Interview with Timothy R. Furnish: Doing Islamic History


Timothy Furnish, the author of Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden (Praeger, 2005), teaches history at Georgia Perimeter College, Dunwoody, GA. He was interviewed by email by Rick Shenkman, the editor of HNN.

I was surprised to learn that before you were a historian you served in the military. What's your military background?

4 1/2 years enlisted in Army Intelligence (Arabic linguist/interrogator), following college (it paid off my student loans) in the mid-80s. In the late-90s I was commissioned as a chaplain candidate in the Army while I was doing my doctorate at Ohio State, since I had also obtained an M.A. from Concordia Seminary. But when it came to finishing my dissertation or doing chaplaincy full-time, I opted for the former and in fact I was just discharged as an O-3 (Captain) a few months ago.

Has your military experience shaped the way you do history?

Probably not all that much, other than determining my specialization.

How did you decide to choose Islamic history?

Well, partly out of interest and partly out of utilitarian motives. Having joined the Army in 1983 hoping to learn Russian, I knew little of Islam or the Middle East when I wound up in Arabic training at the Defense Language Institute. But it sparked my interest in that religion and region, and when my enlistment was up I decided to go into graduate school in Islamic history, since I already had the primary research language under my belt.

Has 9/11 affected your scholarly work? That is, has it caused you to change the focus of your studies?

Not all that much. I was already working on Mahdism and the nexus between it and Islamic fundamentalism, and in all honesty 9/11 was not a big surprise to me.

Do you find that Americans have serious misperceptions about Islamic history?

One big one in particular: that the Islamic world has always been a victim at the hands of the West. I find this particularly prominent among the intelligentsia in the country, whose knowledge of Islamic/Middle Eastern history goes back, at best, to the early 20th c. Very few, in my experience, know of the imperial reach and power of, say, the Abbasids, Fatimids, Mughals or even Ottomans.

Conservatives like David Horowitz claim that Middle East Studies programs in the United States are dominated by anti-Israel liberals. Do you agree?

Liberals, yes; but anti-Israel ones, not necessarily. I do think that the field can be defined, largely, in terms of Saidians (devotees of Edward Said's "Orientalism" thesis, which sees the Arab world as victim of the West) and Lewisians (devotees of Bernard Lewis, who disagree). I fall into the latter camp. As mentioned earlier, I think the tendency (sometimes, insistence) to see the Arab, or even the entire Muslim, world as victimized by the West is rampant in the field, and insofar as Israel is seen as, if you will, the "tip of the spear," many academics dislike Israel.

Why did you write your book, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden? (Please tell us what a Mahdi is.)

"al-Mahdi" is "the rightly-guided one" who, according to Islamic hadiths (traditions), will come before the End of Time to make the entire world Muslim (with a little help from the returned prophet Jesus). I did my doctoral dissertation on Mahdist movements throughout history and that book is the expansion thereof. I was asked to write the book by Greenwood/Praeger after an article I'd published, not long after 9/11, speculating on whether Usama bin Ladin might attempt to claim the Mahdiyah for himself.

It's hard to write about Islamic history without getting caught up in current controversies, I would think. Have you found it difficult to maintain proper historical perspective in your work?

Sometimes. Any discussion of Islam and the violence done in its name today is fraught with danger (so far, only rhetorical). If I had any hair left, I'd pull it out with frustration over the extremists of both the Left and Right who see only the aspects of Islam which they wish to: the former just parrot, over and over, "Islam is a religion of peace" without, it seems, ever having bothered to read the Qur'an or study Islamic history; the latter, on the other hand, fall off the horse on the other side and emphasize nothing but the undeniably real violent strain in Islam, but never seem to notice (or admit) that moderate Islam (Sufism) and moderate Islamic states (the Ottoman Empire) can exist. However, at this juncture in history, I do think that the Left's denial of the undeniably violent, albeit minority, strain of Islam is the greater threat.

If you had five minutes with President Bush what would you tell him he needs to remember about Islamic history?

That the Muslim proponents of moderate Islam as a "religion of peace" will not gain the upper hand until the Islamic world undergoes its own "enlightenment" and, like the predominantly-Christian West, officially abandons its dream of a one world religious state. Admittedly, this took Western civilization centuries to do, and it had one major advantage the Islamic world does not: the tradition, going back to Jesus himself, of separation of church and state ("give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," Matthew 22:21).

Islam has been, almost since its inception, as much a political as a religious movement. And a military one. Islam will have to be reconfigured such that it can co-exist in minority status without having to seize the reins of power. That will be difficult to do, and it will have to be done primarily by Muslims themselves, but quite frankly the global community cannot allow one belief system to demand obeisance from the others. We in the West can, and should, help moderate Islam to win out over the jihadists, but in the final analysis Muslims themselves must do the heavy lifting there.

