In a recent New York Times interview, the blogger Pamela Geller leveled many serious charges against Islam; she stated that Muslims curse Jews and Christians during their five-times-a-day prayer; that the only good Muslim is a secular Muslim; and most perniciously, she said that the Qur'an has never been properly translated, insinuating that it contains dark secrets about Muslims and their religious responsibilities. This last bit struck me as outrageous, because, as a Jew, Geller should know that anti-Semites have spent nearly two thousand years insinuating that the Talmud contains secret instructions guiding the alleged Jewish attempt to dominate the world. To make the same unsupported charge against Islam is egregious.
I have to plead an embarrassing ignorance about Pamela Geller. I was well aware of the Internet-driven opposition to Feisal Abd ar-Rauf's Ground Zero/Park 51 mosque, but had not entered her name into my memory. I don't read blogs much--except Goldblog and those that publish me--and I was more than a little taken back when Jeffrey sent me a note containing comments by Ms. Geller about English translations of the Qur'an. The intersection of politics, public policy, and scholarship isn't always pretty, and we are most often fortunate that scholars don't write our domestic and foreign policies. However, there is a certain deference that activists must give to scholars when they tread on what is clearly academic terrain. A good cause--and Ms. Geller's general concern about the harm that violent Islamic militants can do is an estimable fight--is no excuse for agitprop and what amounts to a slur against some of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century. According to the New York Times, Ms. Geller has stated:
Now I also believe that a true translation, an accurate translation of the Koran, is really not available in English, according to many of the Islamic scholars that I've spoken to. That's deeply troubling. And I don't think that many westernized Muslims know when they pray five times a day that they're cursing Christians and Jews five times a day. I don't think they know that.
Let's take the Qur'an first, Muslim prayers second. Concerning the translation of the Muslim Holy Book, who might these Islamic scholars be? Since Ms. Geller is without Arabic, it's impossible for her to compare the original to a translation. She must depend upon others, who, if I follow Ms. Geller, are involved in a conspiracy to hide the ugly truth about Islam. If the translations were more "accurate," we would all see what's apparent to Ms. Geller, who ascertained the truth despite the blinding scholarly conspiracy. One has to ask whether Ms. Geller has perused the translation masterpiece by Cambridge's late great A.J. Arberry or my personal favorite, the awesomely erudite, more literal translation and commentary by Edinburgh's late great Richard Bell? Both gentlemen are flag-waving members of Edward Said's most detested species--Orientalists. Now if you look at these translations--especially if you look at Bell's, which is blessed with exhaustive notes in a somewhat complicated formatting--even the uninitiated can get an idea that Muhammad had trouble with Christians and especially Jews during his life. If you look at the Qur'anic commentary by Edinburgh's late great William Montgomery Watt (another Orientalist), who was always attentive to Muslim sensibilities in his writings, you can also fine in clear English Muhammad's unpleasant ruminations about Christians and Jews.
Now what all of this means to contemporary Islamic militancy is a very long discussion, for which I suspect that Ms. Geller doesn't have abundant patience. Islam has been having awful problems absorbing modernity; its travails so far--let us underscore--have been less bloody than what we witnessed as Christianity modernized. Any non-Muslim certainly has the right to study, question, and criticize the Islamic faith, as Muslims have the (well-exercised) right to let loose against what they see as the imperfections of Christianity, Judaism, and humanist secularism (the West's dominant faith). As Iran's robust, astonishing intellectual wars over the last twenty years have shown, it's good for Muslims and non-Muslims not to pull their punches. Muslims should never be treated as children, which is a debilitating disposition found widely now on the American Left. (President Obama has not helped.) But the great Islamic scholars of the past did not lie. There is no conspiracy. We are blessed with illuminating English translations of the Muslim Holy Book. Ms. Geller might consider blogging less, and reading more.
And about Muslim prayer: I certainly have no perfect way of knowing what Muslims think when they pray, but I really do think they know what they're doing. If westernized Muslims are facing the Almighty, they know what's in their hearts. Devout Muslims need not hate Jews and Christians to worship the Creator. Christians have slaughtered Jews through the centuries. But it would be theologically atrocious to believe that the Christian message requires Jewish blood. (Christians' killing Jews so often did provoke some Christians to question the foundation of their faith--a theologically estimable exercise.) The Prophet Muhammad is certainly a different kind of historical figure than Jesus, but it should not be startling to discover that Muslims through the centuries have not seen the prophet's slaughter of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Medina as a mainstay of their creed. In my experience--and I'm intuiting here--most Muslims do not think about Jews and Christians at all when they pray. Suffering, in all its merciless variety, takes center stage, I suspect. When I've watched Muslim pilgrims come to Sunni and Shiite tombs and sacred sites in Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, I've not seen a conquering people. I've usually just seen misery and the human hope that good fortune will come with a better heart. I've seen fraternity among a men who live in lands where fraternal behavior is rare. Ms. Geller would do well to travel more. It's a very good and essential cause to fight jihadism, but such a struggle should not incline us to maul Islamic history or to treat Muslims as if they were merely a walking version of this surah or that legal treatise. Christians and Jews and atheists are much more than the sum of their parts. So, too, are Muslims.
I sent some of Geller's quotes to my friend Reuel Gerecht, a genuine expert on Islam, to see what he thought of them. Reuel, as many of you know, is no apologist for radical Islamism; quite the opposite. He believes we are at war with a dangerous ideology. But he also has respect for Islam, and a great deal of knowledge of it. Here is what he says about Geller's assertions: