Part II of II: Why I was fascinated by that reading you hated

I think it’s fair to say you were bitching and moaning to me a few days ago about this reading (on the history of how the West has studied Islam and understood the Islamic world).

You found it emphatically boring. I disagreed with you: I told you I found it fascinating. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to describe why I found it so valuable.

That’s not something people usually do. They’re either interested in something or they aren’t, and they leave it at that. But don’t you think that’s kind of unsatisfactory? I do, anyhow.

First, a couple of points.

#1. I’m NOT writing about whether you should drop your class. There might be other reasons you should, or shouldn’t.

#2. When we discussed this, you said I might find this more interesting because I already know something about the subject. That is certainly at least partly true (I’ll make some of those connections later). But I gotta tell you, that’s a weaker argument than you usually make. I’m no expert in either Islam or Islamic Studies, but how do you think I learned whatever limited stuff I do know about them? By starting with knowing almost nothing, of course! <grin>

But then, you don’t know almost nothing.

You know the West’s relationship to the Islamic world is hugely important, complex, and difficult.

You know some people think there’s a historic “clash of civilizations” underway.

You know a thing or two about the Crusades. You know where you were on 9/11.

You know many of things Americans say about Islam and the Islamic world are probably oversimplified, if not flat-out wrong. (If for no other reason than most of the things most humans say about EVERYTHING are probably oversimplified or flat-out wrong.)

You know when people start studying cultures very different from their own, they’re exceptionally vulnerable to misunderstanding and “assuming the worst.” Especially when the differences involve God and religion.

And you know that what people think doesn’t stay in the classroom: it shapes policy, leads to war or peace, sends innocent people to their deaths or permits them to survive.

So, understanding how we have tried to learn about Islam throughout the past 1,000 years would seem to be useful. Especially if you’re thinking about studying the subject yourself. It might help you avoid some of your predecessors’ mistakes!

Now, let’s turn to the piece itself.

The authors begin with the deep, pre-Islamic past, in which western knowledge of the Arab peoples is often limited to myth and theology.

I personally find this interesting because I know these early, extremely tenuous understandings can echo down through the millennia. For example, German nationalists (including the Nazis) drew much of their understanding of “Aryan-ness” from a single small book, Germania, written in the Year 98 by Tacitus, who had never traveled there or met any of the tribesmen he was writing about.

The first ideas that people get about each other (or themselves) have a nasty tendency to stick.

Next, your authors point to the Old Testament origin story claiming that the Arabs (like the Jews) are descended from Abraham. However, the Arabs are said to be descended through Hagar, the concubine he ultimately sent into the desert after God finally gave him a son through his own elderly wife, Sarah.

I do not know the full cultural and anthropological implications of such a story of half-brothers and expulsions, a family’s favored and disfavored… but I bet it matters, don’t you? Since this is a survey article, it only scratches the surface… but it’s one place where I think the authors point you in a really interesting direction for exploration.

Next, they turn to the Middle Ages. And here, I confess, we’re getting into some areas I have studied a bit. They discuss Christians and Jews living under Islamic rule (e.g., Nestorians, Monophysites, and Orthodox Christians; Samaritan, Karaite, and Rabbanite Jews) who were in some senses protected (dhimmī).

Like most of your fellow Americans, you might not yet know the Koran specifically declares Jews, Christians, and a mysterious group called “Sabians” to be “People of the Book.” Maybe you do know that. In any case, these groups were permitted to continue their worship within certain limits, and worthy of at least some protection (albeit not legal equality). This is one thing I was hoping you might get to explore this semester. Regardless, it may lead to some useful reflection on the differences between what a holy book says and what its adherents do.

Your authors then contrast the experiences of Christians living under Islam (many of whom would have been considered heretics in, say, France, but were comparatively comfortable under Islamic rule) vs. Christians living elsewhere (who “experienced Islam more as an alien “other,” a non-Christian enemy to be converted or defeated”).

Hence, the Crusades — a set of events I know is of some interest to you.

In their section Crusades and Cluniac Scholarship, 1100–1500, your authors discuss how the monk Peter the Venerable led the first “serious systematic study of Islam.” This happened at roughly the same time as the first European universities were being founded; a renaissance of knowledge was underway across Europe. Suddenly, actual Islamic documents were being translated. Notwithstanding the monk’s goal of Christian triumph, you even see some attempts at academic objectivity.

I personally find this a seminal moment in history. (You could learn a lot about it from Prof. Daileader!)

I am even more interested in what comes next, partly because it’s about my own ancestry.

Your authors write about the amazing world of medieval Spain, where Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted in fascinatingly complex and subtle ways. At some times, in some places, those interactions were quite positive and respectful — proving this can be done. (A useful insight, IMHO!)

Spain is the shifting interface between the Muslim and Western world throughout the Middle Ages, running right up to Ferdinand, Isabella, and Columbus. It’s where many of the ancient Greek and Roman texts that Muslims had preserved came back into the western world, helping to trigger the Renaissance.

