Understanding Islam: An Interview with Historian of Islam Keith Lewinstein

Keith LewinsteinShortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Foundation began receiving calls from libraries asking whether we had any programs on Islam they could offer their patrons. The answer was "no," but we immediately realized it should be "yes." MFH Executive Director David Tebaldi began meeting with scholars of Islam and the Middle East. With their advice and assistance, "Understanding Islam," a four-part reading and discussion program, was developed and piloted at the Middleborough Public Library in the spring of 2002. Beginning last September, a grant from the United Way of Massachusetts Bay`s Unity Fund enabled twelve public libraries in the Greater Boston area to offer the series. The public response has been greater than that to any other reading and discussion series developed by the Foundation. We are currently seeking additional funds to expand the program to libraries in other parts of the state.

The chief architect of "Understanding Islam" is Keith Lewinstein, a specialist in the early history of Islam and currently a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. A gifted teacher, Keith is one of our most active and popular discussion leaders for the program. He studied at Berkeley and then at Princeton, where he received a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies in 1990. He has been awarded numerous prizes and fellowships, including (most recently) a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. Keith has taught at Brown University and Smith College. He has lived and traveled extensively in the Middle East, and now lives in Newton with his wife Sylvia and son Daniel.

David Tebaldi interviewed Keith for Mass Humanities by e-mail.

David Tebaldi: The Foundation has received some criticism for offering a program about the Muslim world at this time. The critics seem to think that by promoting a program called "Understanding Islam" we are implying that the United States is somehow responsible for what happened on September 11, 2001 – that if only we understood Islam better, such a horrible event wouldn`t have happened. What would you say to these critics?

Keith Lewinstein: I think that such people assume that when we use the word "understanding" in our title, what we really mean is "excusing" or "apologizing for." This is not at all what the program is aiming at. What we`re trying to do is promote knowledgeable discussion rather than polemical attack or apologetic defense. Our approach is critical in the best sense of the word: we look beyond pat answers and assertions about Islam ("Islam is a religion of peace", or "Islam is a religion of war"; "Islam oppresses women", or "Islam offers the best means to liberate women") and try to understand the variety of ways in which Islamic teachings have been interpreted and used over the centuries.

DT: Why is this an important and worthwhile program to be offering at this time?

KL: Since 9/11 there has been an ongoing public discussion in this country about Islam, and the microphone is often held by polemicists or apologists. My own hope is that the people who have participated in our program are more prepared to resist simplistic judgments for or against, and better able to take a critical look at blanket assertions made by Islam`s detractors and defenders alike. Going back to your previous question, I don`t think that having more knowledge about Islam would have prevented the September 11 attacks; I do think, though, that the more informed about Islam Americans become, the better our chances of making wise public policy decisions in the future. Beyond that, though, Islam is an intrinsically interesting and valuable part of world civilization, and it would be worth knowing about even if events were not what they are at the moment.

DT: Based on your experience with this program, or other experience for that matter, what would you say is the most common misconception about Islam?

The south arch of the Taj Mahal, displaying verses of the Koran done in calligraphy in marble inlay, the work of Amanat Khan, a prominent scholar from Shiraz.KL: That would have to be the idea that Islam as a religious tradition is exotic, non-Western, and utterly different from Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Islam is best seen as one variant of the Abrahamic-monotheist religious tradition, from which Judaism and Christianity also stem. This makes it very familiar to westerners who begin to study it. Structurally, it`s especially close to Judaism, in that both are oriented around a sacred Law worked out by scholars, a Law which is meant to shape every aspect of one`s life. Christianity, not Islam, is really the odd man out here, with its emphasis on personal salvation through Jesus rather than communal redemption through the Law.

DT: Yes. I`ve seen Islam (and Marxism) described as a Judeo-Christian heresy. Tell me, what it is that drew you to Islam as a subject of study?

KL: I began studying Islamic history as an undergraduate at Berkeley in 1979, when the Iranian Revolution was in the news and there were lots of Iranian students demonstrating on campus. That year I took two Middle East-related courses, one on modern politics and the other on medieval Islamic history. The second one really grabbed me: it was a subject I knew absolutely nothing about – I couldn`t have told you when Muhammad lived or even who he was – and as I took more courses and read more books, it was exciting to be able to gauge just how much I was learning. Once I started studying Arabic and Persian, I was hooked.

DT: What is it that keeps you engaged? Are there particular questions that you want answered?

