Saturday 10 August 2013

Against All Saidists...

. . . and in Defence of the West.

Edward Said (left), author of Orientalism (right)
The ongoing quarrel over what one is and is not permitted to say about Islam erupted again last week when Professor Richard Dawkins tweeted the following:
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
Both parts of that statement are demonstrably true. And yet, it was the object of the usual derision and hostility from those who appear to hold that any criticism of 'minority' cultures is racist and prejudiced by definition, irrespective of its accuracy. Especially when said criticism is expressed by a 'privileged' white Western male, who - it is alleged - harbours a racist agenda to embarrass and humiliate the Muslim world.

A good part of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs can be laid at the door of the late Columbia professor of comparative literature, Edward W. Said. The influence of Said's writing is undeniable and incalculable. His key works Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam (1981) and Culture & Imperialism (1993) revolutionised the way in which the Middle East is studied, discussed and perceived in the Occident, and the first of these, Orientalism, is credited with having midwifed the birth of Post-Colonial studies in Western academia.

Today his work is assigned reading across a head-spinning array of disciplines and many of his arguments and premises have acquired the power of cross-cultural memes - that is to say, so entrenched have they have become in contemporary received wisdom, that one does not have to have read a page of Said's writing to believe in the essential truth of his views.

As the neo-Conservative writer Joshua Muravchik allows in an otherwise highly critical piece for World Affairs:
[Said] not only transformed the West’s perception of the Israel-Arab conflict, he also led the way toward a new, post-socialist life for leftism in which the proletariat was replaced by “people of color” as the redeemers of humankind. During the ten years that have passed since his death there have been no signs that his extraordinary influence is diminishing.
Orientalism is - prima facie - an imposing piece of work. As Muravchik notes, it confronts the reader with a blizzard of assertions, names, quotations and arguments dressed up in the kind of stultifying post-modern jargon often mistaken for scholarly erudition, all of which point to the same damning conclusion: that the West has been engaged in a lengthy, thoroughgoing and systematic attempt to dominate, control and subjugate Islamic society and culture, and that Orientalism, a hitherto respected discipline dedicated to the study of the Near, Mid and Far East, was and is little more than the malevolent handmaiden of Western militarism and Empire. As Said explained in one particularly intemperate passage:
It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. [Pg. 204]
This view, while manifestly absurd, nonetheless chimed with the prevailing view on the Left at the time of Orientalism's publication that Western culture, and caucasians in particular, had very little of which they could be proud and much of which they should be ashamed.

Two wars had devastated the European continent and beyond; technological advances were suddenly in the dock following the summary obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; post-Colonial guilt tormented those horrified by the crimes committed by their forefathers in the name of Empire; the brutal war for independence waged by the people of Algeria had ended in 1962; the bitter struggle for racial equality in the United States had finally been won, but Martin Luther King was dead; and, across the globe, American foreign policy was held in contempt for its military involvement in South-East Asia.

In 1967, Susan Sontag informed the readers of The Partisan Review that:
The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean Algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.
("Only," Tom Wolfe remarked years later, "in the Land of Rococo Marxists.")

French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose attacks on the notion of objective truth had seen a resurgence of moral and cultural relativism in the post-War West, was by no means alone in applauding the overthrow of the US-backed Iranian Shah in 1979 by theocratic fascists on this basis. That perverse mentality survives in academia to this day, as evidenced (to take but one example) by the English historian Mary Beard's blithe pronouncement in the immediate wake of 9/11 that "no matter how tactfully you dress it up, the US had it coming."

But aside from indulging a Western penchant for self-flagellation, Orientalism and its quasi-sequels also had a deleterious (and, I assume, unintended) effect on prospects for progress within the Muslim world. As Ibn Warraq, the ex-Muslim scholar and founder of the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society, commented:
[Orientalism] taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity - "were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists and Zionists, we would be great once more" - encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist generation of the 1980s, bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam, and even stopped dead the work of eminent Islamologists who felt their findings might offend Muslim sensibilities and who dared not risk being labelled "Orientalist". The aggressive tone of Orientalism is what I have called "intellectual terrorism", since it seeks to convince, not by arguments or historical analysis, but by spraying charges of racism, imperialism and Eurocentrism from a moral high ground; anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him.
This included Muslims like the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, who argued that the gravest problem facing Muslim countries was not their comparatively brief history under European Imperialism or the opinions of nineteenth century Orientalist scholars, but the escalating cruelty of their own autocratic and theocratic rulers in the here and now. For this, Said labelled Makiya a "native informer".

