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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: “A Prophet of Peace” and Juan Cole’s New Historicism

I some­times attend the Seat­tle Athe­ist Church on Sun­days, and despite the many virtues that group has an orga­ni­za­tion and pos­i­tive argu­ment it makes by exam­ple for sec­u­lar human­ism, the fact that the “Four Horse­men” of the New Athe­ism move­ment were four white Anglo-Amer­i­can men reflects accu­rate­ly the bias­es you’ll find in the athe­ism move­ment in the Unit­ed States, Unit­ed King­dom, and the Anglos­phere more gen­er­al­ly.

Seat­tle’s athe­ist com­mu­ni­ty is bet­ter than many oth­er spaces I’ve seen, par­tic­u­lar­ly in regards to gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty, but one ele­ment it con­tin­ues to deal with is anti-Mus­lim racism.

“Race” is not a real thing and does­n’t hold up when sub­ject­ed to crit­i­cal analy­sis. West Africans and East Africans and South Africans have less DNA in com­mon with one anoth­er than Eng­lish do Japan­ese; sub-Saha­ran African peo­ple are as far removed from Andamanese, Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralian, or Melane­sians as any humans can be. Yet, all are social­ly black in the Unit­ed States and all would be sub­ject to the same racism.

Like­wise, “Mex­i­cans” are, strict­ly speak­ing, a nation­al­i­ty and an indi­vid­u­al’s ances­try might ulti­mate­ly be indige­nous Amer­i­can, Euro­pean, Afro-Caribbean, East Asian, North African or Mid­dle East­ern, or every com­bi­na­tion of these because La Raza Cos­mi­ca has been blend­ing the peo­ple of the world for near­ly half a mil­len­ni­um now.

Yet the 1930 U.S. Cen­sus had “Mex­i­can” as a race pri­or to forcibly expelling hun­dreds of thou­sands of nat­ur­al born U.S. cit­i­zens, and Fox News recent­ly said the qui­et part out loud in label­ing sev­er­al Cen­tral Amer­i­can nations as “Mex­i­can coun­tries”.ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_01-01

“You can’t be racist against Mus­lims because Islam is a reli­gion, not a race” and yet peo­ple find a way to invent non­sen­si­cal racial cat­e­gories like “African” or “black” then pseu­do-sci­ence it up into “Negroid”. We’ve clev­er­ly been racist against “Mex­i­cans” even when they hap­pen to be from Hon­duras and eth­ni­cal­ly Lencan.

The impor­tant thing to remem­ber about racism is that it’s always less about the sense it makes than the sys­tem of oppres­sion it can slot a group into, and that’s true for peo­ple who are Mus­lim.

So in the late 1990s and ear­ly 2000s, fas­cist groups shift­ed from anti-Jew­ish rhetoric which was too obvi­ous and eas­i­ly called out to “anti-Zion­ist”; they also shift­ed to “anti-immi­gra­tion”, and specif­i­cal­ly to anti-Mus­lim talk­ing points so as to be more social­ly accept­able while still accom­plish­ing the same white nation­al­is­tic pur­pose.

Athe­ists and those on the Left who already were against the most aggres­sive­ly theo­crat­ic and regres­sive ele­ments of Islam could be coaxed into mak­ing com­mon cause with white fas­cists based on the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion that Islam, and all its adher­ents, were inher­ent­ly and unique­ly vio­lent, misog­y­nis­tic, and awful—that they posed a threat oth­er reli­gions, for all their flaws, just did­n’t. A Mus­lim per­son was thus as inher­ent­ly dan­ger­ous as any past racial group had been and could be regard­ed sim­i­lar­ly.

I don’t say this from a place of smug supe­ri­or­i­ty. It is some­thing I still emo­tion­al­ly, irra­tional­ly feel. It’s some­thing that due to my South­ern Bap­tist upbring­ing and assertive athe­ism now, I find com­pelling in the gut but rec­og­nize is not there in a rea­son­able or sat­is­fy­ing way.

I’ve seen vari­ants of “Islam is a reli­gion of peace” at least ten times more often as racist trolling in response to a vio­lent inci­dent per­pe­trat­ed by a per­son who is Mus­lim than I have assert­ed sin­cere­ly, and my mind is not so invul­ner­a­ble that I won’t be affect­ed by rep­e­ti­tion even when I rec­og­nize it’s iron­ic and I rec­og­nize it’s not actu­al­ly a joke.

