Archive | October 2010


I  thought this was going to be a particularly inspired and insightful post, but a few seconds of Google searches have once again convinced me that I haven’t hit on anything particularly new… however, I still think the thoughts are worth sharing.

I was reading Walter Capps’ insanely dull Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline yesterday, when I had a moment of inspiration. Why is it that “we”, in the Anglophone West, refer to ChristianITY as a religion, yet almost all other religious groupings are referred to as ISMs?

In a short brainstorming session I managed to come up with:






Seventh Day Adventism











Christian Scientism




With all these “isms”, what is it that is so unique about Christianity that makes both scholars and laypeople avoid referring to it as Christianism or Christism?

Well, the first obvious response to this, is that it isn’t unique. I also managed to think of a few major “religious” groupings which are not commonly referred to as “isms”:





New Age

Well… as for Islam, I have definitely heard the term “Islamism” used on more than one occasion in academic discourse… and I am fairly sure that I have heard reference made to Shintoism as well (the very fact that it has shown up in the spellchecker on this terrible Mac indicates that this may not be an erroneous recollection).

As for the others, well… it is fair to say that whether or not their adherents would claim that they are recent phenomena or not, the fact is that Scientology and Wicca have emerged comparatively recently, and that New Age (if it could even be called a distinct “religion” at all) has only really emerged in the past 50-100 years. The point here is that these groupings have emerged, in the Anglophone context, long after the classificatory enterprise was embarked upon and thus in an environment where people were intuitively aware of the implicit Christian bias in religious labels.

It is well known in Religious Studies circles that the term “Hinduism” emerged from the pejorative phrase “Indoo”, used by the British to describe the multifarious groups of people living in the Indus Valley. This term was then re-appropriated by those same people as a form of identity, whereas beforehand there was nothing in particular to link any of the the various religious beliefs and practices which occurred in that location. My point here is not to get into a debate on whether “Hinduism” is a religion or not, but to point out that the very label “Hinduism” was determined by English speakers… and most likely by English speaking Christians. I wish I had the time to reference this properly, and to make my point more clearly but my point is essentially this:

  • The standard terminology applied to various “religions” in the English language privileges “Christianity” simply because it was English-speaking Christians who devised the “ism” labels for “other” religions.
  • In recent times, new religions have emerged which also do not have an “-ism” tagged on to the end of their name, but this is BECAUSE they have emerged in a more reflexive “politically-correct” time.
  • As long as scholars persist in applying “-ism” labels to non-Christian religions, then referring to “Christianity” as “Christianism” is a more fair and balanced approach.
  • The argument that “Christians refer to their religion as Christianity, therefore so should scholars” does not apply, because we do not apply this same standard to all other “religions”

It seems that I am not the first person to have thought of the label “Christianism”…

According to

Finally, Brown published Communism and Christianism (Galion, Ohio, 1920), with its inscription to “Banish Gods from Skies and Capitalists from Earth William Montgomery Brown (1855-1937): The Southern Episcopal Bishop … by Bolton, S. Charles / Journal of Southern History


So, in 1920, at least William Montgomery Brown was referring to a Christianism of some sort.
More recently, according to the Wikipedia article on “Christianism”


Christianism (or Christianist) is a pejorative term for the ideology of the Christian right, meant as a counterpoint to “Islamism”. Writing in 2005, the New York Times language columnist William Safire attributed the term (in its modern usage) to conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, who wrote on June 1, 2003:  “I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam.”

The liberal bloggers Tristero and David Neiwert used the term shortly after. Sullivan later expanded on his usage of the term in a Time magazine column. Uses of the term can be found dating back to the seventeenth century, but these are unrelated to its modern meaning.

I am NOT proposing to utilise Christianism in this sense… but it is intriguing to see the linguistic games that are being played out around this issue.
I know I have not thought things through very well… but I thought this was something well worth giving more thought to. Religious Studies as a field has, for all its supposed neutrality, an incredible built-in Christian bias… and maybe this has a lot to do with the very terminology that we use. I look forward to properly reading into this issue in more depth, and if anyone has anything they feel like sharing on this issue I would love to hear it!

Religion is Dangerous: The Portrayal of Dangerous Religion by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens

In this post, I examine the critique of religion exemplified by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who I take as representative of a particular strand in contemporary atheism, loosely referred to as the “New Atheism”. I contend that this criticism can be largely encompassed by a depiction of religion as dangerous: by inspiring violence, promoting ‘unacceptable’ morals, and standing in the way of knowledge and progress, through fostering a ‘totalitarian’ atmosphere of submission to unquestionable authority. This critique occurs within a Christianised, Anglophone context, and although Harris and Hitchens devote space to other religious systems, all representative authors significantly acknowledge that their “focus is on Christianity first” (Dennett, 2007:xi): their “atheism is a Protestant atheism” (Hitchens, 2008:11 cf. Dawkins 2007b:58, Harris, 2007a:title). Their books are by no means extended tirades against religion. Each author engages with more ‘traditional’ philosophical approaches within the atheist-theist debate (cf. Dawkins, 2007b:100-136, Dennett, 2007:200-248, Harris, 2006:50-79, Hitchens, 2008:63-96). However, an examination of the positive delineation of atheism requires a very close reading of more implicit themes and thus this discussion focuses on their critique of religion, which yields valuable insights, and provides a frame for my more expansive posts, The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism and The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief.

