements at the university level. My school required that undergrads take a certain number of classes in the humanities, physical sciences and social sciences, plus demonstrate a proficiency in a modern language other than English, but left the choice of what students would take to the students themselves. I quite liked that system. Beyond that, I've never liked it when someone tells me I must read a particular book (although I have to admit I am often guilty of this particular sin). So for me, the issue wasn't so much Sells' book, but the whole idea of telling students they had to read a particular book.

That said, I've been reading Sells' book, and so far have found it an engaging scholarly work well worth reading, if this sort of thing is one's cup of tea. It addresses, among other things, the limitations of translation -- certainly a theme that is of importance to anyone studying at the university level. I defer to those who know Arabic to assess Sells' own translations, but the commentaries he provides on the Suras he translates are quite helpful in understanding the their meaning and context.

I recall that, at the time of the UNC controversy, the work was criticized for translating only the early Suras, and ignoring the rest of the Qur'an (for the critics, this meant that Sells was whitewashing the Qur'an, and, by extension, Islam, and leaving out all the "awful" stuff). Yet the book was first published in 1999, and it's reasonable to ask why the critics imagine Sells, who's quite clear in his introduction on what he chose to translate and why, would be trying to whitewash anything. Just as it's reasonable to ask why a documentary aiming to show what Muslims believe about the Prophet (the transcript says, "This is the story that Muslims have passed down from generation to generation for 1400 years") should also contain, say, what Zen Buddhists believe about the Prophet.