Monday, May 10, 2010

Can someone explain to me what this guy is saying?

Commanded to terrorize South Park, an op ed in today's Vancouver Sun by lecturer Gordon Nickel is a head scratcher for me. I know our public or mainstream media discourse on Islam has become a game of unmentionables, innuendo, and false pieties. But really, I pity the UBC students who have to figure out what this prof. wants them to think or write about Islam. This guy is not obviously an enthusiast for dissimulation or cultural relativism and yet he seems so scared of appearing to say anything a little too declarative that he invents a whole new kind of pointing with eyebrows raised, while saying weird things about Jews. Either that, or he was terribly abused by some newpaper editor with the fear of Allah in mind.


gordon said...

Hi there Truepeers;

Thanks for your post. I would be glad to discuss any questions you may have about the article in the May 10 Vancouver Sun. I may well have failed to make my meaning clear in the original blog. But no, I have no enthusiasm for dissimulation or cultural relativism, and the Sun editor was happy to print exactly what I wrote. Feel free to let me know what was not clear. I have no fear of being declarative.

Best wishes, Gordon Nickel

truepeers said...


Thanks for dropping by and your offer to clarify. My choice of title for the post was intended first of all to see how (if) other readers would respond to your article. I am not entirely clueless about what you are saying but I am interested in the ambiguities and what people think our academic leaders are and are not able to say about today's (political) Islam in the mainstream media. It really wasn't very clear to me if your attitude towards the Koran, as opposed to this one radical, is generally positive or negative and I don't believe neutrality is a serious possibility once one has done the work of a disinterested scholar in examining how the book has been used historically.

My curiosity about your piece begins about half way, when you write:

Two things about this are surprising: first, that a North American Muslim would refer to a verse from the Koran that does not support the claim that Islam is a "religion of peace"; second, that he would supply the original Arabic wording in an effort to remove all doubt.

-are you really surprised that there are Muslims who believe the Koran commands war on the infidel (in various situations) or are you just being ironic or amused that this guy is not politically sophisticated enough to talk like, say, a CAIR representative? It's not clear what you want to tell Canadians about the nature of Islam, or if you are making subtle hints.

On the second point, is such sincerity really such a rare thing when talking to kids indoctrinated by, say, the Muslim Students' Association? Or, again, are you simply making the point that the mainstream representatives of Islam in North American public life would never be so unambiguous. Again, one wonders what is your attitude about the interpretations of the Koran currently ascendant among young North American Muslims.

In the course Scriptures of the Near East at the University of B.C., one of the key principles I teach students is not to take verses out of context. The interested reader must first investigate what sort of material surrounds 8:60 in the eighth and ninth suras -- or chapters -- of the Koran.

-I'm glad you read the verse in context; but it's kind of odd to read this and then see no indication what you think this context (the most notorious suras) entails. It's confusing to me that the next comment you make about the Koran is in relation to suras 33 and 59. But then I ask myself what would a proper contextual reading (by any Islamic or non-Islamic scholarly standards) of the Koran be, and am curious how one can read a verse "in context" if one refers only to the immediate sura and not also to the general tone, purpose, or evolution (in relation to the life of Mohammed) of the Koran and the other Islamic texts. When I pick up the Koran my general impression is of a text that relentlessly opposes believer and non-believer and regularly curses the latter. What was your desire in writing that we should all pick up a Koran and have a read? Can non-expert readers like myself really rely on first impressions (which are usually pretty reliable, but not always...)

truepeers said...

However, this does not match how Muslims have understood some of the key "terror" verses for more than a millennium. In particular, 33:26 and 59:2 ( "cast terror into their hearts") have been understood in Muslim biographies of the messenger of Islam and in Koranic commentaries to refer to conflicts between the messenger and the wealthy Jewish tribes of Medina. In those situations, the land and resources belonged to the Jews, and it was the Jewish mothers who were at risk.

-so, are you saying that it is just this one guy who has an eccentric reading, or are you saying that this interpretation goes well beyond him to a currently fashionable reading among Islamists?

(Anyway, I have trouble believing one can point to but one standard interpretation as dominant across the centuries).

