BOOK REVIEW: “A Prophet of Peace” and Juan Cole’s New Historicism

I sometimes attend the Seattle Atheist Church on Sundays, and despite the many virtues that group has an organization and positive argument it makes by example for secular humanism, the fact that the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism movement were four white Anglo-American men reflects accurately the biases you’ll find in the atheism movement in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Anglosphere more generally.

Seattle’s atheist community is better than many other spaces I’ve seen, particularly in regards to gender and sexuality, but one element it continues to deal with is anti-Muslim racism.

“Race” is not a real thing and doesn’t hold up when subjected to critical analysis. West Africans and East Africans and South Africans have less DNA in common with one another than English do Japanese; sub-Saharan African people are as far removed from Andamanese, Aboriginal Australian, or Melanesians as any humans can be. Yet, all are socially black in the United States and all would be subject to the same racism.

Likewise, “Mexicans” are, strictly speaking, a nationality and an individual’s ancestry might ultimately be indigenous American, European, Afro-Caribbean, East Asian, North African or Middle Eastern, or every combination of these because La Raza Cosmica has been blending the people of the world for nearly half a millennium now.

Yet the 1930 U.S. Census had “Mexican” as a race prior to forcibly expelling hundreds of thousands of natural born U.S. citizens, and Fox News recently said the quiet part out loud in labeling several Central American nations as “Mexican countries“.ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_01-01

“You can’t be racist against Muslims because Islam is a religion, not a race” and yet people find a way to invent nonsensical racial categories like “African” or “black” then pseudo-science it up into “Negroid”. We’ve cleverly been racist against “Mexicans” even when they happen to be from Honduras and ethnically Lencan.

The important thing to remember about racism is that it’s always less about the sense it makes than the system of oppression it can slot a group into, and that’s true for people who are Muslim.

So in the late 1990s and early 2000s, fascist groups shifted from anti-Jewish rhetoric which was too obvious and easily called out to “anti-Zionist”; they also shifted to “anti-immigration”, and specifically to anti-Muslim talking points so as to be more socially acceptable while still accomplishing the same white nationalistic purpose.

Atheists and those on the Left who already were against the most aggressively theocratic and regressive elements of Islam could be coaxed into making common cause with white fascists based on the characterization that Islam, and all its adherents, were inherently and uniquely violent, misogynistic, and awful—that they posed a threat other religions, for all their flaws, just didn’t. A Muslim person was thus as inherently dangerous as any past racial group had been and could be regarded similarly.

I don’t say this from a place of smug superiority. It is something I still emotionally, irrationally feel. It’s something that due to my Southern Baptist upbringing and assertive atheism now, I find compelling in the gut but recognize is not there in a reasonable or satisfying way.

I’ve seen variants of “Islam is a religion of peace” at least ten times more often as racist trolling in response to a violent incident perpetrated by a person who is Muslim than I have asserted sincerely, and my mind is not so invulnerable that I won’t be affected by repetition even when I recognize it’s ironic and I recognize it’s not actually a joke.

Thus, any counter is useful to the propaganda received by bigoted cultural osmosis that portrays Islam and Muhammad as bloodthirsty and monstrous, particularly as a member of a country where our knowledge of geography is largely dependant on what we’re presently bombing.

What makes Juan Cole’s history slash biography slash textual criticism “Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires so valuable is that you walk away scratching your chin about how so much revisionism could have been accomplished in so little time, but largely because you eventually realize you had so little actual knowledge to begin with.

Cole has been described as erudite, but that mainly comes across in the broadness of his vocabulary. I do mean that actually and not as a backhanded criticism. He’s not the sort of author who would default to a latinate choice when something simpler would do. “Wending” sticks out as an example of the sort of word he uses that you can immediately suss the meaning of despite his use being your first experience to it.

In the same way that a better-read person might not be so impressed with Cole’s vocabulary, a person who knows already about the geopolitics of Late Antiquity might not be so blown away by Cole incorporating the ebbs and flows of what approached a world war into a history of someone living in the middle of it.

But this—plus Cole’s (I would call) supposition that Muhammad was literate and directly influenced by Greek philosophical ideas, by monotheisms, and by late pagan religions in the Near East during his time as an intermediate-distance trader—blows open a hole in the usual wall of received bigotry so that Cole can portray Muhammad as someone much more tolerant, forgiving, and peaceful than his contemporaries, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, or Persian-aligned pagan alike.

Now, all historians have to start with some assumptions for the story they plan to tell in order to make any sense. Cole chooses to give the Quran primacy in his characterization of Muhammad’s life, which is defensible and does make sense, but it also naturally allows a confirmation bias to creep in due to the absence of narrative context present.

