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The Koranic quotations trap

Robert Spencer, the publisher of the website and the author of a number of volumes attacking Islam, bridled at my comment in last week's essay (Are the Arabs already extinct?, May 8):

The available literature on Islam consists mainly of a useless exchange of Koranic citations that show, depending on whether one is Karen Armstrong or Robert Spencer, that Islam is loving or hateful, tolerant or bigoted, peaceful or warlike, or whatever one cares to show. It is all so pointless and sophomoric; anyone can quote the Koran, or for that matter the Bible, to show whatever one wants.

Spencer protests that I misrepresent his view; his considered response can be found on his webpage. [1] I was referring to a review of his most recent book [2] by the odious Karen Armstrong, a renegade nun who attempts to reduce all religions to an indistinguishable and insipid spiritual gruel. Armstrong opined in the April 27 Financial Times:

The traditions of any religion are multifarious. It is easy, therefore, to quote so selectively that the main thrust of the faith is distorted. But Spencer is not interested in balance. He picks out only those aspects of Islamic tradition that support his thesis. For example, he cites only passages from the Koran that are hostile to Jews and Christians and does not mention the numerous verses that insist on the continuity of Islam with the People of the Book: "Say to them: We believe what you believe; your God and our God is one."

It irks me no end when people with whom I would like to agree, such as Spencer, are wrong, and people whom I despise unconditionally, such as the odious Ms Armstrong, are right. Fiat justitia, ruat coelum: judge fairly even if the heavens fall in consequence.

Islam-bashing, whether justified or not, is a waste of time. Armstrong is quite correct that the statements of the Koran are multifarious, ranging from direct instruction to kill unbelievers to the peaceable sound-bite quoted above. Spencer has missed his adversary's mortal weakness: by insisting that the Koran is clear, consistent and unambiguous in preaching violence, Spencer has conceded the most important weapon in the arsenal of Islam's critics, namely the integrity of the Koran. It is possible to admit multiple authorship of the Hebrew Scriptures and remain a believing Jew, just as it is possible to concede inconsistencies among the Gospels and remain a believing Christian. But the premise of Islam is that the Archangel Gabriel dictated the Holy Koran to Mohammed as the final revelation to humankind. Therefore it is extremely difficult, perhaps entirely impossible, for Muslims to concede multiple authorship of the Koran and remain believers.

Pope Benedict XVI made just this point at a private seminar at his summer residence during the summer of 2005. As Father Joseph Fessio reported his comments:

The Holy Father, in his beautiful calm but clear way, said, well, there's a fundamental problem with that because, he said, in the Islamic tradition, God has given his word to Mohammed, but it's an eternal word. It's not Mohammed's word. It's there for eternity the way it is. There's no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism's completely different, that God has worked through his creatures. And so it is not just the word of God, it's the word of Isaiah, not just the word of God, but the word of Mark. He's used his human creatures, and inspired them to speak his word to the world, and therefore by establishing a Church in which he gives authority to his followers to carry on the tradition and interpret it, there's an inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new situations.

Under the title "When even the pope has to whisper", I reported Father Fessio's comments, originally made to an American radio interviewer. He afterward apologized for speaking out of turn. [3]

As I wrote on Spencer's website, there are any number of factual problems in his approach, of which two stand out:
1) Mohammed may never have existed, and
2) If he existed, he may have had nothing to do with the Koran, which well might be an 8th- or 9th-century compilation.

If that is the case, writing biographies of Mohammed and citing the Koran may be entirely beside the point. I do not know whether this is the case, partly because the threat of violence has driven 

Koranic text criticism underground and it is difficult to get qualified scholars to address the issue. I have not reviewed the literature, because I lack the specialist skills to judge the scholarly arguments. On my desk is a remarkable volume by Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren, Crossroads to Islam (Prometheus Books, 2003), offering a persuasive case that Mohammed never lived (at least in any way resembling the stories of the Koran and Hadith), and that the Muslim conquests as reported by later historians never occurred.

