It is testimony to the effectiveness of my colleague Pamela Geller, in raising awareness of the issues surrounding the Islamic supremacist mega-mosque at Ground Zero and Islamic supremacism in general, that the mainstream media is gunning for her with relentless fury. The cartoon above is apt, and applies to Jeffrey Goldberg’s vicious and ignorant attacks upon her in The Atlantic. Even though this present piece isn’t an interview, the principle is the same: a full-out campaign is on to discredit her, and the truth be damned in the process.
In “Reuel Gerecht on Pamela Geller’s Foul Anti-Muslim Ideology,” by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, October 13, Goldberg explains that he sent some assertions Pamela Geller made about the Qur’an and Islam in her recent New York Times interview to Islamic scholar Reuel Gerecht:
In a recent New York Times interview, the blogger Pamela Geller leveled many serious charges against Islam; she stated that Muslims curse Jews and Christians during their five-times-a-day prayer; that the only good Muslim is a secular Muslim; and most perniciously, she said that the Qur’an has never been properly translated, insinuating that it contains dark secrets about Muslims and their religious responsibilities. This last bit struck me as outrageous, because, as a Jew, Geller should know that anti-Semites have spent nearly two thousand years insinuating that the Talmud contains secret instructions guiding the alleged Jewish attempt to dominate the world. To make the same unsupported charge against Islam is egregious.
Note that it is Jeffrey Goldberg, not Pamela Geller, who is talking about Muslims having “secret instructions” directing them to try to “dominate the world.” All that Pamela said was that the Qur’an hasn’t been properly translated; Goldberg then proceeds to excoriate her for what he thinks she was “insinuating.” Well, any storefront clairvoyant can read tea leaves, and mothers are experts at evaluating tones of voice, but Jeffrey Goldberg is neither. He is supposed to be a serious writer, so instead of trafficking in what people are “insinuating,” he would be well-advised to stick with what they actually say.
I sent some of Geller’s quotes to my friend Reuel Gerecht, a genuine expert on Islam, to see what he thought of them. Reuel, as many of you know, is no apologist for radical Islamism; quite the opposite. He believes we are at war with a dangerous ideology. But he also has respect for Islam, and a great deal of knowledge of it. Here is what he says about Geller’s assertions:
I have to plead an embarrassing ignorance about Pamela Geller. I was well aware of the Internet-driven opposition to Feisal Abd ar-Rauf’s Ground Zero/Park 51 mosque, but had not entered her name into my memory. I don’t read blogs much–except Goldblog and those that publish me–and I was more than a little taken back when Jeffrey sent me a note containing comments by Ms. Geller about English translations of the Qur’an. The intersection of politics, public policy, and scholarship isn’t always pretty, and we are most often fortunate that scholars don’t write our domestic and foreign policies. However, there is a certain deference that activists must give to scholars when they tread on what is clearly academic terrain.
Deference? Is that an argument from authority? How about we have a certain deference for the truth and accuracy, instead of just pulling rank?
A good cause–and Ms. Geller’s general concern about the harm that violent Islamic militants can do is an estimable fight–is no excuse for agitprop and what amounts to a slur against some of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century. According to the New York Times, Ms. Geller has stated:
Now I also believe that a true translation, an accurate translation of the Koran, is really not available in English, according to many of the Islamic scholars that I’ve spoken to. That’s deeply troubling. And I don’t think that many westernized Muslims know when they pray five times a day that they’re cursing Christians and Jews five times a day. I don’t think they know that.
Let’s take the Qur’an first, Muslim prayers second. Concerning the translation of the Muslim Holy Book, who might these Islamic scholars be? Since Ms. Geller is without Arabic, it’s impossible for her to compare the original to a translation. She must depend upon others, who, if I follow Ms. Geller, are involved in a conspiracy to hide the ugly truth about Islam. If the translations were more “accurate,” we would all see what’s apparent to Ms. Geller, who ascertained the truth despite the blinding scholarly conspiracy. One has to ask whether Ms. Geller has perused the translation masterpiece by Cambridge’s late great A.J. Arberry or my personal favorite, the awesomely erudite, more literal translation and commentary by Edinburgh’s late great Richard Bell? Both gentlemen are flag-waving members of Edward Said’s most detested species–Orientalists. Now if you look at these translations–especially if you look at Bell’s, which is blessed with exhaustive notes in a somewhat complicated formatting–even the uninitiated can get an idea that Muhammad had trouble with Christians and especially Jews during his life. If you look at the Qur’anic commentary by Edinburgh’s late great William Montgomery Watt (another Orientalist), who was always attentive to Muslim sensibilities in his writings, you can also fine [sic] in clear English Muhammad’s unpleasant ruminations about Christians and Jews.
