Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tiptoeing Through the Trilogy Part One - Muslims and the Seerah

For many years (12 centuries to be precise), what Muslims believe about their God, their Prophet, and the Universe has been based upon a trilogy of texts. These are the Quran (what Allah said), the Hadith (what Muhammad said), and the Seerah (Muhammad's biography, or what others said about him).

The trilogy is based upon a hierarchy of authority. Every single letter and word of the Arabic Quran is considered to be without error. Not only what it says about Allah, but also what it relates about history, the natural and supernatural universe, and everything else is absolute perfection.

The authority of the Hadith is based upon a "science" that early Muslim scholars devoted years to develop. Tens of thousands of alleged sayings of Muhammad were carefully examined. Their authenticity was determined, not by whether or not a particular hadith made any historical, theological, or scientific sense, but by who related the information. If Aisha said that Muhammad said this or that, it was considered much more authentic than if someone less reliable reported what he said (comment: Muslims even argue the reason Allah commanded his Prophet to initiate a sexual relationship with this nine-year-old child was to give her those added years to hear and remember what he said!). At the top of the chain are the "Hadith Qudsi", or the "Holy Hadith". These are utterances given directly to Muhammad by God that for one reason or another did not make it into the Quran. Next in authority are the Hadiths found in books named after the men who collected them, of whom Bukhari and Muslim are the best known.

Muhammad's first extant biographies were only written about two centuries after his birth. Earlier writers such as al-Waqidi had given accounts of his raids, or "Maghazi", but these are not considered full biographies. The most authentic and earliest Seerah is that of Ibn Ishaq (translated in English as The Life of Muhammad by Guillaume but also available as an abridged version here).

Ibn Ishaq often noted that even he was unsure about the authenticity of material that he related. He began many sentences with "zaama" (it is alleged), and ended many others with "Allah yaalam" (only God knows if this is really true). Still others began with the sceptical phrase, "fi ma dhukira li" (it was told me...). This was particularly true when he recounted miraculous events associated with the life of Muhammad. As one example among many, Ibn Ishaq wrote, "It is alleged that (a woman who wanted Muhammad's father Abdallah to marry her instead of Amina, Muhammad's mother) used to say that a light blazed between Abdallah's eyes, but after he had sex with Amina (and she conceived the Prophet) the light went away." What Ibn Ishaq was saying was, "OK...I'm going to tell it the way I heard it, but I don't really believe that's the way it happened."

Muslims have always acknowledged these exaggerations in the Seerah, but until recently have accepted the historical events recounted therein as true. What I find fascinating is that the recent shift away from believing the Seerah has nothing to do with new historical or archeological evidence that might cast doubt upon the former accounts, but is simply that more non-Muslims are becoming familiar with what the Seerah actually says. In an Arabic interview, Wafa Sultan stated that it was "impossible to read the biography of Muhammad and really believe it, and emerge a mentally healthy person". Modern Muslims, particularly those living in the West, simply respond by stating they do not believe those elements of the Seerah that do not correspond with their wishful, mystical conception of their Prophet.

I've had a learning experience over the past few months since I posted Muslims and Muhammad and listed a dozen or so reasons why I did not believe anyone who did the things Muhammad did could be a Prophet of God. Initially Muslims, most of whom know nothing of the darker side of Muhammad, predictably responded that I was lying. One described me as a "bad person" who must be influenced by anti-Islamic literature. So I spent the next few weeks presenting the historical evidence from Islamic sources for the things I had mentioned, ending here. The response of Muslims suddenly changed; they no longer accused me of lying, but now said they did not believe material just because it was in the Seerah. To be valid, information about Muhammad had to be not only in the Seerah, but also in the Hadith. Muhammad could not have killed the poetess Asma bint Marwan, because her name does not appear in the Hadith. He could not have tortured Kinana to death at Khaybar to steal his wealth, because the Hadith does not mention that.

