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Ray Harris Ray Harris is a frequent contributor to this website. He has written articles on 9/11, boomeritis, the Iraq war and Third Way politics. Harris lives in Australia and can be contacted at:


Ray Harris

I welcome Tony's response The Myth of Islam as a Warrior Cult. It might surprise him he to know that I accept much of what he says. It seems to me that the main criticism he has is that I place too negative a spin on Islam and that he needs to respond by a corrective positive spin. Fair enough. The reader can read both and decide for themselves where the balance lies.

So I'm not going to comment on many of his points because I think they are fair corrective criticisms. I don't think I was too harsh, but that is for others to decide.

However, there are some things I want to correct and to comment on, in no particular order.

The first thing I note is that Tony seems to agree with me quite a bit, he simply reiterates my points with a more positive spin. But in some areas he makes assumptions about what I think about Islam in its totality. I can assure him that I find much to admire in Islam. One of my favourite philosophers is Ibn Arabi and I studied Siddha Yoga which speaks highly of many Sufi saints. He mentions my Temenos system. I had intended to write a book about it called 'Upon the Wings of Gabriel', which is a reference to a treatise by the Sheik al Ishraq, Suhrawardi. Indeed, I first studied Islam by studying Sufism and the work of Henry Corbin.

However, my studies into Sufism also uncovered the fact that Sufis were persecuted by hardline, 'legalist' Muslims. This is a point Anthony neglects to mention. The Wahhabi and Deobandi sects regard Sufis as apostates. They are banned in Saudi Arabia and were banned under the Taliban in Afghanistan, they have also faced persecution in other countries from time to time. So I came to understand that Islam had both a light, moderate, progressive and syncretic side and a dark, hardline, regressive and intolerant side.

Of course I side with the progressives and I have to admit that my most recent articles have been targeted primarily at naïve Westerners who mistakenly buy into the bullshit put forward by regressive Muslims and Muslim apologists trying to make out there is no problem (or that it is all the West's fault). And the main reason I'm angry (in a sense) is that these obscurantists cloud the issue and prevent many Westerners from hearing the voices of the true Muslim progressives, those the integral community would naturally ally themselves with.

In other words – I think I'll puke the next time I hear a Muslim offer the weak excuse that Islam means peace. As Tony agrees, it does not. It means surrender. Islam can only move forward by honestly confronting its past and admitting that the Koran can indeed be interpreted in a violent way. Let's cut the crap about the 'true' Islam and admit that there are many Islams, some of which are indeed peaceful and others which are violent. The Koran would not be interpreted violently if it could not be so interpreted – rather easily, as it turns out.

Tony agrees with me and admits that the Muslim expansion into the Sasanian and Byzantine empires was wrong.

This is a good point. Muslims should not justify what were clearly offensive wars. What happened was a regrettable development in Islamic history. After a new and fragile unity on the Arabian Peninsula, restless warriors, who did not recognize kingship, looked to generals as leaders after the death of Muhammad.

What Tony does here is gloss over just who these generals were. They are called the 'Rightly Guided' Caliphs (al-Khulafa'ur Rashidun), the Companions of the Prophet himself. Three of them were his relatives; the first, Abu Bakr, was his father-in-law, as was the second, Umar. The fourth, Ali, was both his cousin and son-in-law, having married his daughter Fatima. So it was something a family franchise. What this means is that these 'generals' knew Mohammed on an intimate basis and would have known his mind. This 'regrettable development' was condoned by Mohammed's own family members. Might this not suggest that they were simply following his wishes? (It is worth reading about the Companions and the intrigues within the inner circle. Umar was assassinated and Uthman's kinsmen were involved in the murder of one of Abu Bakr's sons – a peaceful religion you say, or standard Arab tribal and family politics?)

