Reading Roundup: 2022

Of the dozen or so books I read this year, I recommend the following seven. Four were published this year; two I was catching up on; and one of them was published five centuries ago.

1. The Critical Qur’an: Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research. Robert Spencer, 2022. This is the Qur’an I keep close at hand now for ready reference. To describe it, imagine a certain translation of the Bible (say the RSV) that is footnoted with textual variants, theological commentary from Christian authorities spanning antiquity to the present, and also modern historical-critical commentary. The Critical Qur’an is a tool like that, and one that we’ve needed for a long time. Spencer’s book offers four features that are impossible to find elsewhere in a single volume: (1) Variant readings: It’s one of the first Qur’anic commentaries, if not the very first, to provide variant readings from different manuscripts, in the same way that variant readings are found in most study Bibles for the Tanakh and New Testament. (2) Tafsir commentary: Citations from mainstream Muslim exegetes (the tafsir) are provided, spanning the 8th to 21st centuries. This is highly valuable since all these theologians and jurists are held to be authoritative, and their commentary allows the reader to understand how the Qur’anic texts have been, and continue to be, understood in mainstream Islam. (3) Critical commentary: Citations from academic scholars shed light on the textual evolution of the Qur’an. (4) Clarity: This Qur’an clarifies difficult or troublesome passages, for example like the many exhortations to jihad; the words is usually translated as “strive hard” in the way of Allah — which is legitimate, since “jihad” means “strive” or “struggle” — but the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic theology is warfare against unbelievers. Importantly, the suras are explained in view of the doctrine of abrogation (the late suras of Medina supersede or take precedence over the early suras of Mecca) and that if there is any one sura that has the “final say” in mainstream Islam, it’s sura 9. This easily tops my list; see here for a full review.

2. Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. Jacob Mchangama, 2022. Absolutely required reading — a history of the world seen through the lens of free expression. I’m surprised no one thought to write a book like this before. Even free-speech gurus will learn much from it; I certainly did. Its thesis is twofold, first that free speech almost always sets in motion a process of entropy — even its most passionate defenders want exceptions made (based on what offends them), while others ultimately can’t resist the censoring impulse. Second, that free speech culture is as important as the legal apparatus of free speech — perhaps even more so. Without the former, the latter is doomed to dissolve; the abundant examples of history make this clear. Thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, John Stuart Mill, and George Orwell warned about society’s tendencies to impose conformity apart from the government, and that unwelcome ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without an official ban. This is history as it should be written, in a clear arresting framework. At every point you want to keep going, to see how societies never learn their lesson. Full review in three parts: one, two, three.

3. Castaways. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, 1542 (English translation: 1993). Written by a Spanish explorer, this journal is a wealth of anthropological information about Native American tribes that are unattested anywhere else. It’s a fantastic read on its own right, and certainly the best book I’ve ever read about the conquistador era. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca lived among the coastal natives of Texas for six and a half years (Nov 1528 – May 1535) and then among the natives of Mexico for about a year (May 1535 – March 1536), and it’s incredible that he survived to leave us the details. He was naked for the full eight years, freezing during the cold seasons, and often lived on a diet of spiders, worms, and cacti. It’s no surprise that from the original expedition of 600 Spaniards, only he and three others survived (the only surprise being that any of them survived), mostly by being accepted among the various native tribes as witch-doctors who performed faith-healings. For a man of his times Álvar Núñez was admirable: a proud evangelical who came to accept the natives mostly on their own terms, and who was enraged when he finally reconnected to Spanish civilization in Mexico and found that his countrymen wanted to make war on the natives and enslave them. Full review here.

4. Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons. Ben Riggs, 2022. If you really want the dirt on TSR, this is the book to read. My biggest takeaways: (1) “Saint” Gary Gygax was no saint, and he often lied about his supposed powerlessness and ignorance. Not only was he aware of TSR’s disastrous errors, he participated in them as they were happening. (2) Lorraine Williams was even less admirable, notwithstanding the author’s attempts to reconsider her legacy. After Gary hired her to manage the company in 1985, she managed a hostile takeover of sorts, forcing Gary out of the company by the end of the year. (Though Gary has largely himself to blame for being victimized here.) The biggest problem with Lorraine is that she wasn’t a gamer, disdained gamers (didn’t consider them social equals), treated her staff like shit, and as a result had a hard time holding onto talented writers. Genius designers kept leaving TSR for greener pastures. (3) By the middle of ’95, TSR owed its distributor Random House almost 12 million dollars, and Random House was demanding that most of this debt be paid off within two years. This was the culmination of a ponzi scheme that had been in place, going all the way back to ’79 (in Gary’s day), whereby Random House paid TSR for the products TSR gave it to distribute, whether those products sold or not. There is more here. Old-school gamers will definitely enjoy (?) this book.

5. Islam and Nazi Germany’s War. David Motadel, 2014. This won the Wiener Library Ernst Fraenkel prize, but it somehow never got on my radar until this year. It’s a study of how Nazi Germany used the Islamic religion to expand its influence and wage war. “Scholars have paid less attention to this phenomenon that one might imagine”, writes the author, and though I always knew of the Nazi-Islam bonding during World War II, I didn’t know nearly enough of the sordid details, for example that Germany’s accommodating policies with the Islamic world go all the way back to the late 1800s. The book’s thesis is that Berlin’s engagement with Islam in 1941-45 was at least as extensive as in 1914-18, if not more so. Motadel examines the way Nazi Germany promoted Islam, and the ramifications of that alliance in terms of both race/ethnicity and religion/ideology. Hitler devalued Christianity while extolling Islam; for him Christianity was soft, artificial, and weak, while Islam was a strong and a practical faith, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit. In the table talks he expressed regret over the victory of Charles Martel in 732 CE, saying that if Martel hadn’t been victorious, then the Germans would have been converted to Islam, which would have allowed the Germanic races to conquer the world. It’s intriguing that Hitler believed Islam was a superior religion, but that its Arab adherents were an inferior race. That second part was a problem for the Reich, no matter how diligently their propaganda machines tried papering over it (by upholding white supremacy in “Muslim-friendly” ways). This book is utterly fascinating and the research behind it impeccable. Full review here.

6. The Jazz-Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding. Ryan S. Walters, 2022. I can’t think of a better way to honor the 100th anniversary of Harding’s presidency. I rate him the second best president of all time for all the reasons Walters covers in his book. Harding slashed taxes and government spending, started a booming economy, and achieved world peace through international cooperation instead of war-mongering. He went to bat for African Americans, even going so far as to address a crowd in the deep south (Birmingham, Alabama) at a time when Jim Crow laws were in full swing: he insisted on the need for equal rights for blacks, many of whom listened to the speech behind a segregated barrier. He urged the passing of anti-lynching legislation, appointed liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices, and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly criminalized by Woodrow Wilson during the first world war. To this day, Harding is remembered for almost none of this. After he died the scandals of his administration were uncovered — scandals that were no worse than those that plagued many other presidential administrations, and Harding didn’t even participate or gain anything from them. But for bizarre reasons, historians continue to exaggerate them. Read this book (as well as my Rescuing a Reputation) and allow the real Harding to overthrow the demonized Harding.

7. The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History. Dale Allison, 2021. Like Allison I aspire to be led to my conclusions, not led by them, and this book is a model of such aspiration. In 400 pages it reworks and hugely expands on the 177-page essay from Resurrecting Jesus (2005), and amounts to the best treatment of Jesus’s (alleged) resurrection that I know of. It covers a lot of interesting ground, the most interesting being the arguments for the empty tomb; those arguments have been revised for both better and worse, though the overall conclusion remains intact. I reviewed those particular arguments (from chapters 6 and 8) here, but the whole book is worth going through. There’s a chapter, for example, on the rainbow body phenomenon in Buddhist thought (disappearing bodies), and parallels between stories of people who achieve the rainbow body and the stories of Jesus’s resurrection. Allison mines the fields of psychology and parapsychology in accounting for how humanity copes with bereavement and dead loved ones, while steering clear of any reductionist explanations. With regards to the empty tomb, I think he makes a plausible case both for and against, and I agree with him that the scales tip slightly — ever so slightly — in favor of Jesus’s body being gone from the tomb on Easter morning. Though what that means or implies is still anyone’s guess.

A Curious Reversal: The Hebdo Cartoonists vs. Rushdie

My teeth nearly fell to the floor when I read a conservative outlet defending Muslim sensibilities. Usually this kind of thing comes from the left, not the right, but in The American Conservative Michael Davis slams Salman Rushdie, on the one hand feebly granting that stabbing him was bad, while on the other passionately implying that such violent reactions are warranted and to be expected. From his article, Rethinking Salman Rushdie:

“If someone insults your mother, you clock him. As a man, at least, there’s really nothing else you can do. It may not be strictly legal, but it’s perfectly honorable. Conversely, if you don’t want to get clocked, don’t insult anyone’s mother. Legally, he may be in the wrong. Morally, though, he’s right.

Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses didn’t violate the legal limits of free speech. But, as even his staunchest defenders will admit, it was deliberately insulting to Islam. Though Rushdie now calls himself a hardline atheist, he was born to a Muslim family in Mumbai, a city with a large Muslim minority. He knew what he was doing. He knew that he was offending the deepest convictions of two billion Muslims around the world. He wasn’t offering an intelligent critique of their faith. He was mocking it.

No, he didn’t deserve to be stabbed last week. That should go without saying. But getting stabbed doesn’t make him a hero, either. On the contrary. Rushdie is a first-rate wordsmith, but a very banal blasphemer. His treatment of Islam was shallow and flippant, and Muslims have every right to be angry with him. We’re not obliged to lionize him because some have overreacted so terribly.

Human beings should be more respectful of each other’s convictions. Religion shouldn’t be treated as something banal. Art shouldn’t be flippant. These are moral judgements; they are also literary criticisms. And they’re perfectly fair.

Rushdie’s defenders obviously don’t care about his literary merits, though. This has nothing to do with art and everything to do with politics. They only care about “free speech.” I don’t want the kind of freedom Rushdie’s supporters are offering, and neither should you. It erases any distinction between beauty and ugliness, between good and evil, between truth and lies. It is the enemy of poetry, art, music, romance, community, worship—of everything that makes us human. It is the freedom to scoff and sneer, never to love or hate. And while it may keep us safe from death, it gives us no reason to live.

You can write endless blog posts insisting on your First Amendment right to insult other people’s mothers. But if you try to exercise that right, you are going to get clocked.”

Where to begin in refuting this mountain of parody? “As a man, at least, there’s really nothing else you can do, but clock those who insult your mother.” So the author believes that true men go around slugging people in response to insults. No, if someone insulted my mother, I’d either ignore it, laugh at it, or reply with a counter-insult. Funny how this author is a Christian, a follower of the dude who advised turning the other cheek. Maybe Jesus wasn’t manly enough for Davis.

