Anti-Anti Islam

“A scholar can hardly be better employed than in destroying a fear. The one I want to go after is cultural relativism. Not the thing itself, which I think merely there, like Transylvania, but the dread of it, which I think unfounded” – Clifford Geertz, Anti-Anti Relativism

In 1984, when Clifford Geertz said these words, anthropologists (and outsiders looking in on the discipline of anthropology) were locked in a rather fierce debate regarding the issue of “cultural relativism”. For the uninitiated, cultural relativism is the principle which holds that “civilisation is not something absolute” but is instead “relative” – that what we believe to be true is only true so far as “our civilisation” (that is, our cultural environment) goes.

For obvious reasons, this assertion should seem to be self-evident. A child who is told that there is one God (and only one God) and that he should pray to that God five times a day, grows up believing in and praying to that one God. A child who is told that there are three gods grows up believing in three. Indubitably, it is true that “what is true” is contextual to one’s cultural surroundings.

Despite what should have been a given, non-anthropologists looking in on Geertz’s field began to imagine that “cultural relativism” was anthropology’s way of excusing the bad behaviour of tribal peoples involved in naughty practices like female circumcision – never mind that they were actually confusing cultural relativism (“cultural truth is relative”) with moral relativism (“good and bad is relative”). Afterwards, “relativism” came to be feared as a great intellectual vampire sucking all the moral good from academia’s neck. It took a whole lecture series for Geertz to get across to “the anti-relativists” that instead of attacking Dracula, they were simply attacking the backdrop.

Geertz and Dracula

Clifford Geertz, in both his night and day forms.

In my own mini-lecture series, I propose to swap out Geertz’ “relativism” (a never-really-existent Dracula) with “Islam” (a newly-imagined Dracula for these fear-mongering times). And, in keeping with the spirit of Geertz’s “Anti-Anti-Relativism” lecture, I will attempt to explain why the most vociferous of today’s intellectual attacks against Islam are, in fact, levelled at an impenetrable massif of self-evident mountains (the Transylvanian Carpathians) instead of the blood-sucking vampires hiding within them (the real Draculas we should be hunting with  holy water and silver bullets).

Here I will single out Sam Harris (and, to a lesser extent, Ayaan Hirsi Ali), since, for the most part it is the anti-Islam crowd within the school of so-called “New Atheists” against whom I will launch my “anti-anti-Islam” rebuttal.

Beginning then, it’s probably fair to say that Islam has been a hot topic lately. More precisely, being the fastest growing of the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions with more than 1.5 billion practitioners worldwide, it’s probably fair to say that Islam is a hot topic now and will continue to be a hot topic in the future as well. Lately however, the relative “heat” surrounding Islam has intensified. This is the result of a number of factors – persistent conflict in the Middle East; an increase (either real or imagined) in terrorist attacks worldwide; an incident of mass sexual assault in Germany (which was falsely-prescribed an Arabic name and envisioned as an Islamic “cultural practice”); and the oratory races to the bottom we have observed in the US Republican primaries.

In the wake of the detonation of bombs at the Stade de France; hostage crises in Australian chocolate cafes; mass killings at hangouts for Westerners in Bamako and Ouagadougou; and shootouts in Southern California; a climate of fear has taken hold. Trump is going to win the Republican nomination. Fear and division in the West is at an all-time high. The terr’ists have achieved their goal.

In and amongst this backdrop of fear and loathing, it’s probably fair to say that the vociferousness in the Western debate regarding the moral value of Islam has reached “critical mass” (in the sociological sense of this term) and we are all now familiar with the rap sheet attributed to Islam. The list of evils includes: the blame for contemporary violence against women in Muslim-majority societies (which, critics allay, has its origins in controversial passages in the Qur’an like Sura 4:34); Mohammed’s historical marriage to a child and the continuance of these kinds of marriage practices in countries like Yemen; and other orbiting phenomena such as the Islamic veil (citation most certainly not needed), honor killings and female genital mutilation.

