I try to be as generous as possible. I try to listen first, think things through, give others the benefit of the doubt.
But when someone says something so ignorant, so poorly thought-out, and so dishonest that it makes your head spin, then you have to say something. Especially when that person is a fairly well-known public figure.
So here it goes: Sam Harris, you’re not helping things. At all.
cfarrivar, via Flickr
Seriously, the article this week from his website (find the link here) is painful to read. Titled–wait for it–”Honesty: The Muslim World’s Scarecest Resource?”, it taps into the conversation over the dubious “Radical Islam” hearings that have recently been taking place. And it does so very, very poorly. Leaving behind the entire question of these hearings–which Harris doesn’t go into, and thus I will not either–I want to say a few words about his take on Islam.
Harris argues that violence and killing are the “central message of the Qur’an,” which he argues by citing a whole slew of Qur’anic verses that deal with conflict, war, and other contentious issues. He is worried that moderate Muslims don’t understand their own religion well enough to see this history of bloodshed, at best, or they purposefully misrepresent Islam to the West, at worst. But Islam pushes a “unified message of triumphalism, otherworldliness, and religious hatred,” and Harris argues that this reality has to be recognized. Moderate Muslims just need to fess-up, and then we’ll really be able to address Islam qua Islam.
I have news for you, folks: it’s the biggest load of short-sighted, reductionist, misappropriated bullshit you’ll find. And while I do not mean to accuse Harris of any sort of bad intentions, I do want to make mention of just how poorly this so-called analysis addresses Islam.
-Harris seems ignorant of the fact that Muslims don’t all read every verse of the Qur’an as clear and concise in its literal meaning. There is an entire field of Qur’anic study–from an Islamic perspective, through the centuries–that is concerned with the historical reception of a particular Surah (chapter). When was it revealed? What was the particular social/political context? How does that change how we view that Surah, in the light of other Surahs? Do certain later verses replace earlier ones (a process called abrogation)? Are their conflicting images we need to reconcile? It’s not a case of reading one or two verses, drawing conclusions, and calling it a day. It’s a struggle with the Qur’an, to rightly understand it, and to live according to that understanding.
-The verses cited aren’t quite as scary as he makes them out to be. Many of them use violent imagery–fire, mostly–to convey the judgment that us unbelievers will experience at the hands of God. Not at the hands of men and women on earth. But at the Last Day. Why should this constitute a particular kind of Islamic violence? Do we need to cry foul when Jesus breaks the world down into wheat and chaff, with us unbelieving chaff being burned up? Or when the sheep and goats are separated, and us less-fluffy, more pointy-horned secular-folk are similarly burned to a crisp? Does that scare you? It doesn’t scare me. That is putting the power into Divine hands to judge and cast out, not human. I couldn’t care less, unless individuals start citing that verse in hopes of having my head. At that point, it’s not the “unified message” of the text that is to blame, but an inconsistent interpretation by the religious believer. And those are two very, very different things.
-Lastly, I hate to give a counter-list of positive Qur’anic verses to problematize Harris’ own. Quite honestly, the dueling walls of text do little to convince anyone, since they always lack any sort of context. I can make any Scripture say anything I’d like, if I parse things well enough. Thus “There is no God,” says the Bible (that was easy). Seriously, though, there are Qur’anic interpretations that need not be a “unified message of triumphalism, otherworldliness, and religious hatred.” Anyone who thinks they can boil a millenia-old religious text down to that kind of tagline is doing that text injustice. And thus I’m not going to get into this verse-critiquing war, but recommend looking at someone like Amina Wadud, a female Muslim scholar who has found the Qur’an to be wonderfully transformative and freeing in her own life as a feminist. Others won’t. But you can’t just cite the verses that sound evil and think this explains the heart of Islam. You have to dig deeper.
Harris, quite frankly, presents Scripture here as a fundamentalist would. It is a dry, topical understanding, devoid of historical or textual context, that makes proof-texting possible. There is no room for interpretation, for conversation, for nuance. No different schools of thought. It’s decided, “The text as a whole says X”. Islam becomes a robotic, artificial existence, and humankind mere automatons. And I feel like Harris should know better. When you have a bigger audience to speak to, you take on the responsibility of presenting yourself and others with as much integrity and honesty as possible. And this article just doesn’t measure up.
Not everyone can be an Islamic Studies scholar. Not everyone can study Classical Arabic. Not everyone can take courses on the Qur’an. But if you don’t have a background in the subject, don’t write public statements that claim real understanding. I can promise that I won’t be writing a critique of a neuroscience theory (Harris’ field), because I don’t have the background. Not just the lack of credentials, but lack of the methodology, vocabulary, and experience in the field. For Harris to so blindly and haphazardly dismiss a particular community, just because his cursory glance at their Scriptures seems violent at first glance, is intellectually suspect. And it can do more harm than good.
Please, anyone and everyone, don’t take Harris’ analysis as your own understanding of Islam. This atheist, who is not a Qur’anic scholar, but who was lucky enough to spend four year in undergrad studying Islam, is interested in the Muslim and secular communities engaging in dialogue over real issues. Poorly-reasoned critiques, more diatribe than discourse, will never get people to the table. Everyone deserves to be as generously understood as possible, and it’s about time the Muslim community got similar treatment from our secular circles. If I read a Muslim thinker picking any secular text apart in this kind of manner, I’d be equally miffed.
I have nothing against Sam Harris as a person–I’m sure he’d be lovely to sit down and share a pint with–but I couldn’t let this one pass. Atheists and Muslims deserve better.
For more basic information about Islam from an academic perspective, I can personally recommend Michael Sell’s Approaching the Qur’an and Carl Ernst’s Following Muhammad. If you’re still caught up in the overly-simplistic “Islam vs. the West” historical narrative that Maher and others keep repeating, look at Zachary Karabell’s Peace Be Upon You. There are plenty, plenty more great sources I can recommend, if needed. Stay informed, and think for yourself!