Contemporary atheistic books teem with damning statements on violence in religion: religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry” (Hitchens, 2008:56), and focussed upon a malevolent God (Dawkins, 2007b:51), who leads some to “lie and even to kill” (Dennett. 2007:338) for a vision which threatens to destroy civilisation itself (Harris, 2006:227). Two distinct sources support this hyperbolism: the various conflicts and atrocities in which religion has played a part; and the creeds and tenets of Christianity (and Islam) which may be utilised as motivation or support for violence.

These critiques are replete with detailed examples of religious conflicts.[1] Significantly, these writers attempt to change commonly held views (positive and negative) on certain regimes and individuals (Hitchens, 2008:25ff; Harris, 2006:78), with a major theme for Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (though not Dennett) being Hitler’s Nazism. All discuss the possibility that Hitler remained a nominal Christian (Dawkins, 2007b:310, Harris 2006:106 cf. Hitchens, 2008:236-243), but also recognise that one man’s faith cannot implicate an entire religion. This is ensured by invoking an historical Christian anti-Semitism “that built the crematoria brick by brick” (Harris, 2006:179 cf. Dawkins, 2007b:311), by the support of Catholics and ‘German Christians’ for Hitler’s regime, and by the church’s complicity in relocating “guilty” members of clergy (ibid:314 cf. Hitchens, 2008:236-243; Ericksen/Heschel, 1999). Hitchens claims that, at a minimum, the Christian church is guilty of “passivity” and “inaction” which demonstrates that the church sought accommodation with Nazism (2008:238). These considerations appear to be a response to religious criticism of the violence committed by the “atheistic” regimes of the twentieth-century (Beattie, 2007:79; McGrath, 2005:165-169 cf. Baggini, 2003:81; Stenger, 2009:113-116).

This discussion is augmented by a focus on the motivation toward, or support of, violence implicit in religious texts – particularly the absolutising effect of a belief in the afterlife (Dennett, 2007:285), and the divisive nature of religious group loyalty (Dawkins, 2007b:297 cf. Hitchens, 2008:18). Harris holds that the “proposition – you will not die – once believed, determines a[n otherwise unthinkable] response to life” (2006:38 cf. Dennett, 2007:256, Hitchens, 2008:56). For Harris, religion has “become a continual source” of conflict (2006:79 cf. 2007a:12) casting human differences “in terms of eternal rewards and punishments” (2006:80). The combination of these characteristics is demonstrated by Dawkins’ inclusion of the work of George Tamarin, who presented Israeli schoolchildren with different accounts of a battle – one with  the central figure “Joshua”, another with “General Lin” – and found that “it was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it” (Dawkins, 2007b:289-292).

However, there are many examples throughout these works where the authors engage positively with the idea that religion may not be the underlying factor behind their catalogue of violence. Religious believers can be “rational and tolerant of others” (Harris, 2006:28 cf. Hitchens, 2008:187-188) and “are not psychotic, […but] by their own lights, are rational” (Dawkins, 2007b:344). However, the fact that “religion may well not be the root cause of […violent] yearning[s]” (Dennett, 2007:285) is, apparently, no excuse (ibid:299), because religion is “the most prolific source of the “moral certainties” and “absolutes” that such zealotry depends on” (ibid:285 cf. Harris, 2007a:11). The authors do not deny that some religious leaders “have put humanity ahead of their own sect or creed” (Hitchens, 2008:27), but contend that such actions are “a compliment to humanism, not to religion” (ibid). Whilst loopholes and backdoors may temporarily redeem religion, contemporary atheism believes itself firmly on the moral high ground: “Religious wars really are fought in the name of religion […] I cannot think of any war that has been fought in the name of atheism” (Dawkins, 2007b:316).

A second way in which religion is portrayed as dangerous concerns morality. To ask questions of religious morals apparently “involves no disrespect and no prejudging of the possibility” that they have a divine origin (Dennett, 2007:296), and contemporary atheists grant theists the right to try to convince “others, to whom God has not (yet) spoken” (ibid). Also, although some appeal is made to prison figures and moral judgement studies (ibid:279; Dawkins, 2007b:258; Harris, 2007a:43-46) it is significant that these atheists are content to show that atheists are no more likely to commit crimes than religious believers, despite more damning evidence that could be utilised (Dennett, 2007:279; Dawkins, 2007a:258 cf. Beit-Hallahmi, 2007). These observations indicate that, in this instance, contemporary atheism makes a concerted effort to maintain the moral high ground, and to avoid relying on violent polemic.

A common theme throughout this critique is religious amorality. There are three levels to this criticism. Firstly, religious teachings do not contain any guidance on many contemporary moral issues (Hitchens, 2008:100). Secondly, religious norms and conventions can lead to the conflation of attending to “one’s own spiritual needs” and “living a morally good life” (Dennett, 2007:306) allowing personal issues to assume greater importance than ‘genuine’ human suffering (Harris, 2007:28). In such cases, “the best that can be said of [believers] is that they manage to stay out of trouble” (Dennett, 2007:306). Finally, Dawkins cites Einstein, denouncing those who are “good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward” (2007b:259 cf. Hitchens, 2008:186). Although few contemporary believers would willingly cede individual moral responsibility, the historical emphasis on morality deriving from religion effectively exempts believers from moral conversation (Dennett, 2007:295), behaviour which itself is seen, at minimum, as amoral.