KL: One of the things that keeps me around is the fact that in the end, our questions are never really answered – there always seem to be new ways of thinking about something or explaining something, so I never feel that I`m ready to close the book on the subject. This is especially true in the early Islam field – my own area – where there are a lot of interesting debates just at the moment.

DT: Can you give us an example of one such debate? A new or different way of thinking about a question or an answer in the field of Islamic studies?

KL: In early Islamic studies, one new trend is to look a little more critically at traditional explanations of where Islam came from. For the past 25 years a small number of scholars have been challenging the Muslim tradition`s own account of the origins of the Koran, arguing that the text remained in flux for perhaps a century or more after Muhammad`s death in 632. (The tradition itself sees the text as fixed from Muhammad`s death, or shortly thereafter, and most western scholars have taken that assertion as fact) This newer view is still held by only a small minority in the field of Islamic Studies, but it opens up some exciting possibilities, and it has implications for how we understand the origins of Islamic law and theology. For example, it might well help explain certain breaks or apparent contradictions between Islamic law and the language of the Koran.

DT: What would you say is the biggest difference between the typical reading and discussion group and a typical class of undergraduates?

Keith Lewinstein, leading a discussion at the Acton Public Library on February 5, 2003.KL: The reading groups have a much wider range of people in them than a typical undergraduate class. We have college-age students, recent graduates, middle-aged people, and older, retired people as well. It`s a good mix, and there are a lot of different life experiences in the room. Most people are extremely motivated: they`ve come out in the evening because they really want to learn, and aren`t shy about pushing you for more if you`re so unwise as to fob off a quick and easy answer on them.

DT: One of the techniques you use in your discussion of the Koran in these sessions is to distribute and ask participants to compare passages from the Koran and the Bible. Can you explain which passages you use and what you are hoping readers will see when they compare them? What kinds of responses does this exercise evoke from participants?

KL: The Bible and the Koran share a lot of material, even if they treat it in somewhat different ways. If you look through the Koran you`ll find Adam, Noah, Moses, and a host of other characters familiar from the Bible, all of them associated with well-known biblical events (the Flood, exodus from Egypt, and so forth). At the same time, there are some interesting differences in how the two scriptures treat these figures. I want people to understand how these differences work, and why they`re important. Where some people might otherwise be tempted to see the Koran as a badly plagiarized version of the Bible, I`d like them to understand that the Muslim scripture, like the Jewish and Christian interpretive traditions, offers its own twist on the biblical material. It reflects the way a new monotheist community in the Near East put to use older biblical stories. In the Understanding Islam program we generally look at the Biblical and Koranic versions of the story of Noah and the story of Abraham`s near-sacrifice of his son (Isaac in the Bible). The first gives us a sense of how figures such as Noah, whom the Muslim tradition regards as a prophet, are seen in the Koran to have had careers similar to Muhammad`s; the second is a beautiful example of how apparent differences between the Bible and the Koran can sometimes seem less arbitrary when we take into account how Jews and Christians had come to understand the story before Muhammad`s own time.

I usually get a pretty good response from people when we do this exercise. Some are surprised, others reassured; in general, it gives them a way of making sense of the Koran if they choose to read it on their own in the future.

DT: You mentioned earlier the similarity between Islam and Judaism – the fact that both are centered around the notion of communal salvation through the Law. In each case, the Law is based on revealed scripture. Does this emphasis on the written word account for the crucial role of a particular language in the two religions – Arabic in Islam and Hebrew in Judaism?

KL: Hebrew and Arabic do indeed have a sacred status that New Testament Greek never enjoyed, and this has contributed to the centrality of these languages in Judaism and Islam. Muslims recite the Koran in Arabic and Jews recite the Torah in Hebrew; Jesus never preached in Greek, and Christians in the West have never felt a need to study it. I would say that the status of Arabic is even greater in Islam than Hebrew is in Judaism – almost all Islamic learning was carried out in Arabic, while the central texts of Jewish law were composed in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Muslims know that God Himself speaks in the Koran, and he speaks in Arabic. A translation of the Koran is no longer the Koran; it no longer has ritual use. (That`s why a Latin translation of the text appeared in Europe before Muslims themselves produced any independent translations from Arabic into other Muslim languages.) There`s one other factor which has contributed to the ongoing importance of Arabic in Islamic culture: in its earliest form, Islam had a strong ethnic component (all Muslims were Arabs, and most Arabs were Muslims), and there was a sense that Islam was an "Arab" monotheism. This ethnic component was soon eroded in Islam, as more and more non-Arabs became Muslims from the 8th century on. The Arabic foundation was never lost, though, thanks to the fact that Muslims all over the world have an Arabic scripture, an Arab prophet, and a sanctuary (Mecca) in the Arabian peninsula. Even though the vast majority of Muslims are not Arabs – they don`t speak Arabic as a native language – Arabic continues to have a special place in Islamic culture. That`s why, for example, non-Arab converts to Islam so often choose Arabic names for themselves.

