Why Pastor Jones (together with similarly minded people) believes in tautological Islam

I have no doubt that during the forthcoming “International Burn a Quran Day”, on the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the pages of many Qur’ans, probably in translation, will meet fire. Fanatics, such as Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center, Florida, whom planned the event, will celebrate their quite pagan ritual of purification through fire of what they see as a demonic religion which is “causing billions of people to go to hell”.  They will be unaware that, in reality, they ‘share’ aspects of Islam with millions of others.  They, in a certain sense, are ‘crypto-Muslims’.

Burning a copy (presumably in translation) of the Qur’an may appear to some to be a courageously defiant act that is aimed to offend Muslims. Nonetheless, if it happens to be a person’s deep desire to watch copies of the Qur’an burn, there is no need to wait for the 9/11 anniversary book burning – just visit Singapore!  Yes, in this city of religious harmony and strict control over possible religiously heated controversy, Qur’ans are regularly burnt. The culprits? Muslims.

As I have personally witnessed more than once recently, at al Istighfar mosque for instance, Arabic as well as translated copies of the Qur’an have met fire. Muslims, at least some within the Shafi’i school of thought, burn the Qur’an to dispose of the copies (although other Muslims disagree with this system).

Pastor Terry Jones and those who follow him in this ritual, which they likely feel to be cathartic on some level, are in reality performing what some Muslims would see as a correct action: properly disposing of copies of the Qur’an that they do not want. In other words, the offensive nature of Pastor Jones’ book burning party would lose much of its intended punch amongst some Muslims, including many who live in Singapore.

Anthropologically speaking, I find this ironic situation a perfect example of how  many Americans, Australians, and Europeans today construct the discourse of Islam and form their epistemologies about it. If we analyze both the “International Burn a Quran Day” together with the many polemic arguments over the (not in) Ground Zero mosque in New York, we may find some strong epistemological similarities between the discourse of Islam these people propose and the discourse of Islam that some Muslim extremists propose. The people involved in these actions embrace the idea that Islam is a ‘thing’, or better, a conceptual phenomenon representing a material reality.

Consequently, these individuals think that attacking what they perceive as prominent symbols of Islam, such as the Qur’an, mosques and minarets, or protesting and parading with dogs and pigs, may have a nearly magical, exorcising and  ‘desecrating ’ power against that ‘thing’ Islam, which in their minds symbolizes evil incarnate.

This kind of discourse is more common than we can imagine; the reason being that we are still educated since childhood to think within a faulty epistemology, as Gregory Bateson noticed in the 1950s. Indeed, in his last book he wrote

Language continually asserts by the syntax of subject and predicate that “things” somehow “have” qualities and attributes. A more precise way of talking would insist that the “things” are produced, are seen as separate from other “things”, and are made “real” by their internal relationship and by their behavior in relationship with other things and with the speaker (pp. 67)

What Bateson, through this example, wished to emphasise is that ‘things’ do not have qualities per-se. They are not ‘agent’ in themselves, but rather they are produced within a dynamic of relationships, both internally and with other “things” of the same category, as well as with the actor or agent ‘making’ them in the process.

Islam, as a “thing”, does not have, of course, qualities and attributes, since it can only be produced (for Muslims of course, by God, and for others maybe by the devil or by humans). Islam is different from other realities (such as “peace”, “war”, “violence”, “terrorism” or even “shari’a”) and it is made ‘real’ only through the way in which people make sense of it, both in thought and action.  This means that Pastor Jones and its followers become, in a certain sense, akin to Muslims themselves, albeit per negationem, since they engage in ‘making’ Islam, in believing that Islam is a ‘thing’, and thus ‘defining’ Islam.

But what kind of ‘Islam’ do these people make? To use prototypes to illustrate, both bin-Laden (the terrorist) and Pastor Jones (the Qur’an barbecuer) not only share the fact that they believe that Islam ‘has’ qualities and attributes in an active form, but they also express it through the same system: connecting description and explanation through tautology.

Tautology, in the simplest terms, states that ‘if P is true, then P is true’. In other words, as Bateson explains, ‘all that the tautology affords is connections between prepositions. The creator of the tautology stakes his reputation on the validity of those connections’ (Bateson, p. 77). Tautology contains no information whatever and the explanation which derives from it contains only information provided by the description.