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    More Comments:

    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    Professor Furnish
    Allow two slight corrections to what you said ,viz :
    "al-Mahdi" is "the rightly-guided one" who, according to Islamic hadiths (traditions),"
    1-Al Mahdi : to most believers in the principle is the "Divinely guided" one
    2-"Hadith" is what the Prophet said="sayings" not traditions.
    ( Siret as salaf is more apt to be called "traditions".)
    Traditionally these "hadiths" are classified into several categories re inspiration and authenticity.
    Hadith qudsi (Kudsi) is the presumably "divinely inspired" saying etc;re authenticity and general acceptability "hadiths" are subdivided into "confirmed(sahih)", "weak" ,etc.
    Which is which is a highly controversial affair between the "ulama" ie theologians of the different sects.

    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    Professor Furnish had the following part of a sentence thrown in, en passant, in his interview .:
    "....but never seem to notice (or admit) that moderate Islam (Sufism)and moderate Islamic states (the Ottoman Empire ) can exist."

    To contend that :
    "moderate Islam"="sufism" , in an essentially political context as is the rest of his interview where "moderate" is, presumably, used as an alternative or antonym to "fundamentalist", "hard line", "extremist" etc ,
    is a baffling assertion if we note that the qualification "moderate" is used here in the sense of "acceptable", "tolerable", "desirable" (by and to whom ? is another question) precondition , prequalification, of an, presumably ," Islamic or Islamist state!"

    The source of this bafflement is that "Sufism", as defined in the Encyclopedia Britannica, is a:

    "... mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. It consists of a variety of mystical paths that are designed to ascertain the nature of man and God and to facilitate the experience of the presence of divine love and wisdom in the world."

    As such "sufism" is hardly a potential or adequate founding basis for a governance, ie political, system or a proper attribute of a political doctrine or system or of a state!

    Further more, as Prof Furnish knows, “Sufis” in Islam are the “hermits” of Christianity i.e. those whose gave up worldly life and affairs and sought refuge, normally in a solitary life, in their own nonworldy, spiritual world.
    Equally hardly the qualifications of politicians intent on improving the worldly, materialistic, life of their people; or of a political, governance, system or of a state.

    To describe an envisioned or desired Moslem, or non Moslem, state as
    "sufist” is the equivalent of describing a Western state, or mode of governance, as " spiritual or transcendental,(hermit like) "; a qualification totally inattributable nor relevant to the object described.

    Is that inapplicable, irrelevant and inappropriate desired qualification of the state an oversight of Professor Furnish or is that what is really desired by him: a "Moslem/Islamist state" where Islam is present only as a "mystical ” influence.

    Had he had that in mind why not say it outright and in as many words?

    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    We can agree to disagree about the "guidance", wether Divinely or otherwise although your interpretation of the term is way off the classical interpretation but is NOT incorrect; hence "slight correction"

    However Re "Hadith" the question is settled by all authorities on the subject, that does not include me, and is unarguable with religious authorities or the mass of believers.

    Hadith (from haddatha not hadatha )relates exclusively to what the Prophet SAID ( what others said can never be deemed as Hadith) and not what happened with or around him. Hence the an=After, as told by,(according) .X(Proper name )..,an.Y..,an Z...etc,(X,Y and Z being witnesses with X having first (personally?) heard the Hadith from the Prophet, Y ditto from X and Z ditto from Y) in the transmission to establish credibility and authenticity of a Hadith as being SAID by the Prophet.

    Sunna relates more to what happened and to "traditions".

    omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

    The point was:the correct,exact, meaning of the word, the term "Hadith"!
    The exact meaning of a word is important!

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    Thank God for clear thinkers like Professor Furnish. It is noteworthy that the Muslims THEMSELVES must reject extremism. The left whines that Bush isn't sensitive enough to the Muslim condition and that understanding will change their murderous ways. The right mistakenly thinks they can forcibly submit Islam to capitulate. Neither are true yet as a stop gap, fighting them is far superior for the free world than allowing their growth.

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    Sure John, check out Cindy Sheehan, Michael Moore, anyone posting to the Daily Kos, The entire Air America crew, Ward Churchill, Al Franken, John Conyers, 90% of political science professors....

    "Fighting them in the way we currently are is leading to the expansion of their power and influence."
    How should we be fighting them wizbang?

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    Not dubious at all Ralph. Jesus (God) knew or predestined the establishment of the Christian Church. From the time Jesus recruited Simon and named him Peter he said, "You are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" Matt 16:13-19 There are many, many references to "church" and "the church" throughout the New Testament.

    Now, in fact, the recognition of the separation of church and state preceded the Christian Church but as Professor Furnish indicted, the concept was incorporated at the Church's inception.

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    Here’s a few but the list goes on and on.

    Richard Gephardt: “the Bush-Cheney bravado has left us isolated in the world - fracturing 50 years of alliances, calling into question our credibility, squandering the global goodwill that was showered on us after 9/11."

    John Kerry: “He's not making the world safer, I do not believe this administration is doing the job of protecting Americans.”

    Howeird Dean: the President’s personal swagger is alienating potential allies and hindering international progress against terror. “It's a personal matter,”

    Dean is also quoted as saying. “He has some part of his personality which leads him to humiliate people who disagree with on policy matters.”

