Misplaced Zealotry

zealotReza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has brought public interest back to the only begotten, and it’s not even Easter time. A confession: I’ve not read Aslan’s book, so my thoughts here are purely academic. (In a time-honored tradition, I will comment without benefit, or liability, of having actually read.) My interest is, to be frank, less on what Aslan has to say than with how people are reacting to him. Within days of publication, the internet began to swell with news stories about public reaction to Aslan’s treatment. My interest was raised by the Chronicle of Higher Education, where an article by Peter Monaghan quotes Lauren Green of Fox challenging Aslan, “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” I know this is Fox, and that it is poor form to abuse the idiot, but I couldn’t help but to wonder at such a misguided question.

I would ask, honestly, how many Christians have read a book on Moses or David, or any Hebrew Bible figure, that was written by a Christian. Far fewer hands would be in the air if the same question were framed with the caveat, “written by a Jew.” Every supersessionist religion reserves the right to analyze what has gone before in the light of its own theology. We all know the Moses of Cecil B. DeMille, but how many know the Jeremiah of Abraham Heschel? Do we bother to read what the believer writes about his or her own hero? Would we need to? We already know what the conclusion is going to be. I, for one, am very curious how some Muslims perceive Jesus. That’s always a fascinating question, since Islam, in many parts of the world, superseded Christianity, and has, until recent times, often peacefully coexisted.

Is it not because the author is Muslim that the challenge was issued? How quickly we forget that western civilization (which began in the “Middle East”) owes much to Islam. While Christianity plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, Islamic scholars were rediscovering Aristotle and making genuine progress in science. And yet, we are suspicious of what is discovered by those of “alternative” cultural heritages. I would be more surprised should Muslims show no interest in Jesus. During the past presidential election, many non-Mormons flocked to bookstores (okay, that’s an exaggeration; nobody flocks to bookstores any more, now that Harry Potter is done), eager for books about Latter-Day Saints. Most of them written by non-Mormons. I don’t know what Aslan has to say about Jesus. I suspect some are disconcerted because he bears C. S. Lewis’ code-name for Jesus in the Narnia chronicles, but Aslan may well have something to teach us about ourselves. I, for one, welcome it. How can we ever learn tolerance if we’re unwilling to hear how we appear to others?

6 thoughts on “Misplaced Zealotry

  1. I haven’t read the book, either, but I did see the interview. I can understand why Green may have asked the question once as an actual interrogative rather than an accusation, but that isn’t how she asked it. She was clearly about pushing her own agenda. Aslan handled it very well. I have read that Green, herself a devout Christian, has written quite a bit about Mohammed and Islam, but I haven’t cared enough to research that possible ultimate irony.

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  2. Juan Jose Rivera

    “While Christianity plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, Islamic scholars were rediscovering Aristotle and making genuine progress in science.”
    What a stupid and ignorant comment!!! Islam plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, not Christianity! Their pirates and fanatic warlords attacked, looted and enslaved christian villages all across the mediteranean sea, cutting off Europe from commerce. That’s why the western civilization declined while the Eastern Empire (christian) flourished. And the ones who rediscovered Aristotle were the Byzantines! Christians! That’s why A FEW muslim scholars got in touch with the classic greeks, through the Byzantine empire.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks for your comment, Juan. I appreciate my stupidity and ignorance being pointed out. I would humbly note, however, that many historians would agree with me, so at least we are all ignorant and stupid together.

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      • Juan Jose Rivera

        I never said YOU are stupid, I said your comment was. In any case, you are a liar, or badly informed. And all those “historians” also lie.

        “Although there is no arguing that the Muslim world was relatively more advanced during this period than the “Christian” world, the reasons for this have absolutely nothing to do with the Islamic religion (other than its mandate for military expansion). In fact, the religion tends to discourages knowledge outside of itself, which is why the most prolific Muslim scholars are usually students of religion rather than science.

