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"On Revising Bigotry"

Sample Chapter from The Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam


By Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl 

[Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl is the most important and influential Islamic thinker in the modern age. An accomplished Islamic jurist and scholar, he is Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law where he teaches Islamic law, Immigration, Human Rights, International and National Security Law. Dr. Abou El Fadl previously taught Islamic law at the University of Texas at Austin Law School, Yale Law School and Princeton University. He holds degrees from Yale University (B.A.), University of Pennsylvania Law School (J.D.) and Princeton University (M.A./Ph.D.).

A high-ranking shaykh, Dr. Abou El Fadl also received formal training in Islamic jurisprudence in Egypt and Kuwait.]


The Conference unfolds to the balanced mind. Its soul is the honor of the search, the equanimity of judgment and the breath of beauty. Beauty is an intricate state of balance weighed by the scales of the Lord. The essence of beauty is balance, like the equipoise of sight, the restitutions of love and the harmony in the Divine word.

I sit unfolding on the pages of the Conference uncovering the power of beauty to restore the imbalance of the mind. It is love, which I nurture in myself for it guards the scales. But if love has the power to guard the scales, bigotry is the ugliness colonizing the feeble soul. Bigotry is an infection of fear or hate, pillaging through the immunities of the heart. Bigotry is the quintessential disruption of the magnanimity of the mind. It was the bigotry of colonialism that once intruded upon our existence and ravished our lives. It severed us from our Conference, and persuaded us that our heritage is but a lie. The disease of colonialism had infected our hearts, our minds, our limbs and our sight. We saw our history as a corruption and aberration to be apologetically denied. Infected with bigotry, in our imbalance, we idealized the beginning of our history, and the rest -- we demonized.

Whether it is the bigotry of fear or hate, the bigotry of the colonizer or colonized, the bigotry of friend or foe, the same ugliness corrupts the scales of the Lord.

A new piece of bigotry by Daniel Pipes, and the intrusion disrupts you. It is not that the bigotry is novel or original, but the very fact that you take time to respond is an annoying chore. What can one say to bigotry that could possibly help it restore the imbalance in its soul? What can one say to those who project their ugliness unto existence, and come to believe that history is like a painted whore – it exists for their pleasure, for their whims, and exists to service their political goals.

Pipes’ new revelation about Islam and Muslims is that their history is quite possibly a lie. Misery loves misery, and so Pipes teams up with Ibn Warraq, a pitiful figure inviting Muslims to liberate themselves from their religion and their Lord. Earlier on, Ibn Warraq fascinated us with his ranting about why he is not a Muslim. Of course, his title came from Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, but while Russell wrote philosophy, what Ibn Warraq wrote is an inanity, and an utter intellectual bore. This time the man with the funny name collected a bunch of articles and published them under the title The Quest for the Historical Muhammad. One of the two introductions to the book is written by a fellow with the pathetic pseudo-name Ibn Rawandi. Perhaps, our contemporary authors are alluding to friendship between the historical Ibn Rawandi and al-Warraq, both from the third Islamic century. The Manicheism and heresy of the historical figures is debated, but compared to the originals, our modern authors are unfortunate mutations and intellectual trolls. Perhaps, our two authors could not imagine that a Muslim writer could be named anything except the “Ibn” or “Abu” of something, and thought the pseudo-names sounded really cool. Perhaps, our authors simply sought to hide behind their bigotry, and sought to create with their pseudo-names their own mysterious lore.

Pseudo-names betray the lack of conviction and cowardliness of their adopters. At any case, the issue is not the facetious name holders; the issue is our ostentatious long-time friend Daniel Pipes. Pipes, like his jovial friends, contends that Arabic sources on Islam are inherently unreliable, and so what we think we know about Islam is not what we should know. Pipes claims that Arabic sources were written a century and a half after the Prophet’s death. Furthermore, non-Muslim sources dramatically contradict the standard Muslim biography of the Prophet Muhammad, and when a Muslim and a non-Muslim speak, of course, we all know who we should believe. Pipes applauds the efforts of revisionist historians such as John Wansbrough, Yehuda Nevo, Judith Koren and Patricia Crone. According to Pipes, historical revisionism challenges the idea that Muhammad preached in Mecca, that Arabic was the language of early Arabia, that Arabic was the language of early Muslims, that there was ever such a thing as early Muslims, that the Prophet was born in 570 or, for that matter, Muhammad existed at all. The Quran was not the product of the Prophet or even Arabia, but is nothing more than liturgical material stolen from the Judeo-Christian tradition, stitched together at a late point. Islamic history, as found in Muslim sources, is no more than a pious lie, a salvation history, by a rootless people, a soul-less people trying to invent a unique identity of their own.