The difficulty for Saidists is not that they cannot tell the difference between rational, legitimate criticism of Islam and the Muslim world on the one hand and triumphalist chauvinism and racism on the other. The difficulty is that they don't believe there to be any difference. Western criticism, study, analysis of the Orient undertaken from a position of Western power and 'privilege' are colonialist by their very nature.

But the Islamic break with scientific progress and the impediments to progress Islam erected long pre-date the British and French colonial projects in the Middle East.

A once intellectually and culturally vibrant part of the world, the region had enjoyed a relationship of productive cultural exchange with Ancient Greece. In the ninth century, the Abassid Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma'mun moved their capital to Baghdad and there established the House of Wisdom - a vast archive of world knowledge, a translation institute and the most important centre of learning and scientific inquiry of the Islamic Golden Age.

However, by the end of the ninth century, its influence was already in decline, not least because the Caliph Al-Mutawakkil believed Greek thought to be un-Islamic. As the traditionalist Ash'arite school of Islam asserted itself over the rationalist Mutazilites, this decline would accelerate and free thinkers in the Muslim world found themselves subject to vicious persecution. The Orientalist Ernest Renan noted in an 1883 lecture that any progress made in the Muslim world during the second half of the Middle Ages occurred despite Islam, rather than because of it:
To give Islam the credit of Averröes and so many other illustrious [Muslim] thinkers, who passed half their life in prison, in forced hiding, in disgrace, whose books were burned and whose writings almost suppressed by theological authority, is as if one were to ascribe to the inquisition the discoveries of Gallileo, and a whole scientific development it was not able to prevent.
As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg observed in a review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion for the Times Literary Supplement in 2007:
[T]hough there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer worth reading. This is despite the fact that in the ninth century, when science barely existed in Europe, the greatest centre of scientific research in the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Alas, Islam turned against science in the twelfth century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who argued in The Incoherence of Philosophers against the very idea of the laws of nature on the ground that any such laws would put God's hands in chains . . . After al-Ghazzali there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.
When the furore over Dawkins's tweet erupted, I happened to be reading Defending the West, a lucid, scholarly and comprehensive demolition of Said's best-known work by Ibn Warraq, upon which I have relied for much of this post. In it, argues that part of what separates Western societies from Islamic ones is the the idea that the pursuit of truth should not be bound by utility, but is an end in itself. This was foundational to Greek thought, exemplified by Aristotle, but has been largely suppressed in Islamic societies since al-Ghazzali. Intellectual curiosity meant the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake; a simple idea but one considered extremely dangerous by religious dogmatists.

So instead Muslim scholars began to distinguish between the Islamic sciences, eg: religion (Koranic exegesis, the science of hadith, jurisprudence, and scholastic theology) and language (grammar, lexicography, rhetoric and literature), and the foreign sciences, eg: mathematics, physics, philosophy, natural history, astronomy and so on. The latter, being universalist, were increasingly neglected from the twelfth century on. And while Western Christianity maintained ties its heritage with Athens and Jerusalem, Islam turned its back on the pre-Islamic of the Middle East. Pre-Islamic civilisations were to be forgotten as periods of base ignorance or Jāhiliyya. 

In the late nineteenth century there was a brief rationalist resurgence, but from 1950 onwards, as Islamism began to cast its shadow across the region, it died and with it went the Muslim world's hopes of making its belated appointment with modernity. As Weinberg notes, even in ostensibly secular Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was calling for a complete end to scientific education by 1981.

The observable results of the stifling of free inquiry, creativity and unfettered scientific investigation are by no means limited to the distribution of Nobel Prizes. In 2002, the UN's Arab Human Development Report noted:
There are no reliable figures on the production of books, but many indicators suggest a severe shortage of writing; a large share of the market consists of religious books and educational publications that are limited in their creative content. The figures for translated books are also discouraging. The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates. The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa’moun’s time (the ninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year.
In a 2007 article for Physics Today, Pervez Hoodbhoy, chair and professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, reported:
A study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia showed that OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world's science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The US National Science Foundation records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC.
But as Hoodbhoy goes on the observe, these depressing statistics are symptomatic of deeper cultural problems. For instance:
Most universities in Islamic countries have a starkly inferior quality of teaching and learning, a tenuous connection to job skills, and research that is low in both quality and quantity. Poor teaching owes more to inappropriate attitudes than to material resources. Generally, obedience and rote learning are stressed, and the authority of the teacher is rarely challenged. Debate, analysis, and class discussions are infrequent. 
The West, on the other hand, has gained much from the scientific method and a spirit of academic openness. Emancipation from Christian dogma led to giant strides being made in scientific inquiry and technological innovation, whilst the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake excited a curiosity about the world beyond its cultural borders. Meanwhile, a culture of scepticism, self-doubt and self-criticism helped foster the very academic freedom which nurtured and promoted Edward Said and which he spent his life's energies denigrating.