However, Harris and Hitchens go further, contending that religion is “positively immoral”: religions present “a false picture of the world to the innocent”; they promote “eternal reward and/or punishment”; they impose “impossible tasks and rules”; and they can encourage extreme self-centredness and conceit (Hitchens, 2008:74, 205). By “driv[ing] a wedge between ethics and suffering” religion can promote actions causing suffering, whilst condemning those which may relieve it (Harris, 2006:168-9). As before, it would be counter-productive to list all of the specific instances these authors refer to, but it is significant that they make reference to scripture and to religious leaders, and are not afraid to use religion to attack religion.

A final theme in the atheistic critique of religious morality is that most believers allow personal morals to decide their religious stance. As “all enlightened moderns” reject the rules of Deuteronomy and Leviticus (Dawkins, 2007b:81), so they “are using [their] own moral intuitions to authenticate the wisdom of the Bible” (2007a:49). The authors do not argue that faith has never had a part to play in defining morals (Harris, 2006:78; Dennett, 2007:310), but that morality is natural: “even monkeys will undergo extraordinary privations to avoid causing harm to another member of their species”, and they do this without religion (Harris, 2006:172). The key to the atheist critique of religion is that whilst urges to “altruism, to generosity, to empathy [and] to pity” are “Darwinian mistakes”, they are “blessed, precious mistakes” (Dawkins, 2007b:253) that can be celebrated without believing that Jesus “was born of a virgin or will be returning to earth as a superhero” (Harris, 2007b:25 cf. Dennett, 2007:307, Hitchens, 2008:52).

At this point I should acknowledge parallels between the contemporary atheistic critique and more secularised forms of Christianity. Alister McGrath sums up the ideas of Bishops Robinson and Spong (prominent “Christian atheists”, see the bibliography) as a call to the church to “bring its ideas into line with […]modern culture” and to “ditch its outmoded ideas if it is to survive” (2005:159,163). Thus far, it is clear that contemporary atheism criticises precisely these outmoded ideas, and exhibits a certain antagonism to religious leaders, rather than to religion itself. The representative contemporary atheists each have their own personal relationships with religion. Dawkins speaks of the “affection” he retains for the Church of England (2007b:32fn.), and Hitchens has in the course of his life “been an Anglican, educated at a Methodist school [and] converted by marriage to Greek Orthodoxy” (2008:11,195). Both speak with despair at the present state of the Church of England (ibid:12,16; Dawkins, 2007b:62). Conversely, Harris states that he was “raised in a totally secular home” and God was “really not a subject of conversation”[2], whilst Dennett makes no mention of any religious upbringing in his autobiographical essay (2008a,b,c). Therefore it is not possible on the basis of these biographical details alone to speak of an overarching, anti-clerical, secular Christianity at work. However, they shall prove significant when returning to this issue below (see p.30).

The final two aspects of the contemporary atheistic critique of religion – that it stands in the way of knowledge and progress, and that it fosters a ‘totalitarian’ atmosphere of submission to unquestionable authority – can be considered together. Criticism of the religious impediment of knowledge is twofold. Firstly, religion is perceived as an outdated worldview (Hitchens, 2008:256; Harris, 2006:14, 25) which vehemently opposes progress (Harris, 2006:22; Dawkins, 2007b:319) and is still in the thrall of Martin Luther’s assertion that “reason is the Devil’s harlot” (Hitchens, 2008:63 cf. Dennett, 2007:241; Dawkins, 2007b:323; Harris, 2006:107). Significantly, religious anti-rationality is perceived as selective – science and reason are used when they assist religion in some way (Dawkins, 2007b:83). This selectively anti-science attitude is deplored most strongly when it exerts its influence on health-related issues, where “religious beliefs [can] become genuinely lethal” (Harris, 2007a:28 cf. Ibid:33; 2006:149-150,167; Dawkins, 2007b:327-328; Hitchens, 2008:45,221).

Secondly, “the mists of incomprehension and failure of communication” form an integral part of religion, meaning that religion is perceived as implicitly impeding knowledge (Dennett, 2007:217). By making a virtue of faith, religion encourages satisfaction with not understanding (Dawkins, 2007b:152 cf. Harris, 2006:56; Dennett, 2007:228) and gives certainty “about things no human being could possibly be certain about” (Harris, 2007:67 cf. Hitchens, 2008:122). By deeming a text “gospel truth”, religious leaders foreclose rational inquiry (Dennet, 2007:241), whilst being “incapable of distinguishing what is true from what they’d like to be true” (Dawkins, 2007b:135 cf. Dennett, 2007:228).

These impediments to knowledge and rational inquiry are “enforced” through religion’s authoritarian influence. This influence can be manifested implicitly, through religious ‘guilt’ (Dennett, 2007:292) and the atmosphere of fear surrounding potential causes of offence (cf. Harris, 2007:39); and explicitly, through deliberate interference in people’s lives and aggressive marketing (Hitchens, 2008:17; Harris, 2006:25). This exertion of authority is forcefully demonstrated in the relationship between religion and children: religion practices upon the “unformed and undefended minds of the young” (Hitchens, 2008:217 cf. Dawkins, 2007b:206 cf. 323,348,358), hoodwinking and blindfolding them to ensure conformity (Dennett, 2007:328). Clearly contemporary atheism perceives both an implicit and a consciously explicit authoritarian agenda on the part of religion to limit access to, and acceptance of, scientific knowledge which contradicts aspects of religious faith, or limits the scope and power of its authority.

