Jihad Watch, as Hugh Fitzgerald has pointed out many times, is primarily a pedagogical site. We are trying to educate people about the nature, magnitude, and sources of the jihad threat. In the course of that effort, we must from time to time work to clear away misconceptions, false assumptions, and false claims about a variety of subjects.
And in the course in turn of doing that, we have more than once remarked upon and explained common arguments that apologists for jihad and Islamic supremacism make. My new book Religion of Peace? Why Christianity Is -- and Islam Isn't (coming later this year from Regnery Publishing) is dedicated to confronting one of the most common tactics in this line: excusing the actions of contemporary jihadists by pointing to the historical sins of Christianity. Hugh Fitzgerald has written about two common rhetorical tricks, taqiyya and tu quoque, and others here, here, here and here. Another Jihad Watch Board member, Ibn Warraq, offers tips on how to debate a Muslim here and here -- including a rational evaluation of the assertion that one can only understand the Islamic texts in Arabic, and much more.
Anyway, I've had a couple of recent experiences lately that made me think it might be useful to spell out another common device: charging "ignorance" to fool the ignorant. In both cases, assertions of points about Islam that are generally taken for granted as true by Muslims were sharply contradicted by Muslim spokesmen, who not only claimed the contrary but charged that the non-Muslims making the statements were "ignorant." I have seen this frequently in the past -- I suspect that the presumption here is that the genuinely ignorant and credulous will naturally assume that the Muslim knows his faith better than the "ignorant" non-Muslim, and so will take the charge as evidence that the non-Muslim in question is indeed ignorant of Islam. Insofar as that is indeed the result, it is an effective tactic.
The two recent cases in which I was involved had to do with the closure of the gates of ijtihad and the arrangement of Qur'anic suras. I am not going to name any names or give any links here, as the Muslim spokesman I was debating has since published a vile ad hominem attack against an associate and friend of mine, establishing that that spokesman is not as interested in honest and mutually respectful dialogue as he had claimed to be; I see now that linking to him and discussing matters with him is useless, and am not raising these points to continue anything with him -- which I will not do. However, I do think that the incident involving him and the other incident were both instructive, as they are illustrative of this tactic.
1. The gates of ijtihad are closed.
Ijtihad (اجتهاد) is the process of arriving at a decision on a point of Islamic law through study of the Qur'an and Sunnah. In a recent exchange, a Muslim writer took issue with my assertion that most Muslims consider the gates of ijtihad to be closed -- that is, independent study of the Qur'an and Sunnah are discouraged, and Muslims are instead expected to adhere to the rulings of one of the established schools of jurisprudence (madhahib, مذاهب). He said, "Mr. Spencer’s reply is littered with major and minor forms of inconsistency. These inconsistencies are casual reminders that Mr. Spencer is not a scholar on Islam." His primary illustration of my inconsistency was that I was calling for Islamic reform while saying that the gates of ijtihad are closed; how can there be reform if the mechanism for reform is ruled out?
Anyway, there was no inconsistency here, as I was obviously calling for the gates of ijtihad to be reopened, if that is needed in order to allow for reform. But the point is that all of this was intended to establish ignorance on my part, yet I was merely repeating something that is common knowledge. He has done this in other contexts also: about another non-Muslim writer, the same Muslim writer sneered, "He probably believes the gates of ijtihad are closed."
So: are they closed? Here is some material from Muslims:
...Therefore it is said that "the door of ijtihad is closed" as of some nine hundred years, and since then the tendency of jurisprudence (fiqh) has been to produce only commentaries upon commentaries and marginalia.
That's from Cyril Glasse's New Encyclopedia of Islam. Cyril Glasse is a graduate of Columbia University and a practicing Muslim. His published work includes a translation of Margaret Von Berchen's study of Islamic Jerusalem, a Guide to Saudi Arabia (Berlitz, 1981) and The Pilgrim's Guide to Mecca written for the Hajj Research Centre, King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah.
Then there's this from Muslim-Canada.org:
Thus the schools of the four Imams remain intact after a thousand years have passed, and so the 'Ulama' recognize since the time of these Imams no Mujtahid of the first degree. Ibn Hanbal was the last....Since their Imam Qazi Khan died (A.H. 592), no one has been recognized by the Sunnis as a Mujtahid even of the third class.
A mujtahid is someone qualified to perform ijtihad. Ahmed ibn Hanbal died in 855 AD. Qazi Khan died in 1196.
