On my other weblog I have a post, On The Instrumental Uses Of Arabic Science, which reflects on the role that the idea of science, the Islamic world, and cultural myopia, play in our deployment of particular historical facts and dynamics. That is, an idea, a concept, does not exist on an island but is embedded in a cultural environment. Several different contexts.
My father is a professional scientist, and a Muslim who lives in the West. In our house there was always a copy of The Bible, the Qu’ran and Science: The Holy Scriptures Examined in the Light of Modern Knowledge. To those not convinced about the beliefs of Islam, as I never was, it was not a convincing book. But it played a particular role in my father’s life of the mind as both a Muslim and a scientist. Its arguments were less important in their detail than that a French scientist had written a book showing that Islam and science were compatible and that in fact, the Koran had prefigured scientific truths.
The intellectual achievements of medieval Islam, particularly the phase focused around the House of Wisdom, are a real thing in and of themselves. But more often they exist as tools for the implicit or explicit agendas of particular peoples with ends which are separate and distinct from an understanding of the past on its own terms.
For many Muslims, this period defines what Islam could have been. Should have been. More traditionalist Muslims will have a relatively understated take, and perhaps attribute the passing of this period due to external forces (e.g., the collapse of central authority by the end of the 9th century). More progressive Muslims will make a bolder claim, that Islam, that Muslims, made the wrong decisions internally (al-Ghazali often emerges as a villain).
A modernist, perhaps Whiggish, take would be that the 9th century of Islam was a “false dawn.” Illustrative of the acidic power of rationality, but an instance when it receded in the face of faith (the Mutazilites often become heroes in these tales). A more multiculturalist and contemporary progressive Western take would likely emphasize that Islamic cultural production was just as ingenious as that of the West, and its diminishment was due to the suffocating effect of colonialism.
But there are even more exotic takes one could propose. The shift from the Umayyads in Damascus to the Abbasids in Baghdad was a shift of the Islamic world from the west to the east. The prominence of Iranian culture during the latter period was palpable. The Caliph al-Mamun was half Iranian, and almost moved the capital of the Abbasids to Merv in Khorasan. The Barmakid family were ethnically Iranian, but also originally hereditary Buddhists. The historian of Central Asia, Christopher Beckwith, has alluded to an “Indian period” of Islamic civilization when the influence from Dharmic religion and Indian culture was strong. For example, Beckwith and others have argued that the madrassa system derives from that of Central Asian viharas.
This blog now gets in the range of the same amount of traffic as my other weblog. But a major difference is the source of traffic. About two times as many visitors to this weblog come from the USA as India. So Americans are dominant. But, on my other weblog, 15 times as many visitors come from the USA as India. Additionally, since this is a group weblog, I’m pretty liberal about comments, and so this weblog receives between 10 to 100 times as many comments as my other weblog. Obviously, since most people in the world are stupid, many of the comments are stupid. I try to ignore that.
Rather, let me focus on the “hot-button” issue of Islam and India, and how it impacts people here. In the comments of this weblog. Let’s divide the comment(ers) into two stylized camps. Or actually, one person and another camp. The person is commenter Kabir, who has taken it upon himself to defend the honor of Indo-Islamic civilization. On the face of it, that’s not a major problem, but he tends to take extreme offense and demand linguistic and topical policing that’s frankly rather obnoxious (this tendency extends beyond Islam, as he is a living personification of Syme). He’s a bully without the whip. Kabir is somewhat annoying, but I can honestly always just delete his comments. He’s one person.
In contrast, there are those who Kabir calls “Hindu nationalists.” This is a broad slur on his part, as it basically seems to include any person from a Hindu background who disagrees with any particular social-religious take he has in relation to the Indian subcontinent or Islam. If someone who was a Chinese Catholic lesbian left a common where their identity wasn’t clear, and they disagreed with Kabir’s take, he would no doubt accuse them of being a “Hindu nationalist.”