Observers in the West typically interpret these phenomena to be “fixed” – the “veil always means oppression”, “honor killings are always about Islam” etc etc – despite the fact that empirical findings demonstrate that none of these phenomena have fixed meanings but rather wholly different semiotics across time and space.

tuareg woman

Allahu huh?! A hijab-clad Fulani woman publicly breastfeeding on a carte-carte crossing from Burkina Faso into Mali in 2013. Is the veil always about imprisoning the female body?

But these are just a few of the charges which we are accustomed to hearing about. By now, all this anti-Islam rhetoric is about as easy to listen to as the whinings of a pop-star on playback while locked away in a steel box in Guantanamo (which, interestingly, is actually a thing). It’s particularly grating because the anti-Islam crowd has created something of an echo chamber for itself – distracting from honest attempts to get ears on the ground which are listening out for real issues within contemporary Islam.

But while there is a lot of background noise reverberating around this intellectual cage in which we have locked ourselves, if we can dismiss (as I think we can) the uninformed ravings of such intellectual luminaries as Donald Trump, then we can boil the most effective of Islam’s critics down to “the New Atheist” movement – with its thinkers like Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Ibn Warraq. Hell, you could even add Salman Rushdie to that list.

Atheists, of course, tend to posit that religion is bad for humanity in general, which for me, is neither here nor there because, much like (again) Transylvania, I take religion as simply there. Regardless, many of the New Atheists, and Harris in particular, have taken an inkling to singling out Islam as a particularly bad strand of this not-at-all-new and not-at-all-likely-to-disappear phenomenon we call “religion”.

In many ways, the current debate over whether Islam is a force for good or for ill in the world can be reduced to one question: “is Islam a religion of peace or a religion which promotes violence?” We’ve all heard, seen and read this same debate played out in its many forms. From casual remarks made by friends belonging to the “religion of peace” camp who posit that “Islamist extremism has ‘nothing to do with Islam'” to bigots who claim that “all Muslims are terrorists” (see my Aristotleian dissection of this fallacy). We’re all familiar with the talking points.

But irrespective of the litany of arguments which can be brought to bear by either side on this particular issue, the question of “just how violent is Islam?” can again be reduced to a more basic – and possibly even linguistic – debate over the meaning of the Islamic concept of “jihad“.

Jihad, as many of us know (and certainly Sam Harris must know) is an Arabic word (“جهاد”) which means “struggle”. Linguistically, the word derives from the Arabic triliteral root word “j-h-d” (جهد) which pertains to an “effort” or a “labour”. In Sunni Islam, “jihad” is taken to be a religious duty and derivatives of the word “jihad” appear in the Qur’an precisely forty-one times.

According to non-Arabic-speaking Sam Harris, jihad should be understood to mean “holy war” (and only mean “holy war”) – specifically a prosletyising military campaign enacted as a means of converting unbelievers to Islam. While in the context of history (as I will explain later) there is some credence to this interpretation, linguistically there are two major problems with this assertion. The first problem is that “jihad” (at least as far as the Arabic is concerned) doesn’t mean “war” and it certainly doesn’t mean “holy war”. The Arabic noun for war is “harb” (حرب) and on its own (and in separate contexts) the word “harb” appears thirty-six times in the Qur’an. The phrase “harb muqdeset” (حرب مقدسة), which would be the correct Arabic translation of “holy war”, does not appear at all. Not once.

The second linguistic problem with this assertion, apart from the glaring mistranslation, is the fact that whereas all possible derivatives of the triliteral “h-r-b” (from which we get “harb“) pertain to “combat”, “fighting” and “warfare”, the derivative meanings of “j-h-d”-genesis words are many. For the most part, this is because of the broad implications of the word “effort”. The word “ijtihad“, for example (derived from the “j-h-d” triliteral; spelled اجتهاد), means “independent reasoning” – using critical thinking to arrive at informed conclusions on questions of Islamic jurisprudence. “Ijtihad“, being a concept which is tied to the interpretation of religious texts through critical self-reflection, is an important idea which we will return to later.