    Catching OBL a start? You have no F’ing clue what to do. Don’t act like you do. You’re just parroting DNC talking points. You are soooo out of touch. Even Pelosi said the other day that capturing OBL would make not difference. If Saddam were allowed to murder and oppress his people and threaten the rest of the world as you and most of the Democrats would have wanted, he would have exploited the oil for food scam to maximum benefit, by now. Gotten even richer on $70 barrel oil, acquired more dangerous WMD and completely freed himself of any trace of sanctions (which he ignored for 12 years anyway). I realize to you that is a good thing, not to me.

    Finally, I've witnessed your selective perception, but let me draw your attention to the fact that “substantive” is not one of the wizbang’s attributes. Nonetheless, I’m glad you like your new nic.

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    Good argument Ralph. You are too superior to be wrong. News flash! You ARE wrong. The historical account of the bible IS history. Of course you can disprove it if you got the nuts.

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    Bull! Just because YOU cannot conceive of the separation of church and state outside of a democratic framework does not preclude it's existence. It is plain. Jesus told the Pharisees "render unto Caeser" in respose to the Pharisees trap that Jesus incriminate himself by telling Jews to ignore a tribute to Caesar. [there are multiple reasons for this which I will not go into] The other school of thought is that Caesar's due tribute will be rendered him with the 2nd coming of Christ, death. Either way it is a plain example that the kingdom of God (religion) and the state are separate in any aspect. For a such an educated cuss you have trouble with some pretty simple concepts.

    It is not Just Professor Furnish that says so. Check out The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy http://www.bartleby.com/59/3/renderuntoc2.html

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    Maybe I shouldn't have used the slang, "nuts" in this enviornment, but what it means is that if you have the "goods" or "proof".

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    And that is somehow less credible than celestial bodies appearing from nothing, then mashing into one another resulting in our solar system and life?

    I'll give you the option. You can either prove the big bang theory, or whatever you believe in currently, or you can disprove the account of the Bible.

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    Really? I'm a poorly educated person and to me Jesus' recognition of a separation of the two spheres is sufficient that a separation exists to him. Why is it not?

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    I can live with that fine. I wasn't asking you to disprove it in the last post Ralph. Only explaining your misunderstanding of my use of the word "nuts". Meaning: I wasn't being vulgar.

    andy mahan - 9/18/2006

    That is obvious Professor. Sometimes I think that those that disagree with the substance of an article attack some minor aside because an objection on the merits would make them look silly. Guess what? Straining at a gnat does too.

    Tim R. Furnish - 9/13/2006

    Mr. Baker,
    Please see my previous comment(s).

    Tim R. Furnish - 9/12/2006

    Thanks, Bones.

    N. Friedman - 9/12/2006

    The trouble with tribbles is that they are born pregnant.

    Tim R. Furnish - 9/12/2006

    I think my favorite all time Trek quote belongs to Scotty:
    "Diplomats?! The best diplomat I know is a fully-activated phaser bank."

    N. Friedman - 9/12/2006

    Live long and prosper!

    A. M. Eckstein - 9/12/2006

    Thanks, N. F.!

    Tim R. Furnish - 9/12/2006

    Mr. Baker,
    You seem to be conflating my two points. I nowhere said that Sufism was the basis for a (comparatively) moderate Islamic state like the Ottomans (although I think some have indeed made that argument, adducing the Sultan's support for certain Sufi orders--nice onomatopeia, too, please note!). Sufism is often (but not always, as I point out in my book), less fundamentalistic and more inclusive than strict shar`iah-based forms of Islam (and has often been pilloried exactly for that by the more conservative Muslims). But the Ottoman Empire was (comparatively) moderate not because of Sufism but because of several other factors, such as the cosmopolitanism of some of its rulers and the need to govern a huge, multi-ethnic, polyglot empire. So the two issues--moderate forms of Islamic polity, and Sufism as a movement with Islam--are separable.

    Tim R. Furnish - 9/12/2006

    One can never go wrong citing Spock.

    N. Friedman - 9/12/2006


    You make a terrific point.

    N. Friedman - 9/12/2006

    Mr. Méndez,

    I do not think I quite said that Islamic civilization will not permit the formation of a real democratic state. I said something a bit different: "I do not think anyone knows or has any idea how Islam and modernity will learn to co-exist. Somehow, I bet it eventually will but it is not going to be anytime soon." (#97143) http://hnn.us/comments/97143.html . I would include democracy in that assertion.

    I think you are not quite correct regarding how religious Jews would divide state from religion. There is the Judaism in the time of the Judges - which you have well described -. However, that Judaism died with the scattering of Jews. A later Judaism, termed rabbinic or Orthodox or classical Judaism, did not assume governance of a state by religious people. It assumed that Jews would manage as an autonomous community within or as guests of other people in power. That Judaism was decided opposed to the yielding of power, as being a source of inhumanity.

    Now, I would agree with your assertion that neither Christianity nor Islam, in power, has been very tolerant. And, pre-rabbinic Judaism was not very tolerant as a state religion, so far as can be discerned while, as I noted, rabbinic Judaism really is not intolerant in that it never wielded real power and had doctrines opposed to the wielding of power. So, its record cannot really be determined as it is, as survey answers go, not applicable (n/s).

