“Islam is evil”. “No! Islam is peace”: The fallacy of the ‘scripturegnosis’ argument


The debate, despite enlightenment and modernization, remains the same as that which Dante advocated in the Divine Comedy: is Islam evil or a religion of peace? On one side of the argument, and siding with Dante, is Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician and self-declared ‘Islamophobe’ in the real meaning of the word (fearing Islam as religion). Of course, for both Dante and Wilders (who is facing trial in his own country), Islam and the Qur’an are, in the very words of Wilders, ‘bad’ and ‘evil’. Wilders also used adjectives such as ‘retarded’, ‘fascist’ and ‘anti-democratic’ – thus dangerous and worthy of being banned. Different variations on a theme of ‘Islam is evil’ can also be found in the work of several authors, for example Robert Spencer, Bat Ye’or and Magdi Allam among many others.

On the other side of the debate, it is not difficult to find commentators and scholars who are ready to affirm exactly the opposite: “Islam is a religion of peace” as the religion’s name, Islam, implies. Among the most prominent, beyond the politically-correct politicians (such as Bush and Blair), there are scholars such as Esposito and Pescatori among a long list of names.  These authors accept the traditional position that Islam, as a religion, is based on love, peace and respect for human life and freedom, while rejecting terrorism and injustice, as any other faith. Hence, those who commit atrocities in name of Islam are at best misguided or, at worst, traitors and impostors.

‘Who is right?’, a student once asked me after I presented a lecture on the topic. My answer of ‘None of them!’ came as a surprise to many. Some of the reasons for my response can be found in my recent books (particularly The Anthropology of Islam and Understanding Muslim Identity: Rethinking Fundamentalism). Yet in this post I wish to emphasize some points which, in books devoted to different topics, may have been lost.

So, why are both positions wrong? Let me say that the reason may be found in a fallacy that I have started to call scripturegnosis. It sounds a bit like the name of a disease, and although it is not, it is still very pernicious and has been with us for a very long time.  It is linked to strong forms of ‘culturalism’, in which the culture, as a symbolic object, is supposed to be capable of shaping and controlling the human mind. Scripturegnosis refers to the idea that a text may be able to control the individual and collective behavior of those whom see it as an inspirational or holy text. In our case, scripturegnosists will hold that something called “Islam” exists per-se as a result of its texts, particularly the Qur’an in this case. Indeed,  it is not a surprise that Wilders asked for the ban of the Qur’an (compared to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf).

As Muslims are presumed to be controlled by the Qur’an, banning the offending text should do much to ‘resolve the problem.’  Others have suggested, less radically but no less controversially, that passages or pages considered ‘offensive’ by ‘western standards’ should instead be removed. However, as I was discussing above, scripturegnosists are also those whom believe that a religious holy text, in this case the Qur’an, can be ‘peaceful’ by default – and thus interpretations can be judged against the text so that the culprits can be easily spotted.  Both positions de-humanize people, reducing the complexity of the human brain to a passive receptacle of symbols and pre-set meanings.

Robert Spencer, in his cunning – yet flawed beyond repair – book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) has noticed:

Contrary to what many secularists would have us believe, religions are not entirely determined (or distorted) by the faithful over time. The lives and words of the founders remain central, no matter how long ago they lived. The idea that believers shape religion is derived, intended from fashionable 1960 philosophy of deconstructionism, which teaches that written words have no meaning other than that given to them by the reader. Equally important, it follows that if the reader alone finds meanings, there can be no truth (and certainly no religious truth). One person’s meaning is equal to another’s. (p.3)

Yet it is not ‘secularism’ or ‘deconstructionism’ that provides the strongest argument against the idea that holy texts speak by themselves, but rather neurology and cognitive science. Our brain, memory and sensory system interpret and alter the reality around us. Emotions, feelings and personal Self modify and make one’s own the circumstantial realities, and among these realities are texts, particularly ‘holy’ ones. Indeed, to illustrate, a person needs only to have some particular parts of his or her brain damaged, and depending upon the area affected, interpretations of texts (both the ‘holy’ and the ordinary) may be significantly altered. Whoever has had the sad experience of knowing somebody affected by Alzheimer’s knows this fact all too well.

Muslims, as any other believers, read (presuming those who read beyond passive recitation) and understand the Qur’an according to their individual psychological and environmental realities that fully influence, together with local traditions and superstitions, their understanding of the text.  Even within the same tradition, there exist as many interpretations of the Qur’an as there are readers. Indeed, if the Qur’an were to exert any ‘influence’ upon people, it could only be by means of the trust placed in a religious leader or theologian rather than in the book itself – influence, then, can only ever be purely mediated.