The Quran is the most trustworthy document we have for understanding Muhammad’s teachings. The later recollections whether known as history or as hadiths ought to be judged, to greater or lesser degree, in relation to that document. To someone who is not already well-versed in Quranic scholarship, Cole makes a fine case for this approach, but that seems to allow him to toss out all things that don’t align with Cole’s One True Pairing of Muhammad and an interpretation of his teachings.

Islam: 632 CE

The quarter-century-long Byzantine-Sassanid War at the start of the seventh century is often brought up in the history of Islam but only in the most dismissive way. In the final apocalyptic battle between the Mediterranean Greco-Romans and the Persians of the Iranian Plateau, the blood and treasure of two empires gushed all upon Levantine dust to accomplish absolutely nothing for either power except mutual ruin.

The conflict is used to explain-away the rapid gains of the Rashidun Caliphate within 20 years of the death of the Prophet, but Cole’s book was the first time I had seen the wars examined to provide context for the factional politicking within the variously aligned Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina, or the effect of those events on the teachings of early Islam itself.

As Cole frames it, not considering this has been quite an oversight because Persia had vassal states all the way around the Arabian coast to Yemen, and as their fortunes rose throughout the war, so did their allies and vassals in the interior. Cole posits that Muhammad was closer to Christianity than Zoroastrianism and had more ties to the Byzantine Empire than the Sassanids, meaning his brand of unitarian monotheism encompassing Judaism, the various extant Christianities, and his own syncretic religion became endangered when the Sassanid-allied pagans were emboldened by their patrons’ own success against the empire of Christianity crumbling before them.

Using some circumstantial evidence from the biography of Muhammad, passages in the Quran similar to stories in other traditions, and a bit of what’s known in fandoms as “headcanon”, Cole also constructs a retroactive continuity where Muhammad was multilingual and very literate to explain how he grabbed certain threads from other religious traditions in his area to weave them and newer ideas into what would become Islam.

To be clear, Cole is not saying he’s engaging in headcanon; his explanation is exactly the opposite, but there are many questions that lie beyond the scope of history to actually decipher; American Christian New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman gives the example of what his grandfather ate for breakfast on a particular day, and the historical Muhammad is mostly beyond our ability to definitively describe.

This reading is useful because it manages to be plausible and to cut against the biases of Western Christendom and its various heretics. It gives another possible vision of the early community of believers who surrounded Muhammad and what true Islam could have meant and therefore could mean.

Cole claims that the generation immediately following Muhammad’s death were bedouins less attracted to Muhammad’s specific teachings than the unity and possibility for military plunder his movement provided. Which I don’t think says anything damning about those teachings but doesn’t especially argue for their divine revelation, either. In the West, even atheists tend to be much more forgiving of later generations of Christendom in their embrace of “Just War” than the religion that sprung up watching Christendom do so while choosing to be better in comparison.

The other day at the Seattle Atheist Church, there was a presentation on the Euston Manifesto created in 2006, and the most startling thing about it in retrospect was just how badly its defense of the invasion of Iraq has aged. British journalist Nick Cohen eventually worked it up into a full-length book called What’s Left?, and, like that manifesto, goes full-in defending the Anglo-American military adventurism in Mesopotamia that seems to have accomplished little of benefit for anyone except Iran and terrorist organizations like the Islamic State.

A more refined critic will notice how much time the Manifesto spends criticizing and warning of the dangers of Islam in particular while white supremacy gets not a peep—nor, for that matter, is global warming regarded as a priority for a united left.

doesnt look like anything to me

So in the mid-Aughts, this group of self-defined leftist academics, journalists and activists considered the 5 percent of all Muslim people in the United Kingdom inherently dangerous and a threat to democracy by virtue of their private religion. Meanwhile a few years later, UKIP got nearly 4 million active voters and 12.6 percent of the vote in 2015, and in 2016, Brexit got an outright majority.

Perhaps the strain of the so-called left focused on the threats caused by Muslim immigrants was based on something other than the inherent danger of the people belonging to that religion. Perhaps the fact that in the Year of Our Lord 2019, Sam Harris still can say that “white supremacy doesn’t look like anything to me” after calling Islam particularly troublesome and immune to the normal rules of thermonuclear politics, ought to tell you something.

In nearly a millennia and a half, Islam has never been close to destroying European civilization.

In a decade and a half, fascism nearly did.

In a political actuarial sense, it might be worth considering that and behaving accordingly.

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