This is from The Principle of Ijtihad in Islam by the Shi'ite scholar Murtada Mutahhari:
The right of ijtihad did not last for long among the Sunnis. Perhaps the cause of this was the difficulty which occurred in practice: for if such a right were to continue [for any great length of time], especially if ta`awwul and the precedence of something over the texts were to be permitted, and everyone were permitted to change or interpret according to his own opinion, nothing would remain of the way of Islam (din al islam). Perhaps it is for this reason that the right of independent ijtihad was gradually withdrawn, and the view of the Sunni `ulama became that they instructed people to practice taqlid of only the four mujtahids, the four famous Imams - Abu Hanifa [d.150/767], al Shafi`i; [d.204/820], Malik b. Anas [d.179/795] and Ahmad b. Hanbal [d.241/855] - and forbade people to follow anyone apart from these four persons. This measure was first taken in Egypt in the seventh hijri century, and then taken up in the rest of the lands of Islam.
Then there's this from a U.S. Institute of Peace report on ijtihad, referring to Imam Hassan Qazwini, director of the Islamic Center of America:
One of the gravest mistakes Muslims have committed, according to Qazwini, is closing the doors of ijtihad. They have limited legal interpretation to only four prominent scholars: Malik Ibn Anas, Abu Hanifa al-No'man, Muhammad Ibn Idris al-Shafi'i, and Ahmad Ibn Hambal—the heads of the Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi'i, and Hambali schools of thought. The motivation for this was political. During the Abbasid Dynasty (750–1258 CE), the Abbasids decided to outlaw all other sects in order to strictly control religion and worship, as well as political matters.
Closing the doors of ijtihad has had extremely detrimental ramifications for the Muslim world. According to Qazwini, this decision has resulted in chronic intellectual stagnation, as thousands of potential mujtahids and scholars have been prohibited from offering workable solutions to newly emerging problems. Muslim thinkers have become captive to rules that were made long ago, leaving little scope for liberal or innovative thought.
There are many, many more where those came from, but you get the idea. How is it that something assumed to be true by Muslims including Glasse, Mutahhari, and Qazwini, as well as the Muslim Canada staff, becomes false? When a non-Muslim asserts it. The Muslim debater who plays this game evidently thinks he can score points, and fool the credulous and uninformed, by denying what is universally taken to be true and charging ignorance on the part of the one who asserts it. And he is probably right.
One more example:
2. The Qur'an is arranged from the longest to the shortest chapters.
This is another commonplace assertion that recently came up in my ongoing kerfuffle with Dinesh D'Souza, although I wasn't involved in it initially. Here again, however, after a non-Muslim asserted that the Qur'an was thus arranged, a Muslim called this a "false argument" and said that the claim "that the Quran is ordered by size seemed to me a doubtful proposition and contradicted my practical experience."
Here again is a denial of what Muslims freely acknowledge in other contexts. The Qur'an is indeed arranged longest chapter to shortest, with the exception of the first chapter, but this is not a scientifically determined ordering. So it is true that the longest-to-shortest trajectory is somewhat jagged. However, it is a common way for Muslims to speak of their holy book:
The Qur'an is made up of 114 chapters, called suras, which are roughly organized, from the second chapter onward, in order of length, beginning with the longest and ending with the shortest chapters.
That's from here.
And here's another:
For the most part, the suras of the Qur'an are read in reverse order, with the shortest and most easily memorized suras first.
That's from here, referring to the practice in a school; so if they're not read in reverse order, the longest will come first.
And here's yet another:
The Qur'an is divided into 114 chapters, suras. Each sura is divided into verses, ayas. The number of ayas in a sura determines, with a few exceptions, their order of appearance in the Qur'an. The longest, which has 286 verses, stands at the beginning of the book, while the shortest, having three verses, concludes the writing.
That one is from here.
In summary, then: Muslims deny this kind of thing only when an Infidel asserts it in a context that makes the the Muslim spokesman uncomfortable.
Now, if the people who say these things were to acknowledge the dominant view and then explain why they dissented from it, that would be an entirely different matter. But what they are doing is claiming that the dominant view is false and that anyone who affirms it is ignorant -- demonstrating that all they are really trying to do is score points.
The moral of the story is that, in debate with a jihad apologist, anything you assert, no matter how commonplace, may be taken as a manifestation of your "ignorance." Be armed with support from Islamic sources for virtually everything -- everything -- you assert.