I hope that I have demonstrated that the contemporary atheistic critique of religion revolves around three key issues. “Religion” is castigated for motivating, supporting, and initiating violence, for encouraging amoral (if not positively immoral) behaviour, and fostering an atmosphere where knowledge and progress are discouraged, and an attitude of passive submission to ignorance and religious authority is the norm. This criticism is integral to the “consciousness raising” enterprise of these atheists, and has great significance when considering their intentions and target audience (see The Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment Agenda of Contemporary Atheism and The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief). Although non-Christian religions are occasionally criticised, it is implied that Christianity is the main target of this particularly anti-clerical attack. Evidence from individual biographies and a willingness to give Christianity credit where credit is due suggest a latent, sentimental respect, which proves significant in the aforementioned posts.

A full bibliography can be found in my earlier post: The Problem of Diffuse Unbelief.

[1] Harris, 2006:80-107; Dawkins, 2007b:23-4; Hitchens, 2008:173-194; Dennett, 2007:13

[2] (28/03/10, 19:52)

“The myth of Islamic racial innocence was a Western creation and served a Western purpose”

The title of this post is a quotation from the prominent scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis. When discussing Lewis’s position on “the myth of Islamic racial innocence” (1990:101) or the “myth of Muslim freedom from racial prejudice” (1971:102 cf. Lange, 2007:9)[1], it is necessary to clarify that his purpose is not “to try and set up a moral competition […with the West, but] rather to refute the claims both of exclusive virtue and exclusive vice, and to point to certain common failings of our common humanity” (1971:102). Following in Lewis’s stead, this post is merely intended as an attempt to assess Lewis’s conclusion on the basis of available evidence. A brief exposition on the crucial terms “race”, “Islam”, and the related issue of slavery is followed by discussion on specific instances in the Qur’an, the Hadith and Islamic traditions, Islamic legal thought, and wider practice in the Islamic world. Although a major part of Lewis’s thesis is the Western construct and purpose notion[2], it would be impossible, in a simple blog post, to do justice to the umpteen issues involved in the history of race and the West. Therefore, this issue shall be considered only in passing, with the bulk of discussion focussing on the supposed construction of Islamic “racial innocence”. Whilst in many, if not all cases discussed, the issues involved grew out of multifarious circumstances (Prentiss, 2003b:2), I am concerned solely with the interaction of Islam with racial prejudice – positive or negative, intentional or unintentional – and it is not within my purview to assign ultimate responsibility or blame.

Due to various events throughout recent history, it is unsurprising that “race” should be a controversial topic within academia. In fact, the term has virtually been abandoned in academic discourse over the past forty years, in favour of the term “ethnicity” (Prentiss, 2003b:6; Jones, 1997:40). Prentiss traces the first usage of “ethnicity” to “a 1941 sociological study” where it served “as an alternative to “race” in [the] attempt to describe social groups that came from different national backgrounds but shared cultural similarities” (2003b:6). In principle, the usage of this term has since fulfilled a similar function, referring to various distinctive cultural identifiers – “lingual, ancestral, regional, religious, and so on” (Tamimi, 2003:168 cf. Malik, 1997:172; Jones, 1997:45). The main reason for the abandonment of “race” was the realisation that generalised characteristics of specific groups are not the result of genetic or physical transmission, but the influence of surrounding society and culture (Jones, 1997:45 cf. Prentiss, 2003b:7; Sundiata, 1978:2). However, physical characteristics, including skin colour (Tamimi, 2003:168), inevitably play a part in the emic and etic (insider and outsider) application of ethnic labels. Thus, the concept of ethnicity, whilst seeking to avoid reducing social groupings to physical (“racial”) differences, inevitably incorporates biology into its wider cultural typologies. Bernard Lewis acknowledges this difficulty and explains that his discussion will focus on “Muslim attitudes on ethnicity, race, and colour” (1990:20), clearly indicating that this wide ranging interpretation of “race” should be employed in this analysis.

The term “Islamic” is also more multi-faceted than would first appear, and raises two key issues. Firstly, and quite simply, a Muslim “race” does not exist. Whiethe Arab peoples are often associated with Islam, with “many non-Arab Muslims […assuming that] an Arab is […] a Muslim by definition” (Tamimi, 2003:169), the key point here is the very existence of non-Arab Muslims. Arabs predate Islam; and there is nothing contradictory in the designation of Arab Christians or Arab Jews (ibid:169, 171). Thus, a discussion on Islamic racial innocence is not the same as a discussion on Arab racial innocence, although the two often became practically synonymous (see below).

Secondly, a frequently encountered issue is that “Islamic” can be understood in many different senses (cf. Masood, 2009:ix-x). Even if a “monolithic Islam” existed (Sundiata, 1978:2), the term “Islamic” could relate to one of four distinct things: the religion taught by Muhammad and embodied in the Qur’an (Lewis, 1990:20); “the subsequent development of this religion through tradition”[3] (ibid); the related area of the Shari’a[4]; and the practice of “Islamic civilisation as known to us in history” (ibid). Therefore, discussion shall consider each of these four areas, reflecting on the racial and ethnic relationships portrayed within a multi-ethnic Islam.

A final slight digression on the issue of slavery is necessary before the main discussion can get underway. Even though Muslim societies utilised slaves from many different ethnic and geographical backgrounds (Lewis, 1990:11; Toledano, 2002:65; Hunwick, 1992:7), and engagement in the slave trade was not unusual for the time (Lewis, 1990:5), it is unfortunate that “in most Muslim societies […] slavery was closely associated with […] darkness of skin” (Toledano, 2002:64 cf. Hourani, 1991:117; Lewis, 1990:41). Thus, at each stage in this discussion, additional race-related issues surrounding slavery merit consideration.