If we look carefully on how, for instance, bin-Laden and Pastor Jones describe and explain Islam we can easily recognize a tautology. Indeed, the basis of what Pastor Jones says is, ‘If Islam is evil, then Islam is evil’ and for bin-Laden the message is ‘if Islam is Jihad, then Islam is jihad’. Logically we can consider both of them, alongside the many whom make Islam through the same epistemological processes, strong believers in tautological Islam.

Unfortunately, among the many versions and traditions existing of Islam, this is definitely the emptiest.

15 thoughts on “Why Pastor Jones (together with similarly minded people) believes in tautological Islam

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  1. Dear Dr. Marranci,

    I must say I too, am eagerly waiting for Mr Professionally Skilled Person’s response. Perhaps he has grown bored of mingling with us ‘commoners’ and ‘unskilled people’ and proceeded to other writings which satisfy his highly skilled nature.. perhaps even Pastor Jone’s books set his pulse racing.


  2. You’re an idiot.
    If Pastor Terry is wrong for linking all Islam with terrorism, then how are you right by linking his act aimed at all Muslims as being neutered by the old Qur’an disposal methods used by a few Muslims, yet contested by other Muslims?

    The disposal choices of a few Muslims negates the actions of a non-Muslims aimed directly at all Muslims?

    Well, it works as long as you define all Muslims by the actions of just a few. That would appear to be how both you and Pastor Terry think…

    1. Dear professional skilled person (i.e. non ἰδιώτης)

      thanks for your comment, which, however, seems to be quite confused and irrelevant to the debate.

      You have confused very much Pastor Jones’ intention (maybe you have never read his book and papers ). So, we can start from this:

      1) Pastor Terry Jones does not link directly Muslims to Terrorism. He, as he has written, thinks that Islam, as an ontological entity, is evil since it was revealed by the devil to a false prophet. From here, of course, comes all the rest of his rhetoric. He has nothing against Muslims per-se (as many of his fans in reality have). He sees Muslims as ‘victims’ to be saved (of course by imposing Jesus maybe with missiles and bombs, following the old tradition of Mediaeval Christianity, where the sword represented, to the non-Christians, the message of Jesus more than Jesus’ gospel) .

      2) Jones’ intention, hence, was not aimed at Muslims, but Islam and from here comes my post.

      3) Very few Muslims contest that burning unwanted and damaged copies of the Qur’an is offensive to them and Islam. Indeed, actually, since this practice is the most common among the Southeast Asian Muslims, I leave to you the computation of where the majority of Muslims are.

      4)Epistemologically, the action of burning the Qur’an as an act against the sentiment of Muslims derives from the fact that many Christians would perceive it as offensive to burn the Bible.

      5) I was focusing on how Pastor Jones and people whom think of Islam as an ontological ‘thing” end in a ‘tautology’ in one way or another. But I suppose, for such a professionally skilled person, this is a too simplistic argument to be grasped.

      Then since in ancient Greek “idiot’ means: “a person whom lacks professional skills”, I would like to read here your arguments, since from the above it seems that you have quite few.

      Best wishes

  3. To those that don’t quite understand the point, I believe, and perhaps Dr. Marranci can correct me if I’ve misunderstood, is that this is a classic case of making a mountain out of a molehill. This pastor thinks that burning copies of the Qur’an will somehow offend Muslims and Islam, yet it is a fact that burning the Qur’an is considered by many Muslims, scholars and laymen alike, as one of the acceptable methods of disposing of unwanted copies of the Qur’an or papers with Qur’anic verses written on them. So while the pastor’s intent behind the act is offensive, the actual act might not necessarily be.

    Dr. Marranci also makes it a point to mention that more than likely, the copies that will be burned in the coming days will be mere translations of the Qur’an. I find this a very subtle but very relevant point, because to the Qur’an only exists in Arabic. Translations of the text into other languages or even Arabic versions of the Qur’an that contain exegesis are not considered to be actual “Qur’ans”, but mere books of exegesis or interpretations of the Qur’an’s texts.

  4. nice. *clicks subscribe to rss*

    Not sure if you know this, but burning the Qur’an (or the mus-haf to be precise) is not just done in Singapore as the means of disposal, rather it’s the standard means of disposal for Muslims worldwide. In Saudi Arabia [where I believe, after the establishment of the Qur’an Printing Complex, the majority of the masaahif (plural of mus-haf) in the world are printed] burning old, damaged, or unwanted (for whatever reason) masaahif is the normal and preferred means of disposal.

