Piety and Polemic

Prayer in the Mosque (1871) is considered a masterpiece of Orientalist painting. A 88.9 x 74.9 cm oil on canvas by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), it is located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Commentary on the Eleventh Contention is an excellent work of short aphoristic statements by a prominent British convert to Islam and Cambridge University professor, Abdal Hakim Murad (née Tim Winter). The work displays a phenomenally subtle understanding of religious principles and practice. Unfortunately, however, it often oscillates between this and a quite shallow polemic. 

While there is much else to recommend the book, when polemicizing becomes the priority, there emerges a risk of spuriously emphasizing elements of the traditions being discussed (usually Islamic civilisation and European Christendom) only for the sake of setting up as stark a contrast as possible.

The polemic in question consistently problematizes European culture. This relates to what the author identifies in separate articles as Europe’s “historic chauvinism” and the “obsolete age of European essentialism:”

Whether God can forgive Europe is perhaps the greatest problem of theodicy.

Islam, in contrast, is less marred by essentialism, particularly of the ethnic sort: 

Arabdom is not congenital.

Consequently, history’s “traditional contest” has been “between the exclusivist Christian world and the multi-ethnic world of Islam,” the latter identifying with the “ethnically mixed.”

Murad suggests that positive elements of the European Enlightenment proceed from Islam, perhaps by way of the Iberian al-Andalus. These elements would include respect for the individual, separation of religious from state power, and unwillingness to persecute people over matters of conscience. Meanwhile, the Enlightenment project’s pathological urging “in Messianic fashion, its patterns of life upon the world,” as well as its Holocaustic potentials, which came into full bloom during the 20th century, may be considered indigenously European, although, presumably, not in the original universalism that they pervert: “it was Muslims who invented globalization,” since Islam “does not limit itself to the upliftment of any given section of humanity” as distinct from any other. 

Just as what is positive in the European Englightenment is suggested to have proceeded from Islam, Muslim exclusivism is viewed as the result of zealots who “subscribe to ideologized forms of Islam which adopt dimensions of Western modernity in order to secure an anti-Western profile.” Muslim extremism is an alien taint, a shadow cast by northern and western monsters. Europe, it appears, must shoulder some responsibility here. 

The argument seems to suggest that whatever is distinctively European is negative, or whatever is definitely negative is European. However, given that inclusivity cannot be made compatible with (reactionary European) exclusivism, the attempt to demonstrate how Islam’s broadness can include Europe denies itself. This approach suggests an odd proselytizing strategy to anyone who does not share its premise, similar to Murad’s intolerance towards the intolerant. By presenting exclusivism as exclusively European, Europe is exclusively excluded.

Of course, the accuracy of Murad’s account of Islamic civilization as an egalitarian alternative to its counterpart north of the Mediterranean is by no means evident. 

It is contradicted, in fact, by the idea of primacy (fadl, sabiqa) of Arab patrilineal descent in Islam and its practice in the early Islamic empire (emphasized by some schools more than others). There are, therefore, hues of Arab ethnic privilege in Islamic law. The Qur’anic revelation that no person will be judged as more righteous than another on account of lineage (60:3) entails no necessary contradiction. Maintaining that a collective is distinct from others or enjoys primacy as collective allows the individual’s merit as individual. Indeed, primacy is here usually understood as preferential suitability for leadership (sometimes attenuated to mere custodianship of holy sites and the Arabic language). 

This principle manifests, for example, in Islamic scholarly opinion which generally establishes marital suitability of a non-Arab woman as spouse for an Arab man, despite the doctrinal unsuitability of the inverse. Three of the four mainstream Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Madhabs), specifically the Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Hanbali (as distinct from the Maliki) allow for lineage (nasab) as a component of marital compatibility or parity (kafa’a, كفاءة) between prospective spouses: 

The following are not suitable matches for one another: a non-Arab man for an Arab woman, because of the hadith that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Allah has chosen the Arabs above others.”