Now, the above might simply be a discussion of semantic minutiae but surely Harris of all people (who constantly chastises his critics for taking what he says out of context: here, here and here) would agree that the specific terminology one uses is important in any discussion like this. Harris dislikes, for example, that critics misrepresent his view that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (read his unpacking of this statement here). Well guess what Sam? Mohammed dislikes that you’ve been misquoting him by saying that “jihad” means “war”.

Indeed, given the multifarious linguistic permutations of the word “struggle” it seems to then follow that the meaning of “jihad” is contextual, potentially-changeable and certainly not fixed. Moreover, just as the English word “struggle” can have different meanings in different contexts, jihad can have different meanings over time as well – over the aeons and over the lifetimes of individuals.

Take my own “struggles” (First World though they may be), for example. In my current phase of life, I would associate the word “struggle” with “a struggle to make sense of the foreign” (during anthropological fieldwork) or “a struggle against the elements” – hacking up the side of a mountain with an ice axe and crampons. At a different time in my life however, I would have associated the word “struggle” with a “struggle against the enemy” where I, the protagonist of this “struggle” was stood ready to employ my weapon system against appropriate targets. In an article about the death of a friend in Syria, I explored my theory that the fixation with “the struggle” (including the struggle with life’s existential questions) is an indivisible component of what drives young men to violence.

Again, the point of this long-winded linguistic discussion is to argue that contrary to what Harris would have you believe, there is no reason why “jihad” must necessarily mean “holy war” since “struggle” has a wide range of implicit meanings. And certainly, there is a precedent within Islamic jurisprudence (including in the Hanbali school of thought from which Wahhabi-Salafism finds its juridical roots) which interprets “jihad” as a “struggle for the purification of the self”. The 11th century Hanbali scholar Al-Khatib Al-Baghdadi, for example, transmits the following from the Prophet: “you have come from the smaller jihad to the greater jihad (jihad al-akbar)?… the striving of Allah’s servants against their idle desires.”

Despite all this, and regardless of whether one accepts this “Greater Jihad” interpretation as the Gospel Truth (pun intended) I should say that I am still hesitant to call Harris out for being categorically wrong on all fronts jihad-related – I just think he misses the bigger picture. Put in the correct historical context, Harris is right to argue that violence is persistent (if not implicit) in the historical applications of jihad. As David Cook argues in Understanding Jihad: “….the evidence for the primacy of spiritual jihad is negligible. Today it is certain that no Muslim would ever make claims that jihad is primarily nonviolent… Such claims are made solely by Western scholars, primarily those who study Sufism [a mystical branch of Islam] and by Muslim apologists who are trying to present Islam in the most innocuous manner possible.”

While I don’t attest nor subscribe to the view (given the above linguistic discussion) that “spiritual jihad” must be, has to be, can only be understood as an apologist fantasy, increasingly, as one tries to locate jihad within the history of Islam, the violent aspects of the doctrine seem to be glaringly obvious. Even if one is to accept the so-called “apologist” view that jihad has five different taxonomic branches – jihad by the tongue (بللسان), by the heart (بلقلب), by the pen, by the hand (بليد) and/or by the sword (بلسيف) – I would argue that it is still disingenuous to divorce jihad completely from its “sword-using” connotation. A “struggle by the sword” is a legitimate way to interpret jihad but it is not the only right, true and valid interpretation regardless of what Harris would have you believe.

Moreover and again, violence does seem to be present, even omnipresent, in various sections of the Qur’an. Here it is important to note (in paying lip service to relativism) that the above assertion is only my interpretation and that there is no reason why somebody else, by using his own due “diligence” and critical thinking (that is, “ijtihad” in Arabic), could not arrive at a totally separate conclusion. Interpretation is everything.

So… Is violence is “a thing” in the Qur’an? Take the famed “Jizya” verse for example.


Sura 9:29 – “The Jizya”

Almost all translations of this verse in English resemble something like the following: “Fight those that do not believe in Allah nor in the Last Day…” In fact, every commonly accepted English translation of the Qur’an from Sahih International through to Yusuf Ali and Ghali translate the very first word of this passage “qutil” (قتل) as “fight”.

