Just words on a page? Aslan v Harris


Anyone who follows the debate on fundamentalist Islamic terrorism will be familiar with Sam Harris and Reza Aslan. They usually come across as intellectually diametrically opposed, but are both clearly humanists and deep thinkers. The fact that two such intelligent students of world affairs, belief systems and geopolitics cannot find a common reference point from which to have more substantive debate is informative.

Where’s the sticking point? Sam Harris has become somewhat famous for his line ‘Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas’ on an episode of Bill Maher’s Real Time (2014). Now, this might sound like a throw away line, but Harris doesn’t make throw away comments. Even his throw away comments are carefully thought out – he uses the terms he intends and is very careful to try to convey the correct meaning. It would be hard to find a popular philosopher with greater clarity of thought than Sam Harris.

Here, he was designating Islam in its definitional sense – the corpus of material corresponding to the Qur’an, Hadith, fiq (Islamic jurisprudence) and a few other key universals of the religion. He was saying that Islam, as defined by its canonical texts, contains a lot of bad ideas – things such as apostasy, blasphemy, and various arguably oppressive ideas that can easily lead to violence. One of those bad ideas is that the Qur’an states itself to be the direct word of Allah, given in Arabic to Muhammed by the angel Gabriel (Jibril) during his visits to a cave. In other words, the Qur’an is understood in Islam to be eternal and divine, as opposed to being a created artifact. The idea of it being created (as clearly it must have been in any rational understanding of things) was last considered in Islam in the 9th century by the rationalist Mu’tazila school. Today, all major schools of Islam take the Qur’an to be co-eternal with God.

This gets us to the root of the Harris v Aslan problem. If a canonical text – no matter how holy – is understood to be a humanly-created  artifact, then it is clearly open to interpretation. That opens the door for the construction of potentially reasonable doctrines that crucially, even if themselves restrictive and conservative, can change over time according to need. The Catholic Church, although hardly a beacon of liberalism, operates like this, and jettisons or adopts positions over time the try to connect its teachings with the modern world, as it as at any point in time. For example the 1950 papal encyclical Humani Generis stated that there was no conflict between biological evolution and the church. One of the things that liberates Christians in one sense is the ability to create intepretations of the bible, and even the Ten Commandments. Protestantism itself is a whole new interpretation of the canonical texts. This doesn’t mean Christians are better people; it’s a consequence of the definitional form of the canonical texts.

However, if canonical scriptures are seen as divine, they are untouchable in all useful senses. Even the Arabic language in which the Qur’an is written is taken to be normative, and Muslims understand that Islam and the Qur’an can only be properly understood in that language (although apparently this does not matter when non Arabic speakers join the ranks of Al Qaeda and ISIL). An eternal text is not only not open to interpretation, since nothing can be created by human hand, there is nothing that can be changed in order to keep up with the times. Hence we have states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia (sworn enemies) enshrining punishments such as amputation, blinding and death, that were commonplace in the time and milieu of Muhammed (7th century) in their modern legal systems. Worse than this, divine revelation cannot be criticised, or even questioned and doing so can easily invite violence as a response to blasphemy. Raif Badawi is just one of thousands even in just this decade to attract heavy punishment for questioning Islam.

In contrast, in the West, religion has mainly retreated to being a personal faith concept within secular, democratic civil society. I don’t mean to defend it in any way, but we can at least say that social movements since about 1700 have led to a more appropriate relocation in the socio-political environment.

So the essential question here is the one of createdness versus divine status for the Qur’an. (At this point, anyone with a background in cognitive science or psychology will be thinking: but there is always ‘interpretation’ from the words on a page to ideas in the mind, and secondly, how does one deal with contradictions in the text? The Islamic approach to this is that special religious leaders, such as Iran’s Ayatollahs, can provide normative understandings of the Qur’an, while not sullying the divine nature of the words. This complex rabbit hole is thus avoided by the state owning the rights to the meaning of the texts.)

Now we get to Reza Aslan’s point of view. In this TYT interview (2014), while taking Harris to task for treating the Qur’an in an over-literal way, he states (at 11:40) that the Qur’an is ‘just words on a page’, and that almost any political, social or religious stance can be accommodated by simply choosing the right suras. Aslan calls those who follow only the part of the Qur’an convenient to their cause ‘fools and bigots’, and in that group, he lumps ISIS and other terrorists, but also Harris, which is a pretty astonishing claim, as is the first, which would come as a surprise to most inhabitants of middle eastern countries.

Aslan goes onto say that Harris is not a religious expert, speaks no biblical or Quranic languages, and has done no fieldwork in the subject. All of this is presumably true, but I don’t think it invalidates him having an opinion, even a deeply reasoned one on the effects of religion of human behaviour; if it does, it means that no intelligent person who is not a religious expert can have a opinion on today’s religious violence.

