Whence Muhammad?

‘Muhammadanism’ was always a heresy, a contamination, a deviation – and hence, always needed satire. Where humor inserts the uncanny into the mundane, satire exposes the decay inside the ordinary. Muhammadanism has always been understood through the satirical gesture, whether couched in scholarly objectivism or bazari insouciance.1

The earliest Christian polemics saw Muhammad as a corruption, and as an imposter who was taking on the crown of Christ. The eighth century epic The Song of Roland – written in the eleventh century – depicts Muslims as idol-worshippers of a trinity of gods – Apollin, Tervagant and ‘Mahomet':

“From Tervagant take they his ruby, and into a ditch they throw/ Mahomet, where foul swine rend him, and dogs hale to and fro.”

The histories of Crusades written in the twelfth centuries – such as the Gesta Dei per Francos – cast ‘Mathomus’ as an epileptic who was inspired by the devil to corrupt Christians. The effort to portray a bumbler, foamer-at-the-mouth, a charlatan is a theme in many of these narratives. This is most legible in the tradition of a biography of Muhammad – Vita Mahumeti – that cast him specifically as a Christian heretic who got a garbled message of Christianity from a Monophysite or an Arian or a Nestorian or a Jewish monk.

Under Peter the Venerable in 1142, a translation project made a version of the Qur’an available in Latin, but those early editions included such biographies of Muhammad where notions that Muslims worshipped him – as an idol – persisted. These biographies, often with illustrations, were inserted in world histories, histories of the Church or of the Crusades throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Despite the interactions between Muslims and Christians from Spain to Sicily to Jerusalem, the understanding that Islam was a heresy of Christianity and Muhammad was a figure who could be mocked and degraded for perpetuating this heresy persisted.

Dante’s Comedy had Vergil speak directly to Muhammad — who had been sent to the eighth circle of hell for the sin of sowing schism. Dante is keen to let Muhammed himself proclaim: “See how I open myself! See how Muhammad is burst!” (Inf. 28.30-31) and all surviving manuscripts of Comedy illustrated Muhammad rent from chest to groin.

In the later medieval period, Muhammad’s portraiture gathered some more complexity – he was frequently ‘wicked,’ ‘with a desparate stomach,’ and delighted with rapes and plunder, or was seducer of women, of mongrel birth, and whose name tallied up to 666.

The first English translation of the Qur’an in 1649 – The Alcoran of Mahomet – made the text by Muhammad. It came via the French L’Alcoran de Mahomet (1647) by Andre Du Ryer. Matthew Dimmock notes the immense popularity and circulation of this anonymously-composed English text which was rather un-familiar with Arabic itself. It significantly imagines Muhammad as a living being – who has invaded and conquered the present Christendom:

There being so many Sects and Heresies banded together against the Truth, finding that of Mahomet wanting to the Muster, I thought good to bring it to their Colours, that so viewing thine enemies in their full body, thou mayst the better prepare to encounter, and I hope overcome them. It may happily startle thee, to find him to speak English, as if he had made some Conquest of the Nation, but thou wilt soon reject that fear, if thou consider that this is his Alcoran (the Ground-work of the Turkish Religion) hath been already translated into almost all Languages in Christendom.2

The introduction then re-states: “Good reader, the great Arabian imposter, now at last after a thousand years, is by the way of France arrived in England, and his Alcoran, or gallimaufry of errors (a brat as deformed as the parent, and as full of heresies, as his scald head was of scurf) has now been exposed to the publick view’ just as any African monster might be, for people to gaze, not to dote upon”.

The Muhammad who speaks in English — compared to an Ass, to an African monster — is inside England – just as the Turk is at the gates of the empire.

The tradition of biographies of Muhammad continued as well – with dramaturgists leading the way. Henri Boulainvilliers, Humphrey Prideaux, or Voltaire were all producers of plays on the life of Muhammad where his sensuality and his corruption of women become key personality traits.

André Du Ryer, Walter Raleigh, Henry Stubbe, Edward Gibbon, Ann Cotton, Benjamin Franklin, Washington Irving, are just some of the writers of “true” biographies of Muhammad which focused on his blasphemy, his heresy, his sexuality, his capacity to lie – and all were produced, or reproduced, with woodcuts or illustrations that depicted Muhammad as a demon, as a deviant, as a devil.

In the seventeenth century, missionaries took their pamphlets exposing Muhammad to Egypt, to India, to Iran. Little scholarly attention is paid to the production of polemics in para-texts of the Bibles which meant to correct Muslim believers. Yet, these productions inevitably took a changed relationship between text and image to the colonized world.

Many scholars note that until the seventeenth century, depictions of Muhammad were not considered extra-ordinary – the presence of scratched out faces in hundreds of manuscript pages in the libraries of Berlin, Paris, London and DC attest to this change that occurred in Muslim practices. The Qur’an certainly prohibits worshipping idols (or images) in one or two places – and the Tradition (events and sayings of Muhammad) does prohibit depiction of human beings (or Muhammad) because they can distract the believer, cause spiritual discomfort, or imply the power to create life. (A side note here: throughout this period under review, there exists a venerable scholarly and hagiographic tradition on the depiction of Jesus and Mary in Muslim spaces. There are Traditions which note that the Prophet himself saw murals of Jesus and Mary inside the Ka’aba and left them un-touched. All the way to the robust miniature-productions of Mary and Jesus under the Mughals)

Yet, this same Tradition includes vast amounts of textual depictions of the body and features of Muhammad (shamā’il) and, since the ninth century, a whole genre is devoted to the depiction of Muhammad (Sharāt al Nabi). Muhammad and his early companions, Saints, and other religious elite were thus depicted in manuscripts and murals in Iran, in India, in North Africa, until the seventeenth century.