Davis complains that Rushdie’s treatment of Islam is “flippant” and that he is a “banal blasphemer”. So what? Does Davis want material that is deliberately insulting to Islam or that mocks it to be outlawed? He says that “human beings should be more respectful of each other’s convictions” and that “religion shouldn’t be treated as something banal” and that “art shouldn’t be flippant”. Seriously. Many Muslims have maintain that criticizing the doctrine of Islam — no matter how serious and studious the attempt — offend their deepest convictions. Should we then cease all efforts to critique jihad doctrine so as not to insult anyone?

Davis says that “mocking other people’s religion is childish” and that “it’s boring” and that “it doesn’t make for good art”. That’s 100% irrelevant. I happen to believe that The Satanic Verses is one of the most boring books I’ve ever read, and that Rushdie would have never gotten the fame he did if not for the controversy of the few passages. That’s not the question. The question is whether Rushdie should be allowed to publish the book and live in peace and feel safe. Anyone can dislike or hate The Satanic Verses, but Davis is coming close to saying it should be banned, or that the attack was justified. In other words, that the mockers of Islam deserve more censure than the Muslims who want to kill the mockers of Islam. He doesn’t say that of course, but that’s the undeniable subtext. For that reason alone, it’s important to support Rushdie’s novel.

A Curious Reversal: Hebdo vs. Rushdie

Now: Rewind the clock back to 2015, when the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were killed. Back then it was leftists who were coming down like an avalanche on the blasphemers — blaming the cartoonists for offending Muslim sensibilities, while merely paying lip service to the idea they didn’t deserve to die for it. Pretty much exactly how Michael Davis is now blaming Rushdie. What’s curious is how much support Rushdie is now getting from the left as compared to the cartoonists of seven years ago. The left is suddenly coming out in droves favoring free speech — not their usual line, especially when it came to Charlie Hebdo.

Why the reversal? I suspect the reason is that Rushdie has mounds of leftist credentials, and so it’s easy for the left to defend one of its own. But that’s not defending free speech; that’s just defending the speech of someone you like or respect.

Rushdie didn’t always have this kind of backing. Back in 1989 he was hammered by the left when Khomeini issued the fatwa. He was an unknown back then, and many liberals at the time (including former president Jimmy Carter) started protesting how terrible it was that Rushdie was insulting Islam, instead of focusing on the Islamic death threat against him.

Even though Rushdie is still alive, Khomeini’s fatwa was successful. His purpose was, yes, to get Rushdie killed, but even more to put the West on notice — to make clear that they cannot speak in a way that offends Muslim sensibilities; to extend sharia blasphemy restrictions to the west. That strategy has born fruit. By the 21st century, and certainly by today, many westerns have internalized the idea that you cannot speak about Islam in any critical manner. Rushdie, however — quite ironically — has by now acquired enough leftist cred that it actually takes a conservative like Michael Davis to come down hard on him for insulting Islam.

Wonders and hypocrisies never cease.

Graeme Wood’s Article in The Atlantic

Graeme Wood has written an excellent article on the Rushdie affair, but before I get to that, I want to briefly revisit an older article by Wood that surprised people when The Atlantic published it in March 2015. At the time, Wood was the first writer of a mainstream publication to dare to explain the obvious: that the primary motivations of Islamic jihadists are indeed Islamic. Fourteen years after 9/11, and a mainstream publication had finally said upfront what was usually tiptoed around. Here are just a few citations from it, since The Atlantic articles are behind a paywall:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, ‘the Prophetic methodology,’ which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combated, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. Muslim apostates are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, ’embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion’ that neglects ‘what their religion has historically and legally required.’ Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an ‘interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.’

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts.

The Koran specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews “until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” The Prophet, whom all Muslims consider exemplary, imposed these rules and owned slaves.

It’s easy to forget how unusual an article like that was back in 2015. Since then, more moderate publications have followed Graeme Wood’s lead in speaking inconvenient truths.

Salman Rushdie and The Cult of Offense

Here is Wood’s article on Rushdie, posted yesterday (August 14, 2022): Salman Rushdie and the Cult of Offense. I reproduce most of it because of the paywall. Much as it pains me to admit it, Wood is even right about Jimmy Carter (one of my favorite presidents). Even the wisest are wrong about some things.

On Friday, a man stabbed Rushdie in upstate New York. The suspect is 24, from New Jersey, and reportedly an admirer of Iranian theocratic rule. “The news is not good,” Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, said in a statement. Rushdie took a hit to the liver and will likely lose an eye. By Saturday night, Rushdie was reportedly off his respirator and talking.

The honorable response is to say that we are all Rushdie now, and that America’s failure to protect him is a collective shame. In the face of this thuggery, Rushdie’s work should be read publicly, and his name thrown in the face of apologists for the regime that once ordered and offered to pay for his assassination.

But we are not all Rushdie. And in fact the past couple decades have led me to wonder if some of us are more Khomeini than we’d like to admit.

In 1989, the reaction to the fatwa was split three ways: Some supported it; some opposed it; and some opposed it, to be sure, but still wanted everyone to know how bad Rushdie and his novel were. This last faction, Team To Be Sure, took the West to task for elevating this troublesome man and his insulting book, whose devilry could have been averted had others been more attuned to the sensibilities of the offended.

The fumes are still rising off of this last group. Former president Jimmy Carter was, at the time of the original fatwa, the most prominent American to suggest that the crime of murder should be balanced against Rushdie’s crime of blasphemy. The ayatollah’s death sentence “caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights,” Carter wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. Well, yes. Carter did not only say that many Muslims were offended and wished violence on Rushdie; that was simply a matter of fact, reported frequently in the news pages. He took to the op-ed page to add his view that these fanatics had a point. “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important,” he wrote, “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Never mind that millions of Muslims take no offense at all, and are insulted by the implication that they should.

Over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that “nobody would have the balls” to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: Don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.

It is unfair to pick on Carter, because many who have less excuse for these atrocious opinions have agreed with him. These include professional writers. (Carter is a writer and poet, but his writing is more an unfortunate hobby than a real calling.) Like Carter, these writers have condemned murder, to be sure, but hastened to change the subject to the apparently equally urgent problem of the victims’ own sins.

In 2015, after jihadists killed eight members of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, PEN America, a venerable institution promoting the interests of writers and of free expression—and one that Salman Rushdie himself once led—presented the survivors with an award for their courage. Fanatics had warned them for years that they’d be killed for their cartoons, but they published anyway. After the slaughter, hundreds of PEN members, led by Teju Cole and Francine Prose, doubted whether they deserved an award, and objected in a sententious, scolding open letter.

Today, with Rushdie sliced to ribbons in a hospital bed in Erie, it is impossible to read their letter without noticing how fully they surrendered to this cult of offense and took the side of those offended against those slain.

How awful that the Charlie Hebdo artists and writers were shot to death, the signers said. But should we really applaud them? “​​There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable,” they wrote, “and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.” They then proceeded to explain (after, to be sure, a statement that mass murder is not acceptable) that Charlie Hebdo’s ridiculing of the “marginalized, embattled, and victimized” was also not acceptable. In 1989, Team To Be Sure had betrayed its philistinism by reducing Rushdie’s novel, one of the greatest by a living writer, to an “insult.” PEN’s critics of Charlie Hebdo declared that its “cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.” The letter did not even attempt to criticize Charlie Hebdo on literary grounds.

It takes nerve to describe artists and journalists who were recently shot in the face as having themselves caused “suffering.” To do this in one’s capacity as a PEN America member speaks to a larger faltering of the culture, in its confidence that the liberty of individuals is worth fighting and dying for. (I note that since the attempt on Rushdie’s life, almost no one has advanced these arguments. I am not sure why successfully killing several cartoonists contemptuous of religion gets to be sure treatment, but trying to kill a novelist contemptuous of religion does not. In any case I welcome into the ranks of the sensible whoever wishes to join.)

Now that Rushdie’s head has been partially detached, and on American soil, I hope these distinctions will need no further elaboration, and that those who elided them will swallow their full helping of shame. Rushdie has survived long enough to see free expression debased in the name of free expression. Survive a bit longer, Salman, and we’ll see this cause restored to the status it deserves.

Review: The Critical Qur’an – Explained from Key Islamic Commentaries and Contemporary Historical Research

If you want a Qur’an commentary that goes where others fear to tread, then try Robert Spencer’s The Critical Qur’an. To describe it, imagine a certain translation of the Bible (say the RSV) that is footnoted with textual variants, theological commentary from Christian authorities spanning antiquity to the present, and also modern historical-critical commentary. The Critical Qur’an is a reference tool like that, and a very useful one.

There are four features of this Qur’an that are virtually impossible to find elsewhere in a single volume:

1. Variant readings. It’s one of the first Qur’anic commentaries, if not the very first, to provide variant readings from different manuscripts, in the same way that variant readings are found in most study Bibles for the Tanakh and New Testament.

2. Tafsir commentary. Citations from mainstream Muslim exegetes (the tafsir) are provided, spanning the 8th to 21st centuries. This is highly valuable since all these theologians and jurists are held to be authoritative. Their commentary allows the reader to understand how the Qur’anic texts have been, and continue to be, understood in mainstream Islam.

3. Critical commentary. There are also citations from Qur’anic scholars whose academic insights shed light on the textual evolution of the Qur’an.

4. Clarity. This Qur’an clarifies difficult or troublesome passages. For example, the many exhortations to jihad are usually translated as “strive hard” in the way of Allah — which is perfectly legitimate, since “jihad” means “strive” or “struggle” — but the primary meaning of jihad in Islamic theology is warfare against unbelievers. So in The Critical Qur’an, when it says “jihad” in Arabic, it says “jihad” in English, so the English-speaking reader will be keyed to the fact that this word has been consistently interpreted a certain way in mainstream Islam.

I’ll elaborate with examples of Spencer’s commentary, to give an idea as to the book’s format.

1. Variants

The Qur’an we think of today was published in 1924 in Cairo and has since been the dominant edition over the world — the supposed version of the Qur’an that was agreed on in 653 CE under Muhammad’s third successor, the caliph Uthman. In fact there were many different qira’at (variants) used throughout the Islamic empire, at least fourteen of which were known by the 8th century (all listed by Spencer on p 3). And each of those divergent traditions had more than one transmitter (usually two), compounding the variance.