    Actually, the khaleefah ‘uthmaan, Prophet Muhammad’s son in law, and the 3rd leader of the Muslims after him, when he saw the need to produce standardized copies of the mus-haf, he burned, yes burned the unauthorized copies, and all of the (surviving) Companions of Prophet Muhammad were in agreement with him

    So me personally, if I were anywhere near this protest, I would set up a booth and sell a copy to everyone who wants (of course though, for a hefty raise), then use the profits accordingly…maybe for the flood relief effort in Pakistan, or maybe to help fund those trying educate people about Islam. I hope the Islamic bookshops there are milking these xenophobes for all it’s worth.

    Clearly though, this is an act designed to incite. And undoubtedly, many Muslims might take the bait. I just hope that it doesn’t incite un-Islamic behaviour. Then surely, they would have succeeded.

    1. Thanks. It was an attempt to provide a new discussion. I think that the problem with ‘religion’ today is how ‘religion’ is conceptualized in some instances. Of course, what I have written in this post can be applied to any other case of religion or even non-religious element. How much, today, we tend to think ‘tautologically’?

  5. Prof. Marranci, thank you for this insightful article, though I’m having trouble following you in your last paragraphs, from the part where you argue that they are giving expression to their Islam by “connecting description and explanation through tautology”.

    I don’t have the specifics on Terry Jones’ approach to understanding Islam, but I do know Bin Laden actively engages and draws upon historical strands of thought within the Sunni tradition. In a sense, he’s part – albeit on the very fringes – of an ongoing intra-Islamic debate on the use and legitimacy of violence in specific circumstances.

    And actually I suspect people like Jones also base their description of Islam on a reading of the Qur’an coupled with a reading of Muslim history and an interpretation of the acts and words of a small group of Muslims (such as Bin Laden). Now perhaps (or obviously) the conclusions people like Jones draw are untenable as anthropological description or analysis, but does that mean their understanding of Islam is tautological or that it “contains no information whatever and the explanation which derives from it contains only information provided by the description”? I can’t help thinking that answering that question with ‘yes’ is doing the likes of especially Bin Laden and (maybe) Jones not enough justice – even though one disagrees with them.

    To sum up, I don’t “easily recognize a tautology” when I look at the way Bin Laden (and Jones) describe Islam. I easily recognize that they draw upon readings of Muslim history and Muslim texts to posit a reading of Islam that suits their specific needs and goals (from mobilizing a group against a perceived enemy to driving a wedge between Muslim minorities and the society in which they reside). Maybe I’m misreading you and you’ll say what I ‘describe’ here simply is tautological Islam, but then my question would be: What is (an example of) a non-tautological (description of) Islam in your view? Who (and where) are the people who are not “strong believers in tautological Islam”?

    Thank you in advance.

    1. Dear Zack,
      thank you for your comment and occasion to further explain this point.
      The ‘tautological Islam’ is linked to what I have explained before in the post. First of all, what are we discussing here? The answer is, epistemology. That is, the way in which humans make sense of knowledge, or, in Bateson’s terms, how we know things through ideas. So, in this post I have tried to understand how bin-Laden or Pastor Jones, for example, form their ‘epistemological’ perception of Islam. During the discussion, I have suggested that the word ‘Islam’ is often discussed as an ontological material element (i.e. Islam is good, Islam is evil, and so on) capable of action (Islam does this, Islam inspires that, and so on).
      Of course this is not the case. Islam, as a thing, is an ‘idea’ (which of course for Muslims is formed in the mind of God).
      Ideas, at least in the case of humans, are products of assumptions.
      Now, we have to ask what, for instance, two very different individuals such as bin-Laden and Pastor Jones may share. I think that I will not be wrong in saying that they are strong believers in what they believe. In the case of Islam, at least, both strongly, and without any doubt believe in their conceptualization of it, i.e. their own ‘description’ of Islam. They may have formed it through their own reading of the history of Islam or the Qur’an, but in any case this reading will be constructed through the lens of their emotional state of mind.
      Here lies the tautology: both bin-Laden and pastor Jones (but they are just examples) start from their own description of Islam and, based on it, they select their examples. Their way of thinking is, in a certain sense, equivalent to the formula ‘if P is true, then P is true’, which is a tautology. Hence the reason for which I called it ‘tautological Islam’.
      I assume, that non-tautological thinking is when a person is able to say ‘if P is true, then p may be untrue’. In the case of Islam, or any other religion, it means to allow the possibility that what we believe to be totally true may be so only because of how we ‘made’ sense of it.
      I hope that this may help

  6. So now you have made this lengthy point about “tautological Islam”. I guess you are equating Terry Jones with Bin Laden?
    You write that in Singapore Muslims burn unwanted (probably old or damaged) Qur’ans. Is there a point to this?