    The closest to Jewish governance there has been during the rabbinic period was, if legends are true, the Khazarian Empire, about which not all that much is known. In correspondence between a Jewish vizier in Andalusia and the Kagan (or his advisor) in Khazaria, the Khazarian is, according to Arthur Koestler in his book The Thirteenth Tribe, comparatively primitive. There are also alleged records of Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existing in Khazaria but, again, not much survives on which to judge things.

    Another point, this one from Bernard Lewis. The notion of tolerance, as we understand it, did not exist until rather recently. So, it is probably a mistake to be hunting for tolerance in an age when tolerance did not much exist anywhere.

    Tolerance, so far as I know, arose in a Christian milieu but, it must be noted, the vehement opposition to that tolerance - and the violence that was associated with that opposition - also developed in a Christian milieu and, in many instances, found itself well aligned with religious forces.

    john crocker - 9/12/2006

    I should really read through the entire thread before posting.

    N. Friedman - 9/12/2006


    This is actually an interesting point - even if you slightly bend what Professor Furnish states.

    Tim R. Furnish - 9/12/2006

    As a wiser man than me said (Spock, from "Star Trek"), "a difference which makes no differnce IS no difference." Whether the Prophet SAID it or DID it, it's still normative for Muslims (in the view of most Islamic scholars).
    And what was the point, anyway?

    Sudha Shenoy - 9/12/2006

    "..larger implication that..Germany is somehow a theocratic state..like numerous Muslim ones" (comment no. 97186 above, from Prof. Eckstein.)

    1. Ehh???!! I referred to the _Church of England_ in the sentence _immediately_ preceding! In any case, the context was the specifically _American_ notion of 'separation of church & state': (a) there are examples of 'Western' states with an established church (eg, C of E) & (b) neither is Islamic political thought monolithically uniform, even amongst Shi'ite ayatollahs, never mind others.

    2. "Theocratic Muslim states" nevertheless _do_ have opponents _within_, who object strongly to the notion of 'sharia' law being enacted/enforced. Opposition continues in Pakistan, for one. The 19th century was critical for the intellectual ferment it set off in the Islamic world generally. Again, see Bernard Lewis' accounts of this key historical development.

    N. Friedman - 9/12/2006

    Professor Eckstein,

    You always do add something.

    Sergio Alejandro Méndez - 9/12/2006

    Mr Furnish:

    I know that Israel was founded on secular principles, but Judaism as an ethnicity is marked culturally by judaic religion. In the same way the US was founded as secular state, even if the nation came to life from a society composed in its majority by Christians.

    Now, my point concerning Christianity is that even if Jesus marked a difference between the state and the religious sphere, we should remember Jesus was not the first to pronounce about the issue. Christianity is not ONLY composed of the New Testament, but also of the Old one. And if we ought to believe Christians, the same God who claimed "to Cesar what is for the Cesar..." was the one who instituted a theocratic state ruled by "judges" (any similarities to mullahs in Afghanistan is not pure coincidence) who enforced a brutal sort of law, where homosexuals and cheating wifes were stoned to death for their sins. And lets not talk about Saint Paul, who did not had a problem with slavery or even told us the power of the state came from God itself.

    Concerning Islam, as far as I remember, weren´t Mohamed and his followers persecuted initially for his teachings? True, Mohamed assumed later the control of the state unlike Christ. But I do not see that as extremely significant difference, specially looking the development of Christianity in history.

    john crocker - 9/12/2006

    I can see that the render unto Ceasar passage could be used to bolster an argument for a religious Christian to accept a seperation of faith and religious life. What I am unsure of is how much that actually matters.

    The seperation of church and state seems to have grown out of post Reformation state sponsored religious persecution coupled with the enlightenment and the secularization that it spawned.

    Can you point any historical examples where this verse or some other being effectively used to convince Christians to seperate their political and faith lives? A few strong examples here would bolster your argument. Their absence leaves your argument open to easy criticism.

    It seems to me that the primary indicators of someones ability to seperate their spiritual and political lives are living a secular society and having moderate religious views. Many moderates of all faiths living in Western secular societies manage this seperation (including Muslims). Fundamentalists in any society don't seem to recognize this seperation. People living in religiously dominated societies also do not make this distinction.

    A. M. Eckstein - 9/12/2006

    Okay, NF: all I can say is, "oops!" Still, I hope I did add something valuable to the discussion anyway...



    N. Friedman - 9/12/2006


    I was actually responding to Professor Furnish.

    A. M. Eckstein - 9/12/2006

    I believe Prof. Furnish is correct. Christianity has an (occasional--not consistent) history of opposition to unjust state power. This is rooted in the historical experience that its Founder was himself judicially murdered by the State as a subversive. That Founder did not end as an Emperor ordering the executions of others (as Mohammed ended up doing). The example of the Founder is in each case a very powerful ideal. We can see this Christian tradition in everything from the White Rose group in Munich during the Nazi period (Catholic), to Martin Luther King (Protestant). And neither the Scholl sisters in Munich nor Dr. King dreamed of being totalitarian rulers who would impose their personal vision of, say, Sharia, on all within reach of state power.

    This is not to whitewash Christianity's history of cooperation with state oppression (starting, e.g., with Emperor Constantine ca. 330 A.D., and with St. Augustine ca. 400 A.D.). It's simply to point out the existence of another, and very powerful tradition.