And while Said's work was a convenient cudgel with which to bash the West, it was often misleading and tendentious to the point of outright fraudulence. The Orientalists Said attacks in Orientalism were not the Imperialist stooges of his imagination. They were learned classicists and multi-lingual philologists motivated by a desire to know about and to understand cultures, traditions and peoples unlike their own. Their voluminous research and the translations of Arab texts they undertook have proven invaluable, not only to Western scholars but also - in spite of Said's claims to the contrary - to Middle Eastern scholars, who were grateful for the preservation of their own neglected pre-Islamic history.

Which is not to say the Orientalists were always correct. Contrary to Said's insistence that these were people all working in the service of the same conspiratorial colonial agenda, they often disagreed and sharply criticised one another's work. But this is what happens during the course of open research in any field of exploration and discovery.

Greater freedom of opinion in the West also allowed for the plentiful publication in the West of material sympathetic to Islam and the Arab world, but Said didn't find it necessary to mention these. Nor, as numerous critics have pointed out, did he manage to examine (or even appear to notice) the vast contribution to European understanding of the Orient made by German Orientalists. The obvious reason is that there was no corresponding or subsequent Imperial German project in the Middle East, and this inconvenient fact reduces the central argument Said advanced in Orientalism to powder.

Nor does Said make mention of the Western tradition of self-criticism that naturally sprang from freedom of conscience. Moral and cultural relativism were not new phenomena. An uneasiness with the notion of objectivity and universalism can be traced back to the Greek Sophists who believed only in culturally-informed human convention. Tolerance for, as well as curiosity about, other cultures - with a concomitant reluctance to judge or condemn - has been a constant strain in Western culture to varying degrees. In Michel de Montaigne's celebrated 1580 essay On Cannibalshe wrote:
I do not find that there is anything barbaric or savage about this nation, according to what I've been told, unless we are to call barbarism whatever differs from our own customs. Indeed, we seem to have no other standard of truth and reason than the opinions and customs of our own country. . . I am not so concerned that we should remark on the barbaric horror of [ritual murder and cannibalism], but that, while we quite rightly judge their faults, we are blind to our own.
Montaigne's essay is at least as mad as Sontag's "white race-as-cancer" remark, but it nonetheless demonstrates that a critical view of the West and a corresponding sympathy, or indulgence even, of other cultures has long been a characteristic of Western thought. This noble tradition of self-criticism is why as long as Western colonialism existed, so did a strain of anti-colonialist thought. It is also why the largest demonstrations following the Sabra and Shatila massacres were in Tel Aviv, and why the largest demonstrations against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq occurred in the West.

The notion that we ought not to study or criticise cultures other than our own is nonsensical, conservative, censorious and - in so small part due to Edward's Said's pernicious influence - dismayingly popular on the post-modern Left. But cultures are simply the product of man-made ideas. Sometimes people have good ideas; sometimes they have bad ones. The ability to discriminate and to judge the difference between the two - to reject or overthrow the former and to fight for and defend the latter - is an extremely precious faculty and a necessary precondition to progress.

Orientalism, however, is an accusatory and deeply reactionary text, the catastrophic effects of which continue to be felt in both Occident and Orient. Demonstrably ahistorical and flawed though its arguments are, large parts of Western academia (perhaps encouraged by Gulf funding) and Western culture in general have internalised them to such a degree, they are convinced that universalist value judgements about Islamic culture are simply a projection of their own inescapable racism. Consequently, they have fallen silent about human rights abuses committed by anyone but the West (and, naturally, Israel).

Meanwhile, in the Muslim world, religious fundamentalists have been adept at weaponising the bitter mindset of conspiracism, victimhood and vengeful grievance that Said encouraged, and directing it towards the West and the Jewish State. There remains a stubborn tendency to blame European Imperialism, American neo-Imperialism, Western cultural imperialism and 'colonial feminism', 'Orientalism', Zionism and sundry other -isms for the parlous state of their societies, rather than the regressive cultural and religious values that inhibit personal emancipation and retard learning, research and political/economic development.

