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retread| Learning from a Bigot 18 February 2006

Posted by EDITOR in ABD, History, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships.

Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This one was originally posted by ABD on 4 December 2005.

When I hear about accusations of misogyny against figures in the Islamic tradition, I find it instructive to think about unpalatable statements from giants in the history of Western philosophy. Plato, Aristotle or Nietzsche become a proxy for classical Islamic scholar Shaykh X. By switching traditions, we can have a more open discussion with less offense.

When I come across a statement from the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche or Heidegger that rubs me the wrong way, I ask myself two questions:

1) Why is this offensive to me?

I see two possibilities here: a) because it conflicts with my fundamental convictions, and b) because it conflicts with the fundamental assumptions of the intellectual culture I live in. Usually it’s both, but I’m surprised at how often it’s the second. Insofar as the prevailing intellectual culture is liberalism, the real criteria of taking offense are equality and freedom. Nietzsche’s misogyny pales in comparison to his blasphemy, but only one of them is considered seriously offensive to the ‘intelligent’ reader.

2) How does it affect my ability to take this scholar seriously?

People typically go one of two ways here:

a) since this person is my hero, i’ll either agree with what he just said or pretend he never said it;
b) this person is a mysogynist, racist, classist homophobe and is therefore no longer worth reading (the dead white man critique, the Muslim version of which is “I’m not going to take my deen from a bigot”)

In commenting on Heidegger’s Nazism, I remember Wendy Doniger (a University of Chicago scholar on religion) suggesting a third approach:

c) without condoning his less palatable views, we should “glide past” them in order to benefit from his other, more important, views.

This approach makes it possible to learn from people we cannot afford to remove from our shelf (Heidegger is arguably the most significant philosopher of the twentieth century), but is nevertheless unsatisfying to me. I would rather like to think it possible to:

d) confront these statements regardless of the discomfort it creates in us. We may ultimately disagree with them–which may lead us back to (b) or (c). But I think it’s telling how often the problem we have with a text (returning to my first question) is its disagreement with liberalism’s fundamental assumptions. What do you do with Plato’s inegalitarianism when it’s central to his worldview–i.e., that equality is simply incompatible with human excellence? You can’t embrace it, you can’t ignore it, you can’t dismiss it, and you can’t glide past it (particularly if Plato is your favorite philosopher). Perhaps, just perhaps, you can learn something from it.

So what does all of this have to do with classical Islamic scholarship? I haven’t thought this through past the connections that are immediately evident. At the risk of saying something highly offensive or problematic, let me nonetheless share the following provisional thoughts. For one, it isn’t enough to say that Shaykh X is one of the most respected and beloved figures in our tradition (which he may well be, but this doesn’t make him immune from criticism). If I want to take his normative claims seriously, simply attributing them to his specific time and culture seems like another cop-out.

By the same token, however, I can’t possibly reject every pejorative statement in a tradition that extends well beyond liberalism’s presuppositions. Taking offense is necessarily a subjective matter, and to take someone’s normative claims seriously also requires me to scrutinize my own reactions. (Why must everything be reduced to freedom and equality?)

Again, I don’t know where this ultimately takes us, but it does indicate the nub of the problem.

(I’m reminded here of Reverend Brown in Coming to America: “I love the Lord! I love the Lord! And if lovin’ the Lord is wrong, I don’t wanna be right!”)



1. talib - 20 February 2006

I find that Shaykh X’s reputation among Muslims too often saves his rulings and opinions from serious, legitimate criticism. The standard rhetorical response to any attempt at criticism: “But are you a mujtahid?”

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