Of those many qira’at, the Hafs tradition became the one of “Uthman’s” Qur’an of 1924, but the Warsh tradition still dominates in western and north-western Africa. The Critical Qur’an follows Hafs while noting the Warsh and other variants for some verses. So for example, Sura 2:10 reads (following Hafs), “They will suffer a painful doom because they lie.” Spencer comments: “Instead of ‘because they lie’ (yakzibuuna), the Warsh Qur’an has ‘because they accuse of lying’ (yukazzibuuna).” (p 14)

Another example is Sura 9:66, which reads, “If we forgive a group of you, we punish a group of you, because they have been guilty.” Spencer lists two variants for this one: “Instead of, ‘If we forgive [na’fu] a group of you, we punish [nu’azzib] a group of you,’ Ibn Kathir [the 8th century transmitter, not the 14th-century tasfir exegete] has, ‘If some of you are forgiven [yu’fa], others will be punished [tu’azzab]. Instead of ‘we forgive,’ the Warsh Qur’an has ‘he forgives.’ Instead of ‘we punish,’ the Warsh Qur’an has ‘he punishes.'” (p 142)

2. Tafsir Commentary

The bulk of Spencer’s commentary draws on the tafsir — mainstream exegetes, theologians, and jurists who are authoritative in the Islamic world, notably, al-Tabari (839-923), al-Zamakhshari (1074-1173), al-Qurtubi (1214-1273), Ibn Juzayy (1294-1340), Ibn Kathir (1301-1372), the two Jalals (Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli, 1389-1459, and Jalal ad-Din al-Suyuti, 1445-1505), along with 20th century tasfirs, such as the influential Pakistani Syed Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979), and the Indian Mufti Muhammad Ashiq Ilahi Bulandshahri (1925-2002). And others. Ibn Kathir and the two Jalals are cited the most frequently, given their influence.

So for example, Sura 8:12-13 reads, “When your Lord inspired the angels, I am with you. So make those who believe stand firm. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Strike the necks and strike their fingertips. That is because they opposed Allah and his messenger. Whoever opposes Allah and his messenger, indeed, Allah is severe in punishment.” Spencer comments:

“[This passage] became one of the chief justifications for the Islamic practice of beheading hostages and war captives. Ibn Kathir explains that the angels are instruments of Allah’s wrath who are to ‘support the believers, strengthen their (battle) front against their enemies, thus, implementing My command to you. I will cast fear, disgrace and humiliation over those who defied My command and denied My Messenger. Strike them on their foreheads to tear them apart and over the necks to cut them off, and cut off their limbs, hands and feet.’

The Tafsir al-Jalalayn [the two Jalals] explains this in terms that assume divine assistance, asserting: ‘It happened that a man would go to strike at the neck of an unbeliever and his head would fall off before his sword was able to get there.’ ” (p 126)

For another example, Sura 9:29 reads, “Fight against those do not believe in Allah or the last day, and do not forbid what Allah and his messenger have forbidden,and do not follow the religion of truth, even if they are among the people of the book, until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.” Here is part of Spencer’s commentary on the verse:

“The Tafsir al-Jalalayn says that this verse specifies that Muslims must fight against those who do not follow Islam, ‘which confirms and abrogates’ other religions. The people of the book are mentioned in the verse and traditionally have been understood as the only ones who are offered the option of paying the jizya, while other non-Muslims who do not have a written scripture that is recognized in the Qur’an must either convert or die. However, the Tafsir as-Sadi explains that ‘the jizya may be taken from all the disbelievers, People of the Book and others, because this verse was revealed after the Muslims had finished fighting with the polytheist Arabs and had begun to fight the People of the Book and their ilk, so this condition is describing the real situation and is not meant to impose a restriction on accepting jizya from the People of the Book only.’

Ibn Kathir says that the dhimmis must be “disgraced, humiliated and belittled. Therefore, Muslims are not allowed to honor the people of dhimmah or elevate them above Muslims, for they are miserable, disgraced and humiliated.” The seventh-century jurist Sa’id ibn al-Musayyab is said to have declared: ‘I prefer that the people of the dhimma become tired by paying the jizya since He says, “until they pay the jizya with their own hands in a state of complete abasement.” ‘ As-Suyuti elaborates that this verse ‘is used as a proof by those who say that it is taken in a humiliating way, and so the taker sits and the dhimmi stands with his head bowed and his back bent. The jizya is placed in the balance and the taker seizes his beard and hits his chin.’ Al-Zamakhshari agreed that the jizya should be collected ‘with belittlement and humiliation.’

In explaining how the Jews and Christians must ‘feel themselves subdued,’ Ibn Kathir quotes a saying of Muhammad: ‘Do not initiate the Salam [greeting of peace] to the Jews and Christians, and if you meet any of them in a road, force them to its narrowest alley.’

With remarkably little variation, throughout Islamic history whenever Islamic law was strictly enforced, this is generally how non-Muslims were treated. Although today they’re often presented as tolerant toward the Christians, Ibn Kathir says that these rules ‘ensured their continued humiliation, degradation and disgrace.’ The Christians agreed not to ‘restore any place of worship that needs restoration’; ‘ride on saddles, hang swords on the shoulders, collect weapons of any kind or carry these weapons’; or ‘publicize practices of Shirk’ (see 2:193, 4:31, and 6:21). They also agreed not to build ‘crosses on the outside of our churches and demonstrating them and our books in public in Muslim fairways and markets’ or ‘sound the bells in our churches, except discreetly, or raise our voices while reciting our holy books inside our churches in the presence of Muslims, nor raise our voices [with prayer] at our funerals, or light torches in funeral processions in the fairways of Muslims, or their markets.’ ” (pp 137-138)

Commentary like this is immensely valuable on the strength of its authority, and it may inspire the reader (as it did me) to become more familiar with the tafsir.

3. Critical commentary

Spencer also has an eye on history and textual criticism — corruptions, substrata, and other aspects that challenge the reader. Sura 37:75-78 reads, “And Noah prayed to us, and the hearer of his prayer was favorable. And we saved him and his family from the great distress, and made his descendants the survivors, and left for him among the later people.” Spencer notes a possible textual corruption:

“The phrase ‘left for him among the later people’ is repeated at 37:108, 37:119, and 37:129. The Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains it as meaning that the ‘later people’ would remain ‘in praise until the Day of Rising’ of those righteous ones who went before. However, Barth notes that this usage of taraka alayhi, ‘we left for him,’ is unusual in the extreme and may be evidence of textual corruption, for this phrase ‘without an object in the accusative is against all Arabic usage, even against that of the Koran.’ (J. Barth, “Studies Contributing to Criticism and Exegesis of the Koran,” in Ibn Warraq, ed., What the Koran Really Says (Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2002), 409.)” (p 311)

It’s worth noting that Spencer relies significantly on the work of Christoph Luxenberg, who argued that the Qur’an was derived from Syriac Christian liturgy, and that obscure portions of the Qur’an become clear when retro-translated into Syrio-Aramaic. I’m generally not on board with this sort of approach. Luxenberg’s large-scale etymological retroversions remind me of the way Maurice Casey reconstructed Aramaic passages behind the gospel of Mark. The Qur’an surely drew on Syrio-Aramaic sources, and perhaps some of Luxenberg’s etymological solutions are valid, but I’m skeptical that his approach can be taken as a rule. Likewise, it’s not controversial to acknowledge that Islam is descended from Christianity (a more obscure Torah-observant wing of Christianity, that is), and that in some ways Islam was the first Mormonism. You can easily spot Christian themes throughout the Qur’anic text, but I don’t see the “original Qur’an” as being an actual Christian lectionary as Luxenberg urges.

I count the following dozen references to Luxenberg in The Critical Qur’an:

2:1. The mysterious letters of the Qur’an, which in the Syriac lectionary indicated what Psalms were to be recited.

2:135. The idea of Abraham as a hanif (heathen), which was imported from Christian belief (Rom 4:9-12).

2:185. The word “Qur’an”, derived from the Syrio-Aramaic qeryana (“reading” or “pericope” or “selection for reading”).

3:96. Bakka, the first Islamic sanctuary, was doubtfully Mecca.

5:114. Echo of the Christian eucharist, but more than just an echo (as most scholars would have it): an actual Christian liturgical celebration lying behind the text.

17:64. Satan startling people with his voice, which is at odds with 114:5.

19:24. The Lord placing a stream beneath Mary, which originally had nothing to do with a stream but rather Mary’s delivering a virgin birth.

24:31. Women’s behavior in public, which paraphrases Isaiah 3:16.

44:54. The infamous houris, which is usually translated as “maidens” or “virgins,” and central to the Islamic understanding of the virgins of paradise. But hur (the equivalent of houri in Islamic tradition) doesn’t mean “virgins,” as even Arabic philologists acknowledge, but is rather the plural form of an adjective that means “white”. The original passage referred not to virgins but to white raisins, or grapes, which were a prized delicacy and indeed a much more fitting symbol of the reward of paradise (which is frequently referred to in the Qur’an as a “garden,”, in any case, rather than sexual favors from virgins).

52:24. Servant boys likened to “hidden pearls”. Like the “virgins” of 44:54, the “boys” were originally grapes and another example of Christian paradisal imagery.

96:6,15,19. “No indeed”, a confusing negation that makes sense when retro-translated, pointing to eucharist practices.

108:1-3. Three verses that appear pre-Qur’anic.

For all I know, some of these may be valid, though really I find only 44:54 persuasive and 3:96 an interesting idea. (Regarding the latter, it has been suggested that the original Islamic sanctuary was Petra rather than Mecca.) “Grapes” may very well lie behind the houris passage. I regard Sura 44:54 as somewhat analogous to Mark 2:27-28 (where Jesus says “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”) Maurice Casey argued that “son of man” was a generic for “man/humanity” in Aramaic, with Jesus saying, effectively, that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath, and so any man — not just a messianic/titular Son of Man — is master of the sabbath. It makes good sense of the saying and fits the portrayed conflict in the gospel, though this generic use of “son of man” perhaps fits less well in other passages (Mark 9:11-13, 10:35-45, 14:12-26).

Linguistic retroversions have heuristic value but I don’t put too much stock in them. This isn’t much of a criticism, however, for whatever you think of Luxenberg, Spencer’s citations are useful reference points.

4. Clarity

In general Spencer brings clarity to passages that are especially problematic for non-Muslim readers and are often obscured in apologetics. For example, Sura 4:34 reads, “Good women are obedient, guarding in secret what Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, give them a warning and banish them to separate beds, and beat them.” Spencer comments:

“Wife-beating exists in all cultures, but only in Islam does it enjoy divine sanction. Allah tells men to beat their disobedient wives after first warning them and then sending them to sleep in separate beds. This is, of course, an extremely controversial verse, but there is not a great deal of variation in how the primary translators of the Qur’an have rendered the salient word, waidriboohunna.

Pickthall: ‘and scourge them’
Yusuf Ali: ‘(And last) beat them (lightly)’
Al-Hilali/Khan: ‘(and last) beat them (lightly, if it is useful)’
Shakir: ‘and beat them’
Sher Ali: ‘and chastise them’
Khalifa: ‘then you may (as a last alternative) beat them’
Arberry: ‘and beat them’
Rodwell: ‘and scourge them’
Sale: ‘and chastise them’
Asad: ‘then beat them’
The Study Quran: ‘then strike them’
Saheeh International: ‘strike them [lightly]’

Those translations that add the word ‘lightly’ are not working from the Arabic text of the Qur’an, in which this caveat does not appear.

