Historical Methodology and Dogmatic Islamophilia (Part 7)

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Throughout his article Religion and Anti-Religion, Professor Watt can barely disguise his contempt for secularism.

“The wave of secularism and materialism is receding,“ notes Watt with approval, “most serious minded men in the Middle East realize the gravity of the problems of the present time, and are therefore aware of the need for a religion that will enable them to cope with the situations that arise from the impingement of these problems on their personal lives“. Watt then goes on to discuss the work of Manfred Halpern, who “speaks of the Muslim Brethren in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere , together with movements like Fida’iyan-i Islam in Persia and Khaksars and Jama’at-i Islam in Pakistan, as neo-Islamic totalitarianism, and points out their resemblances to fascism, including the National Socialism of Germany under Adolf Hitler. From a purely political point of view this may be justified, and the resemblances certainly exist. Yet in a wider perspective this characterisation is misleading. It is true that these movements sometimes ‚concentrate on mobilizing passion and violence to enlarge the power of their charismatic leader and the solidarity of the movement … and that ‘they champion the values and emotions of a heroic past, but repress all critical analysis of either past roots or present problems’. Yet political ineptitude and even failure do not outweigh their positive significance as marking a resurgence of religion … The neo-Islamic mass movements, far from being tantamount to national socialism or fascism are likely to be an important barrier against such a development“.39

Watt’s wonderful euphemism for fascism is “political ineptitude“; and we are asked to overlook this fascism, and instead asked to admire it for its “positive significance as marking a resurgence of religion“. Watt’s support for, what Amir Taheri calls Holy Terrorists is worth pondering. It must not be forgotten that the Muslim Brethren was a terrorist organisation whose founder made no secret of his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. After the end of the Second World War, Hassan’s Muslim Brethren launched a series of attacks at civilian targets; cinemas, hotels and restaurants were bombed or set on fire, women incorrectly dressed were attacked with knifes. There were also a series of assassinations. Yes; we are asked to overlook this in the name of religious resurgence.

Watt reveals even more disturbing qualities — a mistrust of the intellect and a rejection of the importance of historical objectivity and truth:

“This emphasis on historicity, however, has as its complement a neglect of symbols; and it may be that ultimately ’symbolic truth‚ is more important than ‚historical truth’“.40

In “Introduction to the Quran”, Watt seems to have a very tenuous grasp on the notion of truth — indeed objective truth is abandoned altogether in favour of total subjectivism:

“… the systems of of ideas followed by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and others are all true in so far as they enable human beings to have a more or less satisfactory ‘experience of life as a whole‘. So far as observation can tell, none of the great systems is markedly inferior or superior to the others. Each is therefore true. In particular the Quran is in this sense true. The fact that the Quranic conception of the unity of God appears to contradict the Christian conception of God does not imply that either system is false, nor even that either conception is false. Each conception is true in that it is part of a system which is true. In so far as some conception in a system seems to contradict the accepted teaching of science — or, that of history in so far as it is objective – that contradiction raises problems for the adherents of the system, but does not prove that the system as a whole is inferior to others. That is to say, the Quranic assertion that the Jews did not kill Jesus does not prove that the Quranic system as a whole is inferior to the Christian, even on the assumption that the crucifixion is an objective fact“.41

In this astonishing passage of intellectual dishonesty, Watt performs all sorts of mental gymnastics in an effort to please everyone, not to offend anyone. Leaving aside the problem of the vagueness of Watt’s terminology — terms like “experience of life as a whole“, “conception“, “Quranic system“ — we can now understand what we set out to understand at the beginning of this enquiry, namely, why British Islamicists have been so uncritical of Islam.

“The non-Muslim scholar”, continues Watt, “is not concerned with any question of ultimate truth, since that, it has been suggested, cannot be attained by man. He assumes the truth [my emphasis, I.W.], in the relative sense just explained, of the Quranic ststem of ideas.“ Under such conditions, the scholar is not likely to be critical of anyone’s “belief system“ as long as it meets his or her “spiritual needs“.

The above attitude exemplified by Watt was brilliantly exposed and attacked by Julien Benda in his classic “Betrayal of the Intellectuals“. He wrote, “But the modern ‘clerks‘ [intellectuals] have held up universal truth to the scorn of mankind, as well as universal morality. Here the ‘clerks‘ have positively shown genius in their effort to serve the passions of the laymen. It is obvious that truth is a great impediment to those who wish to set themselves up as distinct; from the very moment when they accept truth, it condemns them to be conscious of themselves in a universal. What a joy for them to learn that this universal is a mere phantom, that there exist only particular truths, Lorrain truths, Provencal truths, Brittany truths, the harmony of which in the course of centuries constitutes what is beneficial, respectable, true in France“.42 Watt would add “a Muslim truth, a Christian truth”, and so on; or as he put in Islamic Revelation,

“Each [great religion] is valid in a particular cultural region, but not beyond that”.43

The sentimental ecumenical tradition established by scholars such as Watt and Gibb continues to this day. We can follow the gradual introduction of this tradition in the pages of the journal The Muslim World, which was founded in 1911 (originally titled The Moslem World) to promote the work of Christian Missionaries in the Middle East. Since 1938, it has been edited by the Hartford Seminary. The first issues of the journal were highly critical of various aspects of Islam — I have already cited Charles Watson’s description of Islam as totalitarian, which appeared in its pages in 1937. Its first editor was a committed Christian and a considerable scholar, Samuel Zwemer (1867-1952). In 1929, he was appointed Professor of Missions and Professor of the History of Religion at the Princeton Theological Seminary where he taught until 1951. He had an almost perfect command of Arabic and a thorough knowledge of the Koran, often referred to as “the lion-hearted missionary who tried to confound the Muslims out of their own scriptures using the Christian Bible“.44

By the late 1940s, however, the journal began publishing articles very favorable to Islam, and by the 1950s, its pages were dominated by scholars such as Watt. It is now co-edited by a Muslim and a Christian — converting Muslims to Christianity is no longer considered respectable by Liberal Christians who instead bend over backwards to accommodate Muslims — as for example calling on all Christians to use the term “Allah“ instead of God45: generous gestures not reciprocated by the Muslims.

39 William Montgomery Watt, Religion and Anti-Religion, in Religion in the Middle East:Three Religions in Conflict and Concord, ed. A.J.Arberry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969, pp.625-627

40 William Montogomery Watt, Islamic Revelation in the Modern World, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1969, p.116

41 William Montogomery Watt ,Introduction to the Quran Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,1977 p.183.

42 Julien Benda The Betrayal of the Intellectuals, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955, pp.76-77.

43William Montogomery Watt, Islam and the Integration of Society, London: Routledge, Kegan and Paul, 1961, p.278

44Samuel Zwemer: : accessed 15 November, 2007.

45In August, 2007,Bishop of Breda, Tiny Muskens:,

accessed 15 November, 2007.

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