Finally, as someone very sensitive about, and intellectually interested in, Judeophobia it is the latter part of the comment that I really want to see elucidated. First, why just the Jewish mothers? Second are you really saying that Muslims forevermore can only understand the Koran in terms of the specific historical context in which it emerged, as if it is no longer prescriptive in today's circumstances? What would true believers make of the imperative to terrorize "God's" enemies, today? Are we really to think it is only a few eccentrics who think this passage can be read allegorically and made to apply, as imperative, to sundry enemies today? My deepest fear in reading what you wrote was that you might be suggesting to people that the Koran is only really threatening (historical) Jews and even then maybe only Jews who are wealthy and powerful and in the face of the Muslim brothers - but then this focus on a pushy, too powerful, scapegoat is the excuse for all antisemitism (of which there is no end in today's Islamic world - but to what extent is it Koranically inspired?) and what starts with the Jews rarely ends with them - so many enemies are, in the final analysis, like the pushy or powerful "Jews", as Mohammed saw them.

Certainly I don't expect any scholar to sum up the meaning of the Koran or even a single passage, in a short opinion piece. This would require you to look at many different perspectives, historical and current. But I am curious as to what kinds of opinions a UBC professor and writer for the Sun can publicly hold and still get published in a paper whose religion writer, Mr. Todd, has told us things like Islam respects Jesus as a prophet (without telling us what it thinks of actual, historical Christianity) and that we must all realize that there are going to be more "elegant" minarets dotting the Vancouver skyline, whether we like it or not, as if the future of our city and government policies are not open to debate if some higher multicultural imperative is in play.

Thanks again!

gordon said...

Thanks for your comments and questions, Truepeers.

I will respond to all of your comments, starting with the last section. I write best in the mornings, so I will continue with the rest of your comments tomorrow.

I find the Qur'an, Sira, Hadith and Tafsir (commentaries on the Qur'an) to be quite strongly anti-Jewish. By the comment in my article, I meant to say that the traditional Muslim understanding of some of the Qur'an's major "terror" verses is that these are about Muslim terror against the Jews of Medina. One of the most famous of those Muslim accounts is that the men of the Banu Qurayza tribe were massacred (associated with Q33.26). My PhD studies were about the Muslim accusation that the Torah is corrupted or falsified, and in the course of that research I discovered a deep antipathy toward Jews in the Qur'anic commentaries. Personally I feel very badly about this antipathy toward Jews--in no way would I justify this! If I understand your comments here, I would say by all means many Muslims--not only Islamists--would use those traditional Islamic understandings to encourage antipathy and violence toward Jews today. And I am very much against this.

I agree with you that getting published in the Sun can be tricky. The article we are discussing was actually written as a blog for the Sun's Community of Interest website. However, if you would like to see a fully declarative piece which a newspaper was willing to publish, check:

More tomorrow, Gordon

gordon said...

Now to respond to your other questions, Truepeers:

No, I am not surprised that Muslims believe that the Qur'an commands war. In fact, I think that this is the Traditionalist understanding, never mind the Islamist (or MSA). Yes, there is an element of irony and hint in my "surprise": CAIR representatives and other spokespeople for Islam in the West try to portray Islam as peaceful, but in my research and experience this does not match either Muslim tradition or the thinking of most Muslims in the world today.

I agree with you that a scholarly examination of the contents of the Qur'an and the history of its interpretation does not allow neutrality. Muslims divide the contents of the Qur'an into "Meccan" and "Medinan." In this scheme, I find most of the so-called "Medinan" material to be deeply negative, and find much in the so-called "Meccan" material to be positive.

About the context of Q8.60: Yes, I am actually encouraging people to pick up a Qur'an and read suras 8 and 9 (suras 33 and 59 as well!). I believe people must read for themselves if there is to be any genuine discourse (there is a natural distrust of the "expert" these days). The first impression is important in this case, and I believe reliable. I agree that a knowledge of the other Islamic texts is relevant for context, especially the Sira and commentaries, which claim a connection of the contents of suras 8 and 9 to battle situations. However, from a scholarly perspective, there is no proven historical connection between the Qur'an and the Muslim story of Muhammad. Muhammad is only named four times in the scripture, always in the third person.

