Orientalism, Racism, and Islam: Edward Said Between Race and Doctrine

David Riesbeck’s recent post on essentialism reminds me that I have a paper on a loosely related topic that I’ve been meaning (for eight years!) to revise and submit somewhere. As I’m teaching Edward Said’s Orientalism in the fall, I figured I’d make the time to revisit the book and the topic, and finally revise the paper. So here it is, in the interests of feedback from PoT readers, and potentially, for purposes of comparison and contrast with David’s post. Originally presented at the California Roundtable on Philosophy & Race, Hampshire College, October 2, 2009.

Orientalism, Racism, and Islam:
Edward Said Between Race and Doctrine

  1. Introduction

Edward Said’s Orientalism has gotten relatively little attention from philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition. Arguably, though, the book has been at least as influential in contemporary political thought as has the work of say, Rawls, Nozick, or Dworkin, and has probably been more influential across the breadth of the humanities than the combined efforts of the sum total of analytic normative theorists. Widely regarded outside of philosophy as the foundational text of postcolonial studies, and as the touchstone of a progressive conception of comparative politics and area studies, Orientalism is also a pioneering contribution to race theory. Where English-speaking race theorists had, prior to Orientalism, devoted the bulk of their attention to anti-black racism and anti-Semitism, Said was one of the first academic writers to draw sustained attention to Western conceptions of the Arab/Muslim Oriental.  As one early reviewer concisely summarized the book, “Professor Said uses [his] privileged vantage to observe the West observing the Arabs, and he does not like what he finds.”

In what way is Orientalism a contribution to race theory? The question leads to a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it is hard to deny that there is some such contribution. On the other hand, the contribution in question turns out to be surprisingly difficult to specify with any precision. I want to suggest that the conundrum arises from a systematic equivocation that runs throughout Said’s treatment of Orientalism—namely, his persistent conflation of claims about the essence of Oriental racial identity with claims about the essence of Islamic religious doctrine. Contrary to Said, a critique of the first sort of claim, however cogent and insightful, is not easily (or at all) transferable to claims of the second sort. The failure to distinguish race from doctrine undermines what is valuable about his account and abets serious confusion.

  1. ‘Orientalism’: the term and concept

It might help to begin by getting a grip on the concept of “Orientalism” itself. As Said notes, his account of Orientalism is revisionary in several respects. By the time Orientalism came out in 1978, the term “Orientalism” had more or less passed from scholarly discourse–even (or perhaps especially) in the disciplines that had previously been called “Orientalist”–to be replaced by more neutral designations like “Area Studies” or “Near East Studies.” When the term had been current decades earlier, it had had two distinct and apparently unrelated senses. In one sense, it referred to a school of nineteenth century romantic painting focused on “the East.” In another sense, it referred to a branch of scholarship whose practitioners saw themselves, in effect, as classical philologists specializing in “Eastern” languages and culture in the way that Hellenists or Latinists specialize in the language and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. To call x “Orientalist” in this older sense—where x denoted a person, institution, work of art or scholarship–was to identify x‘s aesthetic style or area of scholarly specialization, on par with calling x “Impressionist” or “Hellenic.” In neither sense was the term explicitly connected with race or racism.

Said changed this. For one, he exhumed the term from its previous obscurity and restored it to contemporary currency. He then revised its meaning by identifying what he took to be its foundational methodological assumption: Orientalism, he argued, was “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident'”–“a family of ideas the essence of which is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority” (pp, 2, 42). It was also, in accord with the earlier definition, “an academic tradition involving anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient in its specific or general aspects” (p. 2), but given the methodological assumptions he ascribed to it, Said’s Orientalism had a radically different character than, say, classical philology of the Hellenic or Roman variety. For (Said argued) scholars of Greece and Rome do not typically think of Greeks or Romans as metaphysically inferior to the scholars who study them, whereas it is (on Said’s view) an endemic feature of Orientalism that Orientalists see Orientals that way. It would be an eccentric Hellenist who spent a lifetime studying Homer out of racial animosity for Greeks, but (Said argued) the average Orientalist is willing to spend a lifetime on the Qur’an precisely out of such animus. Hence the old analogy between Hellenism and Orientalism is a spurious one: Orientalism is classical philology with a bad (racial) conscience.

But Orientalism is more than either painting or textual scholarship. It is, as Said puts it, “a generic term to describe the Western approach to the Orient; specifically, a collection of dreams, images, and vocabularies open to anyone who has tried to talk about what lies east of the dividing line” (p. 73, my emphasis). Understood in this way, Orientalism not only encompasses painting and philology, but encompasses all of the ‘Western’ arts and letters focused on the Orient–poetry, fiction, belles-letres, travel writing, philosophy, the social sciences, and music. So where the older conception of Orientalism had conceived of scholarship and painting as existing in unrelated compartments, and ignored the contributions of imaginative literature and art altogether, Said regards the entire “archive” of Western activity vis-a-vis the Orient as a single (Foucaultian) discourse, unified across the board by a common ontology and epistemology.

Finally, where the older conception of Orientalism had been relatively apolitical, Said explicitly politicizes it: at least since the eighteenth century, Orientalism has been a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient; “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (p. 3), “a will to understand, control, manipulate, and incorporate” (p. 12); “a kind of Western projection onto and will to govern over the Orient” (p. 95); “an aspect of imperialism and colonialism” (p. 123); “a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire” (p. 203). And along this “latent” (but omnipresent) political dimension, Orientalism is inherently racist: “It is therefore correct to say that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric” (p. 204).

Though Said refers in this last passage specifically to nineteenth century Europeans, his point is that the ascription of racism to Orientalism characterizes Orientalism as such, and characterizes it well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries–whether practiced by Europeans, by Americans, or by Arabs and Muslims themselves. Contemporary Orientalists may dilute or disguise their racist commitments; they may sincerely oppose racism and imperialism as individuals. But on Said’s view, their complicity in Orientalism renders them incapable of escaping its racist structures, whether conceptual or institutional, and thereby subverts whatever anti-racist decency they might otherwise have had.

To put the point somewhat crassly, then, the “cash value” of Said’s thesis–or at least one highly significant practical application–is its legitimation of the condemnation both of Orientalism as well as whatever is affiliated with, aligned to, or complicitous in it. Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that insofar as it has any contemporary currency, the word “Orientalism” has now come to function less as a noun (as it once did) and more as an adjective involving the ascription to someone or something of a certain kind of racism. To call X “Orientalist” is ipso facto to call X racist, an inference with a fair bit of warrant in Said’s own writings, and with some rhetorical bite in contemporary polemics.

This epithetical use of “Orientalism” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it inspires vigilance, and puts racists in their place. On the other hand, it can just as easily induce paranoia, and serve as a cheap way of destroying reputations. For that reason, we need to clarify the conceptual relation between “Orientalism” and “racism.” What, in other words, facilitates the inference from ‘x is Orientalist’ to ‘x is racist’? This question turns out to be remarkably difficult to answer.

  1. From Orientalism to racism via demographic essentialism

On Said’s account, the connection between Orientalism and racism is supplied by what he calls “essentialism.”  In general, then, the inference from ‘x is Orientalist’ to ‘x is racist’ goes by way of the suppressed premise that if x is Orientalist, x is essentialist. There is then some further connection, not entirely clear, between x’s essentialism and x’s racism. Our first order of business then, is to connect the conceptual dots. Why is essentialism racist? Why in particular is it racist when it comes to discussion of the Islamic Near East?

The specific conception of essentialism that emerges from Orientalism is what we might call demographic essentialism, that is, the quasi-biological idea of a population of organisms whose members characteristically (or even exceptionlessly) act true to type. We confront, let’s say, two distinct and basically exclusive[1] populations of organisms, X and Y. We note that X’s characteristically φ, whereas Y’s do not. We want an explanation of this fact. To that end, we hypothesize that the X’s belong to some broader type F, and observe or infer that all F’s have some property or set of properties P that explains why any F characteristically φ’s. We then observe that Y’s do not belong to F, hence lack P, hence do not characteristically φ. With this explanatory scheme in hand, we embark on an investigation intended to confirm or disconfirm our hypothesis.

Suppose that our inquiry finds nothing but confirmatory evidence. In that case we conclude that we have successfully explained X’s characteristic mode of behavior, and have in consequence better understood the nature of X’s. If we ourselves happen to be Y’s, we inevitably become more conscious of the difference that divides us from X’s. We may then resolve to act accordingly, and encourage others who deal with X’s to take stock of our research.

Where ‘X’ denotes (say) the Serengeti lion, and ‘Y’ denotes zoologists, demographic essentialism may well be unexceptional. But where ‘X’ denotes (say) Arabs, and Y denotes Americans, things are more problematic. The Orientalist sees two radically different populations acting in radically different ways. He then hypothesizes that the difference between them owes its existence to the possession by Westerners and the lack of possession by Orientals of a set of population-specific properties. It turns out that Westerners are rational, virtuous, and liberty-loving, while Orientals are irrational, vicious, and slavish. These traits then figure in explanations of Western power and success on the one hand, and Oriental despotism, degradation and retrogression on the other. The success of one explanation abets others, and so a research program is born.

So far, we have an explanatory scheme that need not be racist. It could instead involve claims of civilizational superiority, where the superiority is not reducible to or explainable in terms of, race but of culture (or economics, politics, geography, climate, etc.) What makes the scheme racist on Said’s account is the nature of the distinction on which it is founded. Western superiority and Oriental inferiority are not, for the (Saidian) Orientalist, a merely contingent matter that might have been otherwise; they are expressions of the inherent nature of the two populations. And an inherent, ineradicable, ontological distinction between two groups of physically distinct human populations looks like a distinction of race. The attempt to explain their characteristic behaviors by race looks like racism.

The issue gets complicated, however. Most of Orientalism focuses on claims by Westerners of something like civilizational superiority over Orientals, where the superiority is not intended to be racial, where claims of racial superiority are flatly and vehemently denied, where even claims of superiority (as opposed to cultural difference) are flatly and vehemently denied, and where the putative topic of discussion is not race at all but religious doctrine. In many cases, it is not (at all) clear that the Western author that Said is discussing on any given page is committed to any kind of essentialism, or is making any large-scale ontological or epistemic claim about East versus West. Said insists in such cases that the surface appearance is misleading; the racism lurks beneath the surface. But in many cases, this claim inspires skepticism.

We could, in principle, take every claim of this sort on a case-by-case basis and have a useful debate about every one of them. But that would take more time than I have, and in any case to embark on such an inquiry, we need to know how to evaluate the evidence in the first place. What would count as racist? What wouldn’t?

Though Said apparently thought the answers obvious, I don’t think they are.  Insofar as it means anything, a race in its paradigm sense is a (human) population differentiated from other populations by distinctive traits and behaviors whose basis is genetic. A race then is a human sub-population whose traits of character and intellect are determined by a gene pool particular to that group and expressive of the character and intellect of that group. In their paradigm sense, racist claims are somehow connected to race so conceived.