Thus, any counter is use­ful to the pro­pa­gan­da received by big­ot­ed cul­tur­al osmo­sis that por­trays Islam and Muham­mad as blood­thirsty and mon­strous, par­tic­u­lar­ly as a mem­ber of a coun­try where our knowl­edge of geog­ra­phy is large­ly depen­dant on what we’re present­ly bomb­ing.

What makes Juan Cole’s his­to­ry slash biog­ra­phy slash tex­tu­al crit­i­cism “Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires so valu­able is that you walk away scratch­ing your chin about how so much revi­sion­ism could have been accom­plished in so lit­tle time, but large­ly because you even­tu­al­ly real­ize you had so lit­tle actu­al knowl­edge to begin with.

Cole has been described as eru­dite, but that main­ly comes across in the broad­ness of his vocab­u­lary. I do mean that actu­al­ly and not as a back­hand­ed crit­i­cism. He’s not the sort of author who would default to a lati­nate choice when some­thing sim­pler would do. “Wend­ing” sticks out as an exam­ple of the sort of word he uses that you can imme­di­ate­ly suss the mean­ing of despite his use being your first expe­ri­ence to it.

In the same way that a bet­ter-read per­son might not be so impressed with Cole’s vocab­u­lary, a per­son who knows already about the geopol­i­tics of Late Antiq­ui­ty might not be so blown away by Cole incor­po­rat­ing the ebbs and flows of what approached a world war into a his­to­ry of some­one liv­ing in the mid­dle of it.

But this—plus Cole’s (I would call) sup­po­si­tion that Muham­mad was lit­er­ate and direct­ly influ­enced by Greek philo­soph­i­cal ideas, by monotheisms, and by late pagan reli­gions in the Near East dur­ing his time as an inter­me­di­ate-dis­tance trader—blows open a hole in the usu­al wall of received big­otry so that Cole can por­tray Muham­mad as some­one much more tol­er­ant, for­giv­ing, and peace­ful than his con­tem­po­raries, Chris­t­ian, Jew­ish, Zoroas­tri­an, or Per­sian-aligned pagan alike.

Now, all his­to­ri­ans have to start with some assump­tions for the sto­ry they plan to tell in order to make any sense. Cole choos­es to give the Quran pri­ma­cy in his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Muham­mad’s life, which is defen­si­ble and does make sense, but it also nat­u­ral­ly allows a con­fir­ma­tion bias to creep in due to the absence of nar­ra­tive con­text present.

The Quran is the most trust­wor­thy doc­u­ment we have for under­stand­ing Muham­mad’s teach­ings. The lat­er rec­ol­lec­tions whether known as his­to­ry or as hadiths ought to be judged, to greater or less­er degree, in rela­tion to that doc­u­ment. To some­one who is not already well-versed in Quran­ic schol­ar­ship, Cole makes a fine case for this approach, but that seems to allow him to toss out all things that don’t align with Cole’s One True Pair­ing of Muham­mad and an inter­pre­ta­tion of his teach­ings.

Islam: 632 CE

The quar­ter-cen­tu­ry-long Byzan­tine-Sas­sanid War at the start of the sev­enth cen­tu­ry is often brought up in the his­to­ry of Islam but only in the most dis­mis­sive way. In the final apoc­a­lyp­tic bat­tle between the Mediter­ranean Gre­co-Romans and the Per­sians of the Iran­ian Plateau, the blood and trea­sure of two empires gushed all upon Lev­an­tine dust to accom­plish absolute­ly noth­ing for either pow­er except mutu­al ruin.

The con­flict is used to explain-away the rapid gains of the Rashidun Caliphate with­in 20 years of the death of the Prophet, but Cole’s book was the first time I had seen the wars exam­ined to pro­vide con­text for the fac­tion­al pol­i­tick­ing with­in the var­i­ous­ly aligned Ara­bi­an cities of Mec­ca and Med­i­na, or the effect of those events on the teach­ings of ear­ly Islam itself.

As Cole frames it, not con­sid­er­ing this has been quite an over­sight because Per­sia had vas­sal states all the way around the Ara­bi­an coast to Yemen, and as their for­tunes rose through­out the war, so did their allies and vas­sals in the inte­ri­or. Cole posits that Muham­mad was clos­er to Chris­tian­i­ty than Zoroas­tri­an­ism and had more ties to the Byzan­tine Empire than the Sas­sanids, mean­ing his brand of uni­tar­i­an monothe­ism encom­pass­ing Judaism, the var­i­ous extant Chris­tian­i­ties, and his own syn­cret­ic reli­gion became endan­gered when the Sas­sanid-allied pagans were embold­ened by their patrons’ own suc­cess against the empire of Chris­tian­i­ty crum­bling before them.