In her 2007 translation, The Sublime Quran, the Islamic scholar Laleh Bakhtiar translates waidriboohunna as ‘go away from them.’ In light of the essential unanimity among virtually all other translators, both Muslim and non-Muslim, this seems difficult to sustain, as it would require believing that all of these authorities got the passage wrong until Bakhtiar. But the acute embarrassment that this passage causes contemporary Muslims is widespread. In his 1980 translation, Asad adduces numerous traditions in which Muhammad ‘forbade the beating of any woman,’ concluding that wife-beating is ‘barely permissible, and should preferably be avoided.’

In contrast Sheikh Syed Mahmud Allusi in his nineteenth-century commentary Ruhul Ma’ani gives four reasons that a man may beat his wife: ‘if she refuses to beautify herself for him’, if she refuses sex when he asks for it, if she refuses to pray or perform ritual ablutions, and ‘if she goes out of the house without a valid excuse.’

Also, Muhammad’s example is normative for Muslims, since he is an ‘excellent example’ (33:21), and a hadith has Aisha report that Muhammad struck her. Once he went out at night after he thought she was asleep, and she followed him surreptitiously. Muhammad saw her, and, as Aisha recounts: ‘He struck me on the chest which caused me pain, and then said: Did you think that Allah and His Apostle would deal unjustly with you?’ In another hadith, a woman comes to Aisha and ‘showed her a green spot on her skin caused by beating from her husband;’ Aisha is made to say: ‘I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women.’ ” (p 70)

Diligent clarity like this is what readers are often looking for in Qur’an commentaries to no avail, and so it’s a welcome breath of fresh air.

The question of cherry-picking

The Critical Qur’an puts to bed claims about cherry-picking. Critics like Spencer are often accused of this — fixating on verses of the Qur’an that advocate violence and oppression while dismissing peaceful texts — but this is the entire Qur’an, and Spencer comments on the (few) peaceful passages as much as the (many) violent ones, making clear why the former are problematic. The Doctrine of Abrogation holds that violent verses of the Qur’an take precedence over peaceful verses, since the violent ones were revealed later in the lifetime of Muhammad, when he was in a position to wage war and subjugate his enemies. Per Sura 2:106, later revelations abrogate earlier ones when the two are in conflict. Peace and tolerance are advised only when Muslims are in no position to wage war.

So for example, the highly militant Sura 9 is arguably the most important sura in the Qur’an, since according to the Hadith, it was the very last one revealed to Muhammad (see Bukhari, vol. 5, book 64, no. 4364). Sura 9 holds precedence over other suras and legitimates offensive war as normative for believers for all time. That’s not cherry picking on the part of the critic or commentator. It’s acknowledging how mainstream Islam “cherry picks” from its holy book and prioritizes its passages.

Other religions allow more leeway. The early rabbis, for example, were able to have lively debates over whether or not children suffer punishment for the sins of their parents, for there is no controlling text within the Jewish scriptures that would lead one to favor Exodus 20:5 (“yes”) over Ezekiel 18:20 (“no”), or vice-versa. That’s what makes most scriptures conveniently malleable. A Doctrine of Abrogation kills that malleability.

And it should go without saying — though it usually needs saying — that not every Muslim, nor even most Muslims, adhere strictly to Islamic doctrine. And there are very brave Islamic reformers doing their utmost to change things. Mahmoud Muhammad Taha (1909-1985) of Sudan tried to reverse the Doctrine of Abrogation and make the Qur’an’s early peaceful revelations supersede the later violent ones, and for this heresy he was killed. Reformers deserve our full support and respect for acknowledging the only (and very difficult) way out of the problem.

Most Muslims are peaceful and don’t follow Islam strictly. But significant numbers of them do. Jihad and sharia remain imperatives in mainstream Islam, and The Critical Qur’an goes a long way towards accounting for why that is the case. That won’t stop this book from being dismissed on grounds of “Islamophobia”, manufactured bigotry, and Spencer’s personal politics, but those are empty criticisms — ad hominems leveled by people who have little to show for themselves. The Critical Qur’an is a multi-purpose tool for those wanting to understand how Islam’s holy book is widely interpreted, for ideas about its origins and textual issues, and it is a most welcome contribution.

Germany’s Similar Regional Policies in the Two World Wars

To supplement the award-winner on the the relationship between Islam and Nazism during WWII I’m reading Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz, 2014), which was published the same year. The books make similar points, apparently independently and unaware of each other. As I said before, I’d never realized how deep Germany was in with Islam and jihad during the first world war. I’d assumed the German-Ottoman alliance was much like any other.

At the end of one of the chapters, Rubin and Schwanitz list the following parallels between Kaiser Wilhelm’s and Fuhrer Hitler’s regional policies (pp 57-58):

1. Inciting Jihad. Germany’s policy in both wars was based on stirring Muslim revolt, and fomenting jihad, against its enemies. Germany cast itself as being the “friend of Islam” and of Muslim peoples, and as the sworn enemy of colonialism. The first world war, to be sure, was an awful conflict everywhere, in which hundreds of thousands of people died and poison gas was used, but Germany’s decision to launch a campaign of state-sponsored terrorism against civilians was nonetheless shocking at the time.

2. Racism. The second war needs no commentary on this point. In the first war, the Armenian Christians were vilified on racist grounds while the Turkish Muslims were praised as fellow warriors and rulers. Wrote one propagandist: “The Ottoman Turk will be cured, so thoroughly that when he wakes up from his sleep of recovery he will be difficult to recognize. One would think he has got blond hair, blue eyes, and looks quite Germanic. In our loving embrace we have injected so much German essence into him that he will be hard to distinguish from a German.”

3. Holocaust. In purposefully stirring racial hatred, Germany anticipated and accepted the idea that this would produce mass murders of minorities (Armenian Christians in WW1, Jews in WWII), as well as other non-combatant civilians who were not on Germany’s side. The mass murder of Ottoman Armenians (between 600,000 – 1,200,000) was the largest organized massacre against a civilian minority since medieval and probably ancient times. It was carried out by the Ottomans, but the Germans broadly inspired it and did nothing to interfere with it. While there is no concrete evidence for a later account that Hitler said Germany could get away with the Jewish Holocaust because no one remembered the Armenian massacres, that seems to be what he thought.

4. Delusional Leadership. German policymakers believed that powerful forces could be set in motion by charismatic individuals, and that they were able to ignite and control wildly fanatical forces. Wilhelm exhorted his officers to “awaken the fanaticism of Islam” and Hitler of course deeply admired Islam for its militant doctrines. In both wars the policymakers erred grievously. In the first, the “jihad” proclaimed by the secular Ottoman leadership was not taken seriously in the Muslim world, and in the second, pro-Aryan Nazi doctrine (for all the creative allowances it made for Arabs and Turks) was seen by Muslims as too problematic. In both wars, Muslims became acutely aware that they were being manipulated.

5. Personnel. In the first war, Germany accumulated a large cadre of experts and soldiers who knew the Middle-East well and had extensive contacts there. About one hundred of them remained active in key positions during the Nazi era. Likewise many Middle-Eastern people who cooperated with Germany during the first war did so during the second.

Islam and Nazi Germany’s War

Islam and Nazi Germany’s War (David Motadel, 2014) is a study of how Nazi Germany used the Islamic religion to expand its influence and wage war. “Scholars have paid less attention to this phenomenon that one might imagine”, writes the author, and though I always knew of the Nazi-Islam bonding during World War II, I didn’t know nearly enough of the sordid details.

Historians usually concentrate on population groups defined by ethnicity or nationality during wars and conflicts, while religious population groups get far less attention. And in the case of World War II, some scholars either play down or deny any significance at all to the role of Islam in the war. Motadel’s book is a healthy corrective to that, and it taught me some things I was clueless about.

I had no idea, for example, that Germany’s accommodating policies with the Islamic world go way back to the late 1800s, when Imperial Germany ruled over Muslim populations in various colonies (Togo, Cameroon, German East Africa, etc). Indigenous animist religions were dismissed by the Germans as savage, but the Islamic religion was seen as enlightened. German authorities recognized sharia courts in these colonies, Islamic holidays, and allowed madrasas (Islamic schools) to stay open. Only a small minority of officials mistrusted the militant spirit of Islam and the danger of holy war. In this Germany was different from Britain, France, Holland, and Russia, who for the most part perceived pan-Islamism as a threat. In Berlin Islam was seen as an opportunity.

The Two World Wars

The opportunity was first exploited in World War I. Motadel describes how German officers were knee-deep involved with the Ottoman caliph, when he called on Muslims around the world to wage holy war against the Entente powers. The jihad, however, wasn’t a religious war in the usual Islamic sense — not “believers” vs. “infidels”, but rather a selective jihad aimed only at the Entente powers (the British, French, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Russians) — and because of that, it failed to galvanize enough Muslims to support it. What’s interesting is the degree to which the Germans pushed for the jihad (Wilhelm II exhorting his officers to “awaken the fanaticism of Islam”), and as a matter of policy to incite religious violence in the Muslim areas of the Entente colonies.

Motadel says the campaign ultimately lacked credibility in the eyes of Muslims, who knew they were being manipulated by a colonial power, and because the Young Turks (who led the Ottomans since their revolt in 1908) were too blatantly secular to take seriously:

“It was all too clear that Muslims were being employed for the strategic purposes of the Central Powers, not for a truly religious cause. The Young Turks had no religious credentials. The power of the caliphate was limited.”

Between the two world wars, Germany kept Islam in its agenda, determined to learn from the mistake of World War I. It was widely agreed that the Muslim mobilization had failed because “the Ottoman leadership had long renounced Islam”, and plenty of German literature was cranked out on the subject. Motadel cites Thomas Reichardt’s Islam at the Gates) (1939), published a few months before the beginning of World War II, which argued that, “When Islam looks at the West, it sees in democracy, in parliamentarianism, capitalism, individualism, unrestrained mechanization, and the blind belief in progress all things which it opposes.” Germany, like Japan and Italy, saw the West in similar terms.

What was unanimous in the German literature was (a) a disdain for the lack of authenticity (religiosity) of the Young Turks in World War I which killed the jihad in its crib, and (b) a belief that Muslim religious sensibilities needed respecting, as Italy and Japan did. Islam was an opportunity that couldn’t be ignored and had to be done right by this time around.

Amin al-Husayni

He became the mufti of Jerusalem in 1921, and with other Muslims worked ceaselessly for years to prepare a base for Islamism in Europe and throughout the Muslim world. He was basically the pioneer of modern Arab and Islamist politics, but tends to be misunderstood and undervalued in his role. He advocated genocide of the Jews long before the Nazi government did, and furthermore killed Hitler’s initial plan to let the Jews leave Germany and emigrate to Palestine. Al-Husayni warned Hitler that if he really wanted Muslim allies, then he had to close Europe’s exits to Jews. The mufti thus contributed directly to the Holocaust, cornering Hitler into his “final solution”. It’s quite wrong to see al-Husayni and his fellow Islamists as merely being influenced by the Nazis, as some critics do. They weren’t trying to please Hitler; they genuinely believed in the Islamic doctrine promoting hatred of Jews, and they bonded with the Nazis on the basis of common interests.