Turning first to the Qur’an, Lewis believes it clear “that the Qur’an expresses no racial or colour prejudice” (1971:7) – a position which, on surveying the Qur’an and secondary literature, appears sound. “The Qur’an considers all peoples as “one nation”” (Rubin, 2004:337) – God created all humanity “from a single person” (Q4:1 cf. Tamimi, 2003:176), Muhammad’s mission was not confined to one ethnic group (Rubin, 2004:337 cf. Q34:28) and God’s glory is demonstrated by the diversity of languages and colours (Q30:22 cf. Lewis, 1971:7; Rubin, 2004:336). Although racial prejudice may lurk in eschatological images of the black faces of sinners in Hell (Lange, 2007:1,9 cf. Q3:106; 39:60), no explicit connection is made between blackness in this world and punishment in the next[5]. In fact, Lewis suggests that these references simply reflect a common linguistic idiom, shared with many black African societies, “associating whiteness with joy and goodness, blackness with suffering and evil” (1971:101). However, Lewis additionally makes the sweeping statement that the “Qur’an does not even reveal any awareness of [racial or colour] prejudice” (1971:7), based upon only two cited verses (Q30:22, 49:13). Azzam Tamimi adopts a contrasting position, declaring that verses such as Q7:28-29 and 43:22-24 seek to discredit ancestral pride and that “until this [injunction…], the Arabs had been discriminating against non-Arabs […and] the coloured” (2003:174-176). Although Tamimi’s position is confessional (Prentiss, 2003a:238), and although Lewis would dismiss this argument as evidence of an awareness of social rather than racial discrimination (cf. 1971:7), his failure to engage more fully with this opposing position indicates that whist it is appropriate to conclude that the Qur’an expresses no racial prejudice, its dearth of opposing material is called into question by indications of an awareness of such prejudice.

On the related issue of slaves, the Qur’an appears silent regarding their ethnicity or the reasons for their enslavement, “but assumes the existence of the institution of slavery and enunciates precepts aimed at mitigating the condition and encourages manumission” (Hunwick, 1992:6 cf. Lewis, 1990:6; Brockopp). As the  Arabs of Qur’anic times would have utilised non-Arab slaves, the positive references to their humanity and feelings (Q2:221; 4:25; 39:29; 92 cf. Brockopp) at least indicate an improvement in the treatment of people of different ethnicities (cf. Lewis, 1990:6).

It is upon examination of issues concerning race in the traditions attributed to the Prophet, his Companions, and important religious figures that evidence of racial prejudice begins to come to the fore. “When [the Ethiopian] is hungry he steals, when he is sated he fornicates”[6] (ibid:34); “God has decreed that the most devout is the noblest, even if he be a Negress’s bastard” (ibid:35)[7]; or “[the Zanj] are ugly and misshapen, because they live in a hot country” (1971:33)[8] are but a few examples.. Whilst Lewis labels some of these as undoubtedly spurious (1990:34), the same could equally be said about the unreferenced “Prophetic Tradition”, “an Arab is no better than a non-Arab, a white is no better than a black and a red is no better than a yellow” (Tamimi, 2003:176). Lewis acknowledges that the “general purport” of accepted traditions on race “deplore[s] racial prejudice and […insists] on the primacy of piety” (1990:34), however the very existence of traditions which contradict this overriding thrust “leaves them as important evidence on the development of [contemporaneous…] attitudes”, widespread or not (ibid:34).

Whilst these traditions present varying degrees of racial prejudice, and received varying acceptance, a pervasive traditional classification of ethnicities derives from the biblical account of Noah and his three sons in Genesis 9:18-27 (Lewis, 1990:44-45, 55; Schroeter, 1992:202; Sundiata, 1978:4; Lange, 2007:9). Following an incident where Ham dishonoured his father, he and his descendents were cursed with blackness: “May God change your complexion and may your face turn black!”[9] (Lange, 2007:9 cf. Brinner). In an alternative version, Ham is cursed for disobeying “the prohibition of intercourse while on the ark” (ibid). Regardless of which version of the tradition is correct, and the fact that it was “transmitted to the Muslims by Jews and Christians” (Lewis, 1990:44) and by no means universally accepted (Lewis, 1971:67), Lewis asserts that much early Arabic historical literature agrees on the Hamitic origins of black Africans (1990:44-45). The true import of this tradition shall be seen below, though it is obvious that a prophetic curse of blackness of skin has the potential to foster racial prejudice. That such prejudice should be justified in the “Christian” West until comparatively recently (cf. Ter Haar, 1998:155; Prentiss, 2003b:9) gives credence to the suggestion that Islamic tradition may not always have kept to the spirit of the Qur’an.

A similar spread of attitudes can be seen in traditions relating to slavery and race. Ibn Khaldun (twelfth century) states “The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity” (Lewis, 1971:38). This correlates with the common expansion upon the ethnology of Ham – that blacks were also condemned to slavery (Schroeter, 1992:202; Lange, 2007:9; Lewis, 1971:66-67; 1990:45). However, as mentioned above, these arguments were not exclusively applied to black Africans – Avicenna (980-1037) was of the opinion that God had provided many peoples who “were by their very nature slaves” (Lewis, 1971:29); and Lewis reports that whilst slaves were undoubtedly “inferior”, “the black slave was no worse than the white” (1990:25). Therefore, it can be concluded that Islamic traditions do display an attitude equating race (whether general or particular) with slave status, although this may simply be a combination of the “need” for a supply of slaves and the human tendency to classify the “other”.