    Tim R. Furnish - 9/12/2006

    Mr. Mendez,
    I would question to what degree Judaism per se "has allowed for the creation of democratic state" [sic], because modern Israel is not the brainchild of Orthodox Rabbis, but of secular Zionist politicians (like Theodore Herzl).
    I would agree to some extent with your assertion that "all 3 major monotheist religions ARE intolerant and anti democratic." But only to some extent, for as I pointed out in the interview Christianity 1) has an explicit dichotomy between the secular and sacred spheres spelled out by its Founder, and 2) had a historical experience of three centuries when it was NOT a state ideology and in fact was a persecuted belief system under the Romans. Neither of these conditions applies to Islam--which is ONE reason (among others) that the Islamic world has so many within it for whom the only acceptable polity is an Islamic state.

    A. M. Eckstein - 9/12/2006

    Dear NF, my point was merely a technical correction of Sudha's statement, and the larger implication that modern Germany is somehow a theocratic state just like numerous Muslim ones.

    I totally agree with you that the Enlightment idea of the secular state divorced from religion, and drawing its legitimacy from the consent of the governed and NOT from God and his (self-)appointed representatives on earth, and the really-existing examples of these ideals in the West, are both very strong traditions in the West and an idea for which we should all be grateful.

    Especially the day after 9/11, which revealed the true scale, the savagery and love of violence and death, and the totalitarian goals of the threat we face. That threat, for want of a better name (and I know you disagree with this terminology), I am comfortable in calling Islamofascism.

    Sergio Alejandro Méndez - 9/12/2006

    Mr Friedman:

    You are correct that christianity was formed within the state, at least in the first 4 centuries. But the rest of its history tell us something completly different. Now, if Judaism (which is not very different from Islam concerning issues of religion and state) has allowed for the creation of democratic state, why not Islam? And remember the God of judaism is the same God of christians...is not that Jesus founded a religion on vacuum. All 3 major monotheist religions ARE intolerant and anti democratic on its core.

    N. Friedman - 9/12/2006


    You may well be correct here, although I see the matter somewhat differently.

    To me, Europe's religious wars, following the reformation, along with the rise of science and the secularization of society that resulted seem, to me, to be the most important issues. The impact of these things being that religion was largely driven from the public square into being a question of personal conviction - a private matter -.

    Of course, it helps quite a lot to have a religion which includes real intellectual distinctions between politics and religion. Otherewise, the only legitimate rule will be that of a rightly guided person - in the eyes, of course, of those with the correct belief system -. Clearly, if who rules and the content of that rule are a question of religion, there is not much basis to settle the war among religions.

    N. Friedman - 9/12/2006

    I recall reading this when it came out. These are very brave souls.

    Tim R. Furnish - 9/12/2006

    Mr. Baker,
    The literal Arabic translation of "al-mahdi" is "rightly-guided," from the verb "hada," "to lead someone on the right way," "to guide, show, direct." There is no linguistic element of divine guidance inherent in the Arabic term. But, obviously, that element entered from popular belief.
    I am well-versed in hadiths, thank you very much, having studied in detail and in Arabic all the ones dealing with the Mahdi. Again, linguistically, the verb "hadatha" means "to happen, occur" and in its second verbal form "to tell, related, report" and in other verbal forms "to introducte, start." "Hadith" means, variously, "speech, talk, chitchat, account, narrative relating DEEDS AND UTTERANCES of the Prophet and his Companions" [emphasis added] (See Hans Wehr, "A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic," relevant entries.)
    So, Mr. Baker, I was correct. Which I strive to be whenever I write in this, and any other, venue.

    john crocker - 9/12/2006

    Your description of the "Big Bang" leaves much to be desired but, yes in fact the proposition of the youn earth is far less credible, as there is a large amount of geological and archeological evidence to the contrary of that position. The current iteration of the "Big Bang" theory is supported by thousands of observations. The Bible as a full and accurate history, has the Bible.

    Your offer that either I prove the most perplexing problem facing man and science to your satisfaction or accept your mythology as historical fact is ridiculous.

    Ralph E. Luker - 9/12/2006

    I said: "Not trying to disprove anything." You're unwilling to live with that?

    A. M. Eckstein - 9/12/2006

    Sudha--this is true ONLY if you are a Christian who wishes to pay the tax!! Please get your facts straight, as well as your nasty implications:

    There is a church tax (Kirchensteuer), of 8% to 9% of the Einkommensteuer/Lohnsteuer. But you are not required to pay the tax unless you wish to be officially affiliated with one of Germany's established churches; usually Catholic or Protestant (Evangelisch)

    You are NOT required to pay any such tax UNLESS you wish to do so by volunarily stating on your tax-form that you wish official association with one of another of the various Christian denominations. If you do not wish to do this on the tax-form, you don't pay the tax.

    Sudha Shenoy - 9/11/2006

    1. Where's the Islamic 'church'? And what about (eg) Ayatollah Ali-Sistani's opposition to the deeply _political_ role of the Islamic 'clergy' in Iran? That in itself is a 20th century novelty (see Bernard Lewis' remarks.)

    2. Who else _but_ Americans talk about 'separation of church & state'? What about the Church of England? In Germany to this day people are required to state their specific Christian denomination & pay taxes to it.

    Tim R. Furnish - 9/11/2006

    Well, that was exactly my point, Mr. Crocker. I in now wise intimated that Jesus' statement was tantamount to the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. But I do maintain that this cleavage between the sacred and secular made by the founder of Christianity has allowed Western civilization at least a wedge to (eventually) pry church and state apart--something sorely lacking in Islamic civilization.

    john crocker - 9/11/2006

    At the very least this passage gives a Christian a biblically supported rationalisation that allows for seperation of faith and political life.

    A. M. Eckstein - 9/11/2006

    I thought people might be interested in this--both the statement of Muslim intellectuals in support of freedom, and the backstory of the declaration, concerning what happened to Salmon Rushdie on French TV--and then the fact that what happened to him was censored, evidently for fear of "offending" Islamists because it made them look like barbarians.

    Confronting Islamist Totalitarianism

    Middle East Quarterly
    Summer 2006

    This item is available on the Middle East Forum website, at http://www.meforum.org/article/998

    On October 22, 2005, the France 2 television talk show Tout le Monde en Parle aired an interview with writer Salman Rushdie and French actor and Islamist Sami Nacéri. Left on the cutting room floor was an ugly incident during taping when Nacéri accused Rushdie of debasing Islam. If an imam asked him to kill Rushdie, Nacéri went on, he would himself shoot the bullet into Rushdie's head. He then pantomimed firing a gun at Rushdie.

    Philippe Val, editor of the French left-wing weekly Charlie Hebdo, described the omitted segment in the November 2 issue of the magazine. French reaction was minimal. While some journalists debated whether celebrities made appropriate commentators, there was little discussion of France 2's decision to delete the offending segment.

    On February 28, 2006, in response to Nacéri's threat, France 2's censorship, and the decision of several newspapers not to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, twelve prominent Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals issued a manifesto first published on the French website Proche-Orient.info. The translation, replicated below, was later published in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. The willingness of prominent thinkers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to stand together suggests that intellectuals recognize the totalitarian nature of Islamism and are determined not to cede terms of the societal debates to Islamists.

    —The Editors

    After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism.

    We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity, and secular values for all.

    The recent events, which occurred after the publication of drawings of Muhammed in European newspapers, have revealed the necessity of the struggle for these universal values. This struggle will not be won by arms but in the ideological field. It is not a clash of civilizations nor an antagonism of West and East that we are witnessing, but a global struggle that confronts democrats and theocrats.

    Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations. The hate preachers bet on these feelings in order to form battalions destined to impose a liberticidal and unegalitarian world. But we clearly and firmly state: nothing, not even despair, justifies the choice of obscurantism, totalitarianism, and hatred. Islamism is a reactionary ideology, which kills equality, freedom, and secularism wherever it is present. Its success can only lead to a world of domination: man's domination of woman, the Islamists' domination of all the others. To counter this, we must assure universal rights to oppressed or discriminated people.

    We reject "cultural relativism," which consists in accepting that men and women of Muslim culture should be deprived of the right to equality, freedom, and secular values in the name of respect for cultures and traditions. We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of "Islamophobia," an unfortunate concept which confuses criticism of Islam as a religion with stigmatization of its believers.

    We plead for the universality of freedom of expression, so that a critical spirit may be exercised on all continents, against all abuses and all dogmas.

    We appeal to democrats and free spirits of all countries that our century should be one of Enlightenment, not of obscurantism.


    Salman Rushdie, author, The Satanic Verses
    Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Somali-born Dutch MP
    Taslima Nasreen, exiled Bangladeshi writer
    Bernard-Henri Levy, French philosopher
    Chahla Chafiq, exiled Iranian writer
    Caroline Fourest, French writer
    Irshad Manji, author, The Trouble with Islam
    Mehdi Mozaffari, professor of political science, University of Aarhus
    Maryam Namazie, producer, TV International English
    Antoine Sfeir, editor, Cahiers de l'Orient
    Ibn Warraq, author, Why I Am Not a Muslim
    Philippe Val, editor, Charlie Hebdo

    Ralph E. Luker - 9/11/2006

    Not trying to "disprove" anything, Andy, with my "nuts" or my brain. You lower the level of discussion with every comment you make.

    N. Friedman - 9/11/2006

    Mr. Simon,

    I do not think anyone knows or has any idea how Islam and modernity will learn to co-exist. Somehow, I bet it eventually will but it is not going to be anytime soon.

    E. Simon - 9/11/2006

    I think Luker's point refers to what was conceivable by any political body of note (and associated communities) at the time - (Roman Empire, or any other, where divine rites were simply _assumed_ as official state functions). If your point is that were the Koran to contain a surah with a similar exhortation then a state-mosque relationship more compatible with modernity would have better chance of evolving, I think that's of little consolation to him and others, seeing as how it still took centuries for that concept to develop intellectually within Christendom, and an epistemology developed by Locke - the Godfather of the Western conception of political rights - that rests almost entirely on philosophically invoking the biblical character of Adam, and his relationship to God's creation.