On the other hand, this paradigm conception of race can be a misleadingly narrow (or just plain misleading) basis for understanding racism.  Genetics may allow the race theorist to give some precision to the concept of race, but it won’t necessarily give precision to the concept of racism. Racists are notoriously imprecise about the biological (or quasi-biological) presuppositions that lie behind their views. Since racism is a form of irrationality and neurosis, we cannot expect racists to observe fine-grained distinctions about the “basis” of racism. Racists can perceive or invent races where none exist (race itself may be such a phenomenon), and in sophisticated cases, they can express racism while denying that they have perceived or invented anything racial. They can do this sincerely or by deception, and in the latter case, they can deceive others or themselves.

Said does a creditable job at arguing that Orientalist racism takes such subtle forms. He marshals provocative (though not always conclusive) evidence to show that the Orientalist West has often depicted “the Arab” (or “the Muslim,” conceived covertly as a racial category) based on pseudo-empirical generalizations about racial essences. And he does a good job at unmasking the rationalizations by which racial categories masquerade as non-racial ones.

But some care is in order here. The connection between essentialism and racism is far from watertight. The idea at the heart of essentialism is that of an isolated population that acts true to type. This can be a racist idea, but it need not be. It is racist if the populations are isolated on racial grounds. It is not racist if they are not. Even allowing for the complexities described in the last few pages, the farther we get from the paradigm idea of traits that are perceived as or conceived of as heritable, the farther we travel from clear cases of racism. When it becomes clear that a trait neither is nor is in any sense conceived of as heritable, it is hard to see how claims of racism apply, or at least clearly apply.

The paradigm of non-heritability is voluntary adherence to a doctrine. Suppose S voluntarily affirms that p, voluntarily shapes his or her character and actions around p, and acts accordingly. If a whole population does this, the whole population will in some sense act according to type. If the population is relatively isolated or isolable from other populations, we will have an instance of demographic essentialism with respect to those who believe p. If someone outside of that population criticizes p, and the criticism reflects adversely on this population, the criticism may bear a surface similarity to racism. But it clearly is not racism. It is a criticism of p. And while we have to grant that criticisms of p may function obliquely as a cover for racism, we also have to grant the equal possibility that in the end, a criticism of p may just be what it says it is. This is the fact that Said systematically ignores when it comes to Orientalism about Islam.

  1. Said’s conflation of race and doctrine

Consider the following propositions, some nearly tautological, some relatively uncontroversial, others highly controversial:

            (1) Racists act like racists.

(2) Imperialists engage in imperialism.

(3) Racism facilitates imperialism.

(4) Imperialism facilitates bloodshed.

(5) Racism facilitates bloodshed.

(6) Zionism is a form of sectarianism.

(7) Zionist sectarianism explains the rights-violative features of the Israeli settlers’ movement.

(8) Zionism is a form of racism.

(9) Orientalism is closely allied to racism, imperialism, and Zionism.

(10) Orientalists act like Orientalists.

Said is committed to all ten claims. In fact, the defense of these ten claims is practically the raison d’etre for his work. Another way of putting this is to note that Said is an unapologetic essentialist about racists, imperialists, Orientalists, and Zionists. All four categories of populations act true to type, and in all four cases, we explain what they do by invoking the type to which they belong. This clearly implies that not all essentialists are racist. It makes no sense to describe essentialism about racism as itself racist. Nor does it help here to insist that we ought to ‘contextualize’ racisms rather than speaking of racism ‘as such’. The variety of forms of racism doesn’t change the fact that racists are racists and act true to type.  Any variation on racism is still bound to be racist.

The preceding claims may seem trivial or obvious, but they put Said in a difficult situation. When it comes to racism, imperialism, Orientalism, and Zionism, Said not only endorses essentialism, but tolerates no attempt to soften that commitment. A close reading of Said shows a steady commitment to the claim that no form of racism, imperialism, Orientalism, or Zionism is, has been, ever will be, or can be rationally or morally justified, and that adherence to the relevant doctrine determines what adherents do qua adherents. As far as Said is concerned, imperialism causes British, French, or American foreign policy in the Middle East, and Zionism caused (and continues to cause) the dispossession of the Palestinians. Etc.

Nor is Said shy about the historical scope of the causal claims to which he’s committed: the causal antecedents of Orientalism for him lie in the writings of Homer and Aeschylus, in the proselytizing mission of John of Damascus (676-749 AD), in the decisions of the Council of Vienne (1312), and in the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt (1798). It is not an exaggeration to say that on Said’s view, the Hebron Massacre of 1994, and the depredations of the Israeli settlers movement generally, can be explained by way of adherence to a text that precedes the settlers’ movement by more than 2500 years—the Books of Exodus and Esther.

By contrast, when it comes to Islam, Said argues that the attempt to talk about Islam as such—as a single, unitary, trans-historical and trans-contextual doctrine—is a form of  Orientalism, hence of essentialism, hence of racism. His argumentative ‘strategy’ here is to pair doctrinal claims about Islam with instances of anti-Arab racism, to note the common commitment to essentialism in the doctrinal claim and the racist one, and then to treat the two as though they were morally and epistemically on par with each other.  The underlying assumption here seems to be that doctrinal adherence to Islam is fundamentally analogous to race: Islam is to Muslims as an Arab genetic heritage is to an Arab. Just as it would be racist to invoke ‘Arab blood’ or genetic lineage to impugn, say, ‘characteristically Arab behavior’ or ‘the Arab mind’, so it is racist to invoke Islam to impugn the beliefs and practices of Muslims.

In a typical passage, Said writes that for the “Westerner,” the Oriental is “either a figure of fun or an atom in a vast collectivity designated in ordinary or cultivated discourse as an undifferentiated type, called Oriental, African, yellow, brown, or Muslim” (p. 252). In the 1996 Introduction to the Vintage Edition of Covering Islam, Said writes bitterly about the

            strange revival of canonical, though previously discredited, Orientalist ideas about Muslim, generally non- white, people–ideas which have achieved a startling prominence at a time when racial or religious misrepresentations of every other cultural group are no longer circulated with such impunity.  Malicious                generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West; what is said about the Muslim mind, or character, or religion, or culture as a whole cannot now be said in mainstream discussion about Africans, Jews, other Orientals, or Asians (xi-xii).

What is remarkable about these claims–and they come from a collection of nearly two dozen similar passages that I found in Orientalism alone–is the casual conflation they involve of racial stereotyping and doctrinal generalization. The Orientalist apparently treats all brown people as effectively the same, and all Muslims as effectively the same. But it is very far from obvious that these two maneuvers are themselves the same. To treat all brown people as the same is to assume that their complexion tracks facts about their beliefs, motivations, and character. To treat all adherent Muslims as the same is to assume that their doctrinal commitments track facts about their beliefs, motivations, and character.

It is obvious that the first method is racist, but it is not (at all) obvious that the second method is equivalent to the first, that it is in any reasonable sense racist, that it has anything to do with the first, or that there must be something wrong with it. There is no reason to think that complexion tracks belief, motivation, or character, but there is ample reason to believe that doctrinal commitments do. There is a good reason to discourage people from denigrating people of a certain skin color, but this has no application to the criticism of a doctrine, unless one simply equates doctrinal disagreement with racial denigration.

There are, in my view, two serious problems with Said’s conflation of race and doctrine, one (to my mind) rather obvious, the other more subtle.[2] The obvious problem is that the analogy between race and doctrine simply does not hold. In making it, Said ignores the fact that unlike the racial stereotyping he criticizes, claims about the essence of Islam are not claims about traits or populations, but about the content of texts. In this sense, he ignores the fact that unlike “Arab personality” or “Semitic mind,” the term “Islam” has a genuine empirical referent with genuine explanatory power. Islam is a determinate body of thought and practice constituted by the Qur’an, the hadith collections, the holy law, and the commentaries on that law. While there is disagreement about the proper interpretation of these texts, there are also good grounds for identifying within them a core of authoritative beliefs and practices, and grounds as well for deriving second-order beliefs and practices from this core. Granted, not every Muslim acts true to the type Muslim, but it is not plausible to deny that every serious adherent of the faith qua adherent approximates action true to type.

An analogy might help convey this point. Consider the way in which ethical theorists talk about ethical theories—say, utilitarianism and Kantianism. Like Islam, utilitarianism and Kantianism are doctrines constituted mainly by texts. No single form of either doctrine has won the day, whether among adherents or critics.  In that sense, one might say that there are many forms of utilitarianism or Kantianism. And yet the multiplicity of doctrinal forms in this context does not entail a ban on asserting what the true version of the doctrine says. Peter Singer and Milton Friedman might both be utilitarians, and utilitarians of very different sorts. But if Singer argues with Friedman, there is nothing racist about his assertion that Singerian utilitarianism is the truest or best exemplification of utilitarianism, whereas Friedmanite utilitarianism is not.

If this is right, it is a fundamental mistake to equate claims about the essence of Islam with claims about the racial nature of “the Arab.” Pace Said, generalizations about Islam do not have the same suspect moral or epistemic status as generalizations about, say, “the Arab mind” or “the Arab personality.” Again, pace Said, it is a mistake to equate classical Islamic studies in the Western Orientalist tradition with classical race theory as practiced by the likes of Gobineau or Schelegel. Indeed, I would argue that Said’s heavy reliance on such comparisons undermines what is most valuable about his account.[3]

  1. The contextualist strategy

Said is sensitive to the preceding objection, and by my count, employs three distinct strategies for dealing with it. In a longer version of this paper, I call these the Nietzschean, Vichian, and contexualist strategies and discuss all three. For present purposes, I’ll confine discussion to the third.

In one of the last essays he published before his death in 2003, Said articulates an idea that had been latent in his work from the outset, but had never been made explicit.[4] The claim here is that there are, as he puts it, irreducibly “many Islams” that make it impossible to generalize about “Islam as such.” If we are to speak of “Islam” at all–and he seems skeptical even of our[5] doing this–we’re to do so contextually, referring to versions of Islam subdivided by specifically secular criteria–“different kinds of Islam, at different moments, for different people, in different fields,” e.g., “eleventh-century Islamic-Andalusian architecture,” or “eighteenth-century Yemeni religious controversy,” etc. The failure to contextualize or subdivide Islam in this way (Said argues) commits one to essentialism about Islam, which commits one to Orientalism, which commits one to racism. In what follows, I want to argue that despite its currency in certain quarters, Said’s argument fails in several overlapping and cumulatively fatal ways.

First of all, the question at issue is whether Islam as a whole has a doctrinal unity that permits generalizations about it of a sort differentiable from generalizations of a racist variety. Said’s opponent in this dispute claims that such generalizations are possible, and that these generalizations are not racist. They are not racist because unlike racist generalizations, they are not (necessarily) generalizations about the supposedly heritable traits of members of an organismic population but are generalizations about the features of a doctrine. To think of them as racist is just a category mistake. As for whether the generalizations are warranted, that depends on the generalization in question, and can only be settled on a case-by-case basis.