It’s also where westerners relearned ancient Greek math (e.g., Euclid), and discovered the many new advances created by Muslim mathematicans (e.g., “al-gebra”). The term “algorithm” comes from the Latin “dixit Algorismi” (“so says Al-Khwarizmi”) in honor of yet another legendary Muslim mathematician — the same guy who kinda talked the west into finally replacing Roman numerals with the Hindu system (Zero through 9).

(Thank the Muslims for the fact that you’ll never have to do your taxes in Roman numerals.)

I think I’d be fascinated by that place and time even if my own family didn’t come from there.

Your authors next turn to the era of the Reformation, discussing the evolution of the differing relationships between Christians and Muslims both inside and outside the Islamic world.

Isn’t it interesting that Martin Luther himself authorized the publication of the Koran in Basel, claiming that reading it was the best possible argument against Islam? But, as your authors wryly observe, “The view that a rational reading of Muslim texts would evoke self-evident indictments against the Muslim faith did not contribute to a disinterested European tradition of scholarship in Islam.” That seems a fair assessment! <grin>

Meanwhile, Luther’s Protestant contemporary Melanchthon, like many medieval Catholics before him, tends to “see Islam as a heresy—as Christianity gone astray, rather than as a distinct religion in its own right.” This is an interesting observation. If you study religion much, you’ll see that the west has always tends to define religion entirely in its own (Judeo-Christian) terms.

That’s why, to this day, we tend to talk about “Islamic fundamentalists.” Despite the fact that in many ways they’re quite different from the Bible Belt Christians who first adopted the term “fundamentalist” (in response to a specific set of essays on Christian theology published between 1910 and 1917 in Los Angeles and distributed free nationwide through the generous contributions of two U.S. oil company executives.)

Your authors next move to globalization (Discovery and Enlightenment, 1650–1900), noting that world trade gave Christians and Muslims more reasons and opportunities to connect, and observing that Christian and Muslim states would sometimes ally against shared adversaries. (Reminding us that sometimes wars claimed to be about religion are also — occasionally even primarily — about other things.)

They also allude to growing western interest in the life of Muhammad himself. I was hoping to learn more from your course about this, but here’s my very limited understanding: This can be an explosive subject given that non-Muslim academics often wish to interpret the Koran in terms of early influences on Muhammad’s life (e.g., interactions he might’ve had with groups of Jews, possibly shaping Muslim law and theology)… whereas believers consider Muhammad solely God’s messenger, and the words of the Koran to be God’s words, pure and simple, influenced by no human activity.

If you stay in your class, I hope to learn more about this from you. If you don’t, I’ll research it more on my own. Either way, I think it’s pretty important.

Now, we come to Orientalism, the Twentieth Century and Beyond. I know your prof wanted you to focus especially on this section. Your authors do a nice job of explaining what was important about Orientalism — and mention that, with its fading, fewer westerners are trained to really translate, interpret, and engage with many important older Islamic documents. (Don’t you think it’s interesting when knowledge recedes? Dark Ages happen; it’s interesting to contemplate how they happen.)

Your authors then introduce Edward Said and his immensely influential (and hugely controversial) critique, Orientalism. This book may have done more to shape western academic worldviews about the study of Arabs and Islam than anything else in the past half-century except 9/11. It was a centerpiece of the late 20th century move towards multiculturalism and post-modernism (and perhaps political correctness) in the academy.

Whatever you think of Said (and he was a formidable intellect) it’s pretty important to know about him. Even if you ultimately disagree with him, he raises important questions about how we approach the history of the “other,” what we know about foreign cultures, why we think we know it, which questions we choose to study, and which we choose to ignore.

Finally, your authors discuss the post-World War II growth of “area studies” focused more heavily on contemporary political and social developments in the Muslim world. Here again, there’s some really interesting stuff going on just under the surface.

Your authors allude cryptically to the claimed linkages between Area Studies and western imperialism. Some have been known to go further. As Wikipedia put it:

Many… alleged that because area studies were connected to the Cold War agendas of the CIA, the FBI, and other intelligence and military agencies, participating in such programs was tantamount to serving as an agent of the state.

And plenty of people involved in Middle Eastern area studies have indeed joined the State Department, CIA, et al. I can envision reasons why all this recent history would be of personal interest to you.

So, was this worth reading? For me, very much so. (I’m tempted to ask why you felt otherwise, but I’m not sure that’s a productive question!) There are lots of ways to learn about this material — they don’t all have to involve sitting in this class at this time. But IMHO the stuff in this reading was damned important.

Do I feel that way because I know something? I guess… but so do you. And couldn’t the same thing be said about almost anything you’ll ever learn? You start by connecting it to something you already know, even if it ain’t much. And then you discover exciting ways to take it in entirely new directions.

Which takes me back to where I started in my first post. To the Coates line that moved me so much:

That feeling—the not knowing, the longing for knowing, and the eventual answer—is love and youth to me.

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