Discharging the White Man’s Burden, Pipes, may God bless his merciful soul, advises Muslims that revisionism is a school that they can no longer afford to ignore. According to Pipes, revisionism is a toothache, and those poor pious Muslims, immersed in their delusions and superstition, think that the toothache will disappear on its own. But Pipes, like my kind mother who taught me oral hygiene and the importance of a daily shower, teaches Muslims that toothaches don’t just go away. Toothaches, you silly willy-nilly Muslims need doctors, need rationalists, need Pipes because, darn it, they just don’t go away on their own! Thank God for Pipes, who like his colonial predecessors, guides us to the truth of history, the falsity of our piety and the fact that the objectivism of science is the cure for our superstitious souls. Without the cant of our masters how could we have ever figured out what to do with toothaches, headaches or any other ache or sore?

Revisionism, like all forms of incipient or established bigotry, rests on several peculiar assumptions. Assumption number one is that Muslims invariably lie. Perhaps the genetic pool of Muslims is the culprit or perhaps it is that Muslims are prone to conspiratorial delusions, and can hardly distinguish fiction from fact. According to Pipes and his revisionists, Muslims have no qualms about inventing, lying or cheating as long as it serves their salvation goals. The second assumption follows from the first. A non-Muslim source is inherently more reliable because non-Muslims have a notion of historical objectivism. Therefore, if, for instance, a hundred Muslim sources say one thing and one Syriac source says another, it is an open and shut case. The Syriac source is inherently more reliable because those pesky Muslims cannot help but lie. The third assumption is no less interesting. Muslim history is “salvation history” written by the self-serving unreliable faithful. Muslims are biased who are persistent in their search for their ever-allusive identity. Non-Muslims, on the other hand, are fair-minded even if non-Muslims have their own set of interests because, after all, non-Muslims have no need for salvation; their Lord has already salvaged their blessed souls. So the methodology of revisionism is simple: ignore what Muslims say about themselves or others, and believe what non-Muslims say about themselves or Muslims. The fourth assumption of revisionism is the one least confessed, but is unmistakable in methodology and conclusion. Muslims are a barbaric people; whatever good they might have produced, they must have conveniently borrowed from Judaism, Christianity or some other more civilized source. Whatever barbarism Muslims might have produced, that, naturally, comes from the depth of their hearts and souls, but whatever beauty they may have possessed they simply stole.

But revisionists will say, “No, you misguided emotional Muslim friend. You simply don’t realize that Islamic history was composed in the context of intense partisan quarrels. Knowing how emotional Muslims can be, Muslims simply wrote their history to affirm their beliefs.”

But if there was no Prophet or Quran or even history, what was the cause of the partisan quarrels? Well, perhaps nothing more than the well-known Arab hunger for money and wealth, or the Arab inability to transcend their ethnic divisions and pedantic tribal lusts. The fact that Syriac or Jewish sources had their own partisan interests and biases is immaterial, of course, because non-Muslims invariably speak the truth. Furthermore, the fact that a Greek source might be reporting on rumors or on corrupted transmissions received from Muslims themselves does not at all impeach their reliability. We can never forget; Muslims lie and non-Muslims speak the truth.

Of course, Pipes, and his funny named friends, conveniently ignore that accounts of the Prophet’s life were written in the first century after his death. While they love to claim the authoritativeness of papyri and coinage to their side, they never explain what coinage or papyri they are talking about. Are papyri or coinage reliable sources regardless of the source? Even more, they ignore papyri written in the first century documenting traditions about the Prophet, and Umayyad and Abbasid coinage supporting Muslim historical accounts. They also ignore papyri documented by Sezgin and others demonstrating the existence of the Quran in the first century of Islam in its current form. Furthermore, they ignore that the Quran does not reflect the historical context of the second or third Islamic centuries, but shows an overwhelming pre-occupation with the affairs of Quraysh, Mecca, Medina, the hypocrites and the Prophet. According to the revisionists, in the time of the Abbasids, Muslims fabricated the Quran in the second and third centuries. But apparently they did not find a better way to reflect their historical context than to talk about Quraysh or Mecca, concepts which the revisionists believe were invented and which, if one accepts the revisionist logic, no one understood or cared about. Not only that, but even more, those lying cheating Muslims instead of relying on their own poetry or mythology, they could not find something better than the Judeo-Christian liturgy. In short, such are the sad affairs of Muslims, they lie and eventually believe their own lies.

