Friday, May 16, 2008

A Muslim View of History

I knew I was interested in the Middle East even before arriving at Temple University in 1978. At the time Temple did not offer a major in Middle East Studies or in Arabic. I signed up for the only Arabic classes available, taught by a Syrian Druze named Fauzi whose real job was working as a waiter in a South Philly Arab restaurant. My options for a major were to choose a field in which I could take as many courses related to theMiddle East as possible. Politics did not interest me, and neither did geography nor history. I concluded that the heart of the Middle East was Islam, and decided to major in religion.

I've never regretted that choice. My two main professors were Dr. Ismail Al-Faruqi and Sayyed Hussein Nasr. Dr. Al-Faruqi was a Sunni Palestinian who at the time was one of America's best known Islamic professors. Muslim students from all over the world came to get their PhDs with him. He was a hard-liner, and in some of the graduate seminars I audited he openly called for the complete demolition of Israel. When he and his wife were murdered in their home one night a few years later, rumors were it was the Jewish Defense League but the police report said it was a robbery attempt.

Dr. Nasr, who has since become perhaps America's most eloquent apologist for Islam, had just arrived in America as a refugee from Iran, forced out by the Islamic revolution. An Iranian Shia Sufi, he was in many ways the opposite of Dr. Al-Faruqi. Even then I thought it was ironic that a Muslim scholar would be forced to leave his country by a Muslim government.

They were both fascinating lecturers, and I looked forward to every class. But even with them, I noticed a few things that I've since seen repeated dozens of times and that I think are symptomatic of how Muslims view history. The first was in Dr. Al-Faruqi's class, when mention was made of Philip Hitti's book "The History of the Arabs". I thought the book was a standard reference, but my professor did not agree. It was impossible that Philip Hitti could write an accurate account of Arab history, according to Dr. Al-Faruqi, because he was not a Muslim. My impression was that a non-Muslim might be more objective in writing history than a believer, but Dr. Al-Faruq saw it differently. A non-Muslim writing Arab history was not to be trusted.

The second thing was in Dr. Nasr's class. He was talking one day about non-Muslims living in Muslim society. A Jewish classmate asked him about the rule in Tunis that a Jew needed to dismount from his donkey when a Muslim approached on foot because the Jew could not be higher than the Muslim. To the surprise of both my classmate and myself, Dr. Nasr had never heard of this. To his credit he did not deny it, as many Muslim apologists might have done, but simply admitted he knew nothing about it.

The reason he did not know, of course, was because his studies of Islam did not include the histories of Jews and Christians living under Islam as told in their own words. I was reminded of this again the other day in a Riyadh bookshop when I picked up a book entitled "The Rights of Non-Muslims in the Islamic World", published by the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. It was a glowing treatise of the wonderful treatment of these "people with a protected status". The author has probably never even heard of Bat Yeor and her research into the real lives of Jews and Christians living under Islam. It is certain that the young Saudis who read his book never will.

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