One of the very early conquests was the land of Palestine, which had been under the rule of the Christian Byzantine empire. This has relevance to the contemporary conflict because the Muslim claim to Palestine is in fact based on offensive conquest. It has some bearing on the long standing desire of various Christian rulers to take back what was originally theirs, culminating in the Crusades (the straw that broke the Camel's back was the restrictions placed on pilgrims by the Seljuk Turks, so it was eventually decided to try and return Jerusalem to Christendom). But this is the way of conquest. I don't want to suggest Islam was any worse than anyone else – I just don't want to hear that they were any different, when quite clearly they were not. So, when Tony says

Islam is involved in that Muslims are allowed, even obligated, to fight back when their lands or property are stolen

we encounter a legal problem. If Palestine was conquered illegally, stolen by Muslims, is it really their land? This is not a moot point because the conflict is about competing claims as to whose land it is.

The thing about history is that it can be interpreted quite differently depending on what facts you choose to leave in or edit out. I don't claim to be immune from this and I do appreciate it when it is pointed out to me. One could never write a comprehensive history, rather, one would have to rely on a multi-perspective history. A daunting task. But sometimes people leave out rather glaring and telling, and awkward facts.

I wonder how the integral community might handle the Israel/Palestine conflict? Would Jewish members of the integral community accept this statement from Tony?

Palestinians have their own proud history. For thousands of years, Semitic peoples in this region have cultivated vegetation with sophisticated farming techniques. Jewish immigrants into Israel would have had to learn from them.

But Tony, there have always been Jews in Palestine, even under Muslim rule (although the Crusaders massacred tens of thousands – Jews were a majority in Jerusalem). In any case it's very clear that Jewish immigrants bought new techniques to Palestine and created an agrarian revolution, from which the locals; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Druze, etc, benefited greatly. In fact many Arabs immigrated to Palestine to take part in the economic boom and the Palestinian economy is now almost wholly dependent on Israel and foreign aid. In many ways there is no Palestine without Israel. Palestinian nationalism arose as a reaction to Zionism, prior to Zionist immigration Palestine was divided into four provinces without a distinct 'national' identity. So your comment that 'Palestinians' have their 'own proud history' is somewhat misleading as prior to Zionism the various peoples of the region would not have defined themselves as Palestinians, but rather as a Christian from Jerusalem, a Jew from Bethlehem, a Muslim from Ramallah (or from such and such a tribe), a Druze from such and such a village in such and such a province, or a nomadic Bedouin, etc. Israeli and Palestinian nationalism/identity arose at the same time.

You also say that:

Religious Zionists and fundamentalist Christians claim the nation of Israel has biblical authority, which takes precedence over Palestinian rights.

Except that the Koran quite clearly accepts the biblical story as well. Mohammed clearly accepted Moses as a prophet and acknowledged that Allah gave Israel to the Jews. So the argument can get very messy, especially now that Hamas, an Islamist party, refuses to recognize Israel. Why? A complex answer, but one that goes back to Muslim anti-Semitism. After the so-called betrayal by the Jewish tribes of Medina there has been a form of Muslim anti-Semitism not dissimilar to Christian anti-Semitism. All Jews are to be condemned either because they betrayed the Prophet or because they are Christ killers. The Koranic acceptance of the Jew's rightful claim to Israel has been negated because Muslims conveniently regard them to be unworthy of returning due to their betrayal of the prophet. But surely, in a religious sense, it is Allah who decides? And wouldn't Israel's military dominance, in Islamic terms, be explained through Allah's favour? Just as Allah supported Joshua's conquest of Canaan, isn't Allah supporting Israel today?

Incidentally, it's interesting hearing the Jewish side of the Mohammed story. According to their version there was quite an extensive Jewish presence in Arabia going back to Solomon's time. Of course, one of the first things Abu Bakr did was expel all the Jews from Arab lands.

But that's the religious argument. The nationalist argument is similarly complex.

Tony, there are areas where you gloss over some important and damning history. The most egregious of these is your treatment of the Muslim invasions of India.

It is no secret that fundamentalists distort and degrade other religions. But what is Harris doing if not regurgitating anti-Muslim propaganda? The truth is that Muslims and Buddhists have lived peacefully for most of the time they have been in contact.

In India, there is a record of one attack by Muslims on a Buddhist monastery. This incident appears to be an isolated occurrence, not part of a large-scale campaign to destroy Buddhism.