Nevo, an Israeli archeologist, has examined the historiographical record and shown that 7th-century writers, Mohammed's presumed contemporaries, did not notice an Arab invasion of formerly Byzantine lands. The accounts of the Muslim conquest begin a century or more afterward, and offer highly contradictory, boilerplate accounts. It is not necessarily the case that ancient reports of battles cannot be verified. The details of the battle between Syrians and the ancient Hebrews under Barak and Deborah, for example, are consistent with features of local geography mentioned in detail in the Book of Judges. But no such supporting detail can be found in any of the Islamic accounts. Nevo concludes that battles were never fought, armies never marched, generals never commanded, cities never conquered.

It brings to mind Heinrich Heine's comment about Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions: the French philosopher, Heine asserts, made himself out to be a monster who consigned his natural children to an orphanage to suppress an even nastier truth, namely that the children were not his in the first place. Better a monster than a cuckold, thought Rousseau. The sort of behavior that Spencer and other critics of Islam find most objectionable well may have been invented by the court historians of later rulers to suppress an even more subversive truth.

One reason that the Koran contains so much contradictory material (such that the odious Karen Armstrong can quote it as readily as the estimable Mr Spencer) might well be that it is a later compilation derived from disparate sources. Ibn Warraq, the scholar of Islam who wisely employs a pen name, has assembled the scholarly evidence to this effect in a single convenient volume. [4] Part of the problem in addressing this issue is that Christians and Jews are uncomfortable with text criticism of their own Scriptures. I do not believe that the Documentary Hypothesis destroys biblical authority (as the German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig said, the critics "R", for "redactor", also can stand for rabbeinu, "our teacher".

The trouble is that apart from Pope Benedict, who threw a few pebbles into the minefield and then backed off, Western theologians have not had the temerity to pursue the direction of theological analysis that Rosenzweig set forth. The heavy divisions of the West have sat in reserve, leaving skirmishers like Spencer to throw themselves into the breach with inadequate intellectual armament.

For purposes of argument, let us consider the implications of affirming the hypothesis that the Koran is an incoherent, contradictory muddle stitched together out of a variety of contemporary sources, including (as the pseudonymous German scholar Christoph Luxenberg argues) Christian material in Syriac. If that is the case, then it would be impossible to derive any formulation of Islam from the Koran. Should we conclude that Islam is whatever anyone says it is? Not in the least.

A religion is not a text but a life. In his chapter on the Jewish religion in The Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig begins not with an analysis of the biblical commandments, but rather with the Sabbath service recited in Jewish synagogues. After each section of the weekly Torah portion is concluded, the reader thanks God "who has given us the Torah of truth, and planted eternal life amongst us". By what means do the Jews believe that God plants eternal life amongst them? Rosenzweig explains that the sanctification of daily life attempts to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into ordinary existence. Christians, by contrast, bring themselves to the portals of the Kingdom of Heaven through Communion, through the miracle of Christ's blood.

What is it that Muslims do to bridge the great gulf fixed between the eternal realm and ordinary human existence? I elaborated this point in a recent essay titled "Not what it is, but what it does". [5] My conclusion was that Muslims sacrifice themselves, in a benign way through pilgrimage to Mecca, but also in a malignant way through jihad. It is not simply that superstitious fellows blow themselves up as a way of obtaining 72 virgins in paradise (as Christoph Luxenberg observes, the Christian source whence this is derived was referring to raisins, not virgins). It is that self-sacrifice in the form of violent death in warfare is the Muslim equivalent of a sacrament. As noted, I have elaborated this point elsewhere.

This bears upon the misery of US policy in the Middle East. No US strategist yet has attempted to address the question of how to defeat an enemy that is not only willing, but in many cases eager to sacrifice itself to the last man. The intellectual poverty of US policymaking on the right is to some extent responsible for the setback that the West has suffered in Iraq. By failing to understand what it was dealing with, the US administration lost popular support for the "war on terror" (a fuzzy concept to begin with) and has greatly restricted the options of the West. Unless it learns better, the United States is likely to make more mistakes, and risk losing the great civilizational war now in progress.

1. Spengler's immense confusion, Jihad Watch, May 9.
2. The Truth About Mohammed, Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion (Regnery 2007).
3. When even the pope has to whisper, Asia Times Online, January 10, 2006.
4. Ibn Warraq, What is the Koran? (Prometheus Books, 2002).
5. Not what it was, but what it does, ATol, October 3, 2006.

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