Contrary to first appearances, the contextualist strategy does not deal with any part of this claim. It merely changes the subject. Instead of dealing with evidence of doctrinal unity, or the disanalogy between demographic and doctrinal essentialism, it instructs us to focus all of our attention on the various differences we find among Muslims. But this is a red herring. The differences among Muslims are compatible with Islam’s being a unified doctrine; the differences in question could, after all, arise from disagreement among believers, not irreducible plurality in the doctrine. To the extent that the differences are still differences within Islam, considered as a unified doctrine, Said’s assiduous focus on difference is trivial. We might as well say that there is no such doctrine as utilitarianism because there are so many kinds of utilitarianism, or no such thing as racism because there are so many different forms of racism, or no such thing as Zionism because there are so many forms of Zionism. Unless we have an argument that shows that difference is incompatible with unity, Said’s argument (and all arguments of this form) are clear cases of ignoratio elenchi.

Second, and in partial confirmation of the first point, Said himself seems to concede the falsity of the “many Islams” thesis literally understood, for in the course of defending it, he concedes (albeit equivocally) that Islam is constituted by its “core beliefs…and the centrality of the Koran” (“Impossible Histories,” p. 70). This concession implies that the “many Islams” thesis must, even on Said’s view, be qualified by acknowledgement of the fact that the “many Islams” thesis involves the complex subdivision of a single doctrine. The question, then, is not whether such a unitary doctrine exists, but how exactly to characterize the variety subsumed by it.

There are disputes worth having about the scope and content of Islam’s core beliefs, how the Qur’an is to be interpreted, and how the superstructure of belief and practice is to be derived from it. There are likewise disputes worth having about the relation that obtains between the core of the doctrine as a textual phenomenon and the variety that obtains in the non-textual world. But however these debates turn out, if Islam is (as he admits) constituted by its “core beliefs,” it makes no sense to say (as Said does) that “Islam is not properly a subject at all.” It is, on the contrary, a subject constituted by its core beliefs.

Third, recall that Said’s thesis is meant, not as doctrinal apologetics for Islam, but as an attempt to defend Muslims against the racism that masquerades as a critique of Islam. This is a legitimate aim, but Said fails to see that as stated, the contextualist thesis cannot coherently be avowed by an orthodox Muslim believer, and leads to potential incoherence if avowed by a non-believer as well.

Consider the situation of the orthodox believer from a first-person perspective. If I am a believing Muslim, I am obliged to believe that there is one God and that Muhammad is His messenger. I am also obliged to believe that the Qur’an is the most authoritative (though not the only) source of the divine message. Given the presuppositions and imperatives of faith, I cannot possibly regard this message as something plural, inconsistent, or subordinate to secular concerns. The message comes from God, and God says explicitly that He is One, that His will is singular and self-consistent, that His message is intended for all of humanity, and that its claims override all secular concerns.

From this perspective, the important fact is that I am a Muslim, not that I am (say) “a first-generation male Pakistani-American Muslim born in Jersey City in 1969.” Nor is “my” Islam different from that of a ninth-century Andalusian architect or an eleventh-century Yemeni alim. There is no such thing as “my” Islam or “yours.” Islam isn’t private property; it’s God’s property, and our task as Muslims is to get it right, regardless of who we are, or where we are. If so, our identity qua Muslim overrides any secular descriptors by which we might differ. It follows that no Muslim qua Muslim can coherently affirm Said’s “many Islams” thesis.

Now consider the situation of the non-Muslim studying Islam. Suppose I am not a believer but wish to study Islam. One possibility (among others) is to view it from the perspective of its orthodox adherents, understanding them in an anthropological fashion, while denying in propria persona what they avow. The claims of Islam, I tell myself, are fictions, but my task in understanding Islam is to understand the structure of this fiction by seeing it (up to a point) as an orthodox Muslim would. Suppose I come to see this fiction as having a kind of internal coherence, just as an orthodox Muslim might. Now suppose that I am confronted with Said’s methodological demand: I must subdivide Islam according to historical and secular criteria. I cannot, on pain of being an “Orientalist,” study Islam as such. Surely I am entitled to ask why this demand must govern my inquiries. Islam may be a fiction, but if it is a coherent fiction, the “many Islams” thesis obscures precisely this fact about it. Why am I obliged to affirm a thesis that begins with an a priori dismissal of coherence that I may have discovered in Islam on empirical grounds? I don’t see that Said has an answer to this question. I know of no place in his work where he either raises the question or offers an answer.

At this point, Said compounds the difficulty by insisting that the non-Muslim inquirer into Islam take up “the first-person perspective of the Muslim believer,” presumably to encourage empathic identification with Muslims. But this further demand leads to further problems. For one thing, as I’ve argued, “the first-person perspective of the Muslim believer” is flatly incompatible with the thesis that there are many Islams. For another, as someone who is denying that there is a single true Islam, Said is in no position to be giving advice about “the perspective of the Muslim believer.” He is, after all, the one insisting that there is no such thing! If there is no one Islam, there is no one Muslim perspective. If there is no one Muslim perspective, the advice to take “it” is incoherent.

Finally, even if the thesis were true, its truth would not entail what Said takes it to entail. Suppose that there are many Islams but no single Islam, whatever that turns out to mean. Recall that the original worry was one about essentialism, and this worry is one about the illegitimacy of generalizations about members of some type acting true to type. Despite surface appearances, Said’s legitimate categories are no less essentialist than the categories he regards as illegitimate. The categories differ not in virtue of their essentialist character, but in their complexity and scope.

This implies that the many Islams thesis does not, as Said seems to think, eliminate essentialism. It implies instead that essentialism be narrowed in scope and multiplied in instances. At the end of the day, then, it’s not Muslims that act true to type in Said’s ontology but eleventh century Yemeni religious controversialists and ninth century Andalusian architects that do. At this point, however, Said is not rejecting essentialism so much as haggling about its proper application.[6]

  1. Conclusion

Having tried to prise apart what I take to be the conflation of race and doctrine in Said’s work, I want to conclude by suggesting that Said’s failure to distinguish ethnicity/race from religious doctrine explains one major and otherwise puzzling fact about the now three-decades-old reception to Orientalism—namely, the active hostility for or unsympathetic indifference to Said’s thesis from many in the Arab/Islamic world who might otherwise be thought receptive to it. Such hostility has often itself been explained away as a form of “native complicity” in imperialism and Orientalism, but my critique of Said suggests a more obvious, and to my mind, more plausible explanation: honest disagreement.

Consider two idealized but still possible readers of Said’s Orientalism in the Arab/Muslim world, one a believing Muslim, the other a militant apostate. Both would likely find something of value in Said’s account, and both might be awakened to the ways in which Orientalist discourse had dehumanized them and abetted injustice over the centuries.. But both might take similar exception to the letter of Said’s arguments.

The believing Muslim would note that while Said rightly takes Orientalists to task for their racism and their animus against Islam, he not only does nothing to defend Islam against their doctrinal misrepresentations, but manages in the end to confuse the real issues. Instead of presupposing a true Islam and measuring the misrepresentations against this standard, he denies that there can be such a thing as a true account of Islam. Further, having conflated race with doctrine, he makes it difficult to extricate the anti-racist polemic from the contextualist non-defense of Islam. What might have been an empowering book ends up producing a peculiar frustration.

Like the Muslim, the apostate agrees with Said’s critique of racism, but notes with discomfort that not all of the critique of racism is really about racism. Much of it concerns the problematic tendency of Westerners to castigate Arabs for their civilizational retrogression. The apostate resents some of this: there are too many facile generalizations and too much hypocrisy in the Western case to regard it as having been offered in good faith. There is also too much nonsense in it to regard it with the awe it invites, and too much complicity with power to trust it entirely. But if you scratch this apostate hard enough, he will tell you explicitly that the problem with Orientalism is the opposite of the one Edward Said raises. The problem is not that Orientalists are too harsh on Islam, but that they are not harsh enough.[7]

It is an implication of my argument that both readers are in their own way correct. If so, Said’s work on Orientalism requires major revision before it can serve the anti-racist and anti-imperialist purposes to which so many have put it.


[1] By “basically exclusive,” I mean that while they can cross-breed as a matter of biological fact, as a matter of non-biological fact, they rarely do.

[2] For reasons of space, I’ve deleted the second of the two objections here (what I call “the Gibb objection”).

[3] It’s a separate task, but an important one, to identify what is valuable in Said’s work.

[4] Edward Said, “Impossible Histories: Why the Many Islams Cannot Be Simplified,” Harper’s (July 2002).

[5] One of the ambiguities of the essay is the question of who is doing the speaking. The context suggests that Said’s stricture applies only to non-Muslims speaking about Islam (not to Muslims speaking about Islam), but for reasons I indicate in this text, understood in this way, the stricture seems ad hoc.

[6] It makes matters worse for the “many Islams” thesis that the phrase “many Islams” has no grammatical equivalent in classical Arabic, the language of Islamic scripture, jurisprudence, liturgy, theology, and philosophy. There is not only no precedent for the concept within existing work, but no intelligible way of reading the concept backward onto the finished body of Islamic thought in Arabic so as to make sense of even the most elementary text. Unfortunately, I lack the space to develop this thought here.

[7] This, I take it, is the crux of Sadiq al Azm’s famous critique of Said in “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” Khamsin vol. 8 (1981), pp. 5-26.

37 thoughts on “Orientalism, Racism, and Islam: Edward Said Between Race and Doctrine

  1. I remember reading this, or some version of this, a while back. I don’t know Said’s work, so I’m not in a position to assess your overall argument, but it certainly seems to get at some problems with a general style of argument that is not unfamiliar. I do wonder, though, about a particular move you make. You list 10 propositions to which Said is committed, and you claim that these are essentialist claims. I’m not so sure they are, though. What makes me doubt it is that none of them looks like it involves the thought, even implicitly, that any of the individuals to whom the general statements apply are essentially imperialists, racists, Zionists, or Orientalists. Consider some analogies. If I say, ‘murderers are insensitive to human suffering’ or ‘sexists have a degrading attitude towards women,’ I’m certainly committed to saying that people who are murderers or sexists always or characteristically have these traits. But I’m not at all committed to saying that Frank, who is a murderer, is essentially insensitive to human suffering, or that Jared, who is a sexist, essentially has a degrading attitude toward women. To claim that they’re essentially so would be to claim that they’re necessarily so, that they could not fail to be this way — not only that they could not, for some sort of psychological reasons, rid themselves of these attitudes, but that they could not even in principle fail to be this way, and that they were always going to be this way. People do make claims like this, both racist and otherwise; but none of the claims you attribute to Said need to be taken that way.

    Of course, this may just come down to different uses of ‘essentialism.’ But I think it matters insofar as the kind of essentialism that we see in lots of racism is the sort I have in mind, and not the sort that applies to the claims you attribute to Said. Not that there aren’t other sorts of racism or other sorts of thoughts and attitudes involved in it, but an awful lot of it involves the thought that Bobby, who is necessarily a member of race x, therefore has some trait y, and not the thought that Bobby, who is contingently an x, therefore has some trait y that x’s necessarily have.

