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Historical Methodology and Dogmatic Islamophilia (Part 6)



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2. Dogmatic Islamophilia of Western Islamologists

Consider the following remarks, and try to guess in what sort of publication they might have first appeared:

“Archaeologists increasingly have questioned accepted assumptions about biblical history and the biblical narrative….“

“Archaeological finds, however, at times call into question the historicity of the biblical narrative. For instance, some archaeological sites seem to deny Joshua’s alleged conquest of Canaan by showing neither a destruction layer nor traces of walls nor even settlement from that era (e.g., Jericho, Ai). Realizing the highly theological and literary character of the Book of Joshua, some scholars have concluded that its accounts are selective and biased, having minimal historical value in reconstructing the events of the past.“

“There is no reference in Egyptian sources to Israel’s sojourn in that country, and the evidence that does exist is negligible and indirect.“

“Archaeological material has raised questions regarding certain assumptions and claims based on biblical literature. At times this evidence clearly contradicts biblical narrative; on other occasions, data that might have corroborated the literary account are conspicuously lacking.“

No, these observations of a gently skeptical nature do not come from the pages of The Skeptical Inquirer, but from a chapter by Lee I. Levine entitled “Biblical Archaeology“ in Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary, published by The Jewish Publication Society for The Rabbinical Assembly, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in New York, 2001. Thus in a book that contains the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch along with an English translation and English commentary, we find a thoroughly objective, rational account of the implications of archaeology — science, in other words — for the historicity of the Torah. Even the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has absorbed the historical methodological insights of the Enlightenment and the Higher German Biblical Criticism, and has noted the perturbing consequence for the believer.

One cannot imagine a similar introduction to a translation of the Koran, which has not been submitted to a skeptical scrutiny. Instead we have the extraordinary claim worthy of an Islamic fundamentalist made by A.J.Arberry (1964), in the introduction to his translation , “ ….[T]he Koran as printed in the twentieth century is identical with the Koran as authorized by Uthman more than 1300 years ago”. One wonders how Arberry knows that the present printed Koran (the Egyptian version of 1342 A.H.) is identical to the so-called Uthmanic one; did he look at and compare dated manuscripts that can be said to be genuinely Uthmanic? No wonder Arberry does not feel obliged to reveal which Arabic text he used, let alone which manuscript.

The reasons for the reticence of many Western scholars of Islam to submit it to rigorous analysis are many and various, including:

  • Political correctness leading to Islamic correctness;
  • The fear of playing into the hands of racists or reactionaries to the detriment of the West’s Muslim minorities;
  • Commercial or economic motives;
  • Feelings of post-colonial guilt (where the entire planet’s problems are attributed to the West’s wicked ways and intentions);
  • Plain physical fear;
  • Intellectual terrorism of writers such as Edward Said.

Said not only taught an entire generation of Arabs the wonderful art of self-pity, and intimidated feeble western academics, and even weaker, invariably leftish, intellectuals into accepting that any criticism of Islam was to be dismissed as orientalism, and hence invalid.

But the first duty of the intellectual is to tell the truth. Truth is not much in fashion in this postmodern age, when continental charlatans have infected Anglo-American intellectuals with the thought that objective knowledge is not only undesirable, but unobtainable. I believe that to abandon the idea of truth not only leads to political fascism, but stops dead all intellectual inquiry. To give up the notion of truth means forsaking the goal of acquiring knowledge. But man, as Aristotle put it, by nature strives to know. Truth, science, intellectual inquiry and rationality are inextricably bound together. Relativism, and its illegitimate offspring, multiculturalism, are not conducive to the critical examination of Islam.

Said wrote a polemical book, Orientalism (1978), whose pernicious influence is still felt in all departments of Islamic studies, where any critical discussion of Islam is ruled out a priori. For Said, orientalists are involved in an evil conspiracy to denigrate Islam, to maintain its people in a state of permanent subjugation and are a threat to Islam’s future. These orientalists are seeking knowledge of oriental peoples only in order to dominate them; most are in the service of imperialism.

Three further factors need to be taken into account to explain the otherwise puzzling spectacle of Western scholars swallowing whole the entire Islamic narrative as to its own rise and formation.

First, The first modern apologists of Islam — even in its fundamentalist mode-were Christian scholars who perceived a common danger in certain economic, philosophical, and social developments in the West: the rise of rationalism, scepticism, atheism, secularism; the Industrial Revolution; the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism and materialism. Sir Hamilton Gibb writes of Islam as a Christian “engaged in a common spiritual enterprise“.37 But let us beware of skepticism: “Both Christianity and Islam suffer under the weight of worldly pressure, and the attack of scientific atheists and their like“, laments Norman Daniel.38

Hence the tendency amongst Christian scholars to be rather uncritical; a tendency not to wish to offend Muslim friends and Muslim colleagues. Either there were explicit apologies if the writer felt there was something offensive to Muslim eyes, or to use various devices to avoid seeming to take sides, or to avoid judging whatever issue was under discussion.

Christian scholars such as Watt, who was curate of St. Mary Boltons, London, and Old St Paul’s, Edinburgh and ordained Episcopalian minister, and who was one of the most influential Islamic scholars in Britain of the last fifty years, and Sir Hamilton Gibb saw skepticism, atheism and communism as the common enemy of all true religion. They followed Carlyle in hoping for spiritual inspiration from the East. Here is Watt:

“Islam — or perhaps one should rather say, the East — has tended to overemphasize Divine sovereignty, whereas in the West too much influence has been attributed to man’s will, especially in recent times. Both have strayed from the true path, though in different directions. The West has probably something to learn of that aspect of truth which has been so clearly apprehended in the East.“

37 H.A.R.Gibb. Modern Trends in Islam. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1947.

38 Norman Daniel. Islam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1960, p.307.


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