The Essence of Nonsense

By Irfan Khawaja

If you want a glimpse into what is wrong with public discussion of Islam in English-speaking countries, consider a ludicrous pseudo-debate taking place in the so-called “blogosphere” about whether Islam should be “banned.” This lame excuse for a debate began on the website of Norwegian writer Bjorn Staerk, responding to an otherwise obscure American writer named Phil, who had called for “banning” Islam. The real issue raised by this debate is why it has now traveled to the far ends of the “blogosphere” and is being discussed as though it embodied the deepest conceivable wisdom about Islam. But even an investigation into absurdity has its uses, so let’s give it a try. 

In the manner of many self-styled “anti-Islamic” blowhards, our friend Phil lists a long, random and unintegrated series of “reasons” why Islam should be “banned,” i.e., abolished by force of law (or vigilante action; I’m not sure that Phil sees the difference or cares). It is a waste of time to go through this list and detail the inaccuracies in it and the double-standards it involves; it’s simply too stupid to be worth rebutting in any detail. Nor of course does it ever deal with the obvious objection: if the standard by which Islam is judged wanting is that of individual rights, that standard can hardly be upheld by violating the rights of Muslims who want peacefully to practice their religion. So with all due respect, let’s set Phil’s little manifesto aside. 

Missing these obvious points, Staerk goes on to offer the following in the way of rebuttal:

This is the kind of writing that is produced when ignorance meets paranoia and anger. I've written before about how belief in an Islamic essence that supercedes the behavior of actual Muslims leads people to making sloppy generalizations about Islam. This process has two steps: First you must believe that this essence exists, and that it is possible to capture it in a few words. Then     you go looking for those words. Quotes from the Koran, statements by Islamic thinkers. The research bears fruit, proof is found: Islam is war - or peace, depending on who's looking.

The problem is that you can prove anything this way, and you'll still be no closer to describing the faith of actual Muslims. This kind of work requires nuance and humility in the face of complexity. Yeah I know, it's all supposed to be Good and Evil these days. "Nuance" and "shades of gray" are the words of  relativists. But no matter how useful it can be to describe a particular belief or act as Evil, once you leave the area of moral judgments for the descriptive world, nuance is your best friend.

The locus classicus of such nonsensicality is, of course, the writing of Edward Said. It was Said who produced an entire discipline of scholarship devoted to promulgating the inconsistent set of claims that “Islam” is a construction of “the West”; “the West” is itself a construction; and that the West “misrepresents” Islam. (For a good recent criticism of Said’s views, read this.)

You can criticize the Saidian view until the cows come home, but its purveyors never seem to grasp the obvious fallacies and falsehoods in his argument. At a bare minimum, there is this: 

1) If Islam is a “construction” at all, it surely makes more sense to describe it as a construction of its authors and founders—all of whom were Muslim—than it is a construction of “the West.” Of course, those authors and founders would probably be the first to balk at the “construction” metaphor, but such inconvenient facts find no ready place in the Saidian ontology.

2) If Islam’s being a construction deprives it of an “essence,” the “West’s” being one deprives it of one, too, in which case, if one cannot speak of “Islam as such,” one cannot speak of “the West” either, and one certainly cannot say that “the West” has “constructed” Islam, or done anything to it at all. After all, if Islam lacks an essence, it makes no sense to say that anyone can “misrepresent” it—much less that “the West” has--since (a) Islam has no stable identity susceptible of misrepresentation, and (b) the West has no stable identity capable of initiating action as a single unified entity.

3) If we think of “construction” by analogy with manufacture (and there is a certain sense to that, one would think), it actually ought to follow that Islam has an essence, not that it lacks one. Typically, manufactured objects are conceded to have essences, and the essence of such an object is the purpose it was intended by its designer to serve. Applying this principle to Islam, we reach the conclusion that Islam obviously has an essence:  both Muslims and non-Muslims can agree that the precepts of the religion came into being for a purpose, the purpose being what believers take to be salvation (falah). Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the Qur’an would grasp this on first reading, as would anyone who has dragged himself out of bed for fajr prayers (hayah al as-salat, hayah al-al falah, as-salat khayr am min-an naum [“come to prayer, come to salvation; prayer is better than sleep”]). It’s just for this reason, I suspect, that neither the text of the Qur’an nor the repeated claims of the azaan are allowed by purveyors of the “construction” thesis as probative evidence of what Islam says—despite the fact that they are precisely what Islam “says.”

4) The fact of the matter is that the “construction” analogy is now a dead metaphor devoid of literal content. Given this, it is pretty close to meaningless as applied to anything, including Islam. No sane construction worker or architect has ever thought that a building’s being “constructed” deprives it of a stable identity or renders it impossible to make claims about “the building as such.” Why the “construction” of Islam should render us incapable of speaking about “Islam as such” is a mystery deeper than any of the mysteries of the Islamic faith itself.

Return now to Staerk’s disquisition on Islam, which involves the characteristic blogger combination of bravado, arrogance, ignorance, and illogic. “Belief in an Islamic essence that supercedes [sic] the behavior of actual Muslims,” we are blithely told, “leads people to making sloppy generalizations about Islam.”  So the criterion of “the Islamic” is “the behavior of actual Muslims.”