    Even if that’s right, though, it may matter very little for your overall argument.

    Liked by 1 person

    • (rambling thoughts following on that…)

      If anything, the difference I’ve pointed to strengthens your case against Said’s inference from essentialist claims about Islam to racism. Admittedly, some instances of racism do not seem to depend on essentialist claims. A person might sincerely believe that, say, African American men are lazy and prone to violence, but not because of any genetic or inherited traits; rather, they’re like this because they have a rotten culture, he thinks, and nothing about being an African American man guarantees laziness or violence, or makes them unavoidable, it’s just a pattern that the vast majority of them supposedly fall into because they’ve been brought up badly. I’d still count this as racism, at least of a sort, because it’s obviously a piece of unwarranted racial stereotyping and in most cases it likely goes along with discomfort and dislike of black people as such (or so it has in the people I’ve met who’ve expressed such attitudes). So we of course can’t conclude that if there’s no racial essentialism, there’s no racism. But Said’s inference is supposed to be from essentialism about Islam to racism of an essentialist variety. Clearly, though, even if many people who indulge in essentialist thinking about Islam are also racial essentialists about Arabs and readily slide from one of these to the other (as is, alas, unfortunately the case), there’s no logical inference from essentialist claims about Islam (if x is Islamic, it is y) to essentialist claims about race (if x is Arab, (s)he is y), and this in part because no individual is essentially a Muslim, even if Arab individuals are essentially Arab (itself not so obvious); so no claim of the form ‘if x is a Muslim, x is y’ possibly entails that any individual is essentially y. Of course, Said won’t want to accept claims of the form ‘if x is a Muslim, x is y’ either, but it looks like a problem for him that no such claim entails any essentialist claims about individuals, and even though there are racist ideas and attitudes that don’t require such essentialist claims, those are the sort that he seems to have in mind. So from essentialism about Islam, there is no valid inference to racial essentialism.

      Of course, half the problem with racism is that people harbor racist views and attitudes even though they don’t follow logically from anything. Perhaps Said doesn’t want to say that there’s a logically valid inference. But it sure looks like he thinks there is.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Let me respond to that tomorrow, but one quick thing: you couldn’t have read this paper before, because I’ve only given it once (at Hampshire, in 2009) and have literally done nothing with it since then. It’s literally just sat dormant in my computer since October 2009.

      I think you’re thinking of a different paper I wrote on a related topic, “Essentialism, Consistency, and Islam,” published in 2007 in the journal Israel Affairs and then republished in a book called Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. (It’s currently being translated into German for republication in Zeitschrift für Kritische Sozialtheorie und Philosophie.) I still stand by the argument I make there, but regret the polemical tone I adopted to make it. The paper was given to a rabidly pro-Israeli (and anti-Said) audience at a conference sponsored by an organization I now regard as problematic, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. I think my giving the paper to that audience adversely affected the tone of the paper.

      I deliberately wrote the Hampshire paper in a less polemical way. As it happens, the audience at Hampshire was more sympathetic to Said and to post-colonial theory: they mostly hated the paper, and had a lot of objections to make–not all of them useful or constructive. I think I got so flummoxed by the issue of audience reception that I dropped Orientalism altogether as something worth working on (philosophers didn’t care about him, and the only people who did care either loved or hated him, and wanted you to pick a side). I’d like to think that 8-10 years break from the subject has given me the necessary perspective to say something intelligent about it for a change. But the proof is in the baba ghanouj.


      • Yes, you’re right, that’s the paper I’ve read. Looking back through it now I see that it’s pretty different, though the point that Said is committed to an essentialism of sorts is there, too. For what it’s worth, I think it’s probably inevitable that most of your readers who are not indifferent will have very strong antecedent loyalties on this issue. Said is something of a saint in some quarters, an arch-villain in others. I haven’t read anything of his myself, but it’s been easy to see from discussion and citation that his work is highly polarizing. I’m not sure this is a good reason to write about it anyway, but I wouldn’t expect that you can avoid hostility one way or the other with this stuff.


    • I do wonder, though, about a particular move you make. You list 10 propositions to which Said is committed, and you claim that these are essentialist claims. I’m not so sure they are, though. What makes me doubt it is that none of them looks like it involves the thought, even implicitly, that any of the individuals to whom the general statements apply are essentially imperialists, racists, Zionists, or Orientalists.

      That’s a good point. The issue you note really just reflects the fact that I was under time constraints in presenting the paper, and couldn’t fill out what I was really trying to say.

      Said equivocates a lot, about a lot. He equivocates a lot about essentialism as well. The ten claims I listed are claims to which Said is clearly committed. My view is that they can get both essentialist and non-necessarily-essentialist readings, and depending on his mood and the context, you can find essentialist and non-essentialist versions of the ten claims. As stated, the ten claims are neutral between the two readings.

      But you can make each one of them essentialist in some sense by inserting a “qua” at the right location. Take (8)”

      (8) Zionism is a form of racism.

      That may or may not be essentialist as stated, but I take it this reading is essentialist:

      (8*) Zionism qua Zionism is racist.

      Claim (8*) asserts a necessary connection between anything exemplifying Zionism and racism: insofar as x expresses/exemplifies Zionism (is Zionist), x is racist. X can range over persons, institutions, etc.(lots of things), but (8*) will, mutatis mutandis (and ex hypothesi), be true of every one of those things in the relevant way.

      Claim (8*) doesn’t entail that every Zionist is a racist; it entails that every Zionist is a racist qua Zionist. Insofar as the person exemplifies Zionism, the person is racist. So you could infer that (for any Smith) if Smith exemplifies Zionism to a high degree (whatever that turns out to mean), Smith is precisely to that degree (or in that respect) a racist.

      Granted, you’d need an account of what it is for a person fully (or partially) to “exemplify” a doctrine. And exemplification in the relevant sense may not be equivalent to sincere avowal (or even: sincere avowal of the entire doctrine). Sincere avowal may be a necessary condition for exemplification or embodiment (in a person) of a doctrine. But my point is, claims (8) and (8*) are not (to so speak) essentially about persons; they’re essentially about doctrines. On the essentialist reading, what (8) or (8*) say is that Zionism is essentially racist; racism is a necessary feature or property of anything that counts as Zionist. Put another way: racism is part of the very nature of Zionism. And so on, for the other nine claims.


      • If essentialism about X is just the claim that X has some essential properties, then it’s clear that claims like “Zionism is racist” admit of essentialist or non-essentialist readings, and that it’s pretty important which one is meant (and which one, if either, is true). Said wants to reject all essentialist claims about Islam, it seems, but there’s nothing logically amiss about holding that Islam, whether conceived as a body of doctrines, a set of practices along with doctrines, or whatever, has no essential properties while also holding that Zionism or some other doctrines do. Offhand, that seems plausible, at least if we’re looking for fairly non-trivial essential properties here. In the analogous case of Christianity (which I focus on only because I’m better informed and therefore better qualified to speak about it), we might identify certain beliefs as essential to Christianity, but even some of the obvious candidates might not work if we refuse to beg the question against the claims of certain groups of people to be Christians; e.g., “Jesus is God” or “Jesus rose from the dead” will exclude certain (historically, at least) groups from the category, and we should presumably want some better reason to do that than the fact that most, or the most institutionally powerful, Christians have disagreed with them. Zionism, by contrast, is a more narrowly defined idea; anyone who doesn’t think that there should be a specifically Jewish state in Israel is not a Zionist (so far as I understand it, anyway), so that’s at least one non-trivial view that belongs essentially to Zionism. Christianity, and perhaps Islam, are sufficiently complex that there may be no non-disjunctive set of essential properties distinctive of it; Zionism is not so complex, and neither are many other doctrines.

        So there’s not necessarily any logical problem involved in being an essentialist about Zionism but not about Islam. Of course Said may just be inconsistent on this point, and that would be a problem. The inference from essentialism to racism, however, is logically flawed, unless Said has defined ‘essentialism’ in such a way as to guarantee that the inference goes through. If that’s what he’s done, then he’s using ‘essentialism’ in a narrow way, and claims like “Zionism is racist” would not be essentialist claims at all; ascribing essential properties to X would be insufficient for essentialism. That’d save him from the logical problem only at the price of triviality, though, by just defining ‘essentialism’ such that only racist claims count as essentialist. Some of what you say suggest that this is what Said does; e.g., “The specific conception of essentialism that emerges from Orientalism is what we might call demographic essentialism, that is, the quasi-biological idea of a population of organisms whose members characteristically (or even exceptionlessly) act true to type.”

        Now if that is what Said means by ‘essentialist,’ then I don’t think claims like “Zionism is racist” or even “Zionists are racists” count as essentialist. On the quasi-biological, demographic idea, we have to end up ascribing essential properties to individuals. “Zionism is racist” need not do so, and it will not do to say that, say, “Joey qua Zionist is racist,” precisely because Joey’s Zionism is not — well, I assume it’s not, at least not by Said — regarded as an expression of Joey’s inherent nature. It is instead a contingent fact about Joey that he is a Zionist, even if we’re pretty sure that Joey, given his character and history, is always gonna be a Zionist. So if Saidian essentialism must involve making claims about the non-contingent traits that belong to groups or individuals by virtue of their inherent natures, then Said’s claims about Zionism and racism aren’t essentialist claims, or at least don’t have to be.

        That looks like it’d be an adequate defense against the logical problem, though it makes the inference from essentialism to racism go through by definition and therefore makes it a rather less sweeping claim that it otherwise appears to be. This wouldn’t help Said against your objection that claims about the essential properties of Islam as a set of doctrines do not entail racist claims; in fact, if Said really restricts ‘essentialism’ in this way, then you could say that claims about the essential properties of Islam as a set of doctrines are not necessarily essentialist claims at all.

        If, by contrast, Said is using the word ‘essentialism’ in something closer to its more usual sense, such that a claim about X is essentialist if it attributes an essential property to X, then his own claims about Zionism, Orientalism, and the like will be essentialist, and the inference from essentialism to racism will just be a simple conceptual mistake, for the reasons I’ve already given, and that you give in a different way in the paper. Core racist claims attribute essential properties to individuals, but essentialist claims about doctrines don’t, and therefore a claim can’t be racist simply by virtue of being essentialist.

        So it doesn’t look great for Said either way. It would be interesting to consider how, if your objection holds good, he might modify his claims so as to make the least overall revision to the substance of what he wants to say. It’s unclear to me how damaging your critique is overall, and how much of your disagreement turns not on logical or conceptual points that he could in principle revise without much loss, but on substantive issues about, say, what Islam is or isn’t.


