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On Islam: A Reply to Rick Brookhiser


Responding to an e-mail query I posed to him about a Corner post on October 26, Rick Brookhiser (on November 3) claimed: “My correspondent [Bostom] and the Islamists say that Islam is unchanging, because the Koran says so.” 
First, let me point out that Mr. Brookhiser has equated me with the wrong “Islamists.” Through at least the mid-1950s, dedicated students of Islamic doctrine and history — such as myself — were still referred to as “Islamists.” This “Islamism” helped me to understand, in detail, the other “Islamists” somewhat better than Mr. Brookhiser does.
In 19th-century parlance, “Islamism” and “Islam” were synonymous, and meant to be equivalent to “Catholicism,” “Protestantism,” and “Judaism” — not to “radical” or “fundamentalist” sects of any of these religions. Sir Henry Layard, the British archeologist, writer, and diplomat, described an abhorrent spectacle of such “Islamism” (i.e., Islam) that he witnessed in the heart of Istanbul, during the autumn of 1843: 

An Armenian who had embraced Islamism [i.e., Islam] had returned to his former faith. For his apostasy he was condemned to death according to the Mohammedan law. His execution took place, accompanied by details of studied insult and indignity directed against Christianity and Europeans in general. The corpse was exposed in one of the most public and frequented places in Stamboul, and the head, which had been severed from the body, was placed upon it, covered by a European hat. [Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia, London, 1887, pp. 454-55.]

Mr. Brookhiser’s glib November 3 post replying to my e-mail omitted mention of a published essay I had included that covers the historic nature of punishment for blasphemy under Islamic Law. This detailed piece debunks his assumption that the desire to impose Islamic blasphemy law is somehow limited to a present-era “radical” version of Islam. According to Brookhiser, “the practice of Islam changed during the twentieth century, and even in her [i.e., Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s] lifetime, thanks to the evangelizing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the agendas of Saudi Arabia and post-Shah Iran.” Here, from my February 2008 essay, is an explanation of how much, sadly, has not changed:

Even in that purely mythical paragon of Islamic ecumenism, Andalusia,  Charles Emmanuel Dufourcq, a pre-eminent scholar of Muslim Spain, observed that the myriad religious and legal discriminations suffered by non-Muslim dhimmis (i.e., the non-Muslim Iberian populations vanquished by jihad, and governed by Islamic law, Shari’a), included lethal punishments for “blaspheming” the Muslim prophet, or the Koran: “[For] having insulted the Prophet or blasphemed against the Word of God (i.e., The Koran)-dhimmis were executed.”

At present, these views are not held merely by small groups of sectarians; they are mainstream Islamic understandings today, most evident in the contemporary application of blasphemy law in Pakistan. Citing al-Qayrawani’s 10th-century treatise on Islamic Law (the Risala), which was applied in Muslim Spain, Pakistan’s Sharia court has accepted the argument of a modern champion of Islamic blasphemy law, the esteemed Pakistani scholar Muhammad Asrar, that anyone who defames Muhammad — Muslim or non-Muslim — must be put to death. Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo has documented how this orthodox Islamic doctrine — incorporated into the Pakistani legal code (Section 295-C, “defiling the name of Muhammad”) — has wreaked havoc, particularly among Pakistan’s small Christian minority community:

The blasphemy law is felt to be a sword of Damocles and has developed a huge symbolic significance which contributes substantially to the atmosphere of intimidation of Christians. The detrimental effect of the law . . . is most dramatically illustrated by the incident at Shanti Nagar in February 1997 in which tens of thousands of rioting Muslims destroyed hundreds of Christian homes, and other Christian property, following an accusation of blasphemy. Furthermore the blasphemy has engendered a wave of private violence. Equating blasphemy with apostasy and influenced by the tradition of direct violent action and self-help which goes back to the earliest times of Islam, some Muslims feel they are entitled to enforce the death penalty themselves.

Thus the doctrinal and historical context for modern Islamic attitudes towards the Danish cartoons — including the recent lethal threats to Kurt Westergaard and Flemming Rose by Chicago-based Muslims — far transcends what Brookhiser terms “Islamism.” Perhaps Brookhiser designates as “Islamists” the entire religious and political leadership of the Organization of the Islamic Conference — fierce contemporary advocates of Islamic blasphemy law (as chronicled for over two decades by historian David Littman), and representative of over a billion Muslims from 57 nations identified as “Islamic.” Or where else will Brookhiser’s Diogenes-like search for moderate Islam take him?

Andrew G. Bostom is a professor of medicine at Brown University and author of The Legacy of Jihad.