One other comment you make is about "one standard interpretation as dominant across the centuries." Actually, in my research thus far, when I study the interpretation of a verse from the Qur'an over the course of a thousand years, I find interpretation to be remarkably uniform, especially as it relates to Jews and violence. It was only about the middle of the 19th century that some Muslims in India began to interpret the Qur'an in a modernist way for the first time--partly in response to European opinions that the Qur'an is violent.

Thank you for your comments and questions. Any chance you could join the UBC class next Spring?

truepeers said...

Thanks for your comments, Gordon. This whole post is now actually a bit embarassing for me since I see I commended you National Post article back in 2006. Well, I have a poor memory but when I read again today the NP piece the memory returned and I was again impressed by its lucidity and learned, organized presentation. My initial reaction to your blog the Sun picked up was as you can see - I was temporarily more interested in the text as something the Sun would publish than I was in the author, a circumstance I am now happy to reverse.

I'm still a little curious what you mean by a "uniform" interpretation over a thousand years. Intepretetation, by its very nature, would seem to me inevitably to entail differentiation, variation, to a degree. I know it's not possible to be conclusive about sameness and difference, but to what extent does/has Islam allowed for serious ongoing interpretation and not simply ritualistic recitation of established opinions (though even the latter is surely not immune to mis-takes and hence to new insights).

Thanks for your invitation. I fear my days of formal university education are behind me but if you would like a visit from a guy who is more interested (so far in my life) in the anthropology of religion than in being an observant and learned practitioner, maybe I could add something to the discussion. If you'd like to meet us, the CZ bloggers usually meet on Thursday evenings in the atrium of the downtown Vancouver library from around 7-9 pm. You can reach me at


Dag said...

I have no comparable expertise in Islam to Gordon Nickel, but not so much is needed to know enough about Islam as a primitive fasces and violent poligion that needs be extirpated for the sake of relative peace in the world and for the sake of saving from slavery vast populations of the world now and in future.

But maybe it's not so bad as it seems. Perhaps we're all mistaken and there really is no such person in fact as Mohammed, and we can all accept our mistake and laugh it off, and find the truth in archaeology, the very path to peace.

Muhammad is mentioned four times in the Qur'an, (Yusef Ali trans.):

Q.: 3:144; Al `Imran, (The Family of Imran)

"Mohammed is only a messenger, one among many...."

Q.33:40; Al-Ahzab, (The Confederates)

"Mohammed is not the father of any of you men but is the messenger of Allah."

Q. 47:2, Muhammed

"... believe in the (Revelation) sent to Muhammed...."

Q. 48:29: Al-Hujurat, (The Victory)

"Mohammed is the messenger of Allah...."

and as Ahmad [a variation of the name Mohammed] in Q. 61:6: as-Saff (The Ranks)

"And remember, Jesus, the son of Mary, said: 'O Children of Israel! I am the Messenger of Allah (sent) to you, confirming the law... and giving Glad Tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad.' "

All of the references to Mohammed must be in the third person if the Qur'an is merely a recitation of the words of Allah and not the words of Mohammed himself, assuming we believe there is such an historical personage at all. What is our best information on the life of this Mohammed? The lost work of ibn Ishaq (d. 768 A.D., i.e. c. 130 years after the fact) as separately written down and redacted by ibn Hisham and al-Tabiri, The Sirah. We also have the hadith collections from, among the six major compilers, the Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, c. 860 A.D. So, yes there is a significant gap between the life of the man and the narratives of the man Mohammed. Did he exist at all, at least in any real relation to the man as we know of him from secondary sources?

Ibn Warraq writes in Why I am Not a Muslim: "Non-Arab contemporary accounts: 'We conclude that the local sources written before the early eighth century provide no evidence for a planned invasions of Arabs from the Peninsula, nor for great battles which crushed the Byzantine army; nor do they mention any caliph before Mu`awiya, who by contrast is clearly a historical figure fully attested from several works'."