Note again that Pamela Geller only said that “a true translation, an accurate translation of the Koran, is really not available in English, according to many of the Islamic scholars that I’ve spoken to.” No dark conspiracy theories about hidden content. That was all she said.
Now — is it true? Gerecht takes her to be casting aspersions on the work of the great scholars A. J. Arberry and Richard Bell. Both are indeed great scholars, and the integrity of their Qur’an translations cannot be impugned. I have loved Arberry’s for many years, and wrote this about it here several years ago:
For years I have liked Arberry’s for its audacious literalism and often poetic English. Compare, for example, 81:15-18:
ÙÙŽÙ„ÙŽØ§ Ø£ÙÙ‚Ù’Ø³ÙÙ…Ù Ø¨ÙØ§Ù„Ù’Ø®ÙÙ†Ù‘ÙŽØ³Ù Ø§Ù„Ù’Ø¬ÙŽÙˆÙŽØ§Ø±Ù Ø§Ù„Ù’ÙƒÙÙ†Ù‘ÙŽØ³Ù ÙˆÙŽØ§Ù„Ù„Ù‘ÙŽÙŠÙ’Ù„Ù Ø¥ÙØ°ÙŽØ§ Ø¹ÙŽØ³Ù’Ø¹ÙŽØ³ÙŽ ÙˆÙŽØ§Ù„ØµÙ‘ÙØ¨Ù’ØÙ Ø¥ÙØ°ÙŽØ§ ØªÙŽÙ†ÙŽÙÙ‘ÙŽØ³ÙŽ
…in Pickthall and Arberry: Pickthall: “Oh, but I call to witness the planets, the stars which rise and set, and the close of night, and the breath of morning…” Arberry: “No! I swear by the slinkers, the runners, the sinkers, by the night swarming, by the dawn sighing…” Shades of the Symbolists. Arberry gives a hint of how the book sounds in Arabic, in which it is full of beguiling rhymes and rhythms.
Arberry’s is an outstanding and accurate translation. Arberry, however, was not a Muslim, and accordingly his translation is not often used by Muslims, and when a non-Muslim cites it or other translations written by non-Muslims (such as N. J. Dawood’s excellent edition for Penguin), Islamic apologists tend to dismiss it with the palpably false mystification that a non-Muslim cannot be trusted to render the Qur’an accurately or adequately. Thus in order to take that rhetorical weapon out of their hands, I generally use translations written by Muslims and for Muslims in my work, and these are the ones generally also used and cited by Muslims themselves.
For example, the USC-MSA’s popular and useful online reference site now disingenuously entitled “Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement” offers three Qur’an translations by three Muslims: Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, and M. H. Shakir. All of these are flawed in various ways. Shakir’s depends heavily on Pickthall’s and Ali’s. Ali’s is the most transparently apologetic whitewash: in Qur’an 4:34, the verse enjoining the beating of disobedient women, he has “beat them (lightly),” although “lightly” does not appear in the Arabic. Both Ali’s and Pickthall’s are written in a stilted pseudo-King James Bible English that frequently cloaks in obscurity passages that are hair-raising in Arabic.
Another common Muslim translation, that of Muhammad Taqi al-Din al-Hilali and Muhammad Muhsin Khan, is more of a Saudi Wahhabi political tract than a translation. Note, for example, their revealing and anachronistic parenthetical gloss in Qur’an 8:60: “And make ready against them all you can of power, including steeds of war (tanks, planes, missiles, artillery, etc.) to threaten the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides whom, you may not know but whom God does know.”
What’s more, even the best, most literal translation of the Qur’an does not give the full flavor of some phrases and passages, since the general English reader will not be aware of their precise theological significance in Islam. For example, the phrase “strive in the path of Allah,” which appears in numerous places and various permutations in the Qur’an, refers in Islamic theology specifically to fighting hot war, with weapons, not metaphorical verbal conflict or some other kind of conflict. But unless one is reading along with commentaries, this phrase will look more like a pious exhortation to be more religious than a call to take up arms.
Now what did Pamela Geller say? “Now I also believe that a true translation, an accurate translation of the Koran, is really not available in English, according to many of the Islamic scholars that I’ve spoken to.” That is a general statement made in conversation and not in a scholarly setting with any intention of forensic precision; nonetheless, it is generally true: ask any honest native Arabic speaker and they’ll tell you that Qur’an translations in English in the main do not convey the full martial flavor of the original, and the principal translations have the defects noted above. As she was speaking in context about what Western non-Muslims as well as Western Muslims generally understand about Islam, the existence of largely accurate translations like those of Arberry, Bell and Dawood does not render her statement false: she was speaking about popular understanding, not about what is known among academics.
