Friday, July 13, 2012

Freedom to critique the Qura'n

Yesterday I reproduced the manifesto of the CEMB (Council of ex-Muslims in Britain) in order to highlight what I considered to be a worrying trend among sections of the media, namely that to criticise certain aspects of Islamic doctrine, to hold up to the light of intellectual enquiry Islamist claims to scientific and other miracles in the Qur’an, is to immediately lay oneself open to the charge of “Islamophobia” and racism.
Coincidentally, I had been planning a post on the literary merits or otherwise of the Qur’an for some time, and in my research came across a perfect example of such intellectual censorship.
In a recent article in response to a piece by Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish in which Sam Harris is quoted as saying "the Qur'an is not that good", Hussein Rashid of Religion Dispatchesaccuses  Harris of sounding “paternalistic, arrogant, colonialist, and generally ignorant”.
“Here is a text”, Rashid says, “that has over 1.6 billion adherents all over the world, with a 1400-year history. Along comes a privileged white male telling them that he has read the foundational text of the religion and that it has no redeeming value. So all these people, all that history, has no meaning because Harris says so. They are all wrong.
I thought Hussein Rashid’s comments were noteworthy for several reasons. Firstly, he assumes that because so many people adhere to the teachings of the Qur’an, that it in some way renders it beyond criticism. Likewise Rashid considers its age relevant. Why? Just because a literary text is old and is read by billions of people cannot in any way make it perfect or immune to criticism. And in what way is Harris’ ethnicity, sex or income relevant? Do we now have to be non-white, female and poor to offer our opinion of the Qur’an? I hope Rashid doesn’t intend write an article on Chaucer or Shakespeare any time soon – for by his own criteria, his thoughts would be insulting and worthless.

Perhaps it is the fact that Harris doesn’t speak Arabic that has raised Rashid’s gander. This at least, has some pretension to academic reasoning and is, of course, a tried and tested argument of the defenders of the miraculous literary merits of the Qur’an. In which case I can do no better than to quote a comment at the end of the article (my bolding):
If your position is that only those literate in Arabic are permitted to critique the Qur'an ... which it certainly appears to be, even though you didn't say it in those precise words ... then I'd be happy to apply that to a lot of other literature.
This principle means that only those literate in Hebrew are permitted to critique the Jewish scriptures or the Old Testament. Only those literate in koiné Greek are permitted to critique the New Testament. Only those literate in Vedic Sanskrit are allowed to critique the Rigveda. Only those literate in Chinese are allowed to critique the Analects of Confucius.
Moving away from the realm of religious literature, only those literate in Middle English are allowed to critique Chaucer, only those literate in French are allowed to critique Moliere, and only those literate in German are allowed to critique Kafka.
Moving even farther afield, any scientists wishing to understand Newton's Principia had best become fluent in Latin.
I'm not sure I'd really want to go that far. I have a feeling that even in translation, any good work of literature should nevertheless have something of value to offer.
The comment ends with the following appeal:

Bottom line: Last I knew, this is a free country. People are free not to like things. They are equally free to say they don't like them. There is no constraint I know of on this. No one gets to decide who can and cannot comment on any given book ... even one that's widely revered by a lot of folks.

So just as long as I am fortunate enough to live in a free country I will defend my right to critique any book I damn well please, whether it be 100 or 1,000 years old, whether it be read by 2 thousand or two billion people and whether it be written in French, Spanish, Russian or Literary Arabic.

Post on the literary merits of the Qur’an to come shortly…


  1. The link to the article by Hussein Rashid of Religion Dispatches is not working :)

  2. The link goes to the Religion Dispatches front page, not the specific article for me.

    1. "Article" link should go to the article by Rashid. Does for me...