But Pipes, and his friends, will surely say, “Muslims don’t have a history, and so history Muslims cannot understand. You poor ahistorical Muslim here you go again with your emotions getting out of hand. Don’t you realize that historical revisionism assaulted Christianity and Judaism as well? Don’t you realize that both religions survived, but profoundly changed, as Islam surely will?”

“Well, of course I thank you for assuring me that Islam will survive. But revisionism in the case of non-Muslim history is a critical skepticism as to institutional and official histories, but in the case of Islam it is outright bigotry. What school of historical revisionism has ever claimed that all Jewish, Christian, British or French sources cannot be believed? What school of revisionism has branded an entire people as compulsive liars?”

The truth is that revisionists dealing with Islamic history are ideologues without the critical integrity of scholars. We can take one example of Pipes methodology and ponder his style. Pipes claims that an unspecified inscription and a Greek account leads Lawrence Conrad to fix the Prophet’s birth at 522 not 570. Apparently, Pipes did not bother reading Conrad’s study. Conrad heavily relies on debates in Muslim sources concerning the dating of the Year of the Elephant. He also relies on debates in Muslim sources regarding whether the Prophet was born in the Year of the Elephant or on an earlier date. Conrad analyzes the claim that the Prophet received revelation at the age forty, and simply points out that the age forty was considered a literary topoi for maturity in Arabic and non-Arabic literature. Therefore, the argument that the Prophet was forty when he started his mission could possibly be a symbolic usage signifying that the Prophet had reached an age of maturity. Significantly, Conrad does not reach a conclusion about the date of the Prophet’s birth. Rather, he argues that Beeston’s and Kister’s conclusion that the Year of the Elephant was in 522, is supported by strong evidence. He then, appropriately, emphasizes the complexity of establishing the Prophet’s date of birth. This is a far cry from Pipes’ misrepresentation of Conrad. But Conrad is a scholar, and Pipes is an ideologue.

Many of Pipes’ delusions are fed by the infamous book Hagarism. Yet, very few people in the scholarly community take that book seriously. Even later works by the authors of Hagarism demonstrate a greater degree of fair mindedness and scholarly integrity. If Hagarism was written in a fit of indulgent fantasy, the same cannot be said about works that followed in its footsteps. Much of the work of revisionism was spearheaded by scholars with a regrettable political agenda. Like vulgar forms of Orientalism, revisionists sought to de-legitimate and deconstruct the tradition of their perceived enemies. The bigotry of the Israeli scholars Koren and Nevo is evident. They contend that any Arabic source must be corroborated by a non-Arabic source, and if the two sources conflict, as a matter of course, the non-Arab is to be believed. Wellhausen and Wansbrough were biblical scholars, and their circumspect methodology with Jewish and biblical studies contrasts sharply with their speculative fancies with Islamic history.

The truth is that the fanaticism of revisionism in doubting Islamic history is the opposite side of the coin of the fanaticism of pietistic sanctifications of Islamic history. Each is an imbalance, each is extreme and each is ugly. But the distinguishing feature of revisionism is its bigotry. Imagine if European history was written only by reliance on Muslim sources. Imagine if the Jewish history of the Second Temple was written only by reliance on Roman sources. Imagine if Christian history was written only by reliance on Jewish sources. Imagine if the history of the American Revolution was written only by reliance on British sources. Imagine if Israeli history was written only through the eyes of Palestinians. But it is impossible to write these histories in this fashion because no respectable historian would claim the inherent inaccuracy of all European, American, Jewish, Christian and Israeli sources. What would Pipes think of revisionist historians who claim that the Exodus of Jews from Egypt is a myth, and that the First or Second Temple never existed because Jews never lived in Palestine at any point in their history? The truth is that the bigotry of revisionists is like the anti-Semitism of Holocaust-deniers who write the history of Jews by relying on the sources of their German enemies. 

No, revisionism is not a toothache; it is an insolent attempt to deny a people their very identity, it is the ugliness of Colonialism, and the imbalance of fear and insecurity. Revisionism is the heartache of simple bigotry. 

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