I noted here that Tariq Ramadan in his book In the Footsteps of the Prophet deliberately misrepresented material from the Seerah to present an image of Muhammad and his followers that Ibn Ishaq never intended. Now I'm beginning to understand how it works. If the Seerah says something positive about Muhammad (he was faithful to his first wife Khadijah), as a Muslim you believe it. If it says something that can be manipulated into something good (Abu Bakr exchanged non-Muslims slaves for Muslim slaves) you write (as Tariq did) that Abu Bakr set slaves free as an example of human rights. But if the Seerah says something that can in no way be seen as good, such as the murder of Asma bint Marwan, the Western-educated Muslim intellectual simply denies it because her name is not mentioned by al-Bukhari or Sahih Muslim (comment: back in the heartland, Muslims have no problem at all with Kinana of Khaybar or Asma bint Marwan).

The lengths to which Muslims go to protect their Prophet are amazing. First, they declare that all Prophets are maasum, protected from al-Kabair (major sins). That means that anything Muhammad did cannot be considered even sinful, much less evil. Next they accuse the Hebrew Scriptures of being corrupted because they honestly present the failures of Biblical characters (comment: the Prophet David, according to Muslims, could never have committed adultery with Bathsheba, and Lot could never have committed incest with his daughters. The fact that Jews never considered Lot a Prophet at all has no relevance in the strange discipline of Islamic scholarship). Finally, Muslims deny the evidence even from their own sources when it indicates that Muhammad was not the person they want him to be.


observant observer said...

I always find it amazing that muslims can go into such extent to exhibit more lies just to cover another lies...
In Indonesia now, muslims are making an exposition showing the sword of Muhammad, the sword of King David and the stick of Ibrahim etc (where did they get those things that don't belong to them?)....I wonder that those muslims will just buy those man made myths just to feel that they're the one that has the originality of the message!!!

Sarah said...

I feel sorry for Muslims who are confronted with the seerah after a lifetime of being fed propaganda. It is so disturbing for them.

But they should read it, and especially, people who are thinking of converting should read it. The apologist literature is very misleading as you have said. Karen Armstrong in "Muhammad" interprets the treaty of Hudaybiyyah as an act of wise and compassionate restraint, but completely fails to quote Quran-verse 48:25 which gives the real reasons for it!

育霖 said...

TAHNKS FOR YOUR SHARING~~~VERY NICE.................................................

Matt said...

Sarah: Propaganda, eh? Then what do you think the four gospels are?

Quotable: There actually is no such trilogy, unless you want to count the Shia and their Nahj ul-Balagha. From a Sunni perspective (the only one you are considering), there is actually only a duo: the Qur'an (what Allah/God said) and the Hadith (what people said about Muhammad).

There are also various seerahs, or "biographies", which are chronologically-arranged academic compilations (as opposed to the canonical hadith, which are topically arranged), drawn from the same (ostensibly reliable) sources as the hadith compilations, plus folk traditions and popular anecdotes, plus anything else that the compiler dug up somewhere and thought would be worth including.

So while some important anecdotes used in devotional accounts of the prophet can be traced back to Ibn Ishaq, what Muslims are taught is not based directly on this particular "seerah". Hence the mutual surprise and befuddlement when they encounter non-Muslims who have been reading Guillaume. No copies of Ibn Ishaq's original work even exist: the seerah that some people tout so proudly is Guillaume's edited version of a cut-and-paste job done by Edward Rehatsek based on the places where later authors cited Ibn Ishaq.

This is not to say that Rehatsek/Guillaume's work is not a good piece of scholarship, or that we cannot draw from it some insights into the life of the "real" Muhammad. But to imply that Muslims consider this book canonical is simply not honest.

I think Quotable is a good example of a non-Muslim who adopts a Muslim's faith in the existence of a "true Islam" and sets out to prove what it is. If reminded that Muslims don't study Guillaume's abridgment of Rehatsek's patched-together restoration and English translation of the seerah according to Ibn Ishaq, he might say "Well, they should." But, they don't.

It has been 12 centuries since the advent of Islam, and in that time different people have taken it in a multitude of different directions. Now that we and they are face to face, the best attitude to take is neither fear, nor disgust, nor pity. When we let our self-righteousness get the better of our compassion, we will rarely do good.

observant observer said...

Would being humble and compassionate bring the necessity reciprocate actions by them?
Do they apply the Golden Rule? The other post by Quotation have explored that it seems they still need assistance by westerners like Karen Armstrong to induce more application of this concept....

Sarah said...

Matt - what makes you think I believe in the gospels?!