  2. “There is a good reason to discourage people from denigrating people of a certain skin color, but this has no application to the criticism of a doctrine, unless one simply equates doctrinal disagreement with racial denigration.”

    a subtle point that is lost on many. criticism of islamic norms is equated with bigtory against individuals with an islamic heritage/muslim background.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, though this runs both ways: often these days purported criticism of Islamic norms is mixed up with, and apparently driven by, bigotry against individuals with an Islamic heritage/Muslim background. It doesn’t help much that many criticisms of Islamic norms are ignorant bullshit that attacks stuff that only a minority of Muslims believe. That’s true of many criticisms of Christianity, too, but anti-Christian critics rarely throw racial or ethnic bigotry into the mix. The mere fact that there’s such a tight association in many people’s mind between ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ is enough to suggest that there’s more than religious or ideological critique going on; not only are many Arabs not Muslim, but very many Muslims are not Arab, and yet the conflation of the two is remarkably common (many Americans even seem to think that Iranians are Arabs; even if geographical location makes that an innocent piece of ignorance, forgetting about the tremendous numbers of African and Asian Muslims isn’t). So, in short, I think that in many particular instances, the charge that so-and-so’s critiques of Islam are in fact an expression of racism is at least plausible. Where Said and others like him go wrong is in supposing, if they do, that critiques of Islam have to be racist. I’ll let Irfan speak for himself, but I don’t think his argument here is meant to deny that critiques of Islam sometimes or maybe even often are racist. So too, though I take the point of his objections to Said’s many-Islams thesis, there’s surely something to that; the religious beliefs, and even more the political views and personal attitudes, of individual Muslims differ a great deal, and many popular critiques of Islam seem guilty of vastly overgeneralizing from the views and attitudes of some to the views and attitudes of Muslims as such.

      Nifty new gravatar photo, by the way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with both of you, not that what either of you is saying is inconsistent with what the other is saying.

        But I think Michael’s point deserves some emphasis. Granting everything that David says, it’s amazing how often liberal discourse loses sight of what should strike anyone as a patently obvious matter: since Islam is not a race, one cannot assume a priori that criticisms of Islam, however false, rebarbative, or reliant on bigoted stereotypes, are racist. “Racist” is not a synonym for false, rebarbative, or even stereotyped or bigoted claims about a religion. To the extent that we’ve come to conflate stereotypes about Muslims with racism, we need to invent a new vocabulary to keep the two things distinct. They’re simply not the same thing, however similar they may sometimes be, and however often the one thing slides into the other.

        Related point: It’s not easy to give a worked-out account of how doctrines cause actions or events, but it can hardly be taken for granted that claims like “Islam causes terrorism” or “Islam is barbaric,” etc. are racist. And yet it’s habitually taken for granted.

        My hunch is that certain activists have self-consciously adopted the strategy long ago adopted by Jewish advocacy organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, so that “Islamophobia” has become (or is on the way to becoming) the Islamic analogue of “anti-Semitism,” In some respects, this may well be a salutary development, since “Islamophobia” is sometimes or often analogous to “anti-Semitism.” Both are often forms of bigotry or racism that masquerade as a form of Enlightenment secularism.

        But the attempted equation is also highly problematic on both fronts. Grant that apparently secular critiques of Judaism and Islam sometimes (or often) function as a cover for bigotry or racism. It doesn’t follow, and isn’t true, that every apparently secular critique of either religion just is a cover for bigotry or racism. But there’s a taboo on talking about Judaism or Zionism as such (on grounds that such talk is anti-Semitic), and if Said-influenced activists have their way, we’ll all be operating under a similar taboo when it comes to Islam.

        Said’s work systematically confuses every relevant issue here. First, he wants to insist that there is no such thing as Islam. Then he conflates criticism of Islam qua Islam with racism, explicitly invoking the analogy of anti-Semitism as a deterrent against anyone who might give it a shot. Then he doubles back to insist that Zionism qua Zionism is responsible for the dispossession of the Palestinians. And then he goes out of his way to make criticisms of Islam, treating his criticisms as legitimate, because they’re the criticisms of a quasi-insider with a sufficiently anti-Zionist political stance to give him standing to criticize. This set of commitments structures a great deal of post-colonial theorizing. But taken together, it’s wildly incoherent.

        What I find tragic is that so much of what Said says is right. Despite every criticism I make, there’s actually a great deal of insight in Orientalism and in his other works. He just manages to couch what’s right in a maddeningly incoherent set of theoretical claims. The upshot is that if you begin a sentence by saying, “The problem with Islam is…” a Said-influenced audience will assume, right there, that you are an “Orientalist,” hence a racist, hence not worth listening to. I’m willing to grant that in many cases, those inferences may get you to conclusions that happen to be true. The problem is, they remain bad inferences.

        That said, I’m not disagreeing with anything David is saying.

        So, in short, I think that in many particular instances, the charge that so-and-so’s critiques of Islam are in fact an expression of racism is at least plausible.

        Absolutely. The analogy with Judaism helps here. There is such a thing as a sincere, non-bigoted rejection of the claims of Judaism as a religion. But there’s also the anti-Semite who adopts the facade of non-bigoted rationalism as a means of concealing an essentially racial animus.

        Where Said and others like him go wrong is in supposing, if they do, that critiques of Islam have to be racist.

        He does that in an ad hoc way. Critiques of Islam have to be racist, unless they’re made by people (like Said et al) with standing to criticize, where standing to criticize requires a sort of insider’s perspective on or membership in the Islamic world (in a very loose sense of “insider”).

        I don’t think his [Irfan’s] argument here is meant to deny that critiques of Islam sometimes or maybe even often are racist.


        So too, though I take the point of his objections to Said’s many-Islams thesis, there’s surely something to that; the religious beliefs, and even more the political views and personal attitudes, of individual Muslims differ a great deal, and many popular critiques of Islam seem guilty of vastly overgeneralizing from the views and attitudes of some to the views and attitudes of Muslims as such.

        Fair enough. I actually wonder whether the analogies I make in the paper between Islam and utilitarianism or Kantianism really go through. The paper treats religions as analogous to philosophical theories, but that may or may not be right. I speak a little too loosely of the “coherence” of Islam (presupposing a generalized conception of the “coherence” of a religion), but I wonder if this is realistic. For one thing, it treats religions as reducible to clusters of doctrines. It also treats those doctrines themselves as clear and determinate by philosophical standards. I don’t know that these complications really affect my critique of Said, but whether they do or they don’t, my claims about religion now strike me as problematically oversimplified.


        • I suppose that one finds this conflation more or less problematic in part depending on how often one encounters it in the form of a true claim that so-and-so’s criticisms of Islam are in fact racist blather and how often one encounters it in the form of an attempt to shut down criticism of religious ideas and practices on the grounds that criticizing them is ipso facto racist. I myself have encountered so little criticism of Islam that even appears to be well-informed intellectual critique rather than fairly transparent bigotry that I’m not bothered by the casual conflation — though of course I object to the explicit claim that they’re inseparable or that criticisms of Islam must be racist. I’m not sure we really need to invent new terminology here; we might just reserve ‘racist’ for cases where we’re explicitly asserting that someone’s motivations are racially or ethnically motivated (I see no significant difference arising from whether the group is deemed a race or an ethnicity) and use the more general term ‘bigot’ for cases in which the motives aren’t specifically racial. I am also so cynical about the possibility that popular political discourse will actually avail itself of fine-grained distinctions that I might just be resigned to accepting imprecision here.

          I do think that the comparison to philosophical doctrines is somewhat problematic, though it makes a genuinely important point. Philosophical doctrines are different than religions in a number of respects, but one of the most relevant is that hardly anybody’s identity is intimately tied up with participation in a community of practices centered around the writings of Mill or Kant. People whose identity is strongly tied up with philosophical doctrines like utilitarianism or Kantianism are usually intellectuals who have adopted a very specific set of beliefs for philosophical reasons, and whether they remain utilitarians or Kantians is a purely intellectual matter of whether they continue to accept some theoretical claims; it’s of course possible to fail to act consistently with one’s philosophical beliefs, but being a utilitarian or Kantian or whatever is really just a matter of accepting some theories or other. Religions are more typically traditions of practice more intimately bound up with communal life, and though doctrines play a variety of roles in different religions, it’s not possible to be a ‘lapsed’ or ‘non-practicing’ utilitarian or to participate in the communal practices of Kantianism without giving too much thought to the doctrines or even seriously believing them. In part for that reason, the diversity of beliefs and attitudes among Muslims, Christians, or Jews, say, is much greater than the diversity of utilitarian or Kantian theories. One learns much less about an individual by learning that he is a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew than by learning that he is a utilitarian. These differences may just be a contingent cultural matter, but I think when we’re talking about the kinds of issues that Said is worried about, we need to work at least some of the time with a sociological conception of religious identity — the Christians are the people who sincerely claim to be Christians, the Muslims are the ones who sincerely claim to be Muslims — and not with a theological one — the Christians are the ones whose beliefs, practices, and attitudes are consistent with real Christianity, the Muslims are the ones whose beliefs, practices, and attitudes are consistent with real Islam. There’s a live dispute to be had among Sunni Muslims about whether non-Sunni Muslims are really Muslims, just as there’s a live dispute to be had among Christians whether Episcopalians or Pentecostals are really Christians. But in a sociological sense, there’s no debate to be had here; Pentecostals and Episcopalians are Christians, and Sunni and non-Sunni Muslims are Muslims. Critiques of Christian or Islamic doctrine may be perfectly true and yet have no bearing on the personal characteristics of anyone who is Muslim or Christian in this sociological sense. These sorts of complications just don’t arise with philosophical theories as such, because philosophy does not extend beyond abstract theoretical ideas in the way that religion does. Even with philosophy, it’s an important point that critiques of the theory don’t license any particular criticisms of the people who hold them, except perhaps that those people are guilty of some kind of vice for accepting that theory; I think utilitarianism is garbage, but I’ve known plenty of utilitarians who are not garbage, and while I sometimes suspect that utilitarianism appears attractive only to people with certain pathologies, there’s just no good inference from ‘Bob is a utilitarian’ to ‘Bob is a bad person.’ This point strikes me as even more true in the case of religion; from ‘Bob is a Christian,’ I can’t even infer reliably what Bob believes, let alone what kind of person Bob is, and the same seems true to me of Islam.

          Ok, enough rambling.


          • I do think that the comparison to philosophical doctrines is somewhat problematic, though it makes a genuinely important point. Philosophical doctrines are different than religions in a number of respects, but one of the most relevant is that hardly anybody’s identity is intimately tied up with participation in a community of practices centered around the writings of Mill or Kant.

            Obviously, I agree with the general point (that the comparison of religions to philosophical doctrines is problematic), but don’t agree with the particular difference you adduce. What about Marxism and Freudianism? Granted, Freudianism is not literally a philosophical doctrine, but it’s a broadly theoretical doctrine. Both Marxism and Freudianism (or more broadly, Freud-inspired psychoanalytic theory) were doctrines, and both occasioned movements. Millions of people conceived their identities as tied to those movements, and the movements themselves involved participation in communities of practice.

            I took MacIntyre to be saying something similar about liberalism, and Bernard Williams to be alluding to something similar when it comes to utilitarianism (“Government House utilitarianism”). I see that we have a discussion pending on nationalism, but something similar might be said about it, as well.