Indeed, following strong scientific findings (see, if you want to know more, for instance James D. Laird), reading a text (for instance a passage of the Qur’an) with a forced smile or frown will change how the person makes sense of the passage. Even the position of the body can influence the understanding of the text. This means that believers, particularly those of unstructured religions such as Islam, are prone to personal exegesis of both the text and religion in general (see my last book, Faith, Ideology and Fear). In this case, the leader, or the charismatic figure, often becomes a point of reference and his or her exegesis reaches many and may be followed (as long as it is accepted as correct). Yet even in this case, the followers, although unconsciously, will tend to follow the charismatic preacher who matches their own, albeit unexpressed, psychological world views and ideology.

Hence, those authors and commentators – whether academics or not – who believe in scripturegnosis inevitably and unwittingly end in becoming ‘theologians’ of the religion they are trying to explain!  They engage in the same practice that the believers engage in and, although inadvertently, provide their own exegesis. An ironic example is Robert Spencer’s commentary to the Qur’an which, from an anthropological viewpoint, is no different to, for instance,  Qutb’s own tasfir (i.e. commentary of the Qur’an). Spencer, as many others who even oppose him, end up debating theology instead of observing “Islam” as it is lived today – something that can only be done by ‘observing’ how some humans ‘feel to be’ Muslim in the circumstances and context they are living in (Marranci 2008).

So finally, to the question, ‘is Islam evil or not’?  I can answer, regardless of whether or not you are a Muslim yourself, ‘is YOUR Islam good or evil?’

Gabriele Marranci

20 thoughts on ““Islam is evil”. “No! Islam is peace”: The fallacy of the ‘scripturegnosis’ argument

  1. Hi Prof,

    Can I take it that you are arguing against cultural determinism and emphasizing on the individual’s subjectivity? In which this subjectivity is affected by factors like one’s own experience of the social world and one’s physiological and psychological states?

    It seems to me that if we were to view the question from this perspective, then the Qur’an does not embody any absolute, objective truth?

    Yq

  2. although i strongly agree with the thought of prof. that you have to look into yourself to find out what kind of islam you are folowing whether it is good or evil but one thing probably prof is unaware of and that is he writes islam as an unstructured religion which islam is not. Islam is the only religion on earth which describes and presents complete legal system. Islamic jurisprudence is which describes how tha society should work than society deciding on how the religion should be followed.

    morris

  3. People react to varying layers of pressure. Some of these pressures may be internal and others external. Perhaps these pressures relate to a need for stability?

    I think your work and others before you, is heading in the right direction by bringing it all back to the individual by understanding as an individual. At least, that is how I have interpreted your writing.

    – Sleiman Azizi

  4. Dear Alfred,
    Thanks for your comment. I am sure that you have understood my argument. Of course, if I am right (and if what we call science is right, though of course lots of people still reject any scientific discourse) there is nothing called “Muslim culture” (or for that matter, Christian, Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu and so on) in itself. Without context, the sentences you have copied above are meaningless – and the context is: first the human brain (i.e. individual) who reads and makes sense of them; the group which shares one or more individual interpretations as normative (and there are always differences within groups as well); the historical context; the environment; the interconnections and dynamics of personal and social identities as well as the difference between diffuse and personal charisma.
    So, yes I confirm that without context, and particularly individual brains and minds, the above sentences from the Qur’an and Hadiths have no modifying power over ‘cultures’ – just, as for instance, the following quotes from Holy books have no power to modify ‘culture’

    A man may sell his daughter, but a woman may not sell her daughter.

    Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 23a, Soncino 1961 Edition, page 115

    Or, just to quote, the Bible:
    From Exodus 21:
    21:7 And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.
    21:15 And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.
    21:24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
    21:28 If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit.

    And this may suggest that the sacrifice of virgin children were much loved by the Christian God? According to your argument, we have to conclude that this also had an effect on what you may call “Judeo-Christian culture”. I reject such a de-contextuaised way of understanding the relationship between people, texts and religion.

    It is impossible to read a text without also interpreting it. A person cannot be objective by nature, and so he or she applies interpretations and will also be influenced by states of mind which are mostly unconscious and yet control very much how the text is read.

    I hope that this clarifies my point.
    Best wishes
    Gabriele

  5. The story of Jeptha’s daughter illustrates the unwisdom of making rash vows, it is not about celebrating the sacrifice of the girl. At least that’s what my old Sunday school teacher said.

    And in the islamic world, how many daughters are sacrificed today, hmmm?

