News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Having reviewed Ibn Warraq's Why I Am Not a Muslim, I wanted a second opinion. Jeremiah D McAuliffe, Jr., Ph.D. has written a lengthy response entitled Trends and Flaws in Some Anti-Muslim Writing As Exemplified by Ibn Warraq. Jerry is an ex-Catholic who wandered out of the church into Allah's warm embrace.

Part One: Five General Errors Common to Warraq and Other Anti-Muslim Writers appears at first glance to be a savvy assemblage of facts, and probably figures, that will slay Warraq the apostate. But on reading it, it proves to be no more than high-sounding blah plus theories without attending evidence; most noticible of all is his good-manners and cultivated savoir-faire, which he uses to charm and impress the reader that issues raised by Warraq are ipso facto preposterous and thus presenting evidence to counter them is a sort of craven weakness or a demonstration of bad faith in the Faith. And he generously accomodates the errors of infidels as the same mistakes are made by many a Muslim. One ends up almost feeling guilty doubting Jerry.
He's a sort of good-natured Marx of the palmy days when the bearded prophet wrote the Communist Manifesto in a high-flying and appealing poetic balderdash, stating the old and familiar in olde and reassuring terms. Jerry moves to a higher plane, rising above the heated speech, poor manners, and potential for embarrassment that accompanies raw undisciplined debate. He reminds us of the manifest reliable truths of the old traditions vouchsafed to us by the ancients.
But such rhetoric, so beloved of politicians and NGOs, just gives me a pain. I rushed to get to the end of each of discussion of the general errors, each time to be surprised that there was no accompanying quotation from Warraq followed up by an evidence-based refutation.

For example, in the discussion of the first of the five general errors, McAuliffe talks about Warraq taking exception to the notion that Islam came out of the past, that it had a history. McAuliffe states the obvious in a sort of Gore Vidal patrician flourish: but of course there was a history in the region and thus of course words from a number of languages appear in the Koran. "Arabic, like all languages, incorporated words from other languages which are then in the Qur'an. This is all accepted in Islam, and causes no problems. It seems strange to me that it would. Be that as it may, it is common in anti-Muslim writings to use the above points as some kind of a negative proof against our claim that the Qur'an is a revelation from God and Muhammad is a messenger from God. Warraq is no exception, but the logic of such a position escapes me. Indeed, it seems absurd and in denial of simple reality."

Our claim? Simple Reality? Causes no problems?

Does McAuliffe realize that words actually mean something to most of the rest of us? But I'm asking the wrong question. Perhaps the right one is: Who is he speaking too? The already persuaded, that's who.

For starters, the problem here, and common throughout, is his coyness about addressing the issues at hand. The problem, as stated very clearly and simply in Warraq's book is that Mohammed claims that God gave him the Koran in pure Arabic. It's very simple. Surely then, given McAuliffe's confidence, it's simple to refute. I personally have no opinion aboutupon whether this is true or false (I'll check on the Net later). But the claim is stated very clearly by Warraq. All McAuliffe had to do was demonstrate in some form or fashion (a quote from the Koran, etc.) that there is no claim in the Koran that it's written in pure Arabic or that the claim is somehow underwritten with a subsection (ex: "See paragraph A, sub-paragraph B". Instead, McAuliffe tiresomely marches out the obvious by informing us that all languages are a hodgepodge of other languages.

But perhaps the following statements say more about the writer's state of mind than his confidence in Islam: "This is all accepted in Islam, and causes no problems. It seems strange to me that it would. ...the logic of such a position escapes me. Indeed, it seems absurd and in denial of simple reality."

Is anything "all accepted" in Islam? Is it in any other major religion (ex: Christianity or Judaism) . This is just rhetorical hogwash, more of the Us vs. Them biz that he's into, more dodging of issues. My favorite is, "The logic of such a position escapes me." I have to imagine the logic of most positions escapes McAuliffe if the best he can do is combat Warraq's armamentarium of quotes from Koran and various authors with epithets like "absurd" and "in denial of simple reality."

For what it's worth, Warraq's larger point here was that the Koran is full of contradictions. In one part it states one thing, in another part it states another.

It's perhaps also worth pointing at this point that I think the McAuliffe confuses, or at least confusingly conflates, the average Muslim with the intellectual Muslim, the latter grounded in the Koran and armed with experience debating and lecturing on it. Warraq, at least in the third of his book that I've read so far, concentrates upon a literal interpretation of the Koran and the logical and historical problems that arise when doing so. In other words, he's dealing with the strict interpretation crowd, what we call fundamentalists at home.

In the second of the general errors, McAuliff starts out by saying, "There's a failure to treat the Qur'an and sunnah as a whole... Islam presents a unified, integrated, consonant portrait of all aspects of human reality. It denies nothing but actual human behavior and experience and so discusses all aspects of it and how the parts interrelate and, most importantly, how it can be ennobled and improved. ...What this means in this context is that we cannot even accurately discuss Islamic views on topics such as gender relations and warfare without also, at the same time, discussing Islamic views of economics, social justice, sexuality, political relations, etc. In Islam, the whole illustrates the parts, and the parts, in turn illustrate the whole. Any discussion of particular ayats that may appear to countenance aggressive violence or sexism must also, at the same time, be referred to other seemingly unrelated topics. In Islam, many topics that may seem unrelated to some people are in fact related and shed light on each other and cannot be discussed apart from each other."