If you have a hammer, everything is a nail!
But, there are genuine Hindu nationalists who read this weblog of various stripes. I have friends who personally lean toward this direction in their politics, though they are cosmopolitan in their private life. On the other hand, there are others who are more backward and probably as crazy as Kabir depicts them. Honestly, I’ve never met these people in real life…most “Indian” people I meet are either coconuts like me or cosmopolitan blockchain engineers.
At this point, I should step back and reintroduce myself. Unlike many people from an Islamic background who are now rather frankly irreligious, I did not have a traumatic relationship with Islam. Or religion. My parents mostly raised me as a nominal Muslim, so my atheism came about naturally and at a young age. And, unlike some atheists from a Muslim background, I did not grow up in a Muslim community. Neither did I grow up in an immigrant community. I grew up in Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton’s America as the token brown kid. I have only come to know other brown people of all religions and background as an adult. My stance is one of curiosity, and sometimes perplexment. I have a few memories of distaste when it came to attending masjid as a child because in hindsight it is clear I never believed in what they were saying and saw it as a massive waste of time and totally sterile.
But due to this perspective, I don’t have strong opinions on South Asian politics. I wish atheists and free-thinkers would get a little break in Bangladesh. Pakistan as a nation should go see a good therapist about its identity crisis. And in India, the saffron brigade should chill out on their paranoia on all things “foreign.” The British are gone. And the Muslims are a minority (also, I had a medium-rare hamburger with bacon today!).
Which brings me to the concerns of the Hindu nationalists, and their relationship to Islam. Their hatred of Islam. Their love of Islam. Their inability to quit Islam.
Imagine a beautiful bully. A bully with the social and interpersonal skills to hide their behavior. To get away with it. If Hindu nationalists were to personify the historical rage they feel, that seems to be their attitude toward Islam. What genetics is telling is that though South Asians are diverse, we’re a distinctive and recognizable branch of the human race that emerged out of particular social and historical dynamics that occurred between three and eight thousand year ago.
And yet Hindu nationalists see that one out of three South Asians now identifies as something distinct, part of an alienated (from South Asia) worldwide brotherhood. They used to be called Indians. What used to be called Hindus. But they are alienated from their own ancestral identity now. Their forenames are Ali or Pervez. Their surnames are Islam or Khan. Many of their sartorial choices and customs are dictated by the whims of a 7th century Arab and the norms of his community. Some even have the gall and conceit to claim to be scions of the Arab, Persian, or Turk, when their very faces give the lie to that claim.
As a participant, even at the margins, my perspectives exist as well. Because the social norms in Islam outside of the West look dimly upon irtidāds, my general stance all things equal is to look where the Muslims stand, and take the opposite position. The mainstream view within Islam is that apostasy is punished due to its social and political implications. That is, it is treason. The punishment for treason is death.
Which brings me to reflect on attempting to understanding what Islam is, and why it is the way it is. Most atheists who have never been religious tend to have certain personalities. We’re not really intuitive people. We’re more analytic types. To understand a religion we believe that we should understand its doctrines.
This is easiest with Protestant Christianity, which in the United States of America is defined by a confessional individualistic orientation. That is, religious identity is fluid, and contingent on the freely given profession of faith in the doctrines of a particular sect. More liturgical forms of Christianity, such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, are somewhat different, but the overall emphasis on particularities of belief remains.
The landscape changes once one moves to Judaism and Islam, which are both orthopraxic religions. That is, traditional Judaism and Islam have highly developed tradition of religious law which apply to all believers, and not simply religious professionals. At least notionally. Though particular beliefs about the nature of God remain at the heart of customary Judaism and Islam, on the balance formulaic orthodoxy is not given as much overwhelming weight.
When we move to the Dharmic traditions and Chinese and Japanese religion, the landscape alters again. I will forgo exploration of this topic since it is not germane to the post. Suffice to say I am well aware of the diversity and particularity across all these traditions.