  6. Gabriele
    I appreciate your reply, and have taken a second and third look at what you wrote. I find my world in most instances to chaotic to attribute “first cause” to any “event”, especially relating to human behavior. That still leaves me with an observation[maybe wrong] that despite the interpretation given to any given passage of scripture there exists the possibility that that scripture will have some form of actualization. Having grown up in a rather cultish fundamentalist Mennonite group I am very aware of how unique scriptural interpretations can be and what strange and contradictory behaviors can result from them.

    I am puzzled by comments like “A person cannot be objective by nature”. Is that not an objective statement?

    alf

  7. Lovely article.

    I’ve passed it on to our group’s FB page so more people can have a look. Seeing as we spend a huge amount of time explaining to people who come and say “Islam is evil!” that no, some people do evil things and some people do good things, and some people are Muslim and some aren’t, and there is no monopoly over evil acts, it is spread throughout humanity.

  8. Dear Prof,
    I apologise if I sound too informal or uninformed but here is what I think:
    By stating that something is either evil or even peaceful, is it not assuming that everyone agrees on what is considered evil and what is considered peaceful? What is your definition or what do you mean by evil? Or peace for that matter? Is not the opposite to evil good? And Peaceful, violence? So the use of the terms is bit weird?
    I don’t understand why people have to choose between good and evil. The idea that good and evil and co-exists within one vessel is something that confuses us at times, but it is a reality.
    I remember doing a course on Jesus and the Millenarian movement, (don’t know who wrote it because it was a long time ago), but basically the idea was that Jesus was not a prophet of peace but a Military man. Is that not also violence? And if so…and violence is the same as evil. Then is that not evil as well?

  9. From the most conservative data available at least around 10% of Muslims either actively participate in, contribute to, or support violent Jihad for the purpose of establishing a global Caliphate.
    That’s at least 100,000,000 people on a bad day.

    Until Muslims stop this ridiculous double speak of peace, especially when peace to many Muslims has traditionally been a peace when a place is under Sharia law. The places not under Sharia law are labeled the “Land’s of War.” You know this, and don’t go on about the fact that it doesn’t say that in the Koran, because everyone knows that there are more books that contribute to Islam than the Koran. The fact that you know this and you still go on with the double speak is telling everyone that you are a lair. You may be lying for a good reason, but you’re still lying.
    I personally don’t care what you personally believe, because over a hundred million of your brethren don’t. These are not matters of opinion or moralizing, they are cold, hard facts. Until you, and other Muslims, deal with this and admit that you have a very radical corp of people at the center of your religion, then you will never have credibility beyond a few easily gullible academics, and social elites that will believe anything you tell them as long as it involves people in the “west” being idiots and bigots.

    I’m not a Christian. Personally, they annoy me, but that’s all fundamentalists Christians do, they annoy other people. They don’t kill other people for talking openly about Christianity. There is a reason that the South Park writers have been able to make fun of ever single religion but Islam. If they did, they would be killed and they know this. Also, don’t even try to say that there are actually violent Christians that kill people, because there are. They are an extreme minority though, and there is zero public support of them in any society. If one kills an abortion doctor, they are condemned to life in prison, they aren’t thrown a parade.

    Again, I don’t give a shit what anyone’s holy books say, I care about what people do. Christians don’t stone people for adultery even though it’s in their bible, Muslim do. Until you all come to terms with the reality of the situation and take your heads out of book, no one will take you seriously. They may pretend to do so to avoid an awkward situation in public, but privately they will still support the military suppression of Islamist expansion.

  10. It never ceases to amaze me that in this era of enlightenment which has given us universal education, technologies our grandparents couldn’t imagine, medicines that have extended and prolonged our lives and much else that people’s lives are dominated by wwhat are essentially fairy stories. Empiricism has been proven time and time again to be the only real belief system we need. Religious beliefs and philosophy played a part before we had science. They have no role to play in a modern sociaety that aims at fairness and must be consigned to the same place we put the man in the moon, dragons, krakens and the fairies at the bottom of your garden.

  11. Dear Prof. Marranci

    Unfortunately, Many aspects of Islam are misunderstood by non-Muslims; due to ignorance, misinformation, and incorrect assumptions. Today, Islam is surrounded by many misconceptions.

    It is unmerited to Judge Muslims and Islam based on the actions of those who commit terrible crimes against Innocent people “as proof of the violent nature of Islam and Muslims.”

    I believe understading peoples religions is important for peaceful co-existence. And seeking knowledge is a good way to achieve that, rather than relying on incorrect assumptions and misconceptions.