    1. Dear Salomon,
      Thank you for your comment.
      Actually, nowhere do I compare Pastor Jones with Mr Bin Laden. I think that they are very different, other than for the fact that they strongly believe to posses an ultimate truth beyond any doubt.
      I doubt also that Pastor Jones will incite any form of violence; although his behavior can provoke others to commit violence.
      What I have tried to explain here is a process, which in this case involves, as a religion, Islam, but which of course can be applied to other aspects of epistemology.

      As far as the Qur’an is concerned, the point is that much of the actions to ‘stop’ Islam or ‘offend’ Islam (and notice how just saying ‘offend’ Islam does not make logical sense, since Islam cannot be offended, only people can) are based on a Judeo-Christian-centric view of what can ‘offend’ a religion.

      1. ” ..much of the actions to ‘stop’ Islam or ‘offend’ Islam .. are based on a Judeo-Christian-centric view of what can ‘offend’ a religion…”

        I don’t believe it is totally accurate to speak of a Judeo-Christian-centric view as opposed to an Islamic view. Islam and traditional Judaism are very similar in many regards, such as dietary laws and laws of daily life, segregation of the sexes, etc. In other aspects, such as belief in heaven and hell, Islam and Christianity have a great deal in common. And, of course, Christianity and Judaism do intersect in many ways.

        The method of disposing of old and unusable Qur’ans is a particularity of Islam, not representing a distinct “view”. Muslims will be offended by the burning of new Qur’ans, most especially if they are Arabic versions.

        You will probably be offended by my comment, but I would say that Muslim death threats and violence in the face of cartoons and writings do invite this sort of thing. People like Terry Jones are saying we will not be intimidated by Muslim histrionics. While I believe strongly that religion should emphatically not be offended, Muslims will need to take a more modern approach and put aside their homicidal tantrums.

      2. Dear Salmon, Dear Salomon,
        I think you have not understood what I was trying to say in that point. I am saying that the attempt to ‘offend’ Islam by people like Pastor Jones, is methodologically speaking, mirrored on what they believe would ‘offend’ their own religion or in general the Judeo-Christian traditions.
        So, clearly I was not opposing one tradition against the other (I even do not believe that ‘religions’ as such exist but rather only as ‘practices’). As far as the burning of the Qur’an is concerned, some Muslims will be offended, others will not, as you can read on some of the comments left below.
        This is my point, minarets do not mean very much for Muslims, or at least traditionally they did not. Indeed, the idea of a ‘mosque’ as we have today is just the result of an ‘imagination’. Mosques can be without minarets and Muslims, in the extreme, can stay without mosques and pray in the streets if they wish. But churches are important for Christians (at least for Catholics) because they are ‘consecrated’ places (i.e. house of God); mosques are not.
        So, this was my point, the kind of attacks that anti-Islam (in reality anti-Muslim) movements in Europe organized are based on an understanding of what kind of action may ‘annoy’ Muslims. Take dogs for instance. I have lots of Muslim friends that have dogs and one whom has a pet pig (he has no intention to cook him).
        However, we may agree that for Muslims in Europe, and in general in the West, there is a tendency today to pay attention to or react to things that are derivations from the contact of living in the West and absorbing certain stereotypes about themselves. Minarets are not relevant, but people will protest for losing them (also because they see it as an attack to their freedom more than religion). The cartoons case is the same: the prophet of Islam has been depicted so many times in the history of Islam. Nobody complained. So, politics and other aspects play their role.

        I totally agree with you that some Muslims reacting to the provocation makes things worse. Yet is not this true for any other religion or even nationality? Is it not true that an extremist Rabbi suggesting that gentiles can be freely killed increases anti-semitism? Or a Christian preacher suggesting that all women that had abortions should be killed provokes reactions against all Evangelic movements?
        I think the problems with Islam, for geo-political reasons, are more exposed by the mass media, but in reality, the great majority of Muslims on this planet pay little if no attention to both the sides, the anti-Muslim and the violent Muslims.

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