It is a commonly held view that Islam is a religion of dichotomies – Male/Female, Heaven/Hell, Muslim/non-Muslim – but on the question of race such a dichotomy does not exist, and legal discussion on matters of race generally occurs merely as a side-issue to discussion on marriage and slavery. Concerning marriage – “the only issue on which questions of race and colour became the concern of the law” (Lewis, 1971:90) – the key issue is miscegenation. “The voice of Islamic piety on miscegenation is clear and unequivocal – there are no superior and inferior races and therefore no bar to racial intermarriage” (Lewis, 1990:85). Although this utopian image finds backing at certain points in history (Sundiata, 1978:8), and although “the condemnation of racial discrimination in marriage predominates in religious and legal discussions (Lewis, 1990:88), Lewis contends that the pre-Islamic notion of Kafa’a – “roughly translated as equality of birth and social status in marriage” (ibid:85) – “survived into Islamic times and became part of the holy law of Islam” (ibid). Although Lewis is able to provide some examples of sayings attributed to the Prophet appearingto oppose miscegenation (cf. ibid:88), his acknowledgement of the “unequivocal” voice of piety indicates that this accommodation of un-Qur’anic notions was not universal and cannot be generalised to the position of “Islamic law”.

The Islamic legal position on slavery is much clearer in that “the law made distinctions only between slave and free and between Muslim and non-Muslim” (Hunwick, 1992:7 cf. Schroeter, 1992:202; Hourani, 1991:116; Lewis, 1971:67). The enslavement of Muslims was categorically forbidden, although the adoption of Islam after enslavement does not offer similar exemption (ibid). Paul Lovejoy acknowledges that “at times there was disagreement over whether [black] status in itself constituted unbelief” (2004b:6), however discussions on practice summarised below indicate that the law remained firm on this point – thus loyalty to a fellow believer transcended kinship and ethnicity (Moosa, 2004:242) and offered some protection from slavery.

Historical data on prevalent practices in Islamic civilisations is clearly where Lewis believes most of the material to support his thesis lies. However, this brief summary should indicate that there is plenty of material to support both sides of the argument. Lewis cites poetry written by black Muslims indicating their “suffering from insult and discrimination” and inferior status (1971:11 cf. 11-13), as well as books defending black peoples from insults and charges levelled against them (1990:32-33). He acknowledges, most tellingly, that even though non-Arab Muslims were considered legally and ‘religiously’ equal to their Arab counterparts, as the Islamic Empire expanded “non-Arab Muslims were regarded as inferior and subjected to a whole series of […] disabilities” (1971:23). This is evinced through insults (1971:25-26), texts such as The Thousand and One Nights (1990:19-20) and other literature (ibid:95), and generally “in the literature, the arts, and the folklore of the Muslim peoples” (ibid:20). But on the other hand, there are accounts “depicting a radically egalitarian society free from prejudice or discrimination” (1971:5), telling of the good reputation of the Ethiopians during the time of the Prophet (ibid:27), a Nubian eunuch who became regent of Egypt (ibid:78), and of the black eunuch custodians of the Prophet’s tomb at Mecca (1990:75). Geographical and chronological variations make generalisation impossible, but Lewis accurately summaries the situation when he states that “there is a sharp contrast between what Islam says and what Muslims – or at least some Muslims – do” (1990:20).

As was acknowledged above, Islamic law prohibited the enslavement of Muslims by Muslims. However, there is evidence that this prohibition was frequently ignored: the black king of Bornu complained to the sultan of Egypt (794AH) that although his people were free Muslims, they were being subjected to raiding and enslavement (Lewis, 1990:53); similar complaints from black jurists have been recorded (ibid:57), and there is evidence that such practise was prevalent during the jihads of the nineteenth century (Schroeter, 1992:202). There is also evidence of legal casuistry to avoid this prohibition, with Islamic rulers in Sudan deciding it was not in their interest to disrupt the flow of slaves by converting everyone to Islam (Mahadi, 1992:115), and of newly captured slaves being converted in order to increase the chances of sale (Hunwick, 2004:149). Regardless of the legality of their capture, there is evidence that white slaves were more expensive than black slaves (Lewis, 1990:56), and that black slaves were less likely to be used in the military (ibid:65) where they could not advance as far as their white counterparts (Lewis, 1971:78). The very existence of these (potentially isolated) incidents suggests that Islam either encourages racial prejudice, can be interpreted to suit opposing positions, or simply did not exert a strong enough influence on the ‘common man’.