    I think this fact could illustrate that _how_ politics in Dar al Islam will become compatible with modern norms is anyone's guess, and according to scholars like Noah Feldman, might have to bypass the specific manner of evolution of the ideas that were both created by, and presaged, the separation clause.

    N. Friedman - 9/11/2006


    Lest my above note create any confusion, my central point is that Christianity admits that politics and religion are two different things - whether or not there was a seperation of church and state -. Islam does not quite do so. In fact, it rather does pretty much the opposite.

    N. Friedman - 9/11/2006


    You write: "I still maintain that to read separation of church and state back into what Jesus said in Matthew is reading modern democratic assumptions back into the text of a world where such assumptions are altogether unknown."

    I certainly agree that Christianity was not seperate from the state. That is certainly the case. And, rendering to Caesar does not, of itself, seperate Church from state, either intellectually or factually. So, to that extent, I think you are correct.

    On the other hand, the rendering to Caesar statement does, of itself, distinguish the state from religion. And, I think that Christians through the ages would generally understand that point - a point which does, I think, arise in view of the noted scripture statement and the fact that Christianity formed within a real state -. And these are things rather different than what exists in Islam.

    In Islam, politics and religion are not understood to be really distinct things. Rather, politics is directed to completing Allah's plan for mankind. So, the issue is not merely the seperation of state and mosque. [Note: de facto seperation has, from time to time, occurred where political leaders have obtained the upper hand over the Caliph - while de jure recognizing the subservience of the government to Islam -.] The issue is that religion and politics are not two seperate things and all involved would have had that understanding of reality.

    E. Simon - 9/11/2006

    I think what the professionals here might be more ingenuous to explain is that while the comment might have been taken as a challenge to the _divinity_ of the emperor, only a modern re-interpretation could sanction it as a strictly political separation, or else the divine right of kings to rule wouldn't have been a necessary pre-condition for the pre-Enlightenment politics that prevailed in European states that were, otherwise, explicitly Christian. First their authority was challenged by asserting that rights were given directly to men first, and then, through them, to the leaders. As far as the "divine" nature of such political rights, it did take centuries and then a body of jurisprudence based on the First Amendment until the modern, secular interpretation makes any sense. It is, however, interesting to speculate on what alternate political-religious arrangements Christian communities within the Roman Empire would have accepted - before the conversion of Constantine, had the political bodies of the day only been capable of conceiving of them, as Luker correctly states.

    As far as what Jesus (as a divine figure) had in mind, well, I suppose that's any theologian's guess, of course.

    john crocker - 9/11/2006

    Do you mean to say that the world is less than 10,000 years old, in that time the entire world was flooded and all terrestrial life is decended from animals saved from that flood on a boat?

    Jonathan Dresner - 9/11/2006

    Of course they were: the Founders were inspired directly by Jesus himself, and would never have put anything into the Constitution which wasn't Christian!


    Sudha Shenoy - 9/11/2006

    "Separation of church & state" is a strictly _18th_ century concept, which gained prominence _only_ in the (then) American colonies. The great prophet Jesus lived in first-century Roman province of Palestine. Were these American ideas already prefigured then?

    Ralph E. Luker - 9/11/2006

    Andy, The citation you offer doesn't support your or Professor Furnish's ahistorical reading of that text. It may suggest that Jesus is capable of distinguishing between a political community and a religious community; and that a person may find himself a member of both, but it's a long way from there to separation of church and state.

    Ralph E. Luker - 9/10/2006

    Fair enough. Tribal governance is still tribal governance. I still maintain that to read separation of church and state back into what Jesus said in Matthew is reading modern democratic assumptions back into the text of a world where such assumptions are altogether unknown.

    N. Friedman - 9/10/2006

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your kind words, Clintonian and all.

    Tim R. Furnish - 9/10/2006

    Good points. But compared to the Wahhabis or Mahdists of Sudan (both of which the Ottomans opposed), they were indeed "moderate."
    IF I'm not being too Clintonian in my definition ("Depends on what your definition....is.")

    N. Friedman - 9/10/2006


    I note that my point comes directly from Patricia Crone, world renowed historian of Islam's beginning. She notes that it is rather difficult to understand Islam without understanding its formation outside of a state apparatus and that, in her mind, is how it differs from Christianity. By contrast, Muhammed and Moses have much in common, in that Moses was a law giver, again outside of a state apparatus, and a leader who brought his people to safety, through his successor in control of a state. Muhammed, also a law giver, brought his people to build a state, which eventually encompassed Arabia and then far a wide beyond. Christianity is not the former of a state. It assumes the existence of a state.

    Ralph E. Luker - 9/10/2006

    The notion that Medina and Mecca were ungoverned communities at the time of Muhammed is a curious one and may reflect a preconceived bias that you may want to re-examine.

    john crocker - 9/10/2006

    "The left whines that Bush isn't sensitive enough to the Muslim condition and that understanding will change their murderous ways."

    None of the quotes you give come any where near your assertion.
    Gephardt was refering to the effect of the administration on our allies and our perception in the world. Whether or not you believe our allies and the world are correct in their judgement you have to admit he has a point.