Well, no, there wasn't a large scale 'conscious' campaign to destroy Buddhism, it was just that the north of India was the epicentre of Buddhism and Buddhist temples and monasteries, just like Hindu temples and monasteries, were kind of in the way and fair game for looting.

In 1193 Nalanda university was sacked and burned by Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khalji, the monks were massacred. It would be drawing a long bow to say that the loss of this important institution was not a bitter blow to Buddhism, after all, this was where Nagarjuna taught. But this is not the only Buddhist centre that got in the way of iconoclastic Muslims.

The Muslim invasions and expansions into India began in 711 and continued in waves under different rulers; the Ghaznavids from 977 to 1040, the Ghurids from 1186 to 1206, the Delhi sultanates from 1206 to 1526, the independent Muslim regimes from 1356 to around 1601, and finally the Mughals from 1526 to 1757, when the British finally gained control. This history is hotly contested with Hindu nationalist ideologues exaggerating the extent of Muslim atrocities and Muslim ideologues attempting to minimise them. Whatever the final case there is no doubt the conquest of India was achieved violently with Indian kings resisting all the way.

The Muslim historian Ferishta says that in 986 the Ghaznavid general Sabuktigan

girded up his loins for religious war (jihad) and ravaged the provinces of Kabul and Punjab.

Ferishta describes the various battles using typical Muslim rhetoric. Allah ordains that no mercy is to be shown to the infidels. His account tells how Sabuktigans army

Butchered the idolaters, fired their temples and plundered their shrines; such was their booty, it was said, that hands risked frostbite counting it.

In 1025 the Ghaznavid general Mahmud continued further into India, in one campaign he returned with 53,000 slaves and a massive amount of booty. At Somnath he attacked a major Shaivite temple, killing over 50,000, sacking it of its gold, silver and gems and desecrating its great gilded lingam.

I think you get the picture. Just how extensive the destruction was is disputed and perhaps always will be. But just as we must honour all sides of the debate in the Israel/Palestine conflict, we have to honour what Buddhists and Hindus say about their own history. Just as I asked how a Jewish member of the integral community might respond to Tony's description I would also ask how a Buddhist or Hindu might respond to this statement?

Those who entered India, whether by migration or invasion, were eventually absorbed by its culture; a facet of the subcontinent that is a source of strength and pride for its people.

There is no doubt that there are many Muslims and Hindus who get on well, but I'm just not sure about the true success of the absorption. It is a convenient ploy to blame it on a British policy of divide and conquer, but a closer analysis might suggest this could not have been possible if there had not been significant problems to begin with. Islam needs to confront its legacy in India. And as for Buddhism – what happened to Buddhism in Afghanistan? If Muslims and Buddhists got on well together then why aren't there any Buddhists in Afghanistan? Last I heard the Taliban were intent on destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

Okay, now to some small stuff. Tony says

The Old Testament seems pretty clear about the use of violence. Here are just a few examples: the courts must carry out the death penalty of stoning (Deuteronomy 22:24), the courts must hang those stoned for blasphemy or idolatry (Deuteronomy 21:22), destroy the seven Canaanite nations (Deuteronomy 20:17) and do not let any of them remain alive (Deuteronomy 20:16), wipe out the descendants of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:19), do not offer peace to Ammon and Moab while besieging them (Deuteronomy 23:7) and do not panic and retreat during battle. (Deuteronomy 20:3)

All true. However, Mohammed was also inspired by the Torah and he does not question it, in fact he emulates it. Here's a quote from the Koran.

Those that make war against God and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be slain or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides… (5:35)

Sharia law follows the Torah in prescribing some particularly gruesome punishments. But I'm not going to defend either Christianity or Judaism in this regard. All of them have a poor record in regard to the use of violence. If we were to make a useful comparison I would suggest it would be against Buddhism as an exemplar of a peaceful religion. As for Christianity and Islam – in the words of Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, “a plague on both your houses”.