Though I am most certainly not a Quranic scholar (certainly not compared to the above-mentioned translators anyway), it is still my interpretation that all of these translations of the verb qutil are wrong.

I believe this because the actual Arabic verb meaning “to fight”(حارب) is a derivative of the root word harb (حارب) which, as we have already mentioned, pertains to “war”. “Qutil“, is a verb with more severity attached – a word with more explicit connotations as regards action-effect. Qutil, in fact, means “to kill”. Indeed, while some might see “kill” and “fight” as more or less synonymous, particularly in the context in which it is used, I would argue that to mask the explicitly lethal intent of the verb “to kill” is to miss the passage’s true meaning – particularly since “fighting” (as opposed to “killing”) can have a non-violent resolution – when, for example, one tribe surrenders to the other tribe.

Following the Grande-Bassam attacks in the Ivory Coast last week, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb released the following statement – reposted by NYT reporter Rukmini Callimachi on Twitter:

In keeping with the jihadist tendency to reference all the spicy passages to justify their barbarism, the statement began with a reference to another problematic verse in Qur’an – “the Spoils of War” verse (first line of the main text) – which also begins with the verb “qutil“.


Sura 8:39 – “The Spoils of War”

“And fight them until there is no Fitnah”, read the common translations of this verse. Again however, I beg to differ. “Qutil” appears again here.

In response to my view that there is an endemic mistranslation of the word “to kill” in English versions of the Qur’an, Andrew Lebovich (who I regard as one of the best English-language analysts of militant jihadism in North Africa) responded that the triliteral “q-t-l” in certain forms can also mean “to combat” – thus vindicating the use of “fight” in the standard translations.

To this, I responded with the following.

Ironically, in the Al Qaeda statement, the jihadists, whose diabolical interests are best served by the “kill” translation (since killing is exactly what they want to justify) actually misspelled the Quranic passage using the incorrect form “قاتلوهم” meaning “fight/combat them”. In the very statement justifying their role in a terrorist attack they went for the less lethal (and incorrect) verb form! Incidentally, it is usually seen as haram to incorrectly transcribe from the Quran.

Not only does this little Tweet-session provide an interesting example of jihadists literally misrepresenting their holy book but more than anything it highlights an extant problem involved in interpreting the meaning of religious texts. Moreover, it highlights the additional problem of coming to terms with these texts when even the text’s actual translation is the subject of debate and interpretation I’m convinced, for example, that my translation of the verb “qutil” is valid, but is that the same as me saying that my translation and only my translation alone is valid? Absolutely not. As I wrote:


The problem of translation and interpretation even goes as far as the literal meaning of “Al-Qur’an” in English. I, for one, would translate the word “Al-Qur’an” (in its context) to mean “The Recitation” but there is absolutely no reason why somebody else could not assert that it actually translates as “The Reading” (which has a slightly different meaning) since the root word is “qara’a” (قرأ) – the Arabic verb meaning “to read”. We know of course that “recitation” implies oral transmission and the words within the Qur’an were recited to a scribe by the illiterate Mohammed.  Without this historical detail however, there is no reason why one couldn’t, simply by reading the words, conclude that the “Qur’an” might in fact be the result of Mohammed “reading” some kind of written text given to him by God through Jibreel. (We know of course that this conclusion would be wrong – but it’s right there in the words).

And this is the main problem with Sam Harris. For the most part, he seems incapable of coming to terms with the idea that there could be any other interpretation of the Qur’an other than the one he has gleaned from his reading of the English translation which lies (likely dusty) tucked away in his home library.

Indeed, though I’m aware that the unpacking of my “qutil/killing” theory (which posits that the Qur’an is actually more violent than commonly-accepted English translations explicate) actually adds fuel to Harris’ “Islam is bad” argument, the main point of this linguistic dissection is to point out that translating the meanings of cultural phenomenon, just like translating different words across languages, is always going to be fraught with discrepancies. Just as there is no single, unimpeachable English-language translation of the Qur’an there is no such thing as a single, unimpeachable set of cultural truths about what Islam actually consists of.