Rather, let’s take a step back to Islam. The brutal bully whose life is charmed. The standard narrative is that Islam spread rapidly over a century, from the Indus to the shores of the Atlantic. It is a stupendous feat.
How did this happen? Naturally, Muslims will assert that it was the will of God himself. Islam succeeded in its audacity because it is true. Those of us who are not Muslim do not accept this viewpoint, because to us Islam is obviously not true.
So what explanation can we kaffirs give for this feat? A natural one adhered to by many is that Islam is by its doctrinal nature well suited to obtaining submission, and then in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome those who submit to conquest convert their own identity so they become partners in their own oppression and that of others. This model is one where the sons of pagans, Christians, and Hindus bow before Allah on High and smite the unbeliever in their own turn, in a devilish radius of conquest outward from the center.
And the blueprint is all there in the Koran and the Sunnah. All that one needs to do is to execute the plan was there in the beginning. All the snake had to do was uncoil.
To a great extent, this was my view 15 years ago. Because I was an atheist who had never been religious this made sense to me, because religion was about ideology, and the Islamic ideology was plainly one of submission. After all, Islam means “submission to God.”
Though I have never been a believer in a non-Muslim religion, my impression is that many non-Muslims find this also an easy way to understand Islam. Muslim majoritarianism has traditionally been brutal to non-Muslims, and it isn’t as if Muslims keep their doctrines and practices secret. Their contempt for kaffirs derives naturally from the nature of the religion, not some perverse heritable trait. Muslims are taught to have contempt for non-Muslims. They aren’t born with it.
Of course, there are those who disagree with this position for political and cultural reasons. These are the type of people who claim that Islam is a peaceful religion of tolerance. These people are either lying or deluded. Ultimately they don’t really care about Islam, they care about their own particular positions in culture wars fundamentally having nothing to do with Islam.
Over the years though I have come to revise my views about why Islam is the way it is and how it got to be the way it is. On the whole, I don’t really disagree with my earlier view that Muslims and Islamic societies tend to be characterized by intolerance and exclusion. These are not societies that I would ever want to be a member of. But, I have come to believe that this is less due to the fundamental nature of Islamic doctrine, and more due to historically contingent events. In other words, Islam and Muslim societies are the way they are for reasons that have nothing to do with the doctrines and scriptures of Islam.
This revision in my views has two broad sources. One is the cognitive anthropology of religion. This is a discipline which allows someone like me, who has never been religious, inside the minds of those who believe. Like many sciences, the findings of this field are confusing, startling, and often counter-intuitive. Glossing over the details, I will say though that they have convinced me that the logical consequences from doctrine given by the religious are almost always post facto rationalizations, and not a true inference via propositional logic. This applies to all religions. And it applies to Islam itself.
Consider that 2,000 years ago a poor and pacifistic Jewish preacher triggered a cultural revolution that led to the emergence of a world religion. That world religion eventually became the heart of a civilization that went on to commit the greatest quantity of acts of violent brutality on an aggregate basis in the history of our species. The line between the prince of peace and slaughtering heretics and enslaving Africans is peculiar indeed.
Second, contingent history matters. It will not here recapitulate revisionist scholarship about Islam, but I do not think it unreasonable to contend that much of what we know about Islam developed in the century after the conquest. In other words, the Arabs did not conquer as Muslims, the conquerors became Muslims. The shape of Islam then was defined by the reality that emerged within the context of being an imperial religion, just as the nature of Jews after the failure of the second rebellion against the Romans until the founding of the state of Israel was one of being a pacific and supine religion.
Many Indian commenters on this weblog promote a view of Islam, and the Abrahamic religions to a lesser extent, that is in line with my views from 15 years ago. It’s there right to hold these views, but I will object when individuals assume that these views are self-evidently true. Descriptively I tend to agree with Hindu nationalists that many Muslims of Hindu descent exhibit some level of Stockholm Syndrome, reveling in the brutal conquest of their black ancestors by Muslim Turks. But when it comes to the cause of the symptoms…that is a more complex thing than they are willing to credit in my opinion.