From this discussion it is clear that Islam is not a heterogeneous entity that can be easily summarised regarding issues of race. Although a gross simplification, Islam in its more ‘official’ forms – the Qur’an and the Shari’a – exemplifies a generally positive or indifferent attitude to racial diversity and harmony, whilst the traditions and the popular practice of ‘Islamic’ cultures exemplify a much broader spectrum of attitudes and actions. The key point here is that Lewis is attacking the myth of total racial harmony in the Islamic world (1990:101), a myth which is demonstrably spurious. Whilst his aim not to engage in a moral competition between Islam and the West is commendable, he seemingly downplays racial harmony inherent in the fundamentals of Islam in order to push his Western purpose idea. No doubt missionary failure, chastisement of apartheid regimes, and feelings of imperial guilt and responsibility (ibid:101-102) have played a part in the Orientalist overemphasis of Islamic racial tolerance, however this acknowledgement should not prevent Islam’s merits being extolled. The fact that the Qur’an contains a bare minimum of material that could be construed in a racist manner, that Islamic law unequivocally forbade the enslavement of Muslims regardless of race, and that the Islamic Empire incorporated ethnicities from Europe, Africa and Asia within just a few centuries, imbues Islam, as a religion, with an inherent pluralist emphasis, notably underrepresented throughout Western history. Although Lewis is right in rubbishing the fallacy of complete racial innocence, and in acknowledging the discontinuity between Islam as a religion and how it is practiced in the world, by emphasising these points he risks misunderstanding and misrepresentation – exactly the failings he sought to avoid.


1.    Brinner, William M., 2004. “Noah” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Gen. Ed.), The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Leiden: Brill, Vol. 3, pp. 540-543.

2.     Brockopp, Jonathan E., 2004. “Slaves and Slavery” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Gen. Ed.), The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Leiden: Brill, Vol. 5, pp. 56-60.

3.    Hourani, Albert, 1991. A History of the Arab Peoples. New York: Warner Books.

4.    Hunwick, J. O., 1992. “Black Slaves in the Mediterranean World: Introduction to a Neglected Aspect of the African Diaspora” in Elizabeth Savage (ed.) … pp. 5-38.

5.    Hunwick, John, 2004. “The Religious Practices of Black Slaves in the Mediterranean Islamic World” in Paul E. Lovejoy (ed.), Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. Princeton: Markus Wiener, pp. 149-172.

6.    Jones, Siân, 1997. The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing identities in the past and present. London: Routledge.

7.    Lange, Christian, 2007. ““On That Day When Faces Will Be White Or Black” (Q3:106): Towards a Semiology of the Face in the Arabo-Islamic Tradition” in Journal of the American Oriental Society, 127:4 (2007), pp. 1-17.

8.    Lewis, Bernard, 1971 [1970]. Race and Color in Islam. New York/London: Harper & Row.

9.    Lewis, Bernard, 1990. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

10. Lovejoy, Paul E. (ed.), 2004a. Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. Princeton: Markus Wiener.

11. Lovejoy, Paul E., 2004b. “Slavery, the Bilad al-Sudan and the Frontiers of the African Diaspora” in Paul E. Lovejoy (ed.), Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. Princeton: Markus Wiener, pp. 1-30.

12. Mahadi, Abdullah, 1992. “The Aftermath of the Jihad in the Central Sudan as a Major Factor in the Volume of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century” in Elizabeth Savage (ed.), The Human Commodity: Perspectives on the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Frank Cass, pp. 111-128.

13. Malik, Iftikhar H., 1997. State and Civil Society in Pakistan: Politics of Authority, Ideology and Ethnicity. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

14. Masood, Ehsan, 2009. Science & Islam: A History. London: Icon Books.

15. Moosa, Ebrahim, 2004. “Loyalty” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Gen. Ed.), The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Leiden: Brill, Vol. 3, pp. 237-242.

16. Prentiss, Craig R. (ed.), 2003a. Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity: An Introduction. New York/London: New York University Press.

17. Prentiss, Craig R., 2003b. “Introduction” in Craig R. Prentiss (ed.), Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity: An Introduction. New York/London: New York University Press, pp. 1-12.

18. Rubin, Uri, 2004. “Races” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Gen. Ed.), The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Leiden: Brill, Vol. 4, pp. 336-7.

19. Savage, Elizabeth (ed.), 1992. The Human Commodity: Perspectives on the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Frank Cass.

20. Schroeter, Daniel J., 1992. “Slave Markets and Slavery in Moroccan Urban Society” in Elizabeth Savage (ed.), The Human Commodity: Perspectives on the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. London: Frank Cass, pp. 185-213.

21. Sundiata, I. K., 1978. “Beyond Race and Color in Islam” in Journal of Ethnic Studies 6:1 (1978: Spring), pp. 1-23.

22. Tamimi, Azzam, 2003. “Islam, Arabs and Ethnicity” in Craig R. Prentiss (ed.), Religion and the Creation of Race and Ethnicity: An Introduction. New York/London: New York University Press, pp. 167-180.

23. Ter Haar, Gerrie, 1998. “African Christians in the Netherlands”, in Gerrie Ter Haar (ed.) Strangers and Sojourners: Religious Communities in the Diaspora. Leuven: Peeters, 1998, pp. 153-171.

24. Toledano, Ehud R., 2002. “Representing the Slave’s Body in Ottoman Society” in Thomas Wiedemann & Jane Gardner (eds.), Representing the Body of the Slave. London: F. Cass, pp. 57-74.

25. Wiedemann, Thomas & Gardner, Jane (eds.), 2002. Representing the Body of the Slave. London: F. Cass.

[1] Where there is a clear reformulation of position, his later work is cited.

[2] Although in the context of his texts this is barely more than a footnote.

[3] “Tradition” in this context refers to non-Qur’anic written sayings and traditions, with the arbitrary chronological cut-off point of Napoleon’s entry to Egypt in 1798.

[4] Lewis includes Shari’a within “tradition” however, as shall be demonstrated, the Shari’a presents a distinct position meriting separate attention.

