zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Definitely my “Best Book” of 2014

Definitely my “Best Book” of 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — I’m posting this not just to recommend Brown’s book, but also to make a significant excerpt from it readily available on the net ]

Misquoting Muhammad cover


One book I received this year has given me a greater depth of understanding than any other by a wide margin. That book is Professor Jonathan AC Brown‘s book, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy.

Brown is a Muslim, a professor at Georgetown, and author of Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. His book Misquoting Muhammad — not his choice of title, btw — lays open the varieties of interpretive possibility in dealing with the Qur’an and ahadith with comprehensive scholarship and clarity. In light of the upsurge in interest in Islamic and Islamist religious teachings occasioned by Graeme Wood‘s recent Atlantic article, I asked Prof. Brown’s permission to reproduce here the section of his book dealing with abrogation and the rules of war.

Here then, with his permission, is an extract from Misquoting Muhammad. I hope it will prove of use both here and to others beyond the circle of Zenpundit readers. Spread the word!

The whole book is worth reading, the whole of this extract is worth reading — but the section within the extract that I particularly recommend is the passage which begins with “Abrogation brought into sharp contrast” (p.100) and ends with “but were those who died not also my servants?” (p. 103).


By way of a bonus, here’s a related DoubleQuote:

SPEC DQ hadith & midrash

Midrash Source:

  • Rabbi David Levi, JTS Torah Commentary
  • 9 Responses to “Definitely my “Best Book” of 2014”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      The Atlantic article quoted a Professor Bernard Haykal, who said something simple and useful: “As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Right. So, we have ISIS interpreting texts, and we see that no one learned in the Muslim holy writings can say they are not, in fact, quoting from sacred scripture to justify their evil deeds. In fact, no one with an Internet connection can dispute that they have scriptural grounds for the things they are doing. You give us an interesting and learned passage from Professor Brown, who is capable of asserting a plausible different interpretation. And that is good to know. Perhaps one day many or even most Muslims will find a more subtle and nuanced reading of such commands as “smite the neck of the unbelievers.” At the moment however we have a vibrant, enthusiastic and so far successful group of young men, who are attracting many to their cause, who think “smite the neck of the unbelievers” means “smite the neck of the unbelievers.” It is hard to say they are poor exegetes for thinking this passage must mean what it says, and that as a divine command, it must be obeyed. This is especially the case when we know that the Prophet did in fact, defeat his enemies in battle by, inter alia, smiting their necks. So, there is not only textual support by historical precedent of the strongest kind for their reading. Fortunately for non-Muslims, who have neither the time nor the inclination more the scholarly competence to get into intra-Muslim theological disputes, we do not need to figure out whether ISIS or Prof. Brown more properly interprets these passages. We just need to know that ISIS reads the texts the way it does, believe them to be divine commands, and acts accordingly. Knowing this, we are better able to plan whatever military response is necessary to defeat them, and hopefully destroy them entirely. This is both theoretically and practically an easier task than debating them. And, while certainly an amateur in these textual disputes, and while also hating to concede anything to the brutes in ISIS, they seem to have the stronger case as to what these old documents mean, and what they command their believers to do.

    2. zen Says:

      I am no expert on Islam, nor of Arabs, though I am modestly well-read for a layman of books by experts on these things, though not near, I am certain, approaching Charles.
      The theological answer to ISIS has to come from within the Islamic world. There are some promising stirrings and some intelligent CI and security policies in Egypt but until the Saudi, Qatari and Pakistani states stop funding the churning out of violent, radical Islamist propaganda and training camps for terrorists and instead begin arresting and executing these folks, the Islamic world is not serious about ending this threat. And they are not serious because large numbers of Muslims adhere to hardline variants of deobandi and wahabbi Salafism.
      However, as a legal and strategic response the international community does not need to consider theology in dealing with this threat. We have a tried and true way of dealing with these kinds of non-state threats, once used to stomp out piracy and slave-trading – a declaration of Outlawry. We will have to ratify this by Convention into international law, but after which adherents to groups such as ISIS, AQ, Boko Haram etc. and whomever shelters them may be killed out of hand by any state or any private person or groups of persons, wherever they are found.
      Until that time, we can start by enforcing existing international law again regarding perfidy. “Catch and release” and “indefinite detention”can be replaced with “Catch and Speedy Trial” for fighting out of uniform with the convicted receiving their appeal and if unsuccessful, their execution by hanging or firing squad within the week. Commanders catching insurgents red handed targeting civilians can conduct a court-martial in the field and carry out sentences by firing squad the same day, on the spot of their crimes if feasible.

