Sunday, December 23, 2012

Catechisms East and West

About David Wood (and this could be said about many others, like Robert Spencer, Hugh Fitzgerald, Bill Warner, Andrew Bostom, and many other less luminary bloggers -- not to mention quite a few civilians who comment on Jihad Watch), someone once wrote:

"He probably knows more about Islam than most Muslims."

To paraphrase Bill Clinton's infamous phrase: 

"It depends on what Islam is."

If by "Islam" one means an investigative (and semi-scholarly) accumulation of facts derived from the Koran, the Hadiths, the Siras, the Tafsirs, and finally the various rulings of the Fuqaha (love that word -- means essentially "legal scholars", scholars of Fiqh); and if by "knowing" this "Islam" "more" than Muslims one means knowing more of it quantitatively, encyclopedically, then of course this assessment is likely correct.  

A similar observation could be made of the pre-Vatican II culture of Catholicism, which tended to divide knowledge of the theologoumena into two classes -- the vast majority of lay folk, and the elite class of theologians (mostly clergy and monks), the latter of whom were professionals so to speak specializing in that knowledge, while the former were mostly content to "know" only as much as their priest and Church attendance transmitted to them; with approximately the same division cultivated by the various Orthodox churches.  Meanwhile, the Protestant penchant for universalizing an autodidactic approach to theology, beginning in the 16th century, would be the contrast to this -- and often it seems modern Christians, particularly Americans, use this as a standard by which to measure religiousity in general, even when regarding other religious cultures outside the West: viz., Islam; even if not all Protestants may be as diligent in their self-taught knowledge as the model supposes.  While the Catholic and Orthodox churches still retain vestiges of their separation of the Cognoscenti from the Laity of yore, they have relaxed quite a bit to go with the flow of the unavoidable tide of Modernity in this regard, whereby the ordinary believer may be quite the autodidact about his church's scriptures.

One thing that comes to mind is the presumptuousness implied here where, regarding the traditional Catholic model, the lay flock fed by their clerical shepherds, so to speak, are deemed to be somehow impoverished in their religious knowledge, just because they seem to be beholden to a clerical "Elite" and may not command the kind of obsessive encyclopedic grasp of Biblical minutiae which the zealous Evangelical rattles off at the drop of a Non-Denominational baseball cap.  This expectation, then, is superimposed on the Muslim society, and one assumes they are found wanting in precisely this "knowledge" because of their "traditionalist" (not to mention medieval) social structures.

There is also assumed here, in addition to the quantitatively encyclopedic knowledge, a qualitative knowledge by which the knower knows what's really going on with the texts -- and this, unfortunately, all too often mushrooms into several different knowers with several different exegeses at odds with each other.  The many-splendored and multifarious bickering and nitpicking (ranging from the sincerely vital to the Pharisaically trivial and all gradations in between) that goes on, and has gone on for centuries, among Christians in this regard is not our concern here; but rather the presumption that the non-Muslim autodidact knows the real meaning of Islam better than the common Muslim, is the point (and claim) under consideration.  

The main fulcrum of this point is rather simplex, and follows the "plain as the nose on your face" principle, followed swiftly by the "are you trying to sell me a bridge?" corollary when the Muslim tries to deny the principle with artful evasions -- example, the wife-beating verse of Koran 4:34.  The approach of the initially curious, then increasingly suspicious, and more recently hostile researcher who is "anti-Islam" (whether he admits it or not) tends to prejudge (for good reasons) both the knowledge he learns himself, and the artful evasions of the Muslims when they protest that the qualitative interpretation is incorrect.  Then, since the artful evasions sometimes seem to turn on a deeper familiarity with complications, the anti-Islam autodidact may become more quantitatively knowledgeable; and depending on how far he takes this self-education, he will become admirably knowledgeable, like a David Wood or a Robert Spencer, et al.

Somewhat obscured in this picture so far is the fact that the culture of Islam is built on the division I mentioned above, similar to the traditional Catholic and Orthodox division of the vast majority of laity, and an elite of theologians & clergy -- the former dutifully receiving the knowledge they need to know from the latter.  Islam implements this model in spades, far more broadly and intensely -- even fiercely, one might say -- than any other religion (well, Tibetan Buddhism might be a contender -- without the "ferocity" but certainly with the stark division of religious classes).  This, however, as we shall see below, seems in Muslim societies to be complicated by a particularly porous and multifaceted "extracurricular" dimension outside or parallel to the ostensible strictures of this division.