In his article for Physics Today, Pervez Hoodbhoy argues that simply increasing funding for research and development is not enough. Profound behavioural and attitudinal changes within Islamic societies are needed:
. . . a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.
In his famous essay Counter-Enlightenment, Isaiah Berlin wrote:
Voltaire, d'Alembert and Condorcet believed that the development of the arts and the sciences was the most powerful weapon in the fight against ignorance, superstition, fanaticism, oppression and barbarism, which crippled effort and frustrated men's search for truth and rational self-direction.
They were correct.

UPDATE: In response to this post, Raphael Cormack has posted a blog entry arguing for a more nuanced interpretation of Said's work here.


  1. Wow. Amazing compilation of research.

  2. Superb as usual.. a riveting, well researched article

  3. Isn't there highly advanced web, word recognition, super-https, neo-JavaScript, php-fusion stuff, out there somewhere, that could be used to ensure that whenever anyone on the web used the phrase "... but the Islamic golden age" as an excuse, to counter criticism of Islam today and its widespread failings, a pop-up window would appear showing your article above?

    If there isn't, there should be.

  4. A searchlight in the darkness. Thank you

  5. "To give Islam the credit of Averröes and so many other illustrious [Muslim] thinkers, who passed half their life in prison"

    Weak arguement. Most of the famous Orthodox Sunni scholars were imprisoned, tortured or executed as well.They were all accussed of being heretics at the time.

  6. Interesting essay, Unrepentant Jacobinism. (Or could that be Unrepentant Jack?) I would like to pick up on a couple of points, though...

    Emancipation from Christian dogma led to giant strides being made in scientific inquiry and technological innovation...

    Did the scientific revolution represent a break from Christianity? Bacon and Copernicus were driven by the idea that they were illuminating the works of a rational God. Scientists had troubles with both Catholic and protestant dogmatists, and inspired the secularism of the Enlightenment, but at the time I think they strove to supplement rather than contradict theology.

    ...a critical view of the West and a corresponding sympathy, or indulgence even, of other cultures has long been a characteristic of Western thought.

    Indeed, thought it must be said that it has sometimes been rather too marginal a characteristic of Western thought. The fact that Mark Twain wrote to condemn the Belgian Free State made it no less atrocious.

    The ability to discriminate and to judge the difference between the two - to reject or overthrow the former and to fight for and defend the latter - is an extremely precious faculty and a necessary precondition to progress.

    It depends on what you mean by "fight for". I agree that other cultures can be analysed, and that we are free to judge the conditions that we find there, but I'm not sure it is our business to force them to change. There is universalism that holds that one can arrive at universal standards, which I believe is true, and there is universalism that holds that those standards are universally applicable, and should be actualised, which seems less defensible.

    While I believe it's true that Said was wrong in impugning the field as a tool of Western subordination, there has been a clear desire to Westernise the Middle East: from the Iraq invasion to the outbreak of jubilance that heralded the arrival of the "Arab Spring". Yet if research into the history of civilisations has taught us anything it is that culture is deeply rooted, and that pressure from above is liable to force these roots deeper. That the Middle East is, in large part, such a violent mess, and so caught between tyranny and jihadism, is tragic proof of this.


    1. "there has been a clear desire to Westernise the Middle East: from the Iraq invasion to the outbreak of jubilance that heralded the arrival of the "Arab Spring"."

      It is not clear at all. Building the Suez canal was simply a quicker way to get to India, and "modernisation" (a better word than "westernisation") was attempted locally by the Young Turks and by Muhammad Ali whose great great grandson was still on the throne of Egypt in 1952, and actually achieved by Mustafa Kemal.

      Though it is a pity, we didn't try to modernise the Sauds. Look at what "leaving them alone" has produced.

    2. LibertyPhile

      I would hope that my examples make it fairly clear that I'm talking about more recent decades than the 1950s: namely those which played host to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the rise of "liberal interventionism". Bernard Lewis was an example (though he revised his opinion). Fouad Ajami was another.

      It has, of course, been a more prevalent idea among those who commentate on policy than those who engineer it. Had our governments been so idealistic, they would not, as you suggest, have made such efforts to accommodate the Sauds.

      I chose "Westernisation" rather than "modernisation" because I do not think that what is "modern" need be defined by market capitalism and social liberalism; as, indeed, the Chinese are proving in formidable style.

    3. America's first invasion of Iraq was the response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and the second invasion was pretty much the unfinished business of the first invasion. We all know why they invaded Afghanistan.

      These were military actions (with economic motives in the case of Iraq). It seems to me the label "liberal interventionism" used by anyone is meaningless and misleading.