Now what all of this means to contemporary Islamic militancy is a very long discussion, for which I suspect that Ms. Geller doesn’t have abundant patience.
He said at the beginning that he hadn’t heard of her, and suddenly he is a judge of her character. I expect this sort of cheap shot from sleazy Islamic supremacists like Reza Aslan, but not from someone of the stature of Reuel Gerecht.
Islam has been having awful problems absorbing modernity; its travails so far–let us underscore–have been less bloody than what we witnessed as Christianity modernized.
While this assertion is taken for granted among scholars of a certain ilk, it is by no means proven, and stems largely from a much greater familiarity among Westerners with the conflicts in Christian Europe in recent centuries than with the history of Islam. When one examines the history of jihad wars, the picture begins to look quite different.
Any non-Muslim certainly has the right to study, question, and criticize the Islamic faith, as Muslims have the (well-exercised) right to let loose against what they see as the imperfections of Christianity, Judaism, and humanist secularism (the West’s dominant faith). As Iran’s robust, astonishing intellectual wars over the last twenty years have shown, it’s good for Muslims and non-Muslims not to pull their punches. Muslims should never be treated as children, which is a debilitating disposition found widely now on the American Left. (President Obama has not helped.) But the great Islamic scholars of the past did not lie. There is no conspiracy. We are blessed with illuminating English translations of the Muslim Holy Book. Ms. Geller might consider blogging less, and reading more.
Gerecht’s haughty arrogance toward Pamela Geller is as unbecoming as his presumption, noted above. In any case, I have established above that some of the principal English translations of the Qur’an are distorted in various ways (and there are plenty more examples of such distortions), and that some of its key concepts cannot be immediately grasped by the uninitiated reader. Thus Pamela Geller’s point — in which she said nothing about any kind of “conspiracy” — was made. Mr. Gerecht might have considered her own words more carefully, and not Jeffrey Goldberg’s poisoned and tendentious packaging of those words.
And about Muslim prayer: I certainly have no perfect way of knowing what Muslims think when they pray, but I really do think they know what they’re doing.
That is a very large and vague assertion. Muslims “know what they’re doing” when they pray, and yet Gerecht must know that most Muslims are not Arabs, and yet no matter where they are and what language they speak, they must pray in Arabic; huge numbers recite syllables by rote without having any precise idea of what they’re saying. They may know what they’re doing, in terms of engaging in Islamic prayer in a general sense, but is Gerecht saying that they know all the details of what they’re saying and the theological and political implications thereof? I have spoken to many non-Arab Muslims who have confirmed this, and it has been widely reported, particularly in connection with the madrassas in Pakistan. Is Reuel Gerecht really interested in denying it?
If westernized Muslims are facing the Almighty, they know what’s in their hearts. Devout Muslims need not hate Jews and Christians to worship the Creator.
Pamela Geller didn’t say they did. She said, “And I don’t think that many westernized Muslims know when they pray five times a day that they’re cursing Christians and Jews five times a day. I don’t think they know that.” That is not the same thing as saying that Muslims must “hate Jews and Christians to worship the Creator.”
Christians have slaughtered Jews through the centuries. But it would be theologically atrocious to believe that the Christian message requires Jewish blood. (Christians’ killing Jews so often did provoke some Christians to question the foundation of their faith–a theologically estimable exercise.) The Prophet Muhammad is certainly a different kind of historical figure than Jesus, but it should not be startling to discover that Muslims through the centuries have not seen the prophet’s slaughter of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Medina as a mainstay of their creed.
In this Gerecht is saying that just as Christian doctrine doesn’t require Christians to slaughter Jews (although he seems to harbor an immense distaste for Christianity, far exceeding any revulsion he may feel toward Islamic jihadists and supremacists), so also Islamic doctrine doesn’t require Muslims to slaughter Jews. This is, again, a red herring, since Pamela Geller didn’t say that it did, but Gerecht has perhaps forgotten this key hadith, in which Muhammad says that the wholesale slaughter of Jews by Muslims will usher in the end times: “Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews.”
There is, by the way, nothing like that in Christianity.
In my experience–and I’m intuiting here–most Muslims do not think about Jews and Christians at all when they pray.