Using some cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence from the biog­ra­phy of Muham­mad, pas­sages in the Quran sim­i­lar to sto­ries in oth­er tra­di­tions, and a bit of what’s known in fan­doms as “head­canon”, Cole also con­structs a retroac­tive con­ti­nu­ity where Muham­mad was mul­ti­lin­gual and very lit­er­ate to explain how he grabbed cer­tain threads from oth­er reli­gious tra­di­tions in his area to weave them and new­er ideas into what would become Islam.

To be clear, Cole is not say­ing he’s engag­ing in head­canon; his expla­na­tion is exact­ly the oppo­site, but there are many ques­tions that lie beyond the scope of his­to­ry to actu­al­ly deci­pher; Amer­i­can Chris­t­ian New Tes­ta­ment schol­ar Bart D. Ehrman gives the exam­ple of what his grand­fa­ther ate for break­fast on a par­tic­u­lar day, and the his­tor­i­cal Muham­mad is most­ly beyond our abil­i­ty to defin­i­tive­ly describe.

This read­ing is use­ful because it man­ages to be plau­si­ble and to cut against the bias­es of West­ern Chris­ten­dom and its var­i­ous heretics. It gives anoth­er pos­si­ble vision of the ear­ly com­mu­ni­ty of believ­ers who sur­round­ed Muham­mad and what true Islam could have meant and there­fore could mean.

Cole claims that the gen­er­a­tion imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing Muham­mad’s death were bedouins less attract­ed to Muham­mad’s spe­cif­ic teach­ings than the uni­ty and pos­si­bil­i­ty for mil­i­tary plun­der his move­ment pro­vid­ed. Which I don’t think says any­thing damn­ing about those teach­ings but does­n’t espe­cial­ly argue for their divine rev­e­la­tion, either. In the West, even athe­ists tend to be much more for­giv­ing of lat­er gen­er­a­tions of Chris­ten­dom in their embrace of “Just War” than the reli­gion that sprung up watch­ing Chris­ten­dom do so while choos­ing to be bet­ter in com­par­i­son.

The oth­er day at the Seat­tle Athe­ist Church, there was a pre­sen­ta­tion on the Euston Man­i­festo cre­at­ed in 2006, and the most star­tling thing about it in ret­ro­spect was just how bad­ly its defense of the inva­sion of Iraq has aged. British jour­nal­ist Nick Cohen even­tu­al­ly worked it up into a full-length book called What’s Left?, and, like that man­i­festo, goes full-in defend­ing the Anglo-Amer­i­can mil­i­tary adven­tur­ism in Mesopotamia that seems to have accom­plished lit­tle of ben­e­fit for any­one except Iran and ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions like the Islam­ic State.

A more refined crit­ic will notice how much time the Man­i­festo spends crit­i­ciz­ing and warn­ing of the dan­gers of Islam in par­tic­u­lar while white suprema­cy gets not a peep—nor, for that mat­ter, is glob­al warm­ing regard­ed as a pri­or­i­ty for a unit­ed left.

doesnt look like anything to me

So in the mid-Aughts, this group of self-defined left­ist aca­d­e­mics, jour­nal­ists and activists con­sid­ered the 5 per­cent of all Mus­lim peo­ple in the Unit­ed King­dom inher­ent­ly dan­ger­ous and a threat to democ­ra­cy by virtue of their pri­vate reli­gion. Mean­while a few years lat­er, UKIP got near­ly 4 mil­lion active vot­ers and 12.6 per­cent of the vote in 2015, and in 2016, Brex­it got an out­right major­i­ty.

Per­haps the strain of the so-called left focused on the threats caused by Mus­lim immi­grants was based on some­thing oth­er than the inher­ent dan­ger of the peo­ple belong­ing to that reli­gion. Per­haps the fact that in the Year of Our Lord 2019, Sam Har­ris still can say that “white suprema­cy does­n’t look like any­thing to me” after call­ing Islam par­tic­u­lar­ly trou­ble­some and immune to the nor­mal rules of ther­monu­clear pol­i­tics, ought to tell you some­thing.

In near­ly a mil­len­nia and a half, Islam has nev­er been close to destroy­ing Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion.

In a decade and a half, fas­cism near­ly did.

In a polit­i­cal actu­ar­i­al sense, it might be worth con­sid­er­ing that and behav­ing accord­ing­ly.

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One Ping

  1. […] David A. John­son has writ­ten, for The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate (a project of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute), a review of my new book on the Prophet Muham­mad: […]