The ideological and missionary impulse of Islam is clearly a real doctrinal thing. And that makes it different from most streams of Hinduism. But there are far more contingent sequences of events than I think we often acknowledge.
Which brings me to the reality that contingent history that has happened cannot be unhappened. The history of Islam within India is a fact. 1,000 years of domination is a fact. Centuries of domination across much of the subcontinent by alien Muslim elites is a fact. It is a fact that the most glamorous ruling dynasty of the last 1,000 years in the Indian subcontinent was that of the Mughals. Though to some extent culturally and genetically assimilated, this ruling dynasty was of Turco-Mongol provenance, and always bowed down to a religion for which India was not holy.
Over the past few centuries, Indians have by and large shucked off Muslim domination. Those areas which are Muslim dominated are no longer India, being distinct nation-states. But the weight of history still hangs over the subcontinent. One could attempt to make the case that the 1,000 years when Muslim ghazis ran roughshod over the subcontinent was an aberration, a fever dream. But the very act of purifying languages of their Arabic and Persian words points to the reality that the serum of the aliens was injected into the veins of Indian civilization.
Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and many Indian Muslims, especially those of the northern states, have their own deep identity crises. Many of them are raised with a deep and abiding contempt for the traditions and folkways of the non-Muslim peoples of the subcontinent, but on some level most must understand that these non-Muslims are the same people as their own were before the great change. Whereas the vast majority of Persians converted to Islam, and bent the knee to the Arabs for whom they had and still have so much contempt, the majority of South Asians remain non-Muslim. Witness to the cultural identity which Muslims in the subcontinent have turned their backs upon.
And yet many Hindus, envious of the vigor of the Muslims, noticing their international connections, and confused by the bizarre Islamophilic tendencies of the progressive West, may have to admit that the history of Islam is now also part of their history. The Sufi orders which were so instrumental to the spread of Islam served to buttress the great Indo-Islamic polities with their institutional heft, may themselves have been transmuted from Buddhist religious communities early Muslims encountered in eastern Iran and in Turan. If Islam is the snake, then part of the root of the serpent is ultimately Hindu, that is, Indian. It could be no other way, as Islam is the youngest of the great world religions. Constructed from preexistent modules perfected in other traditions. It was a computer assembled at home from commodity parts.
But even aside from older traditions’ roles in shaping Muslim thought, practice, and institutions, the educated Hindu of 1800 AD surely was influenced and impacted by the arrival and domination by Muslims in comparison to their precursor in 800 AD. Today in the West there are neopagans and other assorted post-Christian types who wish to recapture ancestral pre-Christian spirituality. The problem they always run up against is that that spirituality is passed down only due to the efforts of Christians, often clerics, who in the act of selection and modification likely reframed the old ways in more Christian terms. And, the lived pagan tradition was broken long ago, distributed and diffused through rural folk customs among unlettered peasants who transformed rapidly into modern urban Europeans just as the Romantic pagan awakening was beginning.
Obviously, Hinduism does not have such a great rupture. The tradition of Adi Shankara lives on. Religious reformers and innovators such a Chaitanya Mahaprabhu flourished even under Muslim Afghan rule. There is no need to reconstruct and resurrect Hinduism because it is a lived tradition. But Hinduism, Indian culture, Indian nationality, as it was before the Muslims arrived in large numbers is gone, transmuted and transformed into something new. But even if we can’t move backward, there is no shame in moving forward to better things.
Addendum: Muslim scholars, such as Shadi Hamid (and I believe our own Omar Ali), do sometimes claim that Islam is sui generis. That it may be ideologically, constitutively, resistant to secularism and the normal process of pacification of religion. This is not a crazy position and can be well argued, and to be frank, I am quite open to being convinced again of my old views.