            • I’m not sure Freudianism or even Marxism (in the West, at least) rise quite to the level of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. in being systems of practice that encompass such wide areas of life. But I think that’s just an empirical question, and it’s no doubt a matter of degree. Certainly Marxism for some people has come at least close. But insofar as it — or Freudianism / psychoanalysis, or whatever — does rise to that level, it becomes much more than a matter of belief in certain theoretical doctrines or propositions, and becomes a whole socially embedded set of practices in which theoretical details play a secondary role for many ordinary adherents. To my mind, the important point isn’t whether this or that resembles religion more or less, but that the paradigmatic cases of religion are far, far more than sets of doctrines.


              • It is a matter of degree and an empirical matter, but I think the similarities are there. If you compare, say, Reconstructionist or Reform Jews with unreconstructed Marxists, the Marxists’ Marxism would certainly encompass more of the Marxists’ lives than the Jews’ Judaism. And though theory gets downgraded (or appears to get downgraded) in psychoanalysis, I’d say two things: (a) that’s a bit of an illusion, since the apparent downgrading of theory is compatible with the theory’s being so thoroughly internalized by everyone involved that they enact it without explicitly having to allude to it, and (b) there are versions of both Judaism and Islam that are more concerned with orthopraxy than orthodoxy, so that explicitly theological beliefs take a back seat to socially embedded practices (without, of course, disappearing entirely).

                I take it that (b) was also true of ancient pagan religion in “the West.” (Admittedly, I don’t know very much about the latter, but that’s the impression I got by reading Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians.)

                Anyway, I happened on two very relevant sources (or one source and one set of sources) to add to our ever-expanding list of items we pretend to intend to read in the distant future. One is Shahab Ahmad’s very interesting book, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Ahmad does a frontal assault on the question of whether Islam has an “essence” that accounts for the multiplicity of things that are commonly regarded as Islamic. I’ve just started the book, but so far it’s very thorough and interesting.

                More broadly, there’s the work of an acquaintance of mine, Andrew Dole, at Amherst. Andrew works specifically on the question of the identity-conditions of religions. I guess officially, he specializes in Schleirmacher and “the methodology of religious studies,” but I believe he devotes a chapter of his Schleiermacher on Religion and the Natural Order to the question of what it is for something to be a religion (never read it, but looked at it awhile ago).

                I’ve been an exceptionally poor correspondent lately, but am knee deep in teaching, of all things. Hopefully will return to hiatus-consistent blog commenting as soon as I can manage.


                • I guess my thought is that the paradigms of religion are really primarily about practice, only secondarily about doctrines, and that this is true even of the ones that nobody would describe as giving orthodoxy a back seat to orthopraxy. That’s not to deny that doctrines are often essential and crucial, just that practice is the central thing even in such cases. So to the extent that a complex set of practices grows up around a theoretical doctrine like psychoanalysis or Marxism, it’ll look more like a religion, but only because it’s becoming something more than a theoretical doctrine. In other words, the limitations of the analogy between theoretical doctrines and religion seem to me to be primarily a matter of doctrine being only one among many parts of religion, and much less an important part than certain philosophical approaches to religion would have us believe. I don’t think this renders your appeal to similarities especially problematic, but it does potentially complicate it because it looks to me like the centrality of social practice in religion will make it very hard to identify a non-trivial and distinctive set of essential doctrines, unless we come at the question from a theological point of view rather than a more narrowly sociological one. If we’re not going to enter into the territory of distinguishing true Muslims, true Christians, true Buddhists, or whatever from people who claim to be and are widely recognized as Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, or whatever, then I doubt we’re going to find much that is genuinely essential, distinctive, and non-trivial. Maybe we will, but it won’t be easy. Even in Catholicism, where there is actually an official teaching body with the recognized authority to define doctrine, we can’t just treat the doctrines that Rome says are essential as genuinely essential, unless we abandon sociological accuracy; officially, for instance, Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, but in fact a great many sincere practicing Catholics are either skeptical of the real presence or outright deny it and regard it as mere symbolism. From the right perspective, I’ve got no problem with the claim that such people are deviant Catholics, but sociologically they’re not unusual and they don’t regard themselves as in any serious conflict with the Church, nor are they often so regarded by others, since very few Catholics sit around talking about whether they believe in the real presence; the ones who do are usually eggheads like us or converts from Protestantism for whom doctrinal purity is more important than it is for the average American Catholic. If this sort of issue arises when there is a recognized authority on doctrine, it’s only going to be worse for cases where there isn’t; we’re not getting anywhere if we try to identify the essence of Christianity, and I suspect we won’t get very far with Islam either, unless we take a stand on intra-Islamic disputes — but what business does a non-Muslim have taking a stand on intra-Islamic disputes?

                  As I think about it, I see that my perspective here might be distorted by my Catholicism; for us, the notion of identifying Catholicism with a set of doctrines is manifestly absurd. But that’s instructive in its own way, because it’s not as though Catholicism minimizes doctrines, either; some of us even think that you’ve got to get the doctrine right in order to get the practice right (even as an agnostic, I still think that, otherwise I might be one of these mainstream American Catholics who regularly or semi-regularly participates fully despite not actually believing about half of what the Church teaches). Doctrines play a different role in relation to practice in other religions, but it seems to me that religion is still primarily about practice, usually socially embodied practice; others may not like their rituals so much as Catholics do, but practice need not be especially ritualistic.


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  4. “Indeed, though this runs both ways: often these days purported criticism of Islamic norms is mixed up with, and apparently driven by, bigotry against individuals with an Islamic heritage/Muslim background. It doesn’t help much that many criticisms of Islamic norms are ignorant bullshit that attacks stuff that only a minority of Muslims believe”

    i agree that it can run both ways but such voices (however bigoted) are used as an excuse to dismiss plenty of solid criticisms of the religion itself. I think also that which segments of the religion individual muslims choose to compartmentalize on is a different issue alltogether.

    However Irfan mentioned a crucial point when he said this:

    “Critiques of Islam have to be racist, unless they’re made by people (like Said et al) with standing to criticize, where standing to criticize requires a sort of insider’s perspective on or membership in the Islamic world (in a very loose sense of “insider”).”

    this seems to suggest some kind of epistemic advantage that the critic needs to have before engaging with the field. insiderism is discussed in a similar case here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/18/opinion/the-uproar-over-transracialism.html. It is also noted here under the title Obscurantist on page 5: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2896397 I think the implications of this are rather problematic.


    • I don’t want to take any sort of general position about “critiques of Islam,” not only because I’m skeptical that there’s anything much to be said in general about everything that counts as a critique of Islam, but because I am certainly no expert about critiques of Islam. That said, the vast majority of criticisms I have encountered pretty clearly come from people whose knowledge of Islam is derived mainly from Western news and perhaps a very superficial reading of the Koran. I’ve encountered some more informed critiques by former Muslims, but these have mostly been from people who grew up in very strict fundamentalist environments; like similar critiques of Christian fundamentalism, they tend to retain all the basic thought patterns of fundamentalism and to treat the fundamentalist strain as the only strain, or the ‘real’ strain. I don’t mean to dismiss the latter critics, except insofar as their critiques seem to overgeneralize. But the limitations of those critiques become vivid to me when I think about the numerous Muslims I’ve known who simply do not fit the bill. As an American who mostly leaves his apartment to visit college campuses, I recognize that my exposure to Muslims is exposure to a very specific and limited set of Muslims, those who are generally well educated and typically far from hostile to ‘Western’ and modern life. That said, it seems relevant that these people exist and that they no more fit the fundamentalist picture than the folks at your neighborhood Methodist potluck fit the picture of fundamentalist Christians.

      In other words, I’m skeptical of most popular critiques of Islam, and I see no reason to take those critiques as providing any insight into what my Muslim neighbors are like. There are two kinds of critiques that I’m willing to treat more seriously: critiques by people who are genuinely well-informed about Islam as a religion (and growing up Muslim does not automatically render a person genuinely well-informed about Islam) and critiques that are so general as to apply more or less equally to Christianity and Judaism as well. It may be worth noting here that I find most critiques of Christianity and monotheism more generally pretty worthless, because the critics so often either don’t know what they’re talking about or treat simplistic fundamentalist versions of Christianity as representative of the whole religion. My attitude to critiques of Islam is no doubt colored by that; I see the same patterns, and so I conclude that the critiques aren’t really worth my time.

      Your earlier point strikes me as absolutely crucial, though, and almost impossible to over-emphasize: that critiques of Islam as a religion, set of doctrines, ideas, or what not, should not be conflated with attacks on Muslims. I’m not sure whether you and I would agree on the details; to my mind, it’s a serious problem that critiques of Islam typically are also attacks on Muslim people, even primarily attacks on Muslim people masquerading as critiques of ideas. But it’s essential that we not lose sight of the difference; it should be perfectly possible to critique Islam without being hostile or hateful to Muslims, in just the same way that it’s perfectly possible to critique Christianity without being hateful to Christians, or to critique utilitarianism without being hateful to utilitarians, or to critique the view that personal identity is entirely a matter of psychological connections without being hateful to people who think that personal identity is entirely a matter of psychological connections. Part of the reason why it is harder to distinguish the two in the case of Islam than in the case of personal identity is that certain sorts of enforcers of political correctness refuse to recognize the distinction, but an equally important part of the reason is that very often there is no such distinction in the minds or words of the critics.


    • Responding to Michael P:

      Without taking back anything I’ve said, and without weighing in on transracialism etc., just a footnote on “insider status”: Personal experience of a phenomenon can obviously function as an epistemic advantage with respect to knowing that phenomenon. No one would dispute that a person with color vision enjoys an epistemic advantage over a color-blind person with respect to knowledge of colors. By reverse token, I don’t think it’s disputable that very superficial experiences of complex phenomena can give the appearance of epistemic leverage without actually doing so. For instance, an administrator at a military institution at Fort Dix in New Jersey could accurately claim “personal experience of serving in the military during wartime,” but have no experience of combat, of personal risk, or of danger, while giving the false impression of having had all three.

      Said’s insider status with respect to Islam struck me as closer to the latter (without being literally tantamount to the latter). He grew up in an Islamic milieu; he spoke Arabic, and read classical Arabic; he knew many Muslims, and did some traveling in the Islamic world. Finally, of course, he was (when he was alive) probably the best-known spokesman for the Palestinian cause in the English-speaking world. Those five or six things gave him his “insider membership.” And the first four or five of them really did confer some (limited) epistemic advantage. I don’t think you can fully understand Islam in a cloistered fashion by poring over texts but having no experiential sense of how the practices described by those texts have been embodied by real-life people. Said’s experiences (even as an outsider to the religion) gave him a form of knowledge of Islam that many otherwise well-read people might lack. My objection is that those kinds of experience weren’t enough to justify the kinds of dogmatic pronouncements Said made about Islam.

      And the biggest problem is that the last item on the list–his partisanship for the Palestinian cause–confers no advantage in this context, but ended up doing the most work in practice. In other words, people took Said’s views on Islam seriously because he was such an articulate defender of the Palestinian cause. But that’s a blatant non sequitur. There is no reason to think that an articulate defender of the Palestinian cause should be an expert on Islam, or have any particular insight into Islam. But people felt the need to maintain that pretense in Said’s case, and still do.