In other words, (a) you can't talk about any individual thing in Islam unless you've mastered all of it, so just don't bother (b) McAuliffe has mastered all of it so he has the right (i.e. the power) to discuss this. But surely this leads to contradiction as we, his readers, don't know all about Islam and are thus not in a position to make a decision about what he has to say about it either. You can't have it both ways. If my ignorance of subject matter disqualifies me from making an opinion on my own, then, I'm similarly unqualified to form an opinion when McAuliffe offers me one of his own. And you got to love that true-believer biz about Islam covering "all aspects of human reality."

You see the pattern. Essentially, he presents formulas but he never shows them in application. It would make far better sense to take quotes that Warraq has used and demonstrate how they've been misconstrued or taken out of context. A step-by-step play-by-play set of exemplars would potentially work wonders convincing me. But McAuliffe's too lazy, too sloppy, to confident, glib, too much of the believer to do so. He's a great fan of theories and himself, but not a great fan of implementation and rigor.

Perhaps most striking is the stale odor of modern academia. The postmodernist vibe is very much in evidence. He states that the Koran is "not a history book, nor is it a science text. At its most basic it is a book that addresses the issue of that Who (or which) transcends humanity -- and he uses stories to do so. More specifically, it uses parables: stories meant not just for entertainment, but for teaching.... we cannot read a book of poetry the same way that we read a book on the science of botany. They are two different literary genres. Interestingly, both types can communicate truth about reality... when we understand the dynamics of literary genre and how that affects our understanding of any book whatsoever we are armed with a powerful weapon to refute the false statements of anti-Muslims."

The problem of course is that by spinning the Koran into a book of poetry and parables, it becomes a work of art susceptible to a million interpretations only one of which can be right; or do I mean correct? it's contents devolve into a dispute between experts and thus the discussion primarily becomes one of he said/she said. This the scenario beloved of postmodernists who love postmodernism because it so gratefully abandons standards and opens the door to the masses, the underdogs, the proletariat, the taxpayer. Thenceforth any quack, ignoramus, or halfwit can compose a theory and compete with Dali, Einstein, and Naipaul for imprimatur. Everything has its value, rhetorically speaking.

Just another left-liberal exercise designed to push up the timetable for God's design of having the meek inherit the earth.

In McAuliffe's hands, the Koran gets a glazing in Teflon; it acquires unlimited deniability and miraculous spin possibilities. Clear, bold and pungent, otherwise hard-hitting and irrefutable prose, becomes a soft parable not be taken literally; except, of course, when the literal serves one's purposes. The advocated slaughter is no longer xenophobic murder, but an impolite exaggeration made in the excitement of the moment, just a hale and hearty figure of speech, a sort of rhetorical huzzah, a shocker to get the herd to pay attention. The sanctified and heaven-dispensated ethnic cleansing campaign becomes a sort of real-estate metaphor from the Good Samaritan on high. Take, for example, sura 8.68: "It has not been for any prophet to take captives until he has slaughtered in the land." Perhaps, for the wise, this cleverly hides a Muslim Bible Code or, to take things down a notch, a secret recipe for roast chicken.

The next section is entitled Part II: Some Problems Specific to "Why I'm not a Muslim"

Section 1 is devoted to demonstrating that Ibn Warraq had a negative childhood experience of Islam which has prejudiced him. This is quite plausible but carries little weight in the argument that Warraq is thus disqualified as a commentator. Prejudice no more eliminates the possibility of valuable work than having an open mind ensures quality work. This is just a restatement of the nonsensical moral theory of writing: that good people write good books and bad people write bad ones. That doesn't explain either Machiavelli or Hunter S. Thompson, and many other baddies who wrote informative and even riveting work; as opposed to the infinitude of monks and other holy folk who, in the overwhelming main, seldom write anything worth reading. Many good things arise from so-called bad reasons (capitalism, founded on greed, yet feeds enormous populations and continues to rescue nations from poverty and disease as we speak) and many so-called bad things in the world arise from good works (fascism is founded upon the JFK notion of public service embodied in: "Don't ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.")

In the second section, McAuliffe trots out a Simon Winchester-Jonathan Raban style howler. "To me Islam is entrancingly beautiful, gentle, integrated, constant and holistic. It is beautiful like a work of art." First of all, most works of art are either cliched and tiresome or else so avant-garde that they're hard for the lay person to appreciate. Either way, whether a philistine or connosieur, you're not going to be happy with most works of art. Secondly, a work of art is surely an attempt to create or re-create beauty and, in McAuliffe's charmed world, a work of art is tantamount to beauty. In other words he's saying that Islam is beautiful like beauty. In other words, a begging of the question, a blank where meaning ought to be, a lavender victory of poetry and beautiful feelings over sense and logic. He's not paying attention to what he's saying.
That's the general feeling I get: he's solidly asleep at the wheel. But of course, he doesn't have to persuade his readers who are, after all, believers and fellow travelers. So he doesn't have to think. Not here. Not now. Perhaps not ever. The Big Plan is already laid out in the Good Book.
So this is religious apologetics, eh? Maybe Ignorance is bliss after all.

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