      I think the Chinese are modern in the sense they don't believe in a sky-god, they do what they do based on human reason. They also seem to be producing their own version of "market capitalism" rather than something completely different.

  7. I sent this blog to a secular friend in Tel Aviv who claitms he hates the Ultra Orthodox more than Islamists because he considers them a greater threat to the economic stabillity of his country.

    1. Though Islamist extremists certainly pose a substantial threat to Israel (and though, economically, Hezbollah can probably cause more damage than Orthodox extremists in the short term, though admittedly I haven't crunched the numbers), it's nice to see that Israeli awareness of the disproportionate influence of the extremists religious Right is becoming more common. And hopefully the Haredi are picking up on this too: 2013 was perhaps the first Israeli election in which concerns over the right-wing religious extremists were a more significant factor than security against Arab attacks.

  8. Excellent piece!

    Sociologist John Azumah was spot on when he wrote the following in his book The Legacy of Arab-Islam in Africa (2001):

    “It is right to insist that we should desist from using modern standards as measuring rods in passing judgements on past generations. But it is equally vital that we do not allow modern sensibilities to lead us into calling spades big spoons or covering up and denying what past generations took pride in. But unfortunately this is precisely what lies at the root of post-colonial Western liberal discourse on islam. The bug of politicial correctness that has infected a large section of post-colonial Western society has in no small way vitiated a significant section of post-modern Western discourse on Islam. Hence in the study of Islam in the West, the dominant convention is that a critical approach is reserved for the Christian past but forbidden for the Muslim past. In this way some Western scholars have allowed memories and guilt of their own histories affect their invaluable discourse of other histories which in turn has compromised inter-faith relations at various localities, […]

  9. I own a copy of "Orientalism" but have not read it yet. Accordingly I cannot comment on what you say about Edward Said.

    However I do concur with your analysis of the reasons for the decline of Muslim scientific thinking and the negative impact of Ghazali. The same point was made in the book Muslim Civilisation: The Causes of Decline and the Need for Reform" by M. Umer Chapra which I review at

  10. Hopefully the Arab Spring demonstrates that the problems in the Arab world aren't the product of the West and of Israel (at least, not more proximally than the Sykes-Picot agreement), but are the product of abuses by Arab governments and problems in Arab culture.

  11. So basically, the only determining factor in the demise of what is referred to as 'Islamic' countries is the fact that they are Islamic?

  12. Said pains the Zionists, and therefore they resort to all sorts of extreme reductions, if not outright misrepresentations of his rather sophisticated and nuanced ideas. Meanwhile, I enjoy watching them wail about and lament his legacy and influence, all while trying to criticize him only by making uncomprehending idiots of themselves. Wail on, racist fools...

    1. Said pains the ZIonists. He also pains any and all people with a preference for scholarship over mendacity.

    2. Said is difficult for his most ardent critics because he is not the Mad Mullah they desire him to be. He was a Christian, highly cultured, sought after Prof of Literature and noted Classical pianist.

      He speaks with deep knowledge of The West, as he is a greater exponent of it's civilization than most, but he does not fall pray to it's assumptions about itself.

      He is worrying because The West can no longer be represented on its own terms. It is no longer the sole subject.

  13. Taha,
    In fact, Said falsified and distorted many subjects and issues. Prof Lowell who teaches Armenian studies, points out that the issue of the Armenian genocide does not appear in Said's books. Nor does Said confront the issue of the dhimma, the oppression, humiliation, and exploitation of non-Muslim subject peoples living in the Islamic state. The Arabs and other Muslim conquering peoples were also great oppressors --in the name of Allah and Islam of course. Said denies and/or belittles the testimony about persecution/oppression of dhimmis made by Westerners and members of dhimmi communities alike. But facts are facts. Karsten Niebuhr came to Egypt in the 18th century, before Napoleon's conquests. He describes horrible and shocking humiliation of dhimmis, of Jews and Christians, especially of Jews.

    Said whitewashed the Muslim/Arab record of oppressing dhimmis, especially Jews.

  14. I enjoyed the piece with some good points and sympathise with despairing at the hoards of Said-lovers but... start out by defending the obnoxious tweet by the likes of Richard Dawkins?

    "All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge." Yes, that is just stating a fact as mentioned above, but the implication in context is that this is some great indictment of the Islamic world rather than (equally) one of the awarding of Nobel Prizes. The rest of his remark - "They did great things..." (Who the hell are 'they' anyway? The cat's mother?) implies this is some sort of overall benchmark of intellectual achievement. Apparently when the top 10 intellectuals in the FP Top 100 Global Thinkers list 2008 were Islamic, that passed Dawkins by. Maybe because he got bumped from 5th to 19th.