This is not a prohibition, only a statement of suitability which a woman is free to ignore when there is no objection on the part of her guardian. Nonetheless, it is explicitly related to a hadith and illustrates how early Islamic power relations overlap with the shariah

Arab primacy was also expressed in the historical tying of conversion by non-Arabs to a relationship of clientage to Arab patrons. This is relevant because Murad is comparing two civilizations and historical experiences as much as two doctrines. Such practices seem to have been experienced as unfair by those involved in them at the time, insofar as they seem to have contributed to the Shu’ubiyyah, a mainly Persian movement that polemicized against Arab culture, albeit in more literary-cultural than concretely political terms.

To give the impression that the concept of ‘Arab primacy’ is beyond the pale of legitimate Sunni opinion is to privilege the image of Islam as the antithesis to supposed Western bigotry over a true representation of its traditional observance. This bias syncs with academia’s prevailing hyper-criticality towards, not to say denigration of, European culture, which suggests that ideology is interacting with theology in Murad’s analysis. In this regard, the professor conforms to his own critique of Muslims adopting Western categories when fighting the West (differences melt away in conflict, as Rene Girard warns). For our part, we may accept doctrinal arguments that attenuate Arab primacy, for example, relegating it to custodianship over Mecca and Medina, but not a whitewashing of Islamic history in which only Europeans are presented as heirs to a presumed “chauvinism.”

Yet, despite his generally negative portrayal of European civilization, Murad has delivered talks on the possibility of indigenizing Islam in Europe, or of Muslims integrating into local cultural forms, such as pilgrimages. This contrasts with what we (anecdotally) often encounter by way of dawah (proselytism), where the well-meaning Muslim will expound only briefly on his faith, soon lapsing into a one-sided lionization of medieval Muslim accomplishments. There is a tendency to proselytize on behalf of long-defunct polities, be they the fragmentary states of al-Andalus, the Ottoman Empire, or the Mughals. 

In a somewhat similar vein, in the course of indigenizing Islam, Murad finds the Spanish Reconquista, and the figure of St. James the Great, Santiago—whose miraculous apparitions, according to medieval Spanish chronicles, led to victory over Moorish forces—particularly problematic. 

El Apóstol Santiago a caballo, o Santiago Matamoros (The Apostle Saint James, or Saint James the Moor Slayer) (1649), a 263 x 178 cm oil on canvas by Francisco Camilo (1615 – 1673), located in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.


He points, for example, to the artistic motif of Santiago Matamoros, depicted on a white horse, dealing harshly with a vanquished Muslim. For context, the latter is not a downtrodden, oppressed member of an ethno-religious minority, but a soldier in a well-organized army fighting inferior forces on foreign soil.  Discussions of this depiction tend to ignore an important element, frequently related to portrayals of the warrior saint, namely that of “the hundred virgins.” The first apparition of Santiago (for there are other accounts) is attributed to the legendary Battle of Clavijo, which is said to have been set off by King Ramiro I of Asturias refusing to offer the tribute of one hundred young women that the Muslim emirate of Cordoba was demanding. Tradition has it that, thanks to heavenly intervention, the battle was won and these women went on to live a life other than what awaited them in slave markets or the harem of a far-off lord. 

This account does indeed reflect a historically established practice. Slave-capturing expeditions to northern Christian territories were frequent during certain periods of the history of al-Andalus, notably under al-Mansur (latinized to Almanzor), whose rule lasted from 978 to 1002. We have later records specifying the number of females captured for twenty-seven of his raids, totalling to about 99,000 women. Muslim sources may exaggerate this number for propaganda purposes, but the reality of the practice is amply attested to, and female slave markets would remain consistently promient throughout the history of al-Andalus. Murad’s apparent willingness to overlook what is ugly in Muslim history, and let fall the weighty accusation of racism and bigotry always upon the European and the Christian, represents a terrible impediment to any genuine understanding of history. 