The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, edited and translated by Ibn Warraq, Prometheus Books: Amherst, New York. 2000. N.B. "Studies on Muhammed and the Rise of Islam: A Critical Study," pp. 15-88.

Is there any evidence of a historical Mohammed? We can look to "The Achtiname of Muhammad" ("Muhammed's Charter of Privileges to Christians; Letter to the Monks of St. Catherine Monastery,") c.628. or "Muhammad's letter to the Christians of Najrān," discovered c. 878. And for the ultimate sceptic, look to Victor Mordecai, Is Fanatical Islam a Global Threat? Merrick, New York; 1995; rpt. Taylor, South Carolina; 1998.

Mohammed is mentioned four times in the Qur'an, and once as Ahmad, all of which is to say the triconsonantal root H-M-D is Mohammed or Ahmed, and he exists in the Qur'an, whether we like the figure or not. Does this figure have any relation to the figure in the hadiths or Sira? Scholars will debate. Muslims will not. Maybe all of this is a forgery and a fantasy. It hardly matters in the world.

Dag said...

Gordon Nickel writes: "[I]n my research thus far, when I study the interpretation of a verse from the Qur'an over the course of a thousand years, I find interpretation to be remarkably uniform, especially as it relates to Jews and violence. It was only about the middle of the 19th century that some Muslims in India began to interpret the Qur'an in a modernist way for the first time--partly in response to European opinions that the Qur'an is violent."

That, "in the world," tells us only that in India, and among the elitists such as Yusef Ali (1872 – 1953,) there was for a short time prior to partition some Muslims expected to join the Modernist world and hoped to tame the "Seventh Century warrior tribal code enflamed by ethnicity," as E.O. Wilson calls it, and that such hope went down to defeat under the greater orthodoxy and appeal of Maududi et al. Whether Mohammed "really" existed is irrelevant. A few Westernised post-Moghuls might have hoped to gain prominent places in a post-colonial Modernist Muslim world. They did not. It does not exist. Jihad is eternal in Islam. Mohammed might not exist, but jihad must or there can be no Islam. There would be no reason for Islam to exist without the call to conquest. The Meccan suras are so soulless and insipid that one cannot find enough "religion" to hang ones hat on. The appeal of Islam is in its sado-masochism and its release of righteous rage in pursuit of further sadism practised upon those one can get at, often enough but not ever limited too the Jews. There is little more to Islam than a Gollum-like obsession with nursing ones hated love-object of suffering. Because Islam is a violence of the obsessed mind, only violence can cure it, and that mostly, of course not always, by death. How does one reason with a Muslim? Look at one typical of most:

"His world had shrunk to a hut in a crumbling village. He was prepared for even that to crumble away further, once the faith was served."

V.S. Naipaul, Among the Believers, Penguin: p. 89.

There is little hope, if any, of reasoning or even controlling the majority of these people in their unhindered Islamic condition. Only harsh force tames them enough to control them to the point they don't murder non-Muslims at random. Islamic history is such because it is the essence of Islam. Mohammed exists, and every first-born son of a Muslim proves it. Islam exists in the world and we can witness it in the continuous violence of Muslims throughout the history of Islam to this day. Mythical or not, four or five times mentioned in the Qur'an or a million times, Mohammed exists, and he will exist till he is destroyed root and branch in every Muslim man and culture and nation.

Even if I am the only man who believes we must destroy the roots and branches of Islam, still I'm open to discussing how to do so.

truepeers said...