    It was an obnoxious throwaway comment that smacks of ignorance and someone with an axe to grind. Replace with any religion, race, gender or demographic of choice and it still seems unacceptable for public media to me.

    1. Anonymous -

      It was not a great example from Dawkins, that was true, but nor is the FP Top 100 Global Thinkers list. It was conducted on the basis of a poll, and saw Yusuf al-Qaradawi take the bronze medal. If Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the third most valuable thinker on the planet, well, we might as well give up on the species and invite the Gods to rip us up and start again.

  15. This tweet may be of interest;

  16. Two comments on your fine overview. First, you begin stating "Both parts of that tweet are demonstrably true.". Well, Dawkin's first statement is certainly true, but his second - "They did great things in the Middle Ages, though." - is an overstatement. For much of what emerged from the Islamic world wasn't, well, Islamic. It was the product of conquered cultures - Indian and Persian, for example - or tolerated peoples operating within Islamic society - Christians and Jews mostly. As those cultures were progressively crushed by the yoke of Islam, they lost their vitality and their numbers (to conversion), or their scholars simply fled. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, for example, fled Spain when it fell under the harsher rule of Almohade Muslims.

    Second, you write, "As the traditionalist Ash'arite school of Islam asserted itself over the rationalist Mutazilites, this decline would accelerate and free thinkers in the Muslim world found themselves subject to vicious persecution." The notion of Mutazilites as "rationalist" has certainly taken hold in many circles, but Andrew Bostom broadly challenges that notion in "Sharia versus Freedom". He writes in the chapter "Mutazilite Fantasies", "The wistful projection of "Mutazilism" as a "squandered" modernizing force for Islam is an untenable hypothesis, debunked long ago by Ignaz Goldziher".

    Goldziher, he note, "also demonstrates that the Mutazilites exhibited no real manifestation of liberated thinking or any desire "to throw off chafing shackles, to the detriment of the rigorously orthodox [Islamic] view of life. Moreover, the Mutzilites' own orthodoxy was accompanied by fanatical intolerance..." In other words, As Bostom lays out, they tried to impose their own new orthodoxy.

    1. "The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, for example, fled Spain when it fell under the harsher rule of Almohade Muslims."

      Then he lived and worked in Morroco and Egypt. Not sure of your point here?

    2. Mainly Egypt which could, quite, plausibly be identified as a cultural entrepot. Plus, given that he's cited as an example of flowering of the idea of the mind, al Andalus, it does strike as odd that he left when that territory passed to the purer Islamic rule after a brief spell of openness.

      Why won't you use a standard posting handle?


    3. "Mainly Egypt which could, quite, plausibly be identified as a cultural entrepot"

      What does that mean?

      "it does strike as odd that he left when that territory passed to the purer Islamic rule after a brief spell of openness."

      "Purer" by what standard? The Zahirite school that the Almohad's favoured was seen as deviant and heretical by the other Sunni muslim juristic schools.The Maliki school which was previously dominant was also persecuted by the Almohads.

      In any case, none of this actually has anything to do with rationalism and science.Religious tolerance doesn't necessarily correlate with rationalist thinking. The example of the Mutazilites was already given. The Ottoman empire was arguably more tolerant of Jews than any other Islamic empire but that didn't correlate with any interest in science.

  17. Re Mary Beard, what struck wasn't so much her wretched views as her comically over-inflated sense of self-importance... "In a telephone poll last week, readers of the Cambridge Evening News voted decisively against any military action aimed at those responsible for the attacks on the USA" (although even that included the implication that the US should lie back and take it).

    Yet this adroit and humane group of observers still were over-ruled by the hegemonic power.


  18. Edward Said is a brilliant charlatan and conspiricist. He knew very well how to grab the illiberal left by the balls, when he simplistically reduced all of contemporary history to post-colonialism.

    It was a very smart move -- he defined the rules of the game such that any criticism or complaint about the rules was just a re-affirmation of the rules and evidence for its correctness and righteousness. Bashing even the mildest critics of Islam and paedophile Mohammad as racists and imperialists.

    In each leftist there is a totalitarian. Otherwise you would think that by now after 35 years since his book came out, the left would have seen through the garbage (ooops holy text for them) called Orientalism.

  19. Read For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies by Robert Irwin. It has a great chapter on Said.


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