Archive for islam


Posted in Religion, World politics with tags , , , on January 31, 2013 by shirhashirim


An old Quran from Timbuktu: the beginning of the first chapter of the Quran, written in Maghribi script and featuring the recitation of imam Warsh, which differs slightly from Qurans that are mostly used nowadays.

It seems we can sigh with relief: most of the old and invaluable manuscripts in the Timbuktu libraries seem to be safe. The rescue operation was already on it’s way last january. At this stage however nobody can mention any figures, so our sigh should not be too big yet. The manuscripts that are now missing, may actually not have been burned, but looted for trade. That is bad news of course, but at least they’re not totally lost for posterity.

Still, some burning of manuscripts seems to have taken place. If it weren’t for the rescue operation, more harm might have been done. It is this fact that made me wonder during the past few days. Apparently, among the books in the Timbuktu libraries, there are old copies of the Quran. This means that militant Islamists may have been willing to burn Qurans. And maybe they already have.

Of course, for the really religious, nothing is sacred, so we can expect things like this happening. My real wonder is the fact that nobody seems to worry about it, not even in the Middle East. Where are the enraged Muslims when you need them?

The down sides of research schools

Posted in Science with tags , on February 24, 2012 by shirhashirim

In the past few weeks I’ve been reading:

Ohlig, K.H. & M. Gross, 2009. Vom Koran zum Islam. Berlin (Hans Schiller).

It’s already the fourth volume published by the Inarah group. It’s a research school in which a group of scholars have gathered that have what you might call ‘revisionist’ views on the origins of Islam. These views are published regularly in articles that are gathered in volumes like the present one. Inarah are the people that are propagating the theory that Islam originated in present day Iran, as a branch-off from Christianity among Arabs living there. That’s a rough summary.

I am no expert in the field, but I do know something about science in general. A lot of their idea’s simply do not sufficiently fulfill requirements of scholarly rigour. Having reached their fourth volume, they are now getting attention and criticism. In the present volume I found some contributions adressing that critisicm that were quite confrontational. That’s not a good sign.

Let me illustrate my statement on scholarly rigour with an example I found in the fourth volume: Markus Gross’ Fruhislam und Buddismus, neue Indizien (pages 347-396). Gross claims in his contribution that the form of islamic hadith resembles that of Buddhist stories called Itivuttaka and Udana. Hadith are traditional stories that were gathered by muslim scholars for legal and historical reasons. They invariably start with a chain of transmitters, telling the reader who this story is from, who he heard it from and so forth. Ideally these chains go back to the prophet.

Gross has found out that Buddhist traditional stories start out with a comparable chain of transmitters. He supposes Islam has taken over the idea from Buddhism. This would make an origin somewhere in Iran more probable, as Buddism was widespread along the Silk Road. Gross supports his claim by stating that chains of transmission were unknown in Judaism and Christianity.

This however is demonstrably not true. To begin with, the Talmud is full of indications like this. I checked the tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 8 and noted down a few:

Rabbi Abiah b. Rabba b. Nahmani in the name of Rabbi Hisda (according to others in the name of Zeeli) said:
Rabbi Hisda in the name of Uqba (according to others Mar Uqba in the name of Rabbi Sakkai) said:
But did Rabbi Hana b. Mouldha in the name of Rabbi Huna not say that…

And then there are the christian apophthegmata, sayings of the desert fathers, that sometimes also indicate their origin more extensively:

Abba Poemen said that Abba John said…
Abba Poemen said about Abba John the Dwarf…
Abba Doulas, the pupil of Abba Bessarion said…
This is what Abba Daniel, the Pharanite, said: ‘Our Abba Arsenius told us…

I found all these on the internet. As I said: I am no expert, but it was a piece of cake to find evidence to the contrary that Gross should have dealt with.

It shows one disadvantage of research schools, especially if they represent ‘dissident’ views like Inarah. Huddling together with like minded scholars may have its advantages, but in cases like this criticism should be actively sought from outside. Inarah is isolating itself.

كل يوم كربلا

Posted in Music, Religion, World politics with tags , , , , , on December 7, 2011 by shirhashirim

Today Shiites all over the world commemorate the death of the grandson of Muhammad, Hussain, at the battle of Kerbala in 680 CE. Hussain, being a direct descendant of Muhammad had a fair claim on the caliphate which in 680 had just been assumed by Yazid, the son of Mu’awiya, who in 661 CE had usurped the function following the death of Hussain’s father, and caliph, Ali. Hussain went to Kufa to claim his rights and was caught at Kerbala, where he and his followers were massacred by an army that far outnumbered them.