Of these Ulama and Fuqaha -- the theological elites of Islam -- one cannot say that David Wood or Robert Spencer know more, quantitatively speaking.  So we are led logically to ask:  If these Islamic elites in theology know all the data -- and more -- upon which the qualitative critiques of David Wood or Robert Spencer hinge, why do these elites when responding to criticisms unfailingly prevaricate and equivocate, saying and writing things about Islam that any reasonable person would say must be intentional lies?  And why do they tend to behave and respond pretty much the same as does any garden-variety Muslim (with only a quantitative difference in their content, perhaps)?  Surely one cannot say of these Islamic elites that "they don't know their Islam".

So we have heard so many times within the ambit of the Counter-Jihad that "most Muslims don't know their Islam" and "likely really are semi-clueless about what Islamic scripture says" -- which leads to the logical conclusion that Spencer, et al., "probably know more about Islam than Muslims".

This theory, among other flaws, implies an assumption that to "know Islam" -- and, more importantly for us on the receiving end of Islam -- to "do Islam" (i.e., to put it into practice), requires only studious book-learning supplemented by diligent Googling and perhaps other familiar forms of catechetical education, such as listening carefully to sermons in mosque, perhaps taking notes, and also attending classes in "Islam 101" at the local community college.  Utterly bracketed out -- apparently -- from this curiously delimited view of the phenomenon are the multitude of other ways by which the ordinary Muslim absorbs his Islam:  

the Muslim street;

the family and extended family;

public harangues;

clerical lectures;

networking in mosque mezzanines or foyers, Islamic centers, schools;

television (e.g., Al Jazeera);

the Internet (probably, but perhaps not entirely yet, replacing the very important medium of the cassette tape -- or, as jazz pianist Herbie Hancock called it, the "Third World briefcase" -- which as recently as the 90s the serpentine infiltrator Tariq Ramadan was using diligently to spread his demagoguery to young Euro-Muslims; and which, by the way, Hugh Fitzgerald has reminded us was a key communications technology facilitating the 1979 Iranian revolution).

One gets the impression that most Westerners (including many in the Counter-Jihad) think that Muslims must read the Koran like the typical religious Westerner reads the Bible:  taking the Good Book down from a shelf or off the bureau and sitting back in a comforable armchair or perched upon a sofa on a Sunday afternoon (or sometimes a weeknight or two) to pick out a chapter to read, perhaps from a recommendation by one's pastor or minister or priest, or one's Evangelical or Sunday School discussion group.  I would wager that the vast majority of Muslims don't have anything remotely resembling this kind of Biblical culture which the West has been practicing for centuries (and even if it has dwindled into the post-modern era, that only reflects the profound secularization of popular culture in the last 200 years, increasing with each passing generation).  Rather, it is more reasonable to suppose that the ordinary Muslim absorbs, digests and regurgitates his and her knowledge of Islam in other ways, such as those listed above in addition of course to mosque sermons; and possibly some others I haven't thought of -- and that they thus more than compensate for a deficiency imagined by the misplaced superimposition of a Western model upon their society.


A typical example of this general phenomenon -- i.e., of thinking most Muslims don't know their Islam -- I found from a Jihad Watch reader's response to one of my comments on a Jihad Watch comments thread back in the summer of 2010.  What follows is my quote (italicized and within quotation marks) of two of his anxiously knee-jerk protestations in this regard, and my responses to them:

"Many muslims do not know how to read and write. They have very little knowledge of their own religion."

Being illiterate does not prevent a person from being brainwashed. In fact, Islamic culture is not a reading culture -- it is an oral culture, where most Muslims listen to sermons or public harangues or the discussions of smaller circles of "learned men" among them -- not to mention they also assimilate much of their Islamic worldview through their families as they grow up. The basics of the Islamic worldview that are causing problems in the world -- hatred of the other; a feeling of superiority; a feeling of a right or obligation to take what belongs to others because they are inferior; a victimization sense of being constantly wounded and attacked because the world is not Islamic; a gangster mentality that admires violent action in order redress grievances; etc: all these attitudes can be, and are, instilled in multitudes of Muslims without those Muslims reading hardly anything. If you think Muslims have to actually read texts to become dangerously Islamic, you have a naively limited view of Islamic culture.  [I also could have added taqiyya (lying in order to advance Islam) to this litany of Islamic values osmotically learned by the garden-variety Muslim.]

"Many supposed muslims are only muslims by name"

I see you are pulling out all the hypotheses to explain how it oculd be that we are not condemning all Muslims -- "most Muslims are illiterate", now "many Muslims are not really Muslims". There are many more similar hypotheses -- all desperate attempts by sincere-minded non-Muslims to try to save the Entire People of Islam from our condemnation. One problem with these hypotheses is: how can you tell which Muslims are which? How do you discern that a Muslim is a "Muslim by name only"? Just because he tells you he likes music and he wears blue jeans and he says he doesn't like the "Wahhabis" or the "Salafis"? I'm not going to risk the lives of my fellow citizens on flimsy tests like these.

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