The mufti eventually settled in Berlin in 1941 at Hitler’s invitation. He wanted German support to wipe out the Jews in the Middle-East, and in return he would “wage terror” (as he put it) against the British and French. Unlike the Ottomans during the first world war, al-Husayni framed the jihad imperative in its classic religious sense, heaping curses on the Jews and exhorting all Muslims everywhere to fear Allah above all, for anyone who does not “is not a Muslim anymore”. But the jihad, and the German-Muslim alliance, ultimately failed in this war too, though for different reasons.

The Question of Ideology: Nazism and Islam

Motadel handles this whole issue well. The promotion of Islam was a strategic move for Germany (as it had been in the past), but it was only the Reich’s willingness to deal with it ideologically that made that move possible. “After all,” says Motadel, “The Third Reich was an ideological state and Second World War an ideological war. Ideology mattered.” And ideology was easier to deal with than ethnicity.


The Nazi regime was pragmatic on the issue of race — making allowances for Turks, Arabs, and Iranians — but this required a bit of backpedaling on the Fuhrer’s views of Aryan supremacy. Dr. Walter Gross (who ran the Office of Racial Policy) wrote (in 1944) that “National Socialist race theory in fact recognizes Arabs as members of a high-grade race, which looks back on a glorious and heroic history.” Others like him insisted that the Reich was “anti-Jewish/Judaic” (which it was) but not “anti-Semitic” (though it was obviously this too), catering to the common understanding that Arabs were “Semites”.

Others, following Gross, insisted that German race theory wasn’t directed at other peoples aside from the Jews, while insisting that the racial mixing between Germans and Turks/Arabs/Iranians (especially as more Muslims were deployed in the Reich) had to be avoided for the benefit of both peoples. Muslims were “racially valuable”, and yet their bloodstream was different from the Germans and had to be kept separate. Hitler went so far as to call the mufti al-Husayni an Aryan (on the basis of his blond hair and blue eyes), and had the physician Pierre Schrumpf confirm his judgment: Schrumpf gave the mufti a six-hour medical examination, and officially proclaimed al-Husayni to be a Circassian, and thus a Caucasian.

Hitler and his propagandists, in other words, fumbled over issues of race, trying to uphold white supremacy in “Muslim-friendly” ways.


There was no awkward fumbling when it came to ideology. Religion has nothing to do with race, after all (though many people today don’t get this), and Hitler and his Reichsführer (Himmler) revered the doctrines of Islam. Himmler believed that Muhammad was one of the greatest men in history and had in his collection many books on Islam and the Prophet. He esteemed Islam as a masculine soldierly religion:

“Mohammed knew that most people are terribly cowardly and stupid. That is why he promised every warrior who fights courageously and falls in battle two beautiful women. This kind of language a soldier understands. When he believes that he will be welcomed in this manner in the afterlife, he will be willing to give his life; he will be enthusiastic about going into battle and not fear death. You may call this primitive and laugh about it, but it is based on deeper wisdom.”

Himmler got on well with mufti al-Husayni, who after the war was impressed by Himmler’s “intelligence and breadth of knowledge”. And Himmler’s views of Islam were shared by others, like his right-hand Gottlob Berger.

As for Hitler, he repeatedly devalued Christianity while extolling Islam. Christianity was soft, artificial, and weak; Islam was a strong and a practical faith, and much more suited to the Germanic spirit. In the table talks he expressed regret over the victory of Charles Martel in 732 CE, saying that if Martel hadn’t been victorious, then the Germans would have been converted to Islam, which would have allowed the Germanic races to conquer the world. Motadel cites Albert Speer, who remembers Hitler saying thus:

“Had the Arabs won this battle [against Charles Martel in 732] the world would be Mohammedan today. For theirs is a religion that believes in spreading the faith by the sword and subjugating all nations to that faith. The Germanic peoples would have become heirs to that religion. Such a creed was perfectly suited to the Germanic temperament. Hitler said that the conquering Arabs, because of their racial inferiority, would in the long run have been unable to contend with the harsher climate and conditions of the country. Ultimately not Arabs but Islamized Germans could have stood at the head of the Mohammedan Empire.”

Thus again, the importance of distinguishing beliefs/doctrines from cultures/peoples. Hitler believed Islam was a superior religion, but that its Arab adherents were an inferior race. That second part was a problem for the Reich, no matter how diligently their propaganda machines tried papering over it.

The Failure of a Reich-Muslim Alliance

For all the Reich leaders’ ideological passion, it evidently rang hollow on its hearers. Whether Muslims were under German rule, behind the front lines, or deployed in German military units, “it was all too obvious that the Germans wanted to instrumentalize Muslims for their interests and war necessities rather than for a truly religious cause.” The Reich’s hypocrisies — its mixed messages on race and ethnicity, if not religion and ideology — and ultimately its attempts to bond with Muslims over a religious cause lacked credibility.

The other reason offered by Motadel for the failure of a WWII German-Muslim alliance is that Germany respected Italy and its imperial interests too much. Italy may have patronized Islam like Japan did, but Muslims resented Italians for their colonial oppressive measures even more than they hated the British and the French. Ultimately Muslims saw Germans as complicit in Italian oppression.


Islam and Nazi Germany’s War taught me some things I was oblivious to, and the research behind it is impeccable. I’m not surprised it won the Wiener Library Ernst Fraenkel prize. I was drawn to reading it over the recent unpleasant revelation of M.A.R. Barker. Barker was a convert to Islam who designed the brilliant RPG Empire of the Petal Rose, and then later became a pro-Nazi and Holocaust denier. Empire of the Petal Rose was the first role-playing game (released in 1974) not based on a European/white setting, and the fantasy world (Tekumel) has Asian-type cultures. It may be hard to wrap our heads around someone like Barker turning militant-white-supremacist, but then ideology and ethnicity are different things. Love for doctrines doesn’t necessarily imply love for whatever peoples happen to embrace those doctrines. And Barker was an American convert to Islam, not a native of Asia or the Middle-East.


Update: See more here, for the parallels between Wilhelm and Hitler in the two world wars.

Reading Roundup: 2021

This was a good year for books. Here are my ten picks. Most of them were published this year, but I was late catching up on others. Especially my #1 choice.

1. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (Expanded Edition). Jonathan Rauch, 1993 (2013). Rauch stood at a crossroads in ’93 and saw the coming of 2014. It began with alarming trends — feminists joining hands with fundies in attempts to censor pornography because porn “hurt” people — and reached a defining moment with Salman Rushdie. Suddenly liberals were pandering to the inexcusable and retreating from their most important values. They haven’t looked back since. It’s so rare to find a superb analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions (instead of just focusing on “where we stand”), and Rauch outlines different processes that people use to get at the truth. He argues for the liberal science approach (public criticism is the only way to determine who is right) and shows that the egalitarian and humanitarian approaches are not only misguided but dangerous. Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting. Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum may be hurtful to transgendered people, but what hurts is often factual. Science can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian approaches. The results speak for themselves: offensive speech is a precious commodity. Full review here.

2. Boundaries of Eden. Glenn Arbery, 2020. This novel started my new year and blew me away. (It would be at #1 if Kindly Inquisitors weren’t so goddamn perfect.) It blends genres subtly across a philosophical canvas, and is a bit hard to summarize. Call it a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and an unsparing look at the mind of a serial killer. It’s about the way sins of the past impinge on the present, and the pain that comes with digging up the past. The main character is Walter Peach, who runs a newspaper in the central county of Georgia, treats his wife and kids like sewage, falls in love with his niece, openly fawns on said niece around his family, while at work he publishes screeds against Mexican cartels that no one takes seriously. Pivotal to the drama (and Peach’s past) is an abandoned 40-year old house buried under a sea of kudzu. Some of the scenes inside the house show that Arbery could be a horror writer if he wanted to; he has a gift for summoning dread that many horror writers only aspire to. Some of the most horrifying parts, though, are revelations unearthed about the main character’s mother, her slave heritage, and crimes committed in the name of justice. Well crafted and multi-layered — even poetic at times — Boundaries of Eden begins like a Faulkner classic and slow-burns into something much more; it never cheats the reader because it’s a novel that does everything, and because Arbery is simply incapable of writing a dull paragraph. I didn’t want it to end.

3. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity. Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. Critiques of postmodernism usually strawman their subject, but Pluckrose and Lindsay do right by it, allowing us to scorn postmodern theories with a clean conscience: theories saying that objective truth is unobtainable, and that the scientific method is overrated; that power and hierarchies are the number one evil; that words are powerful and dangerous, and language can be as harmful as physical violence. This stuff was always bonkers, but when applied to social justice agendas of the woke left it goes off the cliff, giving us Critical Race Theory (all whites are complicit in racism), Queer Theory (sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum), Postcolonial Theory (describing Islam as a religion of violence is hateful), Fat Studies (the desire to remedy obesity is hateful), and so on. The authors conclude that while racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and social injustices continue to be problems, postmodern theories are religious anti-solutions making the problems worse. The proper solutions lie where they always have — and where they have produced tangible positive results — namely, in classical liberalism. This is a perfect book to read in tandem with Kindly Inquisitors (#1), which the authors have clearly learned from. Full review here.

4. Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. Dave Goulson, 2021. This is a strident plea to protect insects before they’re wiped out, and the planet along with them. The author (an entomologist and conservationist) explains how global insect populations are declining through habitat fragmentation, industrial farming practices, pesticides, and climate change — and in some cases the decline is by as much as 75%. It continues to astonish me that many people don’t realize how critical pollination is. Nearly 90% of plant species require pollination in order to produce fruits or seeds, including most agricultural food crops, and while honeybees and bumblebees do most of the pollination legwork, other insects do too, like butterflies, wasps, and beetles. In some parts of the world farmers have to do the labor-intensive job of hand-pollinating their crops. Goulson calls for action to protect insects and rethink our heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. We can help insect populations recover in a variety of ways: by reducing lawn space in favor of flowering plants, mowing grass less often, incorporating wide ranges of native plants into our gardens, and giving predatory insects a first crack at the problem that pesticides address. If we don’t want fruits and vegetables to become the food of kings — and for humanity to be reduced to eating wind-pollinated cereal grains — this is a book we’d do well to heed.

5. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages That Led to America. Carol Delaney, 2011. I’m not a fan of Columbus, and there’s certainly no reason to have a holiday in his name, but after reading this book I appreciate him more in the context of his time. He wasn’t a greedy colonizer but a zealous apocalyptic. Many fifteenth-century Christians believed that the apocalypse wasn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again: the Turks had to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated from Muslim control. Columbus believed a crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a holy war. He also knew that if the Great Khan could be converted, that would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. He presented his plan to Queen Isabella in 1486, which she liked but wouldn’t run with until the conquest of Muslim Granada was over six years later. The rest is famous history. What’s not well known is the religious fervor that drove Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus was preparing the world for the Last Judgment, and acquiring the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade. Delaney is no apologist for Columbus, but she does show how he’s been over-maligned. At least he tried treating the Indians decently, unlike many of the men he led, and especially unlike the governors (Bobadilla, Ovando, etc.) who came after him. Full review here.

6. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Jonathan Rauch, 2021. The sequel to Kindly Inquisitors (see #1) addresses the major epistemic crisis facing America today — a two-pronged assault elevating falsehoods above facts, from the populist right and elitist left. Rauch starts by showing how human beings are biologically and socially conditioned to believe whatever they want, irrespective of evidence, and that our institutions of expertise tame those tribal urges through rigorous practices such as peer review and fact checking. He draws a parallel between this constitution of knowledge and two of liberalism’s other institutions, constitutional government and free-market economics. All of them together, working at their best, result in political cooperation, economic prosperity, and reliable scientific findings. But recently there have been two particular forces seriously undermining the constitution of knowledge. The first is the nihilism of the internet, with its metrics and algorithms that are sensitive to popularity but wholly indifferent to truth. Fake news, trolling, and junk science flood the web giving the alt-right a voice everywhere. Instead of banning ideas, the right swamps and swarms them with garbage to overwhelm people. The second is cancel culture, rooted in what Rauch calls “emotional safetyism,” which construes disagreeable or upsetting arguments as threats that need policing. His list of the dozen ways in which emotional safetyism poisons us is one of the best exposes on the subject. So is his seven-fold criteria of how to tell whether you’re being criticized or cancelled. The left has gone a long way in turning a culture of critical review into a culture of confirmation bias and censorship. Full review here.

7. Sins of Empire. Brian McClellan, 2017. I gave this novel a try based on its reputation as a fantasy set in a world of guns and magic. The world evokes our Napoleonic era and there’s a mood to it unlike typical fantasy that feels like fresh air. I was hooked immediately by the three major characters. First is Michel Bravis, my favorite; he works for the secret police force and is an antihero, a coward who does everything in his power to obtain a promotion by kissing the asses of those above him. He’s my favorite character because of this; he’s so real and authentic. Second is Ben Styke, a legendary military veteran rotting in a labor camp until he gets pulled out and set on a course of action that he’s not really clear about. Finally there is Vlora, or Lady Flint, the general leading her company of Riflejacks mercenaries, who gets summoned to the city for a new contract, but quickly learns that nothing is safe or as it seems. It’s a good story and I look forward to the next two books when I have time for them. McClellan’s plotting is impressive, as he focuses on mysteries as much the usual fantasy tropes, and his self-serving characters are very entertaining. Fantasy novels don’t always have the most engaging characters, but Sins of Empire has plenty of them.

8. Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2021. Vilified for speaking truth and common sense, Hirsi Ali has now turned her guns on the problem of Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees crossed the border and ignited the well-known crisis. It’s important to stress that Hirsi Ali’s book doesn’t demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. As she says, there’s no racial component to her argument at all. A certain proportion of men of all ethnicities will rape and harass women. But the rates are vastly lower in some parts of the world than in others, especially in places where men are raised to respect a woman’s autonomy. In many parts of Europe now, women who walk outdoors (assuming they don’t stay shut inside at home) have adopted some of the mannerisms of women in the Middle-East and Africa — shrinking from men, being on guard, and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. The simple act of traveling or enjoying lunch in a cafe has become a thing of the past for many women. The unpleasant fact is that hard-won gains that women have made are being eroded in Europe by immigrants from the Muslim world where such rights to women are not granted, and the problem is compounded by the fact that Muslim immigrants have a poor track record of assimilating to western culture even by the second or third generations. Islam’s demands are too absolute to allow for it. Hirsi Ali rejects right-wing populist solutions (expelling illegal immigrants and restricting Muslim immigration), and instead advocates a massive reform of the European systems of integrating immigrants, from which she herself has benefited. Full review here.

9. The Plot. Jean Hanff Korelitz, 2021. A novel-within-a-novel that focuses on the inner turmoil of the author, and kind of reminds me of Misery (no surprise that Stephen King loves it). Misery was about a guy who was forced to write the story he didn’t want. The Plot is about a guy who writes a story that’s not his. Jake is a third-rate novelist who steals a story from a former student now dead, becomes rich and famous for it, and then out of the blue gets trolled by an anonymous stalker and repeatedly called out for plagiarism. Panicked, he tries to uncover the person who is harassing him, and one bizarre twist leads to another. Turns out (major spoiler) that Jake stole a real-life story of a murder, and when he decides to rewrite his novel as a piece of true crime, he ends up in much deeper shit. I never read anything by Jean Korelitz before; she’s pretty good. But while The Plot is a cracking suspense novel, it’s also, I think, a serious mediation on — and rather unflattering look at — writers in general. Their egos, insecurities, vanities. At points I felt a bit naked reading it.

10. Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. David Gessner, 2021. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt was mostly a terrible president, but he did one thing for which we owe him a debt of gratitude: saving hundreds of millions of acres of land from being developed and despoiled. Gessner reminds us that the GOP was Teddy’s party, and that many of our most important environmental laws came from the Republican party, all the way up through the end of Nixon’s presidency. In fact I would argue that Teddy and Richard Nixon were the best pro-environmental presidents. (The GOP anti-environmental shift came with Reagan.) Yes, they were overall failures. Aside from Donald Trump, no president was so narcissist and drunk on his self-regard than Teddy Roosevelt; and also aside from Trump, no president so openly disdained the Constitution and claimed himself to be above the document like Teddy did. And Tricky Dick was a Constitutional crook. Yet we do owe these men gratitude for their environmental causes, Teddy for land preservation, Nixon for signing loads of progressive legislation. Gessner’s book is a tour of all the sites we can savor thanks to Teddy, and let’s hope these sites will be around for a long time to come.

Kindly Inquisitors: A Prophetic View from the Early 90s

If there was ever a prophet about the fate of speech in America, it’s Jonathan Rauch. Almost 30 years ago he wrote Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993), and there’s been an expanded edition available for eight years. I don’t know how I ever missed it. The text in all six chapters remains unaltered, for, as the author says in his new afterword, fresher examples would simply prove the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. He’s being modest. He needs no fresher supplements for any reason; his argument is unassailable.

Rauch knew exactly where the left was headed. In ’93 he stood at a crossroads and saw the coming of 2014. Let’s look back, and look forward with him.

In the beginning was pornography

It’s almost eerie the way Rauch starts with an example that was the start of it all for me. The first time I realized something was rotten in leftist-ville was in the late ’80s. I was a college undergrad and was learning, to my shock, that feminists were decrying pornography and advocating its censorship. That made no sense to me, and when I told my feminist librarian supervisor about it over summer break, she didn’t believe it. (These were the days you couldn’t just get on the internet and google something for clarity.) I had to work hard to persuade her that my undergrad colleagues weren’t necessarily fringe wackos; that there was indeed a burgeoning movement in feminism that was pro-censorship.

The striking claim made by both fundies and feminists was that pornography hurt people. (It doesn’t seem as striking today, since the wokes have run wild with this idea: that words and images are as harmful as physical violence.) The fundies claimed that pornography was hurtful because it eroded morality and was detrimental to society. The feminists claimed that pornography was hurtful because it degraded women, aided in their repression and denied them their rights.

Obviously pornography doesn’t do these things. Women are raped and battered by criminals, not by porno-mags or porno-flicks, and no respectable study has ever shown a causal link between pornography and violence. Just the opposite: in countries where pornography is legalized there is (as the intelligent person might suspect) a decrease in rape and sex crimes. But even if there were a link between pornography and violence, says Rauch, since when do we advocate the banning of books or films which “cretins find exciting, thereby letting the very lowest among us determine what we can read and watch”? Do we ban Mein Kampf because someone read it and killed a Jew? Do we ban the Bible because its prescription to kill sodomites inspired a hate crime against gays?

Of course not, which is why feminists quickly switched gears in the ’90s, and broadened their attack, claiming that pornography does more than hurt women as individuals who suffer criminal assault. Pornography also hurts women as a class, as a group of people, whether or not any of them suffer a criminal attack. Pornography, the argument now went, institutionalizes gender inequality and male supremacy. It fuses the erotization of male dominance and female submission.

Plenty of feminist strippers and showgirls rightly scoffed at this claim, and as Rauch says, if you ask for evidence of it, don’t expect to find it. The argument is much more sly: that the oppressive nature of pornography is so woven into the social fabric of society that it is invisible harm — save to those who are offended by it:

“In the world constructed by pornography, people who are not radical feminists can no more see the harm of pornography than a fish can see water. How, then, do we know if pornography is really doing the harm that feminists allege? Because it must be. By its very nature — by the images it expresses and the psychological climate it creates, pornography is oppressive.” (p 17)

Writing in ’93, Rauch was essentially describing the religiosity of the post-2014 wokes. Only radical feminists (those who have “awokened”, in today’s lingo) can see how transparently harmful pornography is, while others remain blind. Dogma takes the place of evidence-based science.

The defining moment

I’ll look at another example and then turn to the heart of Rauch’s analysis. In February 1989 came what he calls the defining moment: when Islamic jihadists called famously for the death of Salman Rushdie for disrespecting Islam in his novel. As Rauch notes, what was striking was that Khomeini appealed to humanitarian principles in defending his (most non-humanitarian) death sentence on Salman Rushdie. And he was no dummy; his strategy was very effective:

“You have hurt us with your evil words, your impious words, disrespectfully and needlessly written in utter disregard for Muslim sensibilities. You have caused pain and offense to many people. And this you have no right to do.”

Hurt, pain, offense. Typical fundie accusations. But now, alarmingly, winning a sympathetic ear.

Here, for the first time, liberals began to pander to those who called for the silencing of others. Up until now, the left could be relied on to come back full swing against such religious intolerance — especially death threats — by retorting, yes, of course Rushdie’s words caused fury and pain (like any of thousands of other novels do), and that is perfectly 100% all right. Now liberalism was losing its mind, in the name of a perverted “multiculturalism” which says all cultures have their valid ways of believing and that western people should be “be nice” above all. They allowed, of course, that the Ayatollah shouldn’t have ordered Rushdie’s death, but you know, Rushdie really shouldn’t have said those things that provoked Muslims. Seriously.

This was more than a decade before 9/11, and since that second watershed moment — and in its wake the slaying of cartoonists who draw pictures of Muhammad — the unwitting alliance between Muslim jihadists and western liberals has grown stronger. The Islamist argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the western liberal says that it is morally wrong but should be followed. Both positions yield the identical outcome: silence, for sake of not giving offense. It’s impossible to exaggerate the moral confusion on the side of the left, when they’re blaming cartoonists more than (or instead of) the jihadists who killed them.

What the left has given up (and which Rauch predicted) is the most important cornerstone of liberalism: that the defense of free expression and universal human rights is not a provocation — far less a “phobia” or bigotry — but a moral obligation. Let’s turn to Rauch’s taxonomy for knowledge-building and truth-seeking.