DT: You have had some Muslims in a number of your library groups. Do you find yourself doing anything differently when there are Muslims present?

KL: Most participants are not Muslims, but we have had a few for some of the sessions, and no, I don`t do anything special when Muslims are in the room. On certain issues, though, I try to take advantage of insights that they might have to offer from having grown up in a Muslim culture. Particularly when we`ve talked about how Islam is lived or experienced in different parts of the world, it`s been good to have people share personal anecdotes and stories with us. It can be especially exciting when they disagree with each other, or at least have stories to tell which reflect very different personal experiences. This reminds us all that the Islamic world is not monolithic, and that we ought to take care before making vast generalizations. I remember quite fondly the session in Quincy devoted to Muslim women: We had three Muslim women, two from Lebanon and one from South Asia. When we talked about marriage practices, they were surprisingly open about a good many issues, and at least one of them voiced strongly different opinions from the other two. I was happy to let them take center stage, and to watch the participants question them. It does sometimes happen that when Muslims talk about Islam to non-Muslims, they feel a need to defend their religion against perceived slights and criticism. Given the history here, that may be understandable; but it`s much more interesting when we get past that stage and have an open discussion about things, as I think ultimately happened in Quincy.

DT: Could you tell us a little about the work you are currently doing with your fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Humanities?

KL: Right now I`m finishing a book entitled Heresy and Dissent in Early Islam. It`s an attempt to do two things: First, to understand how and why certain ideas came to be considered heretical as Islam evolved over the first four or five centuries of its history; and second, to understand how such ideas were transmitted in different Muslim environment.

DT: Speaking of heretical ideas, do you agree with those who assert that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with liberal democracy?

KL: That`s a very big question, and of course it depends on what one means by "Islam" and by "liberal democracy." I don`t think that Islam is, by its very nature, incompatible with open, pluralist societies on the Western model; nor do I think that an Islamic political movement is by definition antithetical to democracy. But it does seem to me that many of the fundamentalist Islamic movements, once having achieved power, would be unlikely to tolerate a diversity of opinions – and I would say the same thing, by the way, about fundamentalist Christianity. People who already have all the answers from God`s lips, and believe that these answers should govern modern political and social life, are not generally shy about imposing their values on others, even if those others constitute a majority. The problem is less with Islam per se than with modern fundamentalism, which tends to be totalitarian and to conceive of religion as a political ideology.

DT: As you know, the Foundation developed "Understanding Islam" in response to calls we received from libraries in the wake of the events. I`m sure you have thought a good deal about the horror of that day and the role of Islam in it. In closing, would you care to share some of those thoughts with our readers?

KL: I think that the 9/11 attacks really did thrust Islam into people`s faces in a way that had never happened before. In that context, it was important for Americans to understand that suicide attacks on innocents – what are euphemistically termed "martyrdom operations" in some circles – are hardly representative of Islamic teachings. At the same time, I often heard apologetic claims that what had happened was either a distortion of Islam, or had nothing at all to do with it. But the fact is, political struggle was a central feature of Muhammad`s career in the 7th century, and it`s always had a prominent place in the thinking of certain groups of Muslims. Bin Laden`s rhetoric (though not his terrorism) is consistent with a stream of Islamic activism whose modern history goes back to the 1960s, but whose antecedents are much older, and are based on a perfectly plausible reading of Muhammad`s career. It`s not the reading that most Muslims have traditionally inclined to – it`s extremely critical both of the Muslim tradition and of Muslim societies, in fact – but to see it as an idiosyncratic corruption of Islam is simply wrong, in my opinion. If we want to understand the battle of ideas going on in the Muslim world – and I think it`s imperative that we do try to do so – we ought not assume that Bin Laden`s ideological framework is entirely a marginal phenomenon with no potential to appeal to reasonable, educated people in Muslim countries who might nonetheless be repulsed by his terrorism.


©2003 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2003