In regard to your comment about compassion, I believe strongly in compassion but I also believe we would probably be better off without believing in religion. I have seen some of its negative effects in a very personal way. And my compassion for Muslims should not get in the way of expressing my long-thought-out judgments on religion.

Yes, there is more than one "Islam", and I know lots of Muslims for whom their version of Islam greatly enhances their life. But what is authentic matters to most Muslims. And it is painful for Muslims to discover ugly things in the origins of their faith (in sahih hadiths if not the seerahs). I see so many people struggling to accommodate these discoveries - I even did so myself for some time - and it's my opinion that it isn't worth it. It seems to be the opinion of this blog's author too. I don't think that is self-righteousness.

It's good that you are trying to spread tolerance and understanding, but try not to make assumptions about people in this regard based on their opinion of a religion.

Quotable Quotes: said...

I'm glad you mentioned the Hadith. That will be the subject of my next post, although it will be a little while because I'm doing some travelling. By the way, Matt, how many geckos have you killed today? Muhammad said you get 100 brownie points with Allah if you get them on the first blow, but less if it takes longer.

Matt said...

Quotable: And David bought his wife for a hundred bloody foreskins and Jesus encouraged people to castrate themselves. Is that the best you can do? Are we going to start trading weird quotes?

You are arguing from a false premise that, in my opinion, will win fewer converts than it will encourage outsiders like Seraphime to shore up their comfortable bigotries.

Sarah: If you are serious about taking a secular viewpoint, you may be interested in this article by an ex-Muslim and self-described "godless infidel". I'll quote the essential paragraphs here:

"Now, there is no doubt that the Qur’an contains much that is disgusting by modern liberal standards. And it is disturbing that movements emphasizing jihad against the infidel have gained strength. But the Qur’an does not speak for itself. The vast majority of Muslims only make heavily mediated contact with the Qur’an. A typical Muslim is unlikely to be literate in classical Arabic, and using translations is not an everyday practice. Ordinary Muslims depend heavily on their local religious scholars, Sufi orders and similar brotherhoods, officially sanctioned clergy, and other mediating institutions. They hold the Qur’an sacred, but their understanding of what Islam demands comes through their local religious culture. Their interpretations are filtered through the mainstream legal traditions and the unexciting, nonviolent needs of everyday life. Even fundamentalists, who ostensibly strip away the accretions of tradition to go back to the original texts, do no such thing. They sanctify diverse modern readings by imagining a return to purity. This is not to join in the whitewashing of Islam as a “religion of peace.” Violent forms of religiosity are available to Muslims today, as are moderate ways of political engagement. Jihad is a legitimate strand within Islam, no less than quietism. But no argument that presents violent verses in the Qur’an and declares that therefore faithful Muslims must be inclined toward violence deserves to be taken seriously.

"I would like to ignore Harris’s views, especially since he did not do even the elementary work of consulting a few scholarly sources before writing his polemic. But he appears to be popular among secular people. Many secularists who are impressed with Harris urge a similar view of Islam. So I worry that, if such attitudes are widespread, it means that many Western secular people harbor grave misunderstandings about Islam, and perhaps even about religion in general. It is precisely an uncompromisingly secular view of religion that should prevent us from going on a quest for a true Islam. The Qur’an is often incoherent, obscure, and archaic—its various, conflicting meanings arise from the interpretive activities of communities that consider it sacred and try to make sense of it in terms of their present needs. Devout Muslims must believe in a true Islam that is the measure of compliance and deviance, a divine reality revealed by the Qur’an. Muslim religious scholars must strive for orthodoxy and keep complaining about how even Muslims are ignorant of the true faith. Those of us who do not accept revelation, however, need not go in search of an idealized, true Islam. We should give up those habits of thought that prompt us to seek a well-defined true faith, now to condemn as barbaric rather than to endorse as divine. Religion is a human activity, and what deserve our attention are the varieties of faith revealed in actual practice."

observant observer said...