If the majority of practicing Muslims do not lead violent lives, they are justified in saying their religion is peaceful. If Harris is going to stigmatize an entire population, the question is quite relevant.

This does not follow logically. They are only justified in saying they personally, are peaceful. What are we to make of Muslims killing fellow Muslims and non-Muslims, or calling for their death, whilst shouting the words 'Allah al Akbar' – God is great? If we are to say that at its bare minimum Islam is the Koran, then there can be no doubt the religion advocates violence. Read the Koran carefully. You may not kill a righteous man but an unrighteous man is fair game, it's all in the definition of righteous. Buddhism in contrast is very clear that killing is not permitted, no exceptions. The simple fact is that the primary document of the religion is wide open to a violent interpretation, we could not have the problem with jihadis today if it were not so. They quote it all the time to justify their actions. Fortunately for us most Muslims want a quiet life.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. If Muslims claim that terrorists do not represent the true Islam, the response is that either there is no true Islam, or if there is, then the fundamentalists are more correct in their understanding.

This is a deliberate distortion of my argument. I've gone to considerable length to explain the many ways the Koran is interpreted using the rules of abrogation and contingency. The Koran is a unique document. It is the record of the words of a man who says it is the direct word of God. The Torah is a collection of stories collated over time. The Gospels are a second-hand account of what Jesus is purported to have said and done. The question of literalism and fundamentalism is different in each case. There is far more room in Judaism and Christianity to say that a passage is not the direct, literal word of God. This is not possible with the Koran. Every sentence, every word and letter is the literal word of God. The first ayat of the Koran says

This book is not to be doubted. (2:1)

Another passage says:

It is He who has revealed to you the Book. Some of its verses are precise in meaning – they are the foundation of the Book – and others are ambiguous. Those whose hearts are infected with disbelief observe the ambiguous part, so as to create dissension by seeking to explain it. (3:5)

It can be argued that the literalists follow the precise passages and the moderates invent complex arguments to excuse the difficult passages away. I would argue that the reason so many Muslims are orthodox and strict is because that indeed, is the correct way to interpret the Koran – that is, if you believe it is the direct word of God and 'not to be doubted'.

There's a final thing I want to say about Islam. It's in response, obliquely, to Tony's point that I did not go into the issue of honour killings, etc. I thought about it but decided it would make the essays too long. What I will say is this: it's a strange argument to say that these things are not really the fault of Islam, that these things are not in the Koran, they are a part of traditional, patriarchal culture.

Ahem, excuse me? If this is the case then Islam has been a complete failure in reforming these practices. How long has Islam been on the planet? You bet you can blame Islam – for failing to stop these practices, for being an utter, dismal failure.

Except it's something of a different story. Over the years Muslim scholars have been complicit in keeping these practices alive. How? By arguing that the Koran does not clearly and unambiguously prohibit these customs. Sharia is decided by using four sources of wisdom; the Koran, the Hadith, the consensus of scholars and local custom. Each of the maddhab give different weightings to these four sources. So, if the local council of scholars can argue that the local custom of honour killings does not contradict the Koran or the Hadith then they allow it. In this way the clerics protect and preserve patriarchal values. Two examples can be mentioned: Pakistan's notorious Hudood laws, in which women who have been raped have to produce four eye-witnesses and if they fail can be jailed for adultery or promiscuity; and the apparent fact that under the Shafia'a maddhab women have to be circumcised (a practice that originated in Africa but which has spread throughout the Islamic world under the Shafiya). The debate about the Hudood laws continue with hardline clerics arguing that it is clearly Islamic and moderates arguing it is not. I should add that slavery still exists in some parts of North Africa precisely because local clerics have refused to outlaw it. The provisions permitting slavery have still not been excised from Sharia. Which reminds me – Tony is being somewhat disingenuous in saying the Koran does not advocate slavery. Not in so many words, but what are we to make of this passage, and others like it?

Prophet, we have made lawful for you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave-girls whom God has given you as booty (33:50)

Anyway, enough said on this part. I'll respond, briefly, to Tony's other essay in a week or so….

Ray Harris, June, 2006

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