        [Note that the country of Spain alone translates more learning material and literature into Spanish each year than the entire Arab world has translated into Arabic since the 9th century. As the Saudi Grand Mufti bluntly put it in 2010, “The Quran with its stories and knowledge are sufficient for us… we don’t need the Torah, or Gospels, or any other book].

        The many fundamentalists and other devotees who dress as Muhammad did and adopt 7th century lifestyles to some degree or another underscore the importance of tradition in Islam. The religion is highly conservative and resistant to change, which is viewed with suspicion. As scholar Bernard Lewis points out, in Islam an innovation is presumed to be bad unless it can be proven to be good.

        Beyond this, there are four basic reasons why Islam has little true claim to scientific achievement:

        First, the Muslim world benefited greatly from the Greek sciences, which were translated for them by Christians and Jews. To their credit, Muslims did a better job of preserving Greek text than did the Europeans of the time, and this became the foundation for their own knowledge. (One large reason for this, however, was that access by Christians to this part of their world was cut off by Muslim slave ships and coastal raids that dominated the Mediterranean during this period).

        Secondly, many of the scientific advances credited to Islam were actually “borrowed” from other cultures conquered by the Muslims. The algebraic concept of “zero”, for example, is erroneously attributed to Islam when, in fact, it was a Hindu discovery that was merely introduced to the West by Muslims.

        In truth, conquered populations contributed greatly to the history of “Muslim science” until gradually being decimated by conversion to Islam (under the pressures of dhimmitude). The Muslim concentration within a population is proportional to the decline of scientific achievement. It is no accident that the Muslim world has had little to show for itself in the last 800 years or so, since running out of new civilizations to cannibalize.

        Third, even accomplished Muslim scientists and cultural icons were often considered heretics in their day, sometimes with good reason. One of the greatest achievers to come out of the Muslim world was the Persian scientist and philosopher, al-Razi. His impressive works are often held up today as “proof” of Muslim accomplishment. But what the apologists often leave out is that al-Razi was denounced as a blasphemer, since he followed his own religious beliefs – which were in obvious contradiction to traditional Islam.

        Fourth, even the contributions that are attributed to Islam (often inaccurately) are not terribly dramatic. There is the invention of certain words, such as alchemy and elixir (and assassin, by the way), but not much else that survives in modern technology which is of practical significance. Neither is there any reason to believe that such discoveries would not have easily been made by the West following the cultural awakening triggered by the Reformation.

        As an example, consider that Muslims claim credit for “inventing” coffee – in the sense that they popularized an existing discovery by Africans who were caught up in the Arab slave trade. However, it is also true that the red dye used in many food products, from cranberry juice to candy, comes from the abdomen of a particular female beetle found in South America. It is extremely unlikely that the West would not have stumbled across coffee by now (although, to be fair, coffee probably expedited subsequent discoveries).

        In fact, the litany of “Muslim” achievement often takes the form of rhapsody, in which the true origins of these discoveries are omitted – along with their comparative significance to Western achievement. One often doesn’t hear about the dismal fate of original accomplishments either. Those who brag about the great observatory of Taqi al-Din in [freshly conquered] Istanbul, for example, often neglect to mention that it was quickly destroyed by the caliphate.

        At the end of the day, the record of scientific, medical and technological accomplishment is not something over which Muslim apologists want to get into a contest with the Christian world. Today’s Islamic innovators are primarily known for turning Western technology, such as cell phones and airplanes, into instruments of mass murder.

        To sum up, although the Islamic religion is not entirely hostile to science, neither should it be confused as a facilitator. The great achievements that are said to have come out of the Islamic world were made either by non-Muslims who happened to be under Islamic rule, or by heretics who usually had little interest in Islam. Scientific discovery tapers off dramatically as Islam asserts dominance, until it eventually peters out altogether.”

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        • Steve Wiggins

          Anyone who writes a response longer than my posts must be right, I generally believe. Of course, I am a liar.

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