When we speak about the depiction of Muhammad, the sacral practices of Islam at the origins (Qur’an or the Tradition) is the only frame of analysis and enquiry. We make two grave errors here: the first is that the long history of the depiction and ridicule of Muhammad in Europe is swept away from view as irrelevant to this particular present. The second is that we ignore the histories of colonial productions on Islam in the colonized world which – either as proselytization or as scholarship – created a different hermeneutics for seeing Muhammad for the Muhmmadans.

The result of these errors is a continuation of heresies and perversions – except instead of a single Muhammad, the billions of Muhammadans are deemed to be the guilty ones. Each a heretic to the faith in freedom of expression or in Enlightenment. Hence, each needs to be confronted by a maligned Muhammad to understand the beautiful Truth. At the one side sit individual artists, thinkers, writers – all who privilege and are privileged by their adherence to the creative gods. On the other side, are millions who await their Reformation or their Glorious Revolution (either would do). There needs to be an out from these dichotomies and that must include a careful study of our collective, connected pasts.

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  1. Since long, I have been meaning to finish an argument about the centrality of the Prophet to Pakistan but … the work remains; and one import of my argument will be to demonstrate that the European understanding of the centrality of the Prophet is now the reigning understanding in Pakistan, in distinction with the pre-colonial. []
  2. Quoted in Matthew Dimmock, The Mythologies of the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern English Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pg. 167 []

Death is Iconic

Death is Iconic IThis summer, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of civilians, bombing schools and hospitals, and even UNRWA shelters. This might just have been another chapter in the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, but this summer, there was something new: an unprecedented number of photographs and videos made it through to the international community via twitter and other social media platforms. Those who refuse to believe the extent of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, or who believe the oppression of the Palestinian people is strategically justified for the survival of the Israeli state, were in denial about the many images rushing into the rest of the world.

Most famously, George W. Bush’s former speech writer, David Frum, latched onto a conspiracy theory that held that a series of images of two Palestinian brothers expressing raw grief over the death of their father whom they’d just brought to the hospital was simply a piece of propaganda. According to this theory, the photographs were staged, and this could be seen from the fact that in one, the more distraught brother had blood on his hands, and in another, he did not. The blood had been added for effect, went the theory. Unfortunately for Frum and his ilk, these photos had been taken by numerous professional photographers working for international news services, who spoke up and outlined the sequence of events, showing that while the men arrived at the hospital soaked in blood, in the interim, as their father lay in the operating room, they’d washed their hands. Death is Iconic II

When I saw these striking images, I understood immediately what it was really all about. It was about the iconic nature of the photographs. Two men, in a state of mourning, embracing: they look like figures in classical paintings, or religious icons: figures of saints and martyrs. It was a dangerous turn in the image war, and the Frums of the world were scared.

[My paintings are acrylic on wooden panel, 5” x 7”. The original photographs were taken by Hatem Ali/AP, and Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters; my hat is off to these brave photographers who put themselves in the path of danger on a daily basis. My desire was to engage with the ways in which the underlying photographs looked like religious icons.]

A Formula for Being Human


I am a man in exile in Beirut in 1982 – cast out by a military dictator.

On this ground too
unfurls
my blood stained standard

where the flag of Palestinian home
flows

Your Master has destroyed
one Palestine;
My wounds
have prospered
how many Palestines.


I am a woman; long hair, dreadlocked; ashes covering my naked body; living inside a tree; in love with an apparition. I am hunted by the emperor.

I, Lalla, set out
wanting to flower
                       like the bloom of cotton:
that was I, tenuous,
      whom the seed-picking cleaner
then the carder so abused
    when the woman spinning
had lifted me off
  thread by trembling thread
that was I, so cruelly used,
    set to hang in the weaver’s room.

I have seen a serious man hunger, and of hunger dying:
   as a leaf being taken in winter
         by the least wind,
                       ever so gentle.

I have seen a moron murderously beating a cook
      and since then I, Lalla, am waiting —
           will it not be torn? This love,
                  ever so delightful.1


I am a man; wandering; obese; in love with a young man who follows me, at some distance. I am sought by emperors for conversation. Eventually, they cut off my head.

O Sarmad, you won such fame throughout the world
After converting from kufr to Islam
And yet, in the end, what fault you found with Allah and the Prophet?
that you became a disciple of Ram and Lakshman?


It is hard for us to imagine what it means to speak outside of our privilege – to look at the world through the eyes of the dispossessed. We have sequestered our fears.

I quote three individuals: Lal Ded. Sarmad. Faiz. In fourteenth century Kashmir. In seventeenth century Delhi. In twentieth century Beirut. These individuals spoke, and acted outside the worlds which they inhabited. We tend to remember martyrs from the fact of their martyrdom but their life and words before had enough