But we do have opinions: we look at what we see and we react. It also has to be accepted that adhering to a religion cannot require the adherent to be a PhD in religious studies. If it does, that fact itself is up for criticism, Harris would no doubt say.

It’s intellectually sloppy on Aslan’s part to treat Harris as the same kind of fundamentalist as an ISIS terrorist, but since it’s so obviously not the case, I won’t pursue it. However, his statements in this discussion essentially agree with Harris’s thesis: that literalist readers of the Qur’an will be led to bigotry and possibly violence. Harris would say that the same would be true of Christians if they read the bible in a literalist sense, and indeed, those few who do, often do demonstrate extreme bigotry and violence (abortion doctor murderers for example) – but they generally don’t today, i.e. Christianity got over the worst tendencies to absolutism and total control of the social sphere.

Why is this so? It has to be because, no matter what other accusation can be levelled at Christianity, it doesn’t define its canonical texts as divine entities. Instead, the interpretability of the canon has always been accepted; indeed much of the violence of the past (Inquisition period for example) was about who gets to do this, and whose interpretations are (more) right. Science and the enlightenment took changed the whole basis for claiming access to the truth in the 1700s. Today there are a relatively small number of very major churches that are on reasonably friendly terms and whose differences are theological quibbles. There is also a large number of evangelical churches, and even sects and cults, each corresponding to a small splinter re-interpretation of the faith. Nevertheless, and despite all the wars of the past and vestigial violence today, it must be said that the tacit right to create an interpretation of the Christian canonical scriptures is the key to its evolution into a largely peaceful religion today: one that generally does not try to compete with democratic states for the right to define common law or most normative social practices (they have opinions on many social customs to be sure, but one can safely ignore or follow them as one pleases in all but the most dangerous splinter cults). This same general argument could be applied to the history of Buddhism and Daoism – indeed, these ‘faiths’ go further in giving intellectual freedom: they build in a requirement for you to tread your own path of discovery; the only interpretation is the one in your own head.

So it seems to me that Reza Aslan is being some what disingenuous with respect to Sam Harris. But Harris doesn’t get it all his own way either. Aslan will regularly point out that most of the world’s 1.6 billion muslims have no interest in terrorism, and demonstrably are not violent or even at risk for religious violence. This is mostly true, although if one looks at questions such as the correlation of oppressive regimes with Islamic states, and the prevalence of interest in the death penalty for apostasy, the picture is murkier than he makes out.

He also claims in the same discussion that Stalinism, Maoism and Pol-Pot-ism are responsible for 20-25 million deaths in the name of athiesm, but this is not correct. Although all three of those regimes were athiest, the central ideologies they were defending were not of a religious nature, they were variations on a communist/fascist theme, in which citizens are slaves to the state. They in fact functioned exactly like religions in the sense of being doctrines requiring unquestioning adherence, and most importantly, arrogating to the state alone any rights to ‘interpretation’. Thus in form, these absolutist terror regimes fit the same description that Islam’s own defining canon has for itself: a statement of intellectual truth and normative rules for living with no room for questions.

And yet most Muslims, and the Umma of Islam (its worldwide community) are not making war. What’s going on?

Well there is clearly a problem with Islam (I provide some useful references in this post) – there is a visible tension with what it says, and how it is used; the results of that tension vary in the Muslim world, but they are clearly there. In countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, the strictness of Islam and Sharia do not sit easily with the Malay or Chinese cultures. More generally, in many practical aspects of life in Muslim countries, being in a state of continual Jihad, and constantly maiming and killing citizens isn’t helpful to commerce and development. But in nearly all Muslim-majority countries there are observable problems – honour killings, inability of women to get justice for rape and much more –  things that would not be acceptable in the West.

The essence of Aslan’s argument (although I have not found where he states it explicitly), and a reasonable way to understand what is happening in the world, is that although Islam’s own definition doesn’t leave room for interpretation, most Muslims do it anyway. However, this personal level of interpretation (which subsumes simple disinterest, and even non-religiousness, in the same way as the ‘lapsed Catholic’ would understand) is always a somewhat subversive activity in a Muslim majority country, and care has to be taken with how far one goes. Raif Badawi probably would not be sentenced to death in Malaysia, but he probably would receive a visit from the police and might well be arrested and interrogated.

My conclusion at the moment is that within Islam as an intellectual project, there is a burning unresolved issue, nagging like a stone in the shoe. But it’s not about the substantive content of the Qur’an or Hadith, it’s the meta-issue of the need for the right for interpretation of a religion that says there can be none. It is surely time for a new Mu’tazila school of thought.

I also think that Harris and Aslan need to work on this point of the right to interpretation as a common ground on which more fertile intellectual discussion can occur.

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