needs be extirpated for the sake of relative peace in the world

-or for the sake of relative peace in your mind. There are lots of thing that, when gone, will bring relative peace, or so say the resentful dreamers. (If only we could get rid of all the excess CO2...) But the world is what the world is and it is not something a sane person goes around demanding be radically transformed, or else. Yes, you do have to live a life full of conflict, with no end of history or Messiah in sight. Tough. If one has come to a point where one thinks endlessly about Muslims (or Jews or what have you) then one's identity becomes that of the man who knows that xyz must be extirpated. This man will not actually find peace if one day his project is realized (but how would it be realized in an age when a compact "fasces", presumably the project's necessary tool, is what every Westerner refuses to be part of), even if he succeeds in killing or converting all his foes. He will remain the same man, dependent for his identity on the same resentment. No, any peace of mind will require he work through difficult realities by acknowledging their enduring existence. Even if, for the sake of argument, one could extirpate Islam, it would not solve the yet more general problem of which Islam is the current figurehead: the (third world) resentment of those (more fertile) on the margins of the leading centres of power and creativity in the global system. Don't forget the old post-SOviet joke: what's worse than Communism? A: What comes after Communism is destroyed... In other words, if your project is not creative, offering people a positive alternative to be part of , it will fail. Tactically, it is foolish to dress yourself up as simply the extirpator. Who wants that but the most frenzied and lost?

truepeers said...

On the other hand, it is possible to live in relative peace of mind with all kinds of real enemies about, if you are firmly centred in a faith of your own. Once one puts away Utopian dreams and realizes that human conflict in one shape or form is inevitable, then one can hope to find the only kind of peace - in advancing the kind of faith that knows (how) we can forever defer, mediate, but never solve human conflict for power and resources - that is really possible in this world.

Maybe one day Islam will decline to the point of utter marginality in world historical terms. Nothing lasts forever. Maybe it would be a good idea to encourage that. But I cannot think of many worse political tactics than to begin by pronouncing it must be extirpated. We just don't live in an age that tolerates well that kind of violent world historical prophecy. (Part of me believes you know that Dag and you say these kinds of things when you're in the mood to feel alienated, to be the hyper-romantic who never compromises.) Today, making that kind of sign will help your enemies gain sympathy in the wider world. Rather, I think you should ask yourself how to work to make or support attractive models for people to follow and how to encourage people to discover important truths on their own terms - through engaging others to the point where they can/will have new revelations - without pushing on them what will generally be resisted: a violent world historical project. If you really believe Islam needs to go you should not be talking about "extirpating" but rather, for example, reaching out to help people leave Islam and become Christians, or to defend women's rights, etc.

I think it is foolish to try to sum up Islam in some definitive manner, especially if you are not a Muslim. It's really not the precise metaphysics of the enemy that needs to concern us as much as our own identity. What we need to do is defend the terms of belonging to a free society, or to the global marketplace, one that insists on furthering reciprocity for all; and then let the chips of who must be exculded fall where they may. So, one might call for excluding immigrants from, or limiting trade with, countries that are not themselves open to Christians, Jews, etc. One might talk of toppling tyrants and dictators whatever their religious justifications. People will fight for reciprocity, I think; i don't think they will fight to extirpate a world religion of countless sects and personalities.

Of course, thinking through the pragmatic possibilities to erode slavery and masochism may not bring you the emotional satisfaction that comes with fantasizing the end of Islam. But that's a problem of needing an identity that can engage reality by overcoming vanity.

Dag said...

I tend to disagree with your take on the nature of conflict, as you know. I can sum it up thus: that people like and need conflict, violent and terrible conflict, because it validates our short lives intensely. Violence, war, major campaigns to win or lose give people generally a sense of satisfaction not found in other activities such as commerce. Violence attracts the uncommitted to violence and the greater struggle to have meaning. It makes life good for many, even those who die.

People "hate America" because America is deferential. Clamour for the extirpation of Islam, should it gather an enthusiasm, would in the long term save Muslims from extirpation. Most people involved would come to a satisfying compromise in the course of the struggle, having made their best effort to succeed, and then, proven in battle, they stop and make amends. That's usually how life is, though it's not so pretty on paper.

truepeers said...

I haven't heard it put so pithily since Hitler told Germany's youth that life would only be meaningful if they sacrificed to initiate a new golden age. A comment that begs the question, Why isn't Dag a Jihadi - but then he is, though non-conformist, isn't he?

Once we all shout "extirpaton", where do you think this eventual compromise you promise that will avoid total war comes from - from love of violence or fear of it? From whence emerges the unpredictable that makes life more messy than anything on paper? From love of violence or fear of it? Your comment isn't logical. It starts with pure violent nihilism and then somehow pulls a magic fairy of compromise out of the hat.