Ooops Matt,
u're accusing me of having bigotries towards Muslims? I live in muslim environment. I see and witness that everyday muslim is just another common human being with their behavior much affected by their human needs and desires, they mostly only deal with the general teachings of 5 pillars of Islam. But this is perhaps Indonesian muslims who are reportedly different than their partners from the other part of the sphere especially the middle east which have been reported too many times of having been very cruel to my own poor Indonesian fellow women worker there!
The reality that they're just another human neighbor of me doesn't prevent them of seeing me as part of people who would be sent to hell by professing an astray religion....since they're the majority they mock other faith easily, while having to keep the peace, other people just have to keep their mouth shut. And the government are now examining and perhaps later would introduce a new law of sentencing people who make contempt of religion, mostly to assure that Islam would never be put under scrutiny by critical endeavor. Good Lord! All those internet provider and perhaps all the info access regarding religious inquiries from the other world would be banned for the sake of this!!!!

Rumblings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Anonymous said...

While I am sympathetic towards some some of the thoughts in the quote you presented, I think the approach does not fully grasp the "double bind" secularists are put in when speaking out against "islam" (both doxis and praxis (in plurum, really)).

Allmost all religious apologets (and definitely muslim) will to a great extent rely on varieties of the "No true Scotsman" fallacy. (Claiming that doxis really represent the "Platonic", idealised true religion. Any problematic features of the religion are due to "out of context, corruption by "internal" heresey or ignorant externals.)
I think it still is neccessary to challenge this position as well.

When turning to praxis, I believe we meet a suit of other rethorical strategies.
One flows along the lines of E. Said and the "Orientalism"-meme, another along postcolonial guilt and "The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed" (sensu Russell),
yet another as a conflation of "cultural relativism" as a useful anthropological study method with the important normative content of cultures.

Being an ateistic utilitarian of sorts, I am of course more inclined to judge islam by the "expressed faith" (praxis) by the majority of moderate varieties, rather than the "litteral jihadists". However, as long as the latter position quite reasonnably can by justified by the "scripture" I am not prepared to "leave them alone". And as long as bigottism is pervasive even among moderates, I am still firmly an "aggressive secularist/atheist" rather than a "Be-quieter".

In Cod we trust

Traeh said...

Matt quotes from a non-Muslim whose counsel amounts to telling us that Islam is capable of so many interpretations that there is no point in pretending it has a single meaning that could be idealized or condemned.

It's true that texts have a certain elasticity, and are capable of multiple interpretations. But it is wrong not to recognize that the empirical character of specific texts does tend to canalize interpretation most of the time into one or a few typical and familiar paths. We do not see a different interpretation of apostasy law in the various schools of Islamic law. All the schools of Islamic law prescribe the death penalty for apostasy, and only differ around the edges on that issue. That is because Muhammad, in canonical hadiths, said death was prescribed for apostates. And much else in Islam is similar, in the sense that there is quite a bit of broad agreement on the meaning of the texts.

What Matt is doing -- relativizing everything, making all religions and religious texts nothing more than what we make of them -- has some truth, but Matt, like so many, goes a wee bit too far and doesn't realize that relativization at some point must swallow its own medicine. You cannot treat it alone as the absolute. To speak more plainly, religious texts from different religions are different, and they encourage distinct kinds of behavior. In one case, one must resist the religious text in order to engage in certain acts. In the case of another religion, the core texts encourage and sanctify those same acts. That is very important, and Matt resists recognizing it, because he is invested in certain assumptions he doesn't want to give up, regardless of the facts.

Perhaps he is one of those who thinks everything in the world exists only in barely distinguishable shades of gray. But the world in addition to grays, has fairly close approximations to white and black. Not to mention all the colors of the spectrum. There is a fundamental epistemological mistake, a false assumption, lurking somewhere in Matt's mind, perhaps unknown even to himself. He believes he is fighting bigotry and standing up for sophisticated recognition of nuance, but his position really amounts to a refusal to make distinctions. The world is not just a oneness or a One. Its plurality is as real as its oneness. The colors of the rainbow, though they flow together without break, making the spectrum truly a oneness, are nevertheless real. Red is not green. Good is not evil. Black and White are not gray. And Islam is not non-Islam. The fact that there is some ambiguity in Islam's core texts, and a possibility of multiple interpretations, doesn't change the fact that the core Islamic texts have a distinctive character that tends to call forth certain interpretations predominantly. When Muhammad says "Kill the unbelievers," very few people are going to interpret this as meaning, "Turn the other cheek."

Marina said...

Matt since when did Jesus tell people to Castrate themselves?

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