In Shiism the commemoration of this battle has acquired a far wider meaning than just this historical incident. Hussain for Shiites is the epitome of everything that is good and just, while Yazid… Well, you may have guessed. The conflict between the powerless and the powerful, the oppressed against the oppressor. It all comes together at Ashura.

One day in Esfahan during Ashura, I read a phrase on the back window of a car, the title of this post. It means ‘every day is Kerbala’. According to Shiite Muslims Ashura is there to remind us of that sad fact. Those who are not Shiites need only to open their newspapers and read.

Kerbala is commemorated with passion plays in the streets, with music, public mourning and self-chastisement. In some parts of the world this even turns into self-mutilation, but not where I was. I’ve been told the latter is forbidden in Iran.

Flagellants in the main square of Esfahan (Iran) celebrating Ashura in 2010.

Beating oneself, in Iran with a bundle of chains of varying thicknesses, however is an integral part of the commemorations. It is done in groups in procession on the beat of a drum. It has a little choreography to it, that differs from group to group. Everyone wears black shirts and you can see small particles of iron shimmering on the backs of the men (no women beat themselves with chains). I’ve tried it myself. It does not hurt as much as you might think, it’s just a heavy thump on your back. But I’ve never tried doing it during half a day, as these men do.

It’s the beating with chains that impresses people the most, but once you’ve been at Ashura, you realise it’s just a detail. It’s the general atmosphere of mourning that is most impressive.

Bloody shame

Posted in Arabic, Religion, The odd post with tags , , , on October 4, 2011 by shirhashirim

(source: Sotheby’s website)

In a few hours a page from the so-called blue qur’an will be auctioned at Sotheby’s, chances are it will disappear in the vaults of some private collector. Rumor has it that almost all old qur’anic manuscripts disappear there…

Somehow I cannot but think that things like these are world heritage, that should be publicly available for everyone to see and enjoy.

(source: Sotheby’s website)

Incidentally: a hijazi manuscript is also up for sale. This type of manuscript belongs to the very oldest group of manuscripts we have of the qur’an. They are important for the study of early Islam and the textual history of the qur’an. They should not only be available for everyone to see, but also for all to study.

The page from the blue qur’an contains surat al-Baqarah (2), verses 267 to 273. The hijazi manuscript contains surat Yusuf (12), verses 30 to 50.

Angry at the pope

Posted in Religion with tags , on May 3, 2011 by shirhashirim

I read the speech that in September 2006 caused world-wide indignation among Muslims. Pope Benedict XVI, while on a visit to the university of Regensburg in Germany, had the audacity to quote a Mediaeval Byzantine emperor saying:

Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

The pope clearly, and twice, indicated he thought these words ‘unacceptably brusque’, and ‘forceful’, even before quoting the emperor, so there could be no doubt about the pope’s own position on this issue: he did not agree with the quoted emperor. The rest of his speech did not at all elaborate on the emperor’s statement, but on the footnote that the editor of the Mediaeval text had put in it as a comment on the emperors line of thoughts. Still, quite a few Muslims took offence.

I don’t think this was just a case of misunderstanding or poor comprehension on the part of some Muslims. There’s a deeper reason they were offended by the pope. Not because he insulted Islam. He clearly didn’t, and even for the bad listener he made it absolutely clear this was not his intention.

The reason is the pope’s position on the question of whether God is a reasonable being and his views on interreligious dialogue. It was the very core of his speech. The emperor’s insult was only what led him to think what he was talking about in Regensburg: can we have a reasonable interreligious discourse among humans when we operate on the presumption that God is not reasonable? Can we live together at all, adhering to differing faiths, in peace, as long as anyone believes God is not reasonable?

The answer is: we cannot. And the pope put his finger exactly where it itches, because in Islam, God is not necessarily reasonable and just. He is above all sovereign and independent and not bound to anything. This means God may not be bound to reason and justice. Quite the opposite: justice might simply be whatever God wants. It was this observation that the pope found in the footnote, and that got him thinking. The footnote quoted ibn Hazm who went as far as to claim that God was not even bound to His own word, an extreme case of voluntarism, especially for a Muslim, as the Qur’an is believed by them to be His Word.