[5] See (Lange, 2007:2) for suggestions as to who these black-faced sinners were.

[6] Attributed to the Prophet.

[7] Ibn Hazm (994-1064), emphasis added.

[8] Ibn Qutayba (d. 889).

[9] Muhammad b. Abd Allah al-Kisa’i (11th century).

The Need to Dissolve the Religion/Secular Dichotomy

A massive, thought-provoking quotation from Timothy Fitzgerald, with which I couldn’t agree more:

“From our own postcolonial standpoint, it should be easier for us to question the idea that, whereas other, less-advanced peoples are permeated with ritualism and therefore with a ‘religious’ worldview, we in Anglophone cultures do not ‘do’ ritual, except minimally in church. I ask, rhetorically, but with serious theoretical intent, why should the legal procedures and taboos surrounding our courts and ideals of justice, our separation of the branches of government, our concept of private property, the practices of the stock exchange and the capital markets, the traditions of the civil services, be considered ‘nonreligious’, but the practices of divination, or the Islamic Shari’a, or the generic potlatch of various indigenous American peoples, or Buddhist meditation be assigned to the ‘religion’ basket? Why are transcendental values such as the belief in progress, or individualism, or nationalism, or the democratic virtues of ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’, the practice of secret ballots and elections of governments, which many millions of people died to establish and institutionalise, not included in books on ‘religion’? Why should state institutions that defend the freedom of Americans such as the Pentagon, the White House, and the Congress be treated as nonreligious rather than ‘religious’ or ritual institutions? Is the queen of England, who is supposedly head of a secular state, but who is also the head of a national religion, to be treated as a religious or a secular functionary? Is the raising and lowering of a national flag of religious or secular significance? It seems we are trapped by language when we consider these issues. For, arguably, they are all both religious and secular, and in that sense neither, for they undercut this grand dichotomy. We need to dissolve these reified binaries if a new paradigm is to have a chance to get articulated in public discourse.”

Fitzgerald, Timothy, 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 38.

Religious Pervasiveness and the Curse of Capitalism

I am currently working my way through Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart’s Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, and I was struck by two comments they made on Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic thesis. These points have much wider implications and I just wanted to share them with you quickly.

I don’t have time to go into the details of Weber’s thesis, detailed at length in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but essentially he theorised that a minority Protestant emphasis on proving that you were “saved”, led many to start trying to earn money for the sake of earning money, and not for things that they needed. This led to investment, re-investment, and the development of Capitalism as we know it today. I haven’t checked out the accuracy of the Wikipedia article, but if you want a quick overview of the thesis you can find it here.

The first quotation from Norris and Inglehart that I would like to share with you is this:

“It should be stressed that Weber did not claim that the restless go-getting entrepreneurial class of merchants and bankers, shopkeepers and industrial barons were also the most devout ascetic Protestants; on the contrary, he argued that “those most filled with the spirit of capitalism tend to be indifferent, if not hostile, to the Church.” He therefore did not expect an individual-level relationship to exist between personal piety, churchgoing habits, and adherence to the Protestant work ethic. Instead, this cultural ethos was thought to be pervasive, influencing devout and atheists alike, within Protestant societies. Any attempt to analyse the Weberian theory should therefore be tested at the macro-level, not the individual level.”

Norris, Pippa and Inglehart, Ronald, 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 161.

I think this just perfectly summed up for me just how pervasive the influence of religion can be in society. I am not saying that this is a good or bad thing. It is just worth noting that even if everyone in society decided to abandon their religious faith, the vestiges of the major religious faiths in that society would remain pervasive throughout culture, law, morality and more for many, many years. Just look at what Phil Zuckerman has found in his research in Scandinavia (see Society Without God): although Denmark and Sweden have among the highest rates of unbelief in the world, with minimal church attendance and belief in God and the afterlife (I’m sorry I don’t have the figures to hand just now), the vast majority of the population are still tax-paying members of the Lutheran Church, have their children baptised, get confirmed, have weddings and funerals in churches, and positively identify as “Christian” whilst shunning the label “Atheist”. Religion does not have to be important in people’s lives for it to exert an influence and, additionally, people do not have to hold to the tenets or practices of a religion for them to consider it important.

And secondly:

“It seems clear that today, contemporary Protestant societies place relatively little value on the virtues of labour, in terms of both material and intrinsic rewards, especially compared with contemporary Muslim societies. Systematic survey evidence from a broad range of societies indicates that by the late twentieth century the work ethic was no longer a distinct aspect of Protestant societies – quite the contrary, they are the societies that emphasise these characteristics least of any cultural region in the world. Any historical legacy, if it did exist in earlier eras, appears to have been dissipated by processes of development.” (ibid:169)

Something which has struck me lately, especially in the case of Britain, is that we are generally incredibly lazy. We may not like to admit it, but in the majority of cases if we can get away with doing a job in a half-arsed manner, then this is what we will do. If  asked to do more work, we complain. We prefer sitting on the sofa and watching television to reading a book, going out for a walk, or building something. I know I am making massive generalisations here, and we are not as bad as all that, but at the same time can you imagine our grandparents’ generation being quite as inactive in their prime as we are today? Maybe “development” carries its own curse? Maybe there is a peak after which a society ceases to apply itself to collective endeavours with the same zeal as it did in the past? Maybe we will all end up like the sad remnants of humanity depicted in Wall-E?

I haven’t thought any of this through… these quotations just provoked some thoughts, and I thought I might as well let them do the same for you.