      We also return to ROE being the Laws of War

    3. T. Greer Says:

      Inasmuch as the goal is grounding ISIS into the dust, then you are correct, Lex. Inasmuch the goal is winning a war against “global extremism” or “global terror” or whatever the term of the moment, then this view is limited.


      China and Japan saw vast changes in the shape of their society because the old Confucian world view that had hitherto held sway was discredited. In Europe Communism and fascism rose because the old ideology of classical liberalism was discredited. Communism, as a global revolutionary force, eventually disappeared because it was discredited. We don’t worry about communist revolutionaries anymore because this view was so thoroughly discredited no one in the world is willing to pick up arms in its name again.


      We cannot “win” this fight, in the long term, unless we can discredit the ideology that gives this fight teeth.


      Luckily, this does not require discrediting a 700 year old religion held by one sixth of the world’s population. It is worth reminding ourselves that the ideology we seek to discredit is a comparatively new one. It was born in the sands of Najd shortly before Arabia became “Saudi,” crystallized in its present form only in the 1960s, and was not exported abroad until the late 1980s. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict excepted, almost all jihadi terrorist attacks can be linked directly to this new ideology and the madrassas and proselytizing media used to spread it. It is an ideology that directly threatens the sovereign rulers of every country in the middle east, and one whose interpretations are not only opposed by the majority of Islamic theologians, but have little relation to the way Islam was practiced in most places a mere 30 years ago.


      That an ideology is new or rebels against established world views does not make it less dangerous. It also does not say anything about its future success–once upon a time protestantism was a new ideology too. I encourage people to use this analogy–to think of these wahhabi reformers as the first wave of protestant reformers back in the 16th century–not only because the savagery displayed by many of them was quite comparable to ISIS, but because it gives you a sense of the stakes at play. The shape of entire civilizations are on the table of this game. Not every game of great power politics has Civilizational level stakes. This one does.


      A close Palestinian friend of mine posted the following on acebook the other day:

      “ISIS has zero connection to Islam. The only people who think ISIS is Islamic either know nothing about Islam, are part of ISIS or write for The Atlantic. If you doubt this, please take the time to read this letter written by some of the most prominent Islamic Scholars of our time in which they go into excruciating detail highlighting the VERY Un-Islamic nature of ISIS. It is 23 pages long and in 10 different languages.

      p.s. Stop saying Muslims aren’t speaking out against ISIS”


      He links to this open letter to al-Baghdadi signed by several hundred Imams and muftis across the world, debating various theological claims made by ISIS point by point. The post started a long debate–some 40 comments long last I checked–on whether or not ISIS was indeed “Islamic” or if it was something else. Had the debate been started by anyone else it would almost seem parodic. Of course the Islamic State is Islamic. By denying the theological underpinnings of the group and its explicit religious–indeed, Islamic–goals we deny the threat it poses and the permanent impact ISIS and wahhabi ideology may have on Islamic civilization as a whole. Lily-liberal progressives are intellectual cowards for refusing to face up to this fact.


      But my friend is not a lily-liberal progressive. He is a practicing Muslim, forwarding a message written by other Muslims meant to be read first and foremost by Muslims. What those in the comment thread upset at my friend’s refusal to “own up” on the Islamic nature of ISIS could not see is that the boundaries of a religion and ideology are not set by old texts or theological debate, but by the perceptions and actions of the religious themselves. What the average American protestant–and even more so the average American catholic!–does to worship Christ is only tenuously connected anything found in a Biblical text, and their life-style would be alien and scandalous to “christians” of both the 4th and the 14th century. One age’s heretics are another age’s fellow brothers. What is or what is not “Christian” is entirely determined by the perceptions, mores, and opinions of those who call themselves Christian. If they all decide that something is or is not Christian then, for all intents of purposes, it will be so. As with Christianity, so with Islam. The Islamic state will be ‘unislamic’ once there is no one left who believes its actions are grounded in the Islamic faith.


      Its a hard nut for Westerners to crack. President Obama and Bush show some awareness of the problem when they declare that ISIS or terrorism or whatever is not Islamic. In the end, however, these statements are self defeating, for those most tempted to join the Jihadi cause are those who will respond least well to a Christian emperor telling them how to express their faith. The crux of the problem is that we have picked a side in an ideological civil war, but the clearer it becomes that we Americans have chosen this side the more difficult it becomes for them to win.


      To tie it all up: recognizing both the scale of the threat and the nature of the threat helps us. We need to realize that the daily lives of billions of people around the world are being decided right now, and that a virulent ideology, not an individual terrorist group or force, is the prime enemy. Victory can only come through discrediting this ideology. However, if we transparently support those who support the position we like then we discredit them.


      The implications of all this in my mind are: 1) We should not try to take part in the theological, intellectual, and cultural conflicts that are driving this ideology forward. We should only support Muslims who oppose this ideology when our intentions for doing so are not transparent.


      2) We should become very fluent in the details of these beliefs and these debates, however; ideologies have been discredited without understanding them, but the human costs of such a campaign is very great. Better to be smart, if we can.


      3) We should focus on events in the real world that can discredit these ideologies. The Atlantic article gives a good example–i you can remove the Caliphate from its territory it is no longer a Caliphate–and we can think of others if we properly understand the ideology at play here. (For example, I would suggest that our campaigns against ISIS would have far greater power if they were perceived to be led, planned, directed, and fought by Sunni muslims. America’s role should be muted. This will be hard to pull of given realities of current U.S. domestic politics though).
      4) We should do all we can to stop the dissemination of wahhabi ideology.On the short term that means taking down jihadist web-sites and forums; on the medium term that means confiscating the funds and barring visa travels of the rich Saudi and emirati sheiks who fund the madrassas and presses that produce the filth; on the long term it means recognizing that Saudi Arabia poses a greater threat to the interests of the United States specifically and of humanity generally than any other state, and do what we can to terminate our relationship with the house of Saud.

      5) Related to that last point, we need to fundamentally rethink our alliance system in the Middle East. It is too much to ask for an alliance with Iran, but rally, of all the regional players they are the least worst option. They are not exporting an ideology that creates jihadists around the world. Outside of the Middle East itself you won’t find a Shia terrorist. Moreover, growing Shiite power means more of the energy spent on attacking the West will be spent attacking Iran, while we can safely support Iranian ambitions without discrediting them, as would happen with many a “moderate” Sunni.


      That last one is radical but it may be the most important. Even if the Iranians resolutely oppose every American initiative in the region the damage they will do–both to America, but really more importantly, to Islamic civilization as a whole, heck to all of humanity will be far, far less than out havok our “allies” are bringing now.

    4. Lexington Green Says:

      Zen, that sounds good.

      It will be two years before we have any hope of seeing it happen.

    5. Charles Cameron Says:

      Still catching my breath. Hope to respond soon.

    6. Charles Cameron Says:

      T Greer’s comment seems to have slipped in between Zen’s and Lex’s — it was likely waiting in the approval queue since it contained more than one link. In any case, it is here now, and should not be missed.

    7. larrydunbar Says:

      ” but until the Saudi, Qatari and Pakistani states stop funding the churning out of violent, radical Islamist propaganda and training camps for terrorists and instead begin arresting and executing these folks, the Islamic world is not serious about ending this threat.”
      That to me that says it all.
      It’s a surface–gap problem.
      When the surface area that is under ISIS control increases it puts pressure on the gap between those in Saudi, Qatari, and Pakistan to Act.
      But how should KSA, Qatari, and Pakistan Act?
      Should they replace those in power, or support them? The environment in the Middle East doesn’t support much else, at least in the context of Sunni Arabs relationship.
      Perhaps you mean, by your statement, you are willing to define other relationships in the context of ISIS?
      Perhaps replace them with some Ottomans or Kurdish tribesmen?
      How about replacing them with some Iranian fundamentalists?
      Of course I am being silly. What would a bunch of Persians be doing in the position that ISIS has gotten themselves into?

    8. larrydunbar Says:

      “What would a bunch of Persians be doing in the position that ISIS has gotten themselves into?” Except of course dying. I think the Greeks have said as much from their accent from the sea.

    9. Grurray Says:

      “Its a hard nut for Westerners to crack.”
      For a Palestinian to say Daesh isn’t Muslim makes sense. He may practice Islam, but it’s lower in the hierarchy of how he identifies himself, which is more a part of a national group with religious identity secondary. Wahhabi’s have no national identity, but a religious one.
      It’s the Arabist problem of group identification. For simplicity sake, we in the West have taken the modern view of equating language with nationality, but things turned out to be much more complicated than that.
      “we need to fundamentally rethink our alliance system in the Middle East.”
      John Robb tweated out this map the other day of Daesh’s operations:
      It’s obvious to me that Israel and Iran have an obvious shared interest in aligning themselves together rather than saber rattling. Now that Iran has pretty much established a Shia corridor from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, Israel has to start looking at all its options.
      While there are plenty of hurdles for that scenario, maybe a more realistic alliance to the West is an Israeli-Cypriot-Hellenic-Egyptian coalition. If this could link up with the enclaves being carved out by the Kurdish/Assyrian/Byzantine forces in Northern Syria, this could be a serious bullwark to western infiltration and Turkish abetment.

    Switch to our mobile site