      I’m belaboring all of this because the claim I was making was more about Said in particular than about “insider status” generally. The relationship between personal experience and knowledge of a subject matter (and by implication insider status and knowledge of a subject matter) is a very complex one. All I can say about it in the abstract is that sometimes it matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. How and why it matters is a long story. What’s relevant here is that sometimes it doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter very much, or doesn’t matter as much as someone seems to think it does. My claim about Said is: his insider status didn’t matter as much to what he wanted to say about Islam as he tried to suggest.

      I’d have to go and hunt down the passages, but there are passages in Said’s writings where he seems to be suggesting that one can’t criticize Islam unless one first affiliates with (and “earns one’s stripes in”) the political causes generally espoused by Muslims. Only then does one have both the experiences and attitudes that give standing to criticize. That’s what I’m rejecting.


    • I dunno. If this is the ‘right’ you have in mind, they seem mostly to be ignorant blowhards: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/11/532454216/anti-sharia-marchers-met-with-counter-protests-around-the-country

      I’m curious: what are some criticisms of Islam that are neither (a) criticisms of specifically Islamist political ideologies that interpret Sharia in a strict way and endorse its enforcement by the state nor (b) criticisms that apply equally well to Judaism and the law of Moses? Aside from general objections to theism or revealed religion, the only serious criticisms I’m aware of are criticisms of authoritarian state enforcement of particular interpretations of Islam and criticisms of some especially harsh and barbaric aspects of the Koran, Sharia, and other dimensions of Islam. The former are narrow in scope, and the latter could be applied with very little change to Judaism and Christianity. I don’t know many people on the left side of the political spectrum who defend Islamist political doctrines or deny that there are many harsh and barbaric things in the Koran just as there are in the Torah. What the informed people I know on the left side of the political spectrum refuse to do is to identify Islam with Islamism or with strict fundamentalist attitudes toward the Koran. Since I have met many Muslims who are neither Islamists nor fundamentalists, and am aware of many more, the only objection I can see to what strikes me as the standard view on the left is that it underestimates the number and influence of Islamists and fundamentalists. That may well be true; certainly I sometimes find myself thinking that certain folks on the left seem unwilling to admit that fundamentalism and Islamism are not just restricted a few dozen mentally ill people in a few countries across the world. But even if progressives are generally guilty of underestimating Islamism and fundamentalism, that would show at best that they need to qualify their view, not that they’re wrong to refuse to identify Islam with certain interpretations and political applications of it.

      So what exactly is it that people on the left side of the spectrum get wrong and people on the right side get right? I’m not surprised that many people on every side frequently say foolish things on the topic; I’m asking about serious views here, not the tenability of slogans.


      • Responding to David:

        I don’t want to get into a discussion of the comparative merits or demerits of “left” versus “right” on Islam, because (a) it seems pointless, (b) it’s irrelevant to my paper, and (c) it’s basically undecidable. That said, one particularly ignorant and repellent feature of right-wing discourse on Islam is its blanket condemnation of sharia, but conflating sharia with “the most reactionary exemplifications of sharia we could find.” But sharia simply means “holy law,” and extends to rituals like praying, fasting, and charity (on the one hand) to military jihad or the coercive imposition of paternalistic legislation on the other. To treat sharia–any instance of sharia anywhere, exemplified by anyone–as an existential threat is like saying, “When Muslims stop eating and drinking for Ramadan, why, our liberty is threatened.” Even if all of sharia was wrongheaded, it couldn’t all be construed as threatening, or as equally threatening. But that’s how the political right has come to treat it. And it’s spread to the wider culture. Here’s the Facebook page for Stop the Mosque in Bayonne, a city in New Jersey. The whole thing trades on the loose conflation of “sharia” with “First Amendment violation,” ignoring the fact that you can practice sharia simply by praying in a mosque. “Do you accept sharia?” has now become a kind of ideological litmus test, where a “yes” answer practically indicts the answerer of treason.

        This is about as stupid as attacking “natural law” (meaning the normative theory) on the grounds that some particularly conservative interpretations of natural law lead us to a reactionary form of politics. The irony is that when Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court, it was the liberals who attacked him on anti-natural law grounds, and the conservatives who bridled and took offense at the wholesale nature of such attacks. (I’d hate to think what might have happened to Martin Luther King Jr under such a dispensation.) Now things are reversed: it’s the right that engages in wholesale attacks on sharia, and the liberals who decry the broad brush tactics involved.

        That said, I do think liberals have a bigger problem than you’re suggesting. Where people on the right tend to identify Islam with its most reactionary exemplifications, liberals seem to think that the most reactionary exemplifications are, qua illiberal, not genuine exemplifications of Islam. The problem is implicit in your formulation:

        What the informed people I know on the left side of the political spectrum refuse to do is to identify Islam with Islamism or with strict fundamentalist attitudes toward the Koran.

        That claim–“refuse to identify Islamism with Islam”–is ambiguous as between two (very) different readings:

        1. There are species of Islam (or interpretations of Islam) that are not Islamist, but still count as true instantiations of Islam (aka, “genuinely or authentically Islamic”).

        2. Islamist species or interpretations of Islam do not count as true instantiations of Islam (aka, “genuinely or authentically Islamic”).


        1*. There are species of Islam that are not fundamentalist, but still count as genuinely or authentically Islamic.

        2*. No fundamentalist species of Islam counts as genuinely or authentically Islamic.

        Claims (1) and (1*) are true, but claims (2) and (2*) are false. A huge amount of liberal discourse on Islam seems to me to consist in an attempt to conflate (1) and (2), then affirm (2) by trading on the plausibility of (1).

        Related to this is the tendency to champion this or that “Islamic reformer” as though his brand of Islam, given its congeniality (or supposed or imagined congeniality) to the reigning liberal consensus, is the real deal as far as Islam is concerned, whereas everything else is Fake Islam. Once upon a time, the Reformer Du Jour was Khaled Abou El Fadl. Then it turned to Tariq Ramadan.

        The excuses that liberal academics made for Ramadan in particular practically defy belief. Try Andrew F. March’s Rawlsianized Tariq Ramadan on for size, or Nicholas Tampio on Ramadan as Kantian hero. Granted, these are academic rather than popular accounts of Islam, but March at least is go-to authority on Islam in the mass media, because of rather than in spite of his whitewashing of Tariq Ramadan. Examples of this sort could, I think, be multiplied. Which is just a way of saying that the left has its own problems when it comes to Islam.

        Last point, on this:

        I’m curious: what are some criticisms of Islam that are neither (a) criticisms of specifically Islamist political ideologies that interpret Sharia in a strict way and endorse its enforcement by the state nor (b) criticisms that apply equally well to Judaism and the law of Moses?

        There may not end up being any criticisms of Islam that fully satisfy this description, but I don’t see why that matters. Take a criticism of Islam–a critique, let’s say, of a certain militaristic text of the Qur’an, interpreted by way of the relevant historical context from 7th century Arabia–that happens to satisfy (b). To say that a critique of Islam satisfies (b) is to say that (mutatis mutandis) it applies (or could apply, or could be made to apply) equally well to Judaism and the law of Moses. But an author might grant the hypothetical application of his criticisms of Islam to Judaism while insisting that what he was actually focusing on right now was Islam–something he had a right to do without having simultaneously to pronounce on Judaism and the Mosaic law.

        I find that basically unobjectionable. You can demand that someone universalize his moral judgments to all similar situations–e.g., from Islam to Judaism–at least within the limits of his knowledge, but you can’t demand that the person change the subject from his preferred topic to some other topic. If I’m writing a critique of Islam, the fact that the same critique might also apply to Judaism is immaterial to my task. It doesn’t affect the truth of my critique, doesn’t affect the legitimacy of my choosing Islam as a target, and doesn’t even entail that my critique is just a generic critique of Abrahamic monotheism in general. It’s a critique of Islam implications for Judaism, not a critique of what Islam has in common with Judaism.

        I would say that any non-believer reading through the Qur’an and (even more so) the classical hadith collections could generate a critique of Islam (and there are sensible critiques out there). Would the criticisms overlap with criticisms of Judaism and Christianity? I’m sure they would, at least in principle. But that’s neither an objection to the activity of generating such a criticism, nor even tantamount to saying that the critique in question is too generic to function as a criticism of Islam in particular. A critique of Islam is going to overlap to some degree with criticism of Judaism and Christianity; that’s just unavoidable in the nature of the case. In other words, a critique of the claims of the Qur’an remains a critique of Islam, whatever else may follow from it.


        • I’ve encountered folks who defend 2 and 2* or at least conflate them with 1 and 1*, but 1 and 1* are what I think most tolerably informed people on the left think. Certainly they’re what most people I’ve talked to or heard from think. This, and the later point — that there are precious few critiques of Islam that are neither critiques of fundamentalist or Islamist varieties of Islam nor overlap considerably with critiques of Judaism and Christianity — matter in part for reasons that you’ve already given earlier in your post: critiques of Islam that in fact apply only to fundamentalist or Islamist varieties of it are guilty of the same error you rightly bemoan about ‘Sharia.’ The fact that critiques of Islam generally tend to overlap with critiques of Judaism and Christianity is highly relevant in this context: for one thing, most severe critics of Islam are very friendly to Christianity and Judaism, so that there is a real inconsistency and double standard involved, but more importantly, just as the application of these criticisms to Christianity and Judaism is perfectly compatible with most Christians and Jews you know not being lunatics bent on undermining Western culture or murdering innocent people, so too the application of those general criticisms to Islam is perfectly compatible with most Muslims you know not being lunatics bent on undermining Western culture or murdering innocent people. Remembering that for every striking piece of barbarity in the Koran there is some more or less equally striking piece of barbarity in the Old Testament surely matters for thinking about what Islam is or may be and, more importantly, what we should think about Muslims as people. If those two salient facts — that Islam is not exhausted by its fundamentalist and Islamist strands and that Islam is not inherently any more or less horrifying than Judaism and Christianity — were universally acknowledged, much of the trouble with our culture’s discourse about Islam and Muslims would go away.

          But you’re right that this has little to do with your paper, except insofar as it touches obliquely on the essentialism question.


      • djr,

        the logic of belief isnt necessarily the logic of believers. Those on the right cant seem to grasp this subtle point. You’ve met many muslims who are not fundamentalists and I’ve met many myself, some progressive while others obnoxiously conservative. To an American conservative they’re all the same (and are probably confused with other communities).

        those on the left will simply bend over backwards to defend Islam in a way they wouldn’t do with other monotheistic religions just to spite the right. “Islamophobe” and “islamophobia” are terms thrown out at anyone including some muslims themselves (e.g. Majid Nawaz) and ex-muslims as well. Also there is an attempt to exclude the more fundamentalist sects as not being ‘true muslims’ because of their actions e.g. ISIS or Al-Qaeda even though a history of islamic societies will show you that this is in fact a recurring pattern within the religion itself.