The exegesis of “qutil“, “harb” and-or “jihad” as these terms appear in the Qur’an could be debated ad infinitum (and, indeed, ad ignorantium, in the case of non-Arabic speakers). But really, the “true meaning” of a religious text, as Maajid Nawaz argued in his and Harris’ recent (and excellent) collaboration, is ultimately interpretive. In Nawaz’s own words: “Islam is not a religion of war or of peace – it’s a religion… religion doesn’t inherently speak for itself; no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice… Scripture exists; human beings interpret it.”


This is a Rohingya man I interviewed in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. In many ways, he is “the paradox of differing intepretations”. He was wearing a rather peculiar T-shirt so I quizzed him about Osama Bin Laden who he considered to be a “hero of Islam”. When I asked him about jihad however, he responded (verbatim but, crucially, through a translator) “Islam is a religion of peace”. Food for thought (or for Sam Harris).

6 thoughts on “Anti-Anti Islam

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  2. I have two English Quran translations. Each has a wildly different feel. This shatters faith that one can get close to the ‘real thing’. It also makes it harder to motivate myself to read either in detail.

    Seems your article is a variant of ‘guns don’t kill people people do’. But the /possibilities/ of translation are is a little beside the point – unless those interpretations are (or could be) alive culturally.
    Personally I think the concept of the ‘spirit’ of a text is underutilised. Translators should be thinking along those lines -even if the notion is ultimately contested.

    One interesting aspect of foreign fighter (ISIS) phenomenon, where at least some new recruits are completely ignorant of Islamic culture, is that the book can be translated anew. And hence their goal may be to give passages the interpretation that suits them best. This seems to be a pretty unique advantage of their movement.
    I get the feeling that you’re pointing a similar direction yourself – that is looking for ways the Quran could be interpreted ‘better’ (In Harris’ estimation for example).

    [In writing this I’m thinking of the more recent post where you quote a passage and remark that it might be compatible with separation of church and state. Where did that passage come from by the way? I couldn’t source it]

    • You make a good point that “spirit” of the text is underutilised. It would require an excessive amount of intellectual gymnastics to argue, for example, that “tawhid” (the concept of monotheistic “oneness”) in Islam is in anything but central to any and all interpretation of the religion.
      The problem is of course that what constitutes the “spirit” of the text is still ultimately subjective and depends on who is reading the text – including what language they are reading it in (in your case, English).
      This makes even central concepts like “tawhid” ultimately contestable regardless of what was going through Mohammed’s mind when he emphasised the importance of “oneness” over polytheism.
      There are many examples worldwide where existing cultural groups have found a way to syncretise Islam with traditional beliefs in a way which, in their view, does justice to the “spirit” of both belief systems – see for example how some orang asli groups in Malaysia have found a way to unify the Islamic monotheism with the complex pantheon of their indigenous spirit world.
      The point with Geertz is that ultimately everything pertaining to how people interpret reality is subjective so why would religion be any different? It may require decoupling one’s self from a legalistic pattern of thinking to appreciate this.
      I don’t believe Harris’ interpretation of Islam is a “better” (or even a good) one. I don’t believe his background or training gives him any authority on the topic beyond what one might be able to grasp from a first-glance reading of the Qur’an. Again though, my point is that Harris’ (very anti-Islamic) view is not “wrong” per se, but simply the way he interprets it. That said though, it requires a certain amount of intellectual arrogance to claim that one has arrived at some kind of objective interpretive truth about what Islam actually “is” – particularly when one doesn’t speak Arabic.
      I think the passage you’re referring to is the one about “pollinating” (or rather, “not pollinating”) Islam with the affairs of the state. Inspiration for this idea comes from a hadith narrated by Anas ( where Mohammed is consulted about the pollination of date palms to which he responds: “you know best the affairs of your worldly life” (I sourced this at the bottom of the article). The implication being here that the affairs of “dunya” (the profane world of the living) are, and perhaps even should be, divisible from the affairs of Allah in Jannah.
      Thanks for your note.

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