When you read the speech, the pope’s point is made obliquely. His direct point is that our modern western idea of ‘reason’ has become so narrowed down to ‘hard science’ that we are excluding theology, philosophy and large parts of the scholarly traditions of the world, notably from deeply religious parts, from the realm of scholarship. The west in this way makes a dialogue with other cultures impossible. Implicitly he seems to blame the west for frustrating intercultural dialogue with the Islamic world. In a sense he’s on the side of the Muslims.

But at the same time he emphasises that acting contrary to reason contradicts the essence of God, and he concludes that we should invite other cultures to a dialogue based on that broad idea of ‘reason’. But this means there are always two sources of knowledge about God: revelation and reason. For Muslims this cannot mean anything else but the possibility of questioning your faith. Even God Himself can become the object of questions, even arguments. Ever since Genesis 18:22, Judaism and Christianity have had a long tradition of arguing with God, but for a lot of Muslims this is still uncharted territory.

There is an exception to be made. Above I talked about ‘Islam’, where I should have said ‘Sunni Islam’. In Shia Islam, God is considered just and reasonable. I think nobody has ever told the pope that he’s Shi’ite…

Tequilla Trap

Posted in Religion, Science, Society, World politics with tags , , , , , , on November 16, 2010 by shirhashirim

More and more people in the public realm are voicing the opinion that Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology. Some add: like communism or fascism. A Dutch politician has even dared to compare the Qur’an to Mein Kampf. Islam, as a political ideology, is alleged to strive for world domination, nothing less.

The nasty thing is: this is correct. You cannot disprove the idea that Islam is a political ideology. Not because Islam is more of a political ideology than any other religion, but because everything is political. Neither can you disprove the idea that Islam wants to take over the whole world, because every world religion either wants to or would at least prefer to convert the whole world.

A number of critics of Islam has added an idea to all this that has become increasingly popular. It is not only working in the political realm. Politicians have found support for it with scholars of Islam: in order to attain their political goals, Muslims may lie and cheat. It is a concept known in Islam as taqiyya, usually translated as ‘dissimulation’. The Dutch politician I mentioned has alleged this too in court, while on trial for his comparison of the Qur’an to Mein Kampf, among others.

Somehow this idea has so far only been unmasked as factually incorrect. Taqiyya is a concept from Shia Islam. Shiites are a minority of about 10% among all Muslims. They have not, and are not, always treated as equals by their Sunni coreligionists. In Shia Islam the concept of taqiyya was developed for those Shiites that had reason to fear for their lives if they would continue practicing their religion as Shiites among Sunnis. In cases of mortal danger Shiites are allowed to act like Sunnis. For the Calvinists among us: yes they are allowed to lie and cheat to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Naturally, taqiyya is loathed by Sunnis and Shiites are regularly criticised by Sunni clerics for being liars and cheats. They have an easy target, because it can be proven from their own writings. For ease, the critics forget that it is an institution that is intended at escaping death from persecutors, not an instrument to promote Shia Islam.

The theological-moral concept taqiyya plays no role in Sunni Islam, for the simple reason that Sunni’s have always been in the majority. However, Arabic being the language that it is, the word taqiyya is sometimes used in Sunni writings concerning a Muslim’s behaviour in war. It may come as no surprise that cheating is allowed in wartime. It has always been everywhere.

Unfortunately the western world has -through Christianity- become thoroughly unacquainted with halakhic religions, where even the simplest moral questions can become the object of lengthy theological debates. Like the question: may a Muslim general use deceit as a weapon?

The fact that it is easy to find writings on the allowed use of deceit in war by Muslims has nothing to do with Muslims being especially deceitful (they are not more that others) it’s just because Islam is a halakhic religion.

But combine the original concept of taqiyya with the (perfectly sensible) idea that deceit is a weapon in war, with the Islamic concept op the realm of Islam (dar al-islam) vs. the realm of war (dar al-harb) and with some qur’anic quotes about the early wars between the Muslims and their opponents (referred to as ‘unbelievers’) and it is easy to write a scholarly-looking piece that seems to prove taqiyya refers to a worldwide Muslim conspiracy to take over the world by deceit. It is in fact just one fallacy: a syllogism of the fourth term.