        • I get that, and I’ve encountered the sorts of thing you describe. But why should we identify those silly ideas with people on the left? It’s almost exclusively people on the left who espouse them, but I don’t think most people on the left espouse them. I don’t know many who do, at least.

          In any case, it’d be nice if we heard less of them, that’s for sure.


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  8. Does ISLAM exist?
    You say: Sure, there is ONE Islam, there are CORE concepts, there is a central TEXT.
    But when you look at it more closely, a word pops up out of nowhere (both in the paragraph on believers and the other paragraph): orthodox.
    I guess, it is a different question: Is there one orthodox Islam?
    You write: “claims about the essence of Islam are … claims … about the content of texts”.
    Later you write about “the non-Muslim studying Islam … understanding [Muslims] in an anthropological fashion.”
    As an orientalist I try to make sense of the *practice* of Muslims, of the way they use texts. One of my arguments against critics is “I am not only studying a 1400 years old text, but the way it is used and understood *today*.”
    Let’s start at the fringe: Are Druse Muslims? Are Nusairi-Alewites Muslims? Are Bektashi-Alevis Muslim? Are Qādiyāni Aḥmadis Muslims? For the first three groups the five pillars of Islam are not important. The last group has a different interpretation of a key Muslim belief?
    Or let’s look at it from the center: Wahhabis and Deobandis thinks that they are the center. Their doctrine is Islam. Barelvis do not deny that these “orthodox” are Muslims, they do not deny the centrality of texts and rules, but they would say that your personal devotion, ikhlas, bhakti is much more important. What counts — they would say — is your love for the Almighty and your good deeds (some would go so far to add: not your good intentions).
    Please tell me, 1) what belongs to “Islam” (or are there Islams after all)? 2) What is the core of Islam?


    • Thanks for your questions. For reasons I explain below, I can’t answer every single question you pose, but I think I can answer enough of them to address the gist of your overarching concern.

      Please tell me, 1) what belongs to “Islam” (or are there Islams after all)? 2) What is the core of Islam?

      Taking the second question first: I take the core of Islam to have three elements: (a) belief in a single, unitary God, (b) belief in Muhammad’s prophecy as sent by this God, and (c) belief in the Qur’an as the primary text codifying the message of Muhammad’s prophecy. Those are necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for being a Muslim (and the core of Islam). If you believe those three, you are a Muslim; if you disbelieve one or more, you are not. And these three beliefs provide the explanation for something’s counting as an Islamic belief, practice, institution. To count as Islamic, the thing in question has to be derived in some sense from the conjunction of these three elements.

      On this view, there is one generic Islam that provides the criteria for whether the particular sects or interpretations are really Islamic. Obviously, element (c) is going to be crucial, but (a) and (b) do a fair bit of work as well. There are only multiple Islams in the sense of of there being species of a common genus. What I dispute is the idea that there are “many Islams” in a sense that implies that the various sects of Islam bear only a family resemblance to one another, so that there is no common defining essence to them. (Nor is there a merely nominal essence that is substantively empty.) The family resemblance view was effectively the one that Edward Said held.

      Before I answer your questions about the “fringes,” let me apply what I’ve just said to clear cases. I think it’s obvious why Judaism, Christianity, Zorastrianism, and the Bahai faith are not instances (or sects, or interpretations) of Islam. These faiths are either flatly incompatible with the necessary and sufficient conditions I laid out, or are missing one or more.

      To take less “fringe”-like examples: I think it’s also clear why the various forms of Shia Islam are instances of Islam on my view. No dispute about caliphal succession is implicated in the account I’ve given. Nor does it bear on some of the more esoteric doctrines held by various Shia sects. Nor, for that matter (to get very trivial), does my “definition” have any bearing on the rites of self-flagellation engaged in by Shia Muslims during Muharram.

      Now take the most difficult of these cases, that of Mansur al Hallaj. Was he a Muslim on my view? I can’t give you a definitive answer because I haven’t studied al Hallaj’s biography or religious views in great detail. What I would say is that there are plausible arguments on both sides, depending on how you interpret his famous claim, “ana’ al haq.” If he literally meant that he was himself God, so that God took human form, that contradicts (1), in which case al Hallaj was not a Muslim. (His claim would more obviously contradict a version of [1] that was more spelled out, but I think you see what I mean.) If he meant something else, and this something else was intended to be consistent with [1], and could be made so, then he was one. Obviously, I don’t mean to suggest that he should have been punished or executed either way.

      Suppose that someone claimed to be a Muslim but insisted on interpreting the prophecy of Jesus in such a way as to suggest that Christ was in fact crucified at Golgotha (based on a strained reading of the relevant Quranic verses). I would say that such a person is a Muslim with a very unorthodox (and also very implausible) view of the Crucifixion. But suppose that he then insisted on a Trinitarian understanding of Christ? Then I’d say he’s not a Muslim. Suppose he was extremely devout in all respects but that one? Then I’d say that he’s a non-Muslim who happens to be very devout about Islamic practice. But orthopraxy without the relevant belief is insufficient. A person who regards all of Islam as a fiction, but happens to practice because he enjoys doing so, is not a Muslim.

      Final example: Take someone who believes sincerely (with ikhlas) in the three defining elements of Islam as I lay them out, but leaves the matter there, never praying, never fasting, never planning for hajj, indifferent to zakat, etc. Is he a Muslim? I would say so. He’s a pretty bad Muslim, but a Muslim all the same. I would, however, question whether anyone can really believe with ikhlas and act this way.

      Now, to your fringe questions. The easiest is whether Qadiyani Ahmadis are Muslims. They are obviously Muslims. Unlike many Muslims, I don’t find this a difficult question at all. Their only departure from orthodox Islam is their interpretation of khattam an-nabi’in. Whatever one thinks about it, they have a worked-out, internally consistent interpretation of that phrase and doctrine in its Qur’anic context. Obviously, mainstream or orthodox Muslims reject it, and many are offended by it to the point of feeling the need to persecute the Ahmadis. But that is beside the point.

      The whole controversy about Ahmadis turns on the meaning of one highly equivocal word, khatam. Nothing about the Ahmadi interpretation of that word is any more outlandish than any orthodox interpretation of anything in the Qur’an. It amazes me to encounter orthodox Muslims who deride the Ahmadi belief about Jesus’s escape from the Crucifixion, complacently asserting that the Ahmadi belief is crazy, because obviously Jesus was lifted unto God, and it was Pontius Pilate who was crucified in his stead. Ohhh, so obvious! Now I see! Yes, the Ahmadi belief that Jesus escaped to Kashmir is awfully convenient, and more than a little hard to believe, but so are a lot of religious beliefs. (To clarify: I don’t mean to be suggesting that the Ahmadi belief about the Crucifixion is directly relevant to their belief about the end of the line of prophecy; I just mean to be making a point about the absurdity of orthodox responses to Ahmadi belief.)

      As to the Druze and the Alawites, I find this harder to answer for two reasons. First, I know little about these sects. Second, their beliefs are (for political reasons) deliberately shrouded in a certain degree of mystery.

      My impression is that Alawites are not Muslims, because they hold something similar to a Trinitarian-type view of God’s relation to human beings. I can’t speak with confidence about this, but that, to me, is the main issue. Their adoption of wine in the Eucharist (or their version of the Eucharist), and their interpretation of khatem an-nabiin are irrelevant.

      To be honest, I am too ignorant of and baffled by the Druze to be able to comment objectively about them. Certainly, I regard Ismaili Shia as Muslims, and I know that the Druze are an offshoot of Ismaili Shiism. But I simply don’t know enough to say more.

      I was using “orthodox” as a loose synonym for “mainstream.” In that respect, there is no a priori reason to assume that Wahhabis or Deobandis are more orthodox than anyone else. That they are theologically orthodox is of course their conceit, but it would take a long argument to prove or disprove it. Numerically, they are not mainstream.

      I think my formulation of the “definition” of Islam allows for the Brelvi (Barelvi) belief(s) you mention, as well as other, more rigid versions of Brelvi Islam. It’s not clear to me that “Brelvi” really names a single coherent belief system, but whether it does or doesn’t, I take your point.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for your broad liberal definition.
    Is it trivial (or a problem) that some of “your” Muslims exclude many others — either explicitly by takfir or implicitly by giving daughters only to brethren within their fraternity?
    Maybe Ed. Said should have recognized that there is no Orientalism, just orientalists (like no Islam with capital I, just different muslims)?


    • You’re welcome.

      Is it trivial (or a problem) that some of “your” Muslims exclude many others — either explicitly by takfir or implicitly by giving daughters only to brethren within their fraternity?

      It’s certainly a non-trivial problem (or set of problems), but it’s a practical problem, not a conceptual one. The only remaining conceptual issue here is that takfir is a problematically ambiguous concept. In its most common sense it means something like “ritualized public excommunication,” which is very unfortunate and unnecessary. In another sense, however, it can refer to a private act of ijtihad in which one judges what is and isn’t consistent with Islam. There is no realistic way to avoid that obligation. Any believing Muslim has to judge whether something is consistent with Islam or not, and that applies to sects as well. If a given believer comes to judge that, say, the Druze religion is not an instance of Islam, I don’t find that problematic–as long as he doesn’t take the next step and decide that he must issue some kind of public denunciation of the Druze, or even worse, resort to discrimination, persecution, or violence against them. It’s such a simple point, really, but simplicity is never simple for Muslims.

      Maybe Ed. Said should have recognized that there is no Orientalism, just orientalists (like no Islam with capital I, just different muslims)?

      Yes. That is the crux of the criticism I make of him in a paper I published years ago on Orientalism. Said writes as though Islam is an irreducibly plural phenomenon, unified only by family resemblances; meanwhile, he takes Orientalism (the discipline) to have a single unifying essence, inferring that Orientalists have given a false unity to Islam that Islam itself lacks. I think that gets things backwards. I’ve just given you an account of the core of Islam, but Said gives no comparable account of what it is that Homer, Dante, John Damascene, Louis Massignon, T.E. Lawrence, H.A.R. Gibb, Albert Hourani, and, say, Daniel Pipes have in common as “Orientalists.” It makes things worse if every instance of anti-Arab racism is then termed “Orientalist.” What does the work of Massignon or Gibb have to do with the Israeli occupation of Palestine? If the answer is “nothing” (as it is), then why group them together with, say, the activities of COGAT? But Said and his followers clearly do this.

      Over the years, I’ve come to admire Said’s work more than I once did (including Orientalism); he was in many respects a pioneer, and his work contains many important insights. But I haven’t changed my view on the preceding issue.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  11. I recently got a comment offline from Richard Landes of Boston University, asking after the source of this quotation:

    As one early reviewer concisely summarized the book, “Professor Said uses [his] privileged vantage to observe the West observing the Arabs, and he does not like what he finds.”

    For the life of me, I don’t remember the source, and my Orientalism material is all locked away in Lebanon (in a storage facility in Lebanon, New Jersey, I mean). If anyone reading this happens to know, drop it into the combox, so you can save me the trip to Lebanon.


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