The five ways to truth

It’s rare to find a good analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions, instead of just focusing on where we stand. Rauch outlines five such processes that people take to find or argue for the truth:

(1) The Fundamentalist Approach: Those who know the truth should decide who is right. Unassailable authority figures have been enlightened with the truth and they disseminate it. Arguments might ensue but they are irrelevant if they come from non-authority figures. Examples of this approach include Plato’s Republic and Khomeni’s Iran.

(2) The Egalitarian Approach: All sincerely held beliefs have equal claims to respect. If I sincerely believe that I am a woman, despite my male biological appendage, then who are you to doubt me?

(3) The Radical Egalitarian Approach: Like approach (2), but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration. In today’s world, Critical Race Theory is the king of this approach.

(4) The Humanitarian Approach: This can be combined with approaches (1), (2), or (3), but adds that you must not cause harm with your words or expression. It is the recipient of your words who determines how harmful your words are. On this approach, words are understood as literal violence. Examples of this include the two examples I started with: pornography and Rushdie’s novel.

(5) The Liberal Science Approach: Public criticism is the only way to determine who is right. In any argument, no one gets final say and no one is accorded special status, whether for fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian reasons. You can only be right on the merit of your arguments. Arguments should ideally be conducted with collegiality and respect, but they do not have to be in order to arrive at the truth.

In the end, Rauch says that the fifth approach of liberal science is the only one that can work. That is, a social system that allows and even sometimes encourages offense, is ultimately the only genuinely humane system. A truly humane society is a critical society that stimulates curiosity by rewarding people, not punishing them, for finding mistakes and correcting deficient ideas, no matter how cherished those deficient ideas appear.

Of the first four approaches, it’s actually the humanitarian that is the most dangerous, says Rauch, for this approach takes aim not just at free speech but at liberal science itself (p 27). It leads to the doctrine that people should be punished for holding hurtful beliefs which are thus construed to be false and dangerous. “It leads, in other words, toward an inquisition.”

Authoritarianism used to be the providence of the religious and political right in America, but Rauch saw it starting to flourish among the secular and political left in the ’90s, and warned:

“There is no social principle in the world more foolish or dangerous than the rapidly rising notion that hurtful words and ideas are a form of violence (or torture, or harassment) and that their perpetrators should be treated accordingly. That notion leads to the criminalization of criticism and the empowerment of authorities to regulate it.” (p 28)

The “new sensitivity”, in other words, was just the old authoritarianism in disguise, and look where the hell we are today.

The Obligation of Governments and Universities

The liberal science approach charges two institutions in particular to not punish people for anything they say or believe, no matter how offensive: governments and universities:

“Governments because their monopoly on force gives them enormous repressive powers, and universities, because their moral charter is first and foremost to advance human knowledge by practicing and teaching criticism. If governments stifle criticism, then they impoverish and oppress their citizenry. If universities do so, then they have no reason to exist.” (p 86)

While it’s true that private universities aren’t legally bound by the First Amendment (and shouldn’t be, by virtue of being private), they would do well to act as if they are bound by it in the same way that public universities are. Assuming they want to be taken seriously as an academic institution.

I would add the caveat however, that in college/university settings we need to distinguish between (a) the professional zone and (b) the larger free speech zone. The former protects the expression of ideas but not absolutely; it imposes an obligation of responsible discourse in the classroom. Even in a public university, you can’t just say literally whatever you want in class. The professor has the right to enforce scholarly standards as he or she sees fit, and hopefully does a fair job of it. (Not all of them do.) The free-speech zone exists outside of the scholarly setting. Guest speaker lectures and other campus activities are in this zone (for public universities) or at least should be treated as if they are in a free speech zone (for private ones).

Rauch gets at the same thing when he distinguishes between belief and knowledge. Liberal science doesn’t restrict belief, but in the academic environment it does restrict knowledge. “There is positively no right to have one’s opinions, however heartfelt, taken seriously as knowledge.” (p 116) Believe all you want and express that belief, but don’t expect your beliefs to be taught or entertained in a classroom setting. If you want to believe the earth is 6000 years old, go ahead. If you want to believe that sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum, feel free. If you say that vaccines are dangerous and should be opposed, that’s your absolute right. If you insist that Islam is a religion of peace, that too is your prerogative. But none of those claims deserves to taught in schools (even though some of them are). The way to set a curriculum, says Rauch, is to insist that it teach knowledge which consists of thoroughly tested claims, checked and back-checked over again empirically.

The problem today is that while right-wing fantasies are usually treated with the contempt they deserve at universities, left-wing fantasies often get a pass. We have the egalitarian/humanitarian approaches to thank for that.

The greater danger: right or left?

Rauch was suggesting in ’93 what some classical liberals today are now saying: that the greater authoritarian threats come not from fundamentalists (approach 1), or at least not anymore; in the ’80s it was different. Since the ’90s, “the greater threat lies in letting down our guard against ourselves: in high-mindedly embracing authoritarianism in the name of fairness and compassion (approaches 2, 3, and 4)” (p 112). Rauch was all but promising a woke movement.

But… isn’t science supposed to be egalitarian?

Only in the sense that the rules apply to everyone. Liberal science is, as Rauch says, an equal-opportunity knowledge maker. The fact that women and minorities didn’t always have access to the scientific field wasn’t the failure of liberal science. It was the failure to fully embrace it. We didn’t renounce democracy just because women and African Americans and Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote in certain periods. No, we embraced democracy more fully, just as we did with liberal science. The nature of liberal science (like democracy) carries within itself the seeds of its egalitarian improvements.

But, as Rauch goes on to clarify, science is not egalitarian in its results. “An equal-opportunity knowledge maker is very different from being an equal-results knowledge maker” (p 113), and unfortunately, hordes of voices on the left demand equal results. So leftists insist that all religions carry the same potential for peace and violence (which isn’t true), just like the right-wingers would prefer that creationism is taught in schools alongside evolution, to present “both sides fairly”.

Bottom line: no one has a claim to knowledge because their tribe or group or class of people or sect has been marginalized or historically left out. One has a claim to knowledge only to the extent that “one’s opinion still stands up after prolonged exposure to withering public testing” (p 118).

Science’s key to success: rewarding those who prove it wrong

Rauch makes the point that an enlightened intellectual regime allows all sorts of prejudices to bloom, including hateful ones. This is because attempting to stamp out prejudice simply makes everyone share the same prejudice, and thus kills science (p 68). One person’s hate speech is another person’s well-founded criticism, and another person’s stride for social justice. Look at Ayaan Hirsi Ali. One of the greatest human rights activists and yet she was uninvited from speaking at Brandeis University for her (supposed) hate speech.

Science has a failsafe against error in any case: when it makes mistakes — whether by prejudice or not — it rewards those who find them. Science, unlike the other four approaches, is always looking for disconfirmation, not affirmation, of its theories. That’s why it’s the truly humane and progressive approach.

Rauch puts it this way:

“The difference between a scientific society and a mythmaking group is not that one relies on imagination while the other does not; it is that the skeptical and empirical rules set up a tension which makes imagination its own watchman. For if you play the game well, you must be imaginative in two ways at once: in dreaming up statements about the external world, and in dreaming up ways to debunk them.” (p 69)

Liberal science is successful, in other words, because it’s a problem finder as much as a problem attacker, and uses its resources well. It can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the other four approaches.

Once and for all

Thus should Rauch’s statement of knowledge be embraced for what it is: good liberal common sense.

“Let us be frank, once and for all: creating knowledge is painful, for the same reason that it can be exhilarating. Knowledge does not come free to any of us; we have to suffer for it. We have to stand naked before the court of critical checkers and watch our most cherished beliefs come under fire. Sometimes we have to watch while our notion of evident truth gets tossed in the gutter. Sometimes we feel we are treated rudely, even viciously. As others prod and test our ideas, we get angry, hurt, embarrassed… The fact is that even the most scientific criticism can be horribly hurtful, devastatingly so… I am certainly not saying that we should all go out and be offensive or inflammatory just for the sake of it. But I am also only too well aware that in the pursuit of knowledge many people will be hurt. A no-offense society is a no-knowledge society.” (pp 125-126)

Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting (it’s not bigoted or “Islamophobic”). Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum is hurtful to many transgendered people, but it’s truth (not “transphobic”). Hearing that obesity is unhealthy is upsetting to heavy people, but that’s a public service of health (not mean-spirited bullying or “body-shaming”). And on and on.

If you’re a college professor, and a student insists in the classroom that the Holocaust never happened, feel free to silence him, but do it for the right reason. Not because he’s offending Jews. (No one has the right to be not offended in an academic environment, nor to feel secure in an “intellectual safe space”.) Not because he’s “inciting violence”. (Crackpot theories don’t incite violence; the very idea is absurd.) Silence him, in the classroom, because he is trying to pass off as knowledge something that has been thoroughly debunked, and is not worth wasting the time of his fellow students — or their tuition money for that matter. He’s free to speak his crackpot theories on campus outside the classroom.

And above all — I would add before signing off — if you’re going to insist that racial or homophobic slurs “are not speech, but bullets” (saith a University of Michigan law professor), or that offensive speech “wounds” and “injures” (saith another), then you erase, as Rauch says, the distinction between discussion and bloodshed, which carries logical consequences. If offensive speech is so violent, then it requires authorities and thought police to weed out anything perceived as hurtful and wounding. It requires, in other words, an inquisition.

That may have sounded alarmist in 1993, but thirty years later we have the woke-scolds and their cancel culture. And many smart, good-willed people who find it difficult, if not impossible, to have open and honest discussions. Society can’t progress that way. Time for us to shape up and accept results that speak for themselves: offensive speech has proven itself to be a precious commodity.


See also the author’s sequel, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.

Why Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue

For reasons seldom heard: to prepare the world for the Last Judgment and finance the Last Crusade.

Strange we don’t often hear that.

It took me years to get around to Carol Delaney’s Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (2011), mostly because I kept forgetting that it was squeezed into the end of my bookshelf. It’s a solid treatment of Columbus that takes his millenarian beliefs seriously, which surprisingly many scholars have not done. It’s common to suppose that Columbus was driven by greed, but as Delaney shows, it’s misleading to equate the material goal with the personal motive. Columbus’s search for gold wasn’t a commercial expedition; it was all but an apocalyptic geas.

We don’t know exactly when Columbus originally developed his plan to cross the ocean, but Delaney suggests that it was on the island of Porto Santo (where he had gone to live with his wife in 1480) when the pieces started falling into place. Many fifteenth-century Christians believed that the apocalypse wasn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again: the Turks had to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated once-and-for-all from Muslim control. Columbus knew that another crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a crusade. He needed a seaward route, since the land route to Asia had been closed to Europeans since 1453. His intent was to find a way to the east by sailing west around.

He also knew (from the writings of Marco Polo) that if the Great Khan could be converted, that would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. He presented his plan to Queen Isabella in 1486, which she liked but wouldn’t run with until the conquest of Muslim Granada was over six years later. The rest is famous history. What’s not well known is the religiosity that continued to drive Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus would prepare the world for the Last Judgment, and acquire the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade.