The absurdity of this claim is almost mind-boggling. For one thing, it ignores the fact that Muslims themselves believe that Islam has an essence that supersedes the behavior of actual Muslims. It ignores the fact that the Qur’an states that Islam is a “perfect” religion whose essence is contained within the Qur’an itself. It ignores the fact that according to Islam, the Sunnah takes precedence over and regulates “the behavior of actual Muslims.” It ignores the fact that to the extent that “the behavior of actual Muslims” figures into Islamic doctrine at all, it does so via ijma (roughly, “consensus”) whose status is itself contested by Muslims. And, technicalities aside, it ignores the blatantly fact that millions upon millions of “actual Muslims” often act in an un-Islamic manner. (I once had a Muslim acquaintance who used to spend the year sinning and then regarded his sins as “cleansed” by a yearly performance of hajj or umra. Does this count as “the behavior of an actual Muslim” not superseded by the essence of Islam?)

But the absurdities don’t stop there. What Staerk is telling us is that it’s easier to generalize rigorously about the behavior of 1.25 billion existing Muslims plus all the Muslims who have ever existed in the 1400 years of the existence of Islam—than it is to generalize about the claims of a handful of Islamic texts! That is the unavoidable implication of his claim that those who use the Qur’an as the basis for claims about the essence of Islam generalize “sloppily,” while those who rely on Gallup polls for information about “the” behavior of “Muslims” generalize with rigor. (And what non-arbitrary reason can Staerk have for asserting that “Islam” equals the behavior of living Muslims?)

You can see the absurdity of Staerk’s suggestion if you stop to realize that there are surely far fewer pages in the entire canon of Islam than there are Muslims who are now alive and have ever been. How on earth can it be easier to generalize across the actions of billions upon billions of people—most of them dead—than it is to grasp the essential claims of the Qur’an, Sunnah, and fiqh? No sociologist or demographer would even pretend to aspire to the first task, but every Muslim on earth is obliged to aspire to the second. Never mind; when secular piety and political correctness take center stage, such questions are sure to be left unasked.

Staerk goes on to set up the strawman that the essence of Islam cannot be stated in “a few words.” Well, no kidding. But it has to be stated in sufficiently few words for Muslims to be able to grasp and practice it without violating its main precepts, right? So why can’t its essence be stated in words numbering somewhere between “a few” and “a lot”? Neither Staerk nor any of his blogo-commentators sees fit to answer this patently obvious question. Staerk goes on to complain that different inquirers have come to different conclusions about Islam—about its war-like or pacific nature, for instance. Yes: so what? One possibility is that one set of inquirers is wrong. Another possibility is that Islam asserts contrary claims. How is this a problem for claims about the essence of Islam?

Finally, we get the ritualistic bow to nuance: when it comes to Islam, we’re told, “nuance is our best friend.” The axiom here seems to be, the less clear we are, the more “nuanced” we are; the more nuanced we are, the more sophisticated we are; the more sophisticated we are…well, sophistication is just the terminus of justification. Exactly why “nuance” is incompatible with claims about the essence of Islam is a “nuance” that gets precisely no attention in this debate.

There’s an old saying: “Don’t bother to examine folly, just ask what it accomplishes.” I don’t quite agree: as this discussion proves, even folly deserves an examination. But having examined this folly to the limits of my tolerance, I think I’m entitled to ask what it accomplishes. The answer seems all-too-clear.

People in the English-speaking world are notoriously allergic to fundamental questions of the sort that philosophy and religion purport to answer. It is no surprise, then, that when it comes to the fundamental clash between Islam and its rivals, our half-hearted secularists almost always find an excuse to beg off.

Does God exist? “Let’s not look.” Does faith supersede reason? “Let’s change the subject.” Do the demands of the afterlife supersede the requirements of this one? “It’s a matter of perspective.” Are the claims of the Qur’an true? “Depends on how you define ‘truth’.” Does Islam provide a basis for a viable political order? “Sorry, that question is too divisive.” Is there a connection between the precepts of Islam and Islamic terrorism? “Sorry, that question is too essentialist.”

At the end of the day, according to this crowd, the only claims you’re allowed to make about Islam are the recycled pieties of PC toleration, followed by claims so “nuanced” that they cease to mean or imply anything of significance. But I don’t see Muslims constrained by the same imperatives, and I see few people (the Phils of the world aside) insisting that Muslims be put in the same dialectical straitjacket as Staerk proposes for the rest of us.

The fact is, there is no reason for either Muslims or non-Muslims to be constrained by that straitjacket, because there is nothing to be said in favor of it. Islam should obviously not be “banned.” But neither should “essentialist” claims about it be discouraged, whether pro or con. If we can’t identify the essence of Islam, we cannot grasp what it is-- much less debate its truth or falsity, or causal role in world events. But perhaps that is the whole point of the anti-essentialist jihad.

Both Muslims and non-Muslims can agree that Islam has an essence, and that essence, codified in the Qur’an, Sunnah, and fiqh (in that order) supersedes the behavior of all Muslims, past, present and future. That fact is the basis for any conceivable discussion of Islam. Once we lost sight of it, or self-censor it out of existence--or pretend that disagreement about it nullifies the possibility of discovery about its meaning--we will have reached a point at which criticism of Islam as such will cease, precisely because its essence will finally have been taken for granted by everyone. If ever you want to know what nonsense and folly can accomplish, you’ll discover the answer when we get to that point.

Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey and Montclair State University.