    If you would like to understand Islam, you are welcome to visit the following links:

    Discover the truth about Islam

    http://theradiantlight.blogspot.com/

    Islam religion

    http://www.islamreligion.com/

    Prophet Jesus and Muhammad (Peace be upon them) in the Holy Quran and Previous Scriptures

    http://theradiantlight.blogspot.com/2009/12/common-questions-asked-and-their.html

    Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him)

    http://www.rasoulallah.net/v2/index.aspx?lang=en

    Thank you

    ……………………………………..

    “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (The Holy Quran, Al-Baqarah 2:256).

  12. As one who has studied the Quran and Islam, as well as living in the Middle East, I decided to inject my opinion. I would say the author is slightly off on his final verdict that neither interpretation is correct and instead say both! The Quran is a poorly worded and sometimes incoherent. Mohammed wrote or had it scribed very much based off his mood and needs and its ultimate authenticity cannot even be confirmed due to the poor historical records of its origins, which amount to little more than legend. It encouraged peace to promote unity among the arab tribes and establish Mohammed’s empire. It encouraged violence against anyone that opposed. When followed centuries later, Muslims are left with conflicting text of do’s and dont’s (some of which Mohammed himself ignored). Their statement that it is the last book of God is false, as they need the hadiths to clarify the Quran and then need a tafsir as well.

    A tree will be known by its fruits. Look at the state of the most populated Muslim countries, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, etc. Look at Saudi Arabia, the home to Islam’s beginnings. The idea of culture shaping Islam is somewhat true. However, Islam will morph whatever culture it dominates. Where it is a minority, you will see the peaceful aspects as either the individual has adopted freer thought or been taught a more watered down version of Islam.

    Ultimately it is wrong to judge the Quran by cherry picking select verses from it. It should be seen as a whole. As a whole, all it really amounts to is one very flawed man’s attempts to bring a people (and himself) to greatness by using his exclusive “power” to hear God. While I might find Islam and the Quran to not be of any worth, that speaks nothing of the people. Muslims are of no less value in my heart than any other and are loved by me along with all my fellow men.

  13. Pingback: C L O S E R » Blog Archive » Wilders on Trial VII – The dissensus ritual

  14. how can you not believe religion induces human behavior? what if that religion is political and control all aspects of life as Islam does? how can you ignore that ALL places where Muslims live have secessionist movements to turn to the purest of Islam and marginalize non Muslims? dont u see the partitiion of India into E & W Pakistan, and how all non Muslims have been driven out so that Pakistan can be a real “land of the pure”. I think you are a very idealistic person, with very little perception of Islam. I believe you lack the nuances to even perceive Islam, or is simply a pretentions obfuscator.

    • Dear Deepak,
      I understand that even simple concepts may be sometimes difficult to understand.

      Think of how long it took to accept that it was not the sun that revolved around planet earth but the opposite! You are among the majority (and there are also scholars indeed, see for instance Geertz or even Gellner) whom strongly believe that ‘culture’, ‘religion’ or ‘texts’ can control the behavior of human beings per se.

      Of course, such determinism would make any neuroscientist laugh since they can explain to you that you need a mind, an autobiographical self and other elements within your brain to actually engage with the external world and you engage in a way that it is peculiar to you.This is the same for all humans, Muslims too.

      So the same text that you and I may read
      will have different effects which are also based on our personal memories, social experiences and so on.

      I am sorry but “Islam” per-se, as I have often written upsetting some scholars, does not exist and to continue to affirm the contrary is to insult what science tells us. Something that some anthropologists and sociologists have done quite often since the 1960s.

      Your question of why all Muslim countries are in trouble (yet many countries in Southeast Asia are not in trouble and the majority of Muslims are from this region, not the Arab world) can be explained by many factors, in particular history, colonialism, and economic and educational problems that you may prefer not to see in order to concentrate on a very simple solution: the illusion that ‘religion’— as doctrine and teaching— can actually explain complex social political and cultural aspects of life (this is more or less like to believe that the sun goes around the earth only because your eyes suggest that).

      Maybe as many, you will continue to believe that religion (i.e a cultural complex function) makes, shapes and constructs all Muslims in this world more than genes, cells, neurons, psychological dimensions, memories and so forth. What is the reason often for such insistence in a faulty reasoning? Well, as I will explain in my forthcoming book is that many people perceive Muslims not as human beings, like you and me, but rather as cultural objects defined by their own culture.

      This idea was strongly rooted in the ‘missionary’ aspect of the West as a ‘civilizer’. Today, for many factors (including mass migration from Muslim countries to Europe and the Middle East issues) this idea is back and strong, so much that we start to have the first new wave of white Christians— believing to be crusaders— supremacists.

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