What Muslims think about when they pray was not what was at issue. Look again at what Pamela Geller said: “And I don’t think that many westernized Muslims know when they pray five times a day that they’re cursing Christians and Jews five times a day. I don’t think they know that.” Not only did she not say anything about what they were thinking about; what she actually said was that many Muslims in the West do not know that their prayers involve curses of Christians and Jews.
So if they don’t know it, how could they be thinking about it? Gerecht’s response to Geller sounds as if he read what she wrote very hastily and carelessly, or only through Goldberg’s venomous spin.
Now — what about those prayers? In the course of praying the requisite five prayers a day, an observant Muslim will recite the Fatihah, the first surah of the Qur’an and the most common prayer in Islam, seventeen times. The final two verses of the Fatihah ask Allah: “Show us the straight path, the path of those whom Thou hast favoured; not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.” The traditional Islamic understanding of this is that the “straight path” is Islam — cf. Islamic apologist John Esposito’s book Islam: The Straight Path. The path of those who have earned Allah’s anger are the Jews, and those who have gone astray are the Christians.
This is not my interpretation; it comes from the classic Islamic commentaries on the Qur’an. The renowned Qur’anic commentator Ibn Kathir explains that “the two paths He described here are both misguided,” and that those “two paths are the paths of the Christians and Jews, a fact that the believer should beware of so that he avoids them. The path of the believers is knowledge of the truth and abiding by it. In comparison, the Jews abandoned practicing the religion, while the Christians lost the true knowledge. This is why ‘anger’ descended upon the Jews, while being described as ‘led astray’ is more appropriate of the Christians.”
Ibn Kathir’s understanding of this passage is not a lone “extremist” interpretation. In fact, most Muslim commentators believe that the Jews are those who have earned Allah’s wrath and the Christians are those who have gone astray. This is the view of Tabari, Zamakhshari, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas, and Ibn Arabi, as well as Ibn Kathir. One contrasting, but not majority view, is that of Nisaburi, who says that “those who have incurred Allah’s wrath are the people of negligence, and those who have gone astray are the people of immoderation.”
Wahhabis drew criticism a few years back for adding “such as the Jews” and “such as the Christians” into parenthetical glosses on this passage in Qur’ans printed in Saudi Arabia. Some Western commentators imagined that the Saudis originated this interpretation, and indeed the whole idea of Qur’anic hostility toward Jews and Christians. They found it inconceivable that Muslims all over the world would learn as a matter of course that the central prayer of their faith anathematizes Jews and Christians.
But unfortunately, this interpretation is venerable and mainstream in Islamic theology. The printing of the interpretation in parenthetical glosses into a translation would be unlikely to affect Muslim attitudes, since the Arabic text is always and everywhere normative in any case, and since so many mainstream commentaries contain the idea that the Jews and Christians are being criticized here. Seventeen times a day, by the pious.
The Hadith also contains material linking Jews to Allah’s anger and Christians to his curse, which resulting from their straying from the true path. (The Jews are accursed also, according to Qur’an 2:89, and both are accursed according to 9:30). One hadith recounts that an early Muslim, Zaid bin ‘Amr bin Nufail, in his travels met with Jewish and Christian scholars. The Jewish scholar told him, “You will not embrace our religion unless you receive your share of Allah’s Anger,” and the Christian said, “You will not embrace our religion unless you get a share of Allah’s Curse.” Zaid, needless to say, became a Muslim.
So once again, what did Pamela say? “And I don’t think that many westernized Muslims know when they pray five times a day that they’re cursing Christians and Jews five times a day. I don’t think they know that.” There appears to be abundant foundation for that idea in the content of Islamic prayer and the ways those prayers have been understood by mainstream Islamic theologians.
Suffering, in all its merciless variety, takes center stage, I suspect. When I’ve watched Muslim pilgrims come to Sunni and Shiite tombs and sacred sites in Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, I’ve not seen a conquering people. I’ve usually just seen misery and the human hope that good fortune will come with a better heart. I’ve seen fraternity among a men who live in lands where fraternal behavior is rare. Ms. Geller would do well to travel more. It’s a very good and essential cause to fight jihadism, but such a struggle should not incline us to maul Islamic history or to treat Muslims as if they were merely a walking version of this surah or that legal treatise. Christians and Jews and atheists are much more than the sum of their parts. So, too, are Muslims.
No amount of travel will change the contents of Islamic prayers or the nature of English translations of the Qur’an. Reuel Gerecht would have come off better if he had taken care to be less condescending — his superciliousness is especially unbecoming since the facts are not on his side.