    Kerry was attacking Bush for policies that he and a majority of Americans now feel have made the world a less stable and more dangerous place.

    Dean' comment was in the same vein as Gephardt's.

    None of these quotes are about his lack of sensitivity to Muslims, they talk about his alienating our allies in Europe and Asia. Try again.

    Catching OBL would have been a start. Tense does matter. He was the personification of Al Qaeda and jihadists in general. If he had been taken out early it would have been a big PR victory. By launching a devastating attack on us and continuing to evade capture he can be used as a symbol of America's vulnerability. Catching him now after 3 years of taunting would have a muted PR effect and virtually no other strategic effect due to the diffuse leadership. That is a chance that has passed us by.
    No cogent argument has been made for continuing with a stategy that is counter productive. Presumably the ultimate goal of the "War on Terror" is less terrorists. A policy that creates more than it destroys is a failure. Our goal cannot be the destruction of all possible converts. A new strategy is called for.

    Saddam would not be getting richer on $70 dollar a barrel oil, because oil would not be at $70 a barrel. Do you want to try and deny that the current level of instability in Iraq and the instability this adds to the region is not affecting oil prices?

    Saddam evaded what sanctions that he could, this does not mean that the sanctions did not have an effect. Read the official reports. Saddam had not reconstituted his weapons programs. His desire to coupled with his lack of success suggest that sanctions were actually effective. Saddam was not likely to have had sanctions removed anytime soon. Any potential threat was far from emminent.

    You see my looking for the good in you as selective perception? I guess you would be a better judge of that than me. I think an objective reading of our posts would show that my arguments are substantive. Those who do not use ad hominem attacks on me do not recieve them from me. Trading them seems to be one of your favorite pastimes, so I oblige you. If at any point you are willing to have a purely substantive argument, without ad hominem attacks or useless diversions I will also oblige. The tone of the argument is up to you, so don't quip about my lack of substance until you start making arguments with more substance and less smear.

    I'll even give you a free one. You can have one last unsubstantiated ad hominem attack fest in your post accepting my proposal. A reminder up front though. If you agree and go back on it we will no who the liar is and if you refuse we will know who has set the tone.

    N. Friedman - 9/10/2006


    The Ottoman Empire oversaw the destruction of Christianity in Asia Minor. It had its janisary program. While, as Bernard Lewis shows rather well, the Ottoman Empire was rather more tolerant of Jews - until the 19th Century or so when life for Jews began to deteriorate as their function, as supplier of material to the janisaries was undermined -, life for Christians was rather awful. Christians, after all, were viewed as a potential - and sometimes they actually were a - 5th column for European powers.

    If there was a more tolerant Islamic empire, it was, rather ironically, that of the Fatimids - once they established themselves -. At least, that is my impression.

    N. Friedman - 9/10/2006


    The issue here is how Islam came to be. It was formed outside of a state and then rode triumphally toward formation of a state. Its very assumptions are political.

    Christianity, by contrast, formed within a state. Its outlook assumed an existing state. Yes, Christianity managed to assume the reigns of power but it is not, like Islam, a religion developed with the idea of politics centrally in mind. So, when Christians say, render to Caesar what is Caesars, such is something that has no parallel in Islam as a religion. And that makes it rather difficult for a de-politicized Islam.

    Ralph E. Luker - 9/10/2006

    Sorry, Andy. I am both an ordained clergyman and a historian, but you can't substitute statements of faith for critical history. You are way out of your depths here.

    john crocker - 9/10/2006

    Again, can you provide any quotes?
    They have one of these " in the front and the back and are attributed to a specific person.

    "How should we be fighting them wizbang?"
    We should stayed in force in Afghanistan until the job was finished and Osama captured for a start.
    You seem to have conceded here that our current strategy is counter productive. Halting a counter productive strategy is a step in the right direction towards an effective strategy.

    wizbang: one that is conspicuous for noise, speed, excellence, or startling effect
    I am glad that you have recognized my speed, excellence and startling effect. This may well be your first step on the road to recovery.

    Yehudi Amitz - 9/10/2006

    I just wanted to make it very clear!

    john crocker - 9/10/2006

    "The left whines that Bush isn't sensitive enough to the Muslim condition and that understanding will change their murderous ways."
    Can you provide any quotes to back up this assertion, or is this a straw man?

    "...fighting them is far superior for the free world than allowing their growth."
    Fighting them in the way we currently are is leading to the expansion of their power and influence.

    Yehudi Amitz - 9/9/2006

    Are the Muslims ready for a reformation? Even after the reformation took almost 500 years till Christianity became reasonably tolerant. Lets hope for the best! I am an optimist but I don't recall any period in history when humans behaved as if they learned anything from the past.

    Ralph E. Luker - 9/9/2006

    The notion that there was in the Christian tradition a belief in the separation of church and state going back to Jesus' saying in Matthew 22:21 is a reading of modernity's assumptions back into a biblical text that simply won't sustain them. It makes the very dubious assumption that Jesus anticipated the establishment of a "church." It ignores identities of church and state that prevailed for 1500 years after Constantine and, in Byzantium, at least, as thoroughly as anywhere at any time in the Muslim world.