How not to understand Islam

I’ve been getting questions about what’s wrong with trying to figure out Islam by sitting down with the Quran. I’ll go ahead and start a new heading—this deserves a significant rant, not burying in a comment on an entirely different topic.

Indeed, this is especially worth talking about, since trying to understand Islam by reading the Quran seems to be a favored practice among many nonbelievers. Sam Harris does it: read the Quran, point out that it contains a large number of disgusting (not to mention demented) passages about the sadistic punishments that await infidels, and say that Islam is an inherently terroristic religion etc. etc. Jim Lippard points out a similar argument by one Fred Woodworth. It’s hardly unique—this sort of thing is standard in naive (and I emphasize: naive) anti-Islam polemics.

What’s wrong here? First and foremost, it ignores how most Muslims approach the Quran. Very few Muslims flip open a Quran and read through it to get their God’s commands for their lives. That would be a most peculiar thing to try and do anyway: the Quran is, by and large, a remarkably opaque and incoherent document if taken at face value. Sitting down and figuring out what the Quran says is simply unworkable. You try to do that if you want to get confused, or if you’re the stupider variety of nonbeliever who thinks ripping through an ancient text and selecting out the lunatic bits produces great insights.

The vast majority of Muslims only make heavily mediated contact with the Quran. The various centuries-old scholarly traditions of Islam are central to their experience of religious prescriptions. Muslims do not read the Quran in the way that Protestants read their Bible translations. In fact, a typical ordinary Muslim may never read the Quran. Many are incapable of doing so, because even if they are literate it is not in classical Arabic. Using translations is not common practice. So ordinary Muslims depend heavily on their local religious scholars, leaders of Sufi orders and similar brotherhoods, officially sanctioned clergy, and other mediating institutions. The Quran is their sacred object, but their understanding of what it demands is entirely dependent on their local religious culture and institutions. Even the rootless modern born-again Muslims who have become visible in “fundamentalist” circles lately are not an exception. They say they’re ridding themselves of the accretions of tradition and going back to consult the sacred sources directly. But they do no such thing—it’s impressive how they regularly end up reaffirming the standard framework of religious interpretation. That is no great surprise. Without the context set by traditional understandings, which they take thoroughly uncritically, they’d be lost.

If you want to understand something about real varieties of Islam, not the phantom “Islam” that comes out of a contextless reading of the Quran, there’s no alternative to doing some serious studying. I don’t mean spending half a lifetime on it—there are a good number of scholars whose job it is to study Islam. They’re not all apologists, and they generally have interesting things to say. Read a book or two, and I don’t just mean Islam-bashing books. It is, after all, possible to be a critic of Islam without frothing at the mouth in the process.

Indeed, that’s part of what’s disappointing about garbage like what Sam Harris puts out. He writes as if there is no scholarly work being done on the Quran or Islam at all. He doesn’t have to agree with it, but even if he thinks current scholarship about Islam is too apologetic in nature, he has the burden of arguing against academic views. There is no excuse for ignoring it and charging in with quotations from the Quran. As a result, Harris looks like a fool to anyone who has a serious, scholarly interest in Islam. And to the extent that skeptics of religion endorse such rants against an “Islam” very few Muslims would recognize as their religion, we collectively look like morons with an axe to grind.

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