Leaving history aside, the Commentary contains another polemic. We may consider the following extracts:

Judaism and Islam have resisted Christianity through eros and thanatos. Hence the magnitude of their victory.

Unless there is Paradise, eros is a trick.

Celibacy is an anticipation of hell, for there is no eros there.

Our Paradise shows that the Dionysian mysteries were proleptic.

Religion without eros is the anticipation of eternal death.

The central proselytizing gambit in the above is that Islam is in touch with human nature and reason, especially so far as the erotic is concerned, where Christianity falls short for its excessively monastic character. This was a common opinion among 19th century thinkers, deriving from an orientalist exoticizing, as found in Nietzsche, Lord Byron, and Valentine de Saint-Point. We may also think of Thomas Carlyle and Goethe’s positive treatments of the figure of Muhammad. 

There is something here that is not obviously wrong. Christianity might have failed at times to properly account for the erotic (and thumotic) faculties, privileging a (in itself legitimate) spiritual orientation beyond its normal ambit, namely, that of the monk. But, in the case of Islam, scholars can accept that the tradition includes normative sanction for all sorts of practices disapproved of by many Muslims today (child marriage and female ‘circumcision’ really do find support in long-standing Muslim scholarly consensuses)—and that these practices are rendered inoperative by way of the ascetically purified heart and tajdid (“renewal”), as well as through respect for local custom. Likewise, then, surely the un-sophistic Sufi can accept shifts in emphasis within Christianity as legitimate expressions of Christian tradition.

Turning to philosophical inquiry proper, Murad maintains that in Christian theology, the Incarnation is made to absolutize a certain coordinate of contingency, a particular biographical configuration, as though “first century Judean carpenter” could be anymore a definition of the Divine than “seventh century BC Celtic tribesman’s daughter” or “third millennium Japanese matriarch.” He writes:

Incarnation? To be creature is to be entirely not a Creator. To be Creator is to be entirely not a creature.

Incarnation: the finite can contain the Infinite.

Modernity: ‘a world full of Christian ideas gone mad. (Chesterton)

His approach fails to fully engage with Christian theology. St. Thomas Aquinas’ insistence that the Logos could unite hypostatically with persons other than the historical Jesus and that the Divine cannot be exhausted in any historical vessel addresses the issue: “it has to be said that the Divine Person, over and beyond the human nature which He has assumed, can assume another distinct human nature” (Summa Theologica, II.2, Question 3, article 7). 

The case is also one of not seeing the splinter (not quite a plank) in one’s own eye: If, according to Islam, Muhammad is greater than all past prophets, if he is the seal of prophecy and will intercede on behalf of more people than any other prophet, the same error criticized in the Christian story repeats itself, for history finds its apogee—and Divine Oneness its ultimate, perfect icon, so to speak—in a single contingent life. 

If there is an idolatrous tendency among Christians, it is to believe that God’s relation to humanity is defined by a limit of particulars, those of the historical Jesus; but by the same token, the tendency towards idolatry among Muslims is to believe that humanity’s relation to God is defined by another set of particular features, namely those of Muhammad. Where the Christian often falls into the mistake of believing Jesus to be God in his bio-historical features, the Muslim often treats Muhammad in the same way with respect to the human condition (humanity proper, in its ideal relation to Allah).

 To put the issue abstractly: the sort of Christian idolatry Murad criticizes is analogous to believing that, when a circle is drawn properly, it must be blue, but the corresponding Muslim tendency is to believe that when blue ink is used to draw, it must render a circle. All the same, I do believe Christians should bear this critique in mind and make the deeper waters of Christology a more familiar quench to its faithful.

Overall, this is a work of wonderful erudition (the common English and classical Arabic love for alliteration and verbal whimsy is well represented) as well as spiritual insight, if often lopsided. 

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.

An earlier version of this review appeared in The Mallard in September 2021.


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