No doubt historically warfare has been a primary driver of history. IN order to survive, you have to build both stronger and more orderly socieities. In other words, you can't just love war, you have to fear it. Blood-thirsty savages do give way to professionals who truly seek to limit and avoid war.

Anyway, as you may have noticed something happened in the 20th Century that made total war no longer a possibility for people who want to survive as a culture. Some wars you just can't win and have any kind of sustainable society beyond the most primitive. I think most modern Westerners do not like conflict - most people never did but only some of the men and perhaps very few women. However, conflict is not something we need so much as it is simply inevitable in the human condition. You think we "need" it because you intuit the connection between violence and meaning, but you cannot really explain it satisfactorily.

That the only ground for any intellectual work that is not just a complete waste of readers' time lies in talking about how conflict might be deferred is in no way to deny the perfectly banal point that conflict is inevitable and has to be faced. And if people invest conflict with meaning, it is not because violence is meaningful - it is not; violence, pure rivalrous frenzy, destroys meaning. Rather, it is because with the experience of violence people see the need to construct meaning in order to defer violence. The primitive heroic tale of warriors, the more sophisticate story of no-longer-atheists in foxholes, are both ways not to essentialize but to defer violence. A romantic warrior kills the enemy with an eye to memorializing the event so that he can create a space where he is not fighting but memorializing. There is no meaning, no glamour, the moment the explosive shell sails overhead and you shit your pants. Fight or flight is just animal instinct. Nothing is meaningful unless and until it is deferring violence. Appreciate this basic anthropology or be stuck in nihilism which cannot but lead to failure in any kind of political, military, or intellectual leadership. At which point you are reduced to taking pleasure in merely belittling the enemy. Because you don't really believe in anything else.

Perhaps you haven't given much thought to how the Jihad is used and manipulated by states like Russia and China who know full well that America cannot retaliate against them in a significant way in a nuclear-tipped age. They want America and the West to recede from global centrality, and that seems to some extent inevitable now. It doesn't matter how much you want to fantasize some great total and complete victory over the anti-Western enemy. It's not happening anytime soon, unless and until we win the war on all kinds of non-military fronts.

truepeers said...

If you want to make a contribution to the survival of anything, 1st you need to start identifying what makes it worth surviving and then go about spreading the message to inspire others - giving them a MEANS to see themselves anew - and not to piss on them for being insufficently warlike or too learned. If you are so nihilistic to think the only thing that makes life worthwhile is violence, forget about it, you're finished. The only way Westerners are ever going to defend themselves seriously is if they have a strong sense of who they are and why it's worth fighting for in all the indirect ways that the present military technology requires we fight. You can't just beat China or whoever is willing to use Jihadis as proxies by total war, unless you want what's left of the next genteration to start over as primitive tribesmen; you have to beat her culturally and commercially in a long indirect war that is already happening and leaving those who dream of the clarity of "extirpation" fumbling with their boots. If you want to stop CHina and Russia providing nuclear power and arms to Islamic countries, beating your chest and putting bloggers on trial is not going to cut it.

Responsibility and discipline are what people need and what makes life meaningful. Fomenting anarchy like some mid-20th Century Nietzschean regime that believes only war can redeem the nation only leads to destroyed nations. It's been shown and most Westerners get it; unfortunately that so far has only turned them into leftist Nietzscheans - people who believe in the will to power but who will only presume to use it in the name of some victim of the West.

Unless and until people can see again that will and power do not come from the tooth fairy, nor from some primeval "reason" or instinct, or some abstract "modernity", but rather from religious revelations and the covenants they inspire, I think eventually the only game in town will be Islam. I'm already starting to sympathize.

Reason comes from revelation. Reason does not lead to revelation. YOu can only reason with those who share your revelation. Time to get to work on promoting shared revelations and not propagating tired old reasons from dead philosophers.

If I'm wrong, then prove it: leave the computer and the lonely room and go out and talk to people about extirpation. See what kind of reactions you get and tell us what could be done with them.