But besides being factually incorrect it is also nonsensical. That is an aspect of this idea that so far nobody has ever payed attention to. This is because it requires a lot of explanation and because it is thoroughly counter-intuitive.

It starts with Karl Raimund Popper who invented the first major shift in thinking about science since the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment taught us to look at nature and the world as it is in order to attain scientific knowledge about it. If we wanted to know what colour bears were, the only thing we needed to do is look at many bears and determine their colour. Every single new brown bear added credibility to our theory that all bears are brown.

Popper invented the idea that in order to prove us wrong, we only needed one white bear. No matter how many brown bears there were: one white bear would be enough. Instead, Popper proposed that the theory ‘all bears are brown’ did not gain credibility by finding more brown bears, but by the amount of attempts that failed at finding a differently coloured bear. Scientists, in other words, should aim at falsifying theories.

There are two beautiful advantages to this approach. The first is that you can try to falsify a theory in a methodical way. You can go look around for non-brown bears in the same way you’ve so far counted the brown ones, but that will not get you much further unless you are lucky. Instead you can refine your search. You might for example come up with the idea that a lot of mammals on the North Pole are white, for obvious reasons. You might then surmise that if there are bears up there, there’s a fair chance they will be white. This will make your search less random and much more aimed.

The second advantage is even bigger: theories need to be falsifiable. The theory ‘all bears are brown’ can be proven wrong as soon as a non-brown bear is found. This means that there is a specific set of theories that scientifically mean nothing: theories that cannot be falsified. This is not the same as a theory that has been proven right, although the general public tends to see it that way.

A good example of a scientifically nonsensical theory is one of the creationist views of the universe: it was created 6000 years ago, and anything that points to the contrary (fossils, isotope dating) was created with it. Any chance at falsifying this theory founders on the fact that every single counter-argument is already explained by the theory itself. Contrary to popular opinion, science cannot disprove this theory. Nor can it disprove the theory that the universe was created six minutes ago, and everything that points to the contrary with it.

This does not mean that the universe was created 6000 years ago, nor does it mean it was six minutes ago. The two theories are just scientifically nonsensical: they can neither be proven nor disproven, because they’ve been formulated wrong. They should be falsifiable.

The same goes for the theory that Islam is out to attain world domination: anything that might prove the contrary is the result of taqiyya, deceit that is part of the ideology that wants to take over the world. Any Muslim that gets caught up in a discussion about this idea is caught in a trap he cannot reason his way out of, unless he knows his Popper. And even then he’s not in the safe zone: because even if the idea is nonsensical, it might still be true, just like it might still be true that the universe was created six minutes ago.

Unfortunately, the people who divulge these theories are usually not the ones who have read up on theory of science, let alone Popper. They have worse things to do.

Screwup (3)

Posted in Society, World politics with tags , , , on November 3, 2010 by shirhashirim

As most people know Europe is being plagued by the spectre of populism, nationalism, right-wing politicians or whatever you want to call them for the past decades. Things have been going faster during the last years, 9/11 and the Danish Cartoon Controversy having greatly speeded up things.

It has ended us up with some politicians who are veritable champions of logical and other types of inconsistencies. The really worrying part of it is: they seem to attract more voters the more they cheat them.

Now we have Pia Kjaersgaard of the Danish People’s Party (DF) organising another screwup, and nobody seems to notice.

Her party, strictly anti islam immigration, has in the recent past vehemently campaigned against any kind of censorship. A nobel cause in itself.

DF poster: “Freedom of speech is Danish, censorship isn’t”

But now it seems that standard does not apply to muslims immigrants and is only valid for Danes, as Mrs. Kjaersgaard has proposed to ban al-Jazeera and another Arabic broadcasting corporation, because it is the only source of news for a lot of muslims immigrants, and they ‘sow hatred’ towards the west.

Not only is this idea contrary to her own stated views, she should also know better. Her proposal is going to change exactly nothing. Because muslims all over the world have an impressive experience with dictatorial measures like this. In most islamic countries loads of broadcasting corporations are not just banned but actively jammed. It does not prevent millions of them to watch whatever they want to see. Satellite dishes and anti-blocking devices are everywhere and easily obtained.

It is no different in Denmark, so Mrs. Kjaersgaard must know that what she has said is just words, intended to attract yet more credulous voters…