Columbus’ religious zeal can be seen in the primary sources (his diary, his letters, his “Book of Prophecies”, etc). For example, during the sail back from his first voyage, he wrote to Isabella and Ferdinand that, “Within seven years I shall give Your Highnesses enough money to pay for 5,000 knights and 50,000 foot soldiers for the conquest of Jerusalem” (letter dated March 4, 1493, which surfaced in 1985). In another letter he said that gold wasn’t primarily a medium of exchange but a medium of redemption: “Gold is a metal most excellent above all others and of gold treasures are formed, and he who has it makes and accomplishes whatever he wishes in the world and finally uses it to send souls into Paradise.”

The Garden of Eden

Delaney offers an interesting commentary on Columbus’s first sight of South America (on August 1, 1498) during his third voyage. When he saw the Orinoco River and other parts of present day Venezuela, he became convinced that he found the Garden of Eden — the place where Creation itself began. (Remember, he believed that Cuba and Hispaniola were in the Asian region, having sailed far enough west to come back east to the area of Marco Polo’s adventures.) He didn’t go ashore to explore the region (he had to get back to his colony at Santa Domingo with supplies that were already spoiling), but his mind was churning with excitement. Delaney writes:

“Columbus did not try to enter the Terrestrial Paradise, but he could not stop thinking about what his discovery might mean. The widely held belief that the Terrestrial Paradise would be found only near the end time was part of the medieval Christian interpretation of the story of Enoch and Elijah. These two figures from Genesis were associated with the two witnesses in Revelation (11:3), thought to be waiting in the Garden until the end time, when they were prophesied to fight the Antichrist. Having found the Terrestrial Paradise must have confirmed Columbus’s belief that the end was nigh, and that his enterprise was the beginning of the fulfillment of prophecy. The extraordinary discovery of the Terrestrial Paradise was the first step in the apocalyptic drama. He hoped this event would spur the Spanish sovereigns to take the next steps.” (p 174)

Shortly after, Columbus wrote to the Spanish sovereigns, explaining that he found a new continent and the location of the Terrestrial Paradise (Garden of Eden). He reminded them of the real achievements of his voyages which were being overshadowed by mundane logistical concerns, saying, “Your Highnesses have won these vast lands, which are an Other World, in which Christendom will have so much enjoyment and our faith in time so great an increase, and in the end of your days you will have the glory of Paradise”.

Not a hero, but not really a villain either

Delaney also shows how Columbus tried to treat the natives decently, time and time again throughout all his voyages, unlike some of the men he led, many of whom defied his orders or even rebelled. Isabella herself made some bad appointments that undermined Columbus’s command, the worst being when she chose Knight Commander Francisco de Bobadilla. When he arrived in Santa Domingo in 1500 he saw two Spaniards hanging from a gallows, executed by Columbus for their rebellion and crimes against the Indians. Columbus had intended their deaths to serve as an example to the rest of the colonists, and also to show the Indians that the rule of law applied to his own men. Upon arrival, Bobadilla immediately put Columbus in chains and imprisoned him. Then he sent him back to Spain in disgrace, while releasing all the rebel prisoners Columbus had jailed, and making common cause with them.

Columbus won back some measure of approval from the Spanish monarchs — thanks to Isabella who liked him — but he never fully recovered his standing after the outrage of the third voyage. Yet he became the symbol of all that went wrong in the Indies, while true monsters like Bobadilla, and his even worse successor Ovando, have been largely passed over. Governor Ovando’s massacre of Queen Anacaona and the Taino people (during Columbus’s fourth voyage) was especially treacherous. In the fall of 1503, the queen had welcomed Ovando with a feast, and Ovando responded to this honor by burning the Taino alive, running their children through with lances, and hanging Anacaona. Almost a year later, when Columbus returned to Santa Domingo (after being marooned on Jamaica for over a year), Ovando freed mutineers and punished all those who were loyal to Columbus. Columbus once again returned to Spain powerless over awful men who had displaced him.

Even the friar Bartholomew de las Casas, who began as a slave-owning colonizer in 1502, and then after 1514 spent decades as a repentant radical, actively fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples, viewed Columbus kindly in hindsight, and as a far better and just person than Bobadilla or Ovando or any of the governors and conquistadors who came after.

The Book of Prophecies

In the time between his third and fourth voyages (1501-1502), as he worked to clear his name from the Bobadilla episode, Columbus also devoted himself to writing the Libro de las profecias (the Book of Prophecies). Scholars tend to dismiss the book, as it disrupts their traditional view of Columbus as the “first modern man”, but Delaney gives it the spotlight it deserves: it shows what truly motivated Columbus.

There are massive amounts of quotes in the Libro from the Old Testament prophets, but also from the New Testament, Josephus, Augustine, and other church fathers. The Libro is nothing less than the “explicit and extensive expression of Columbus’s quest for the liberation of Jerusalem and the way he thought about his discoveries and his role in the fulfillment of Christian prophecy” (p 190). But it wasn’t published until 1892, and only in 1984 was the Latin translated into Spanish; only in 1992 were English-speaking translations made available.

It puts beyond doubt that from Columbus’ view, his (1) discovery of the islands and (2) conversion of the Indians had made possible two of the conditions necessary for Christ to return, but the third most important one — (3) the conquest of Jerusalem — remained the ultimate goal. In February 1502, he wrote a letter to Pope Alexander VI, saying that he (a) had located the Garden of Eden on his third voyage, (b) needed more priests to be sent to the new world to spread God’s word, and (c) must remind His Holiness that the whole enterprise had been taken with the purpose of obtaining gold to restore the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to the church.

In Delaney’s view, the Libro was

“a kind of literary gauntlet thrown down to the Spanish sovereigns with the hope that they would be persuaded by the logic of the signs that the end of the world was imminent. Columbus’s passion for the conquest of Jerusalem never ended. While his passion was most explicit in the Libro de las profecias, it had been there from the beginning, even if he had not quite understood how it would unfold. But once he had crossed the ocean and understood his discoveries within the wider Christian prophetic tradition, his passion grew stronger and more emphatic. It was a vision that would occupy him to the end of his life.” (p 201)

And it’s no wonder that Columbus felt betrayed upon returning from his fourth journey. He came back to find that Isabella had died (in November 1504), and with it all the friendship he had at the royal court. King Ferdinand (who never liked Columbus) stripped away most of Columbus’s privileges and hereditary titles that the crown had bestowed on him in 1492 (and had reinstated after the Bobadilla affair of the third voyage). The friar Bartholomew de las Casas, who began as a slave-owning colonizer in 1502, and then after 1514 committed his life to fighting slavery and colonial tyranny, wrote this (sometime in the 1520s or 1530s) of the king’s treatment of Columbus:

“As for King Ferdinand, I do not know why he was not only ungrateful in words and deeds but actually harmed Columbus whenever he could. It was believed that if, in good conscience and without losing face, he could have violated all the articles of the privileges that he and the Queen had justly granted him for his services, he would indeed have done so. I have never been able to ascertain the reason for this dislike and unkingly conduct toward one whose unparalleled service no other monarch ever received. Perhaps he was unduly impressed by the arguments and false testimonies of Columbus’s enemies and rivals.” (History of the Indies, pp 138-140)

But the king really knifed Columbus in the back by reneging on the quest for Jerusalem. He had never shared the apocalyptic zeal of Columbus or his wife, and so, with Isabella gone, instead of organizing a crusade he simply asked the Islamic sultan to protect the holy places in Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims. Columbus was outraged and — whatever we think today of crusades and apocalyptic dramas — rightly so.


This book changed some of my feelings for Columbus, but not by a great deal. I still think his legacy is overrated and that there’s no need for a holiday in his name. But I do appreciate him more as a man of his times, and as someone who has studied the crusades extensively, I join the chorus of endorsement of Delaney’s thesis. No scholar of the crusades thinks that crusaders were driven primarily by greed or colonial ambitions, and this book extends that idea based on Columbus’s clear passion for a “crusade that would end all crusades”.

That passion soon fizzled out. Soon after Columbus’s death (1506) came the Protestant Reformation and with it new spiritual battles. Apocalyptic hopes receded in Catholic thought, while in Protestant churches they revved up in new ways that had nothing to do with crusades. Columbus’ vision mutated; America, not Jerusalem, was now the place of redemption, and it would be around a long time for the plundering. Columbus is remembered more for the mutation of his vision, and Delaney’s book is a sort of Albert Schweitzer-like portrayal of the original man who “comes to us as one unknown”.

Reading Radar Update

Loren’s Recommendations

It’s my month to be featured on the Nashua Public Library’s Reading Radar (our staff pick display). I have some new recommendations, and I reproduce all my picks here on this blog, since I’ve reviewed many of them in the past, and supply the links at the end of the blurbs. Fiction and non-fiction alike are included in the following recommendations. (Click on the right image for my feature page on the library website.)

1. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks, 2013. A crusader enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and goes on a slaughter-mission, tearing up the city to find his lost wife. His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of abused children he rescues along the way. Full review here.

2. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon, 6 volume series, 1955-1960. George Martin calls this series the “original Game of Thrones”, and I can see why. It’s historical fiction (not fantasy) set in France (1314-1336), showing the downfall of the Capetian dynasty amidst self-serving ambitions. Endless family quarrels, clashes between church and throne, civil war, adultery, backbiting, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing, you name it.

3. Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. A book I wish everyone would read. The authors explore the tension between classical liberalism and woke postmodernism, and the differences between their approaches to social justice. They conclude that classical liberalism stands the test of time against the emptiness of woke theories. Full review here.

4. Veritas, by Ariel Sabar, 2020. A real-life conspiracy thriller, the true story of a pornographer who conned Harvard University into believing that a “gospel of Jesus’s wife” was genuine. This brilliant piece of investigative journalism was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Full review here.

5. The History of Jihad, by Robert Spencer, 2018. Featured front and center: the first book of its kind, that covers all theaters of the Islamic holy wars, starting with Muhammad and then proceeding through every century, showing how jihad has always been an essential ingredient of Islam. It even covers the jihads in India (usually hard information to come by). While there are many peaceful and moderate Muslims, there has never been a form of moderate Islam; it’s not a religion of peace, which is why disproportionate numbers of Muslims have been jihadists in every day and age. Full review here.

6. Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland, 2014. If you want a book that ranks the U.S. presidents who were good for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty (like Tyler and Harding), then read this book. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized (like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan), or who were charismatics, then get any of the mainstream rankings that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Full review here.

7. Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky & Howard Gillman, 2017. “We should prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” Sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — and these students are the future of our legislators and supreme court justices. If every college student read this book, it might go a long way to making strong thinkers again. Full review here.

8. Koko, by Peter Straub, 1988. A novel about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. An absolutely brilliant story, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. Full review (retrospective) here.

9. Boundaries of Eden, by Glenn Arbery, 2020. Last but not least, and in fact I’ll call it my #1 pick. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and examines the tormented mind of a serial killer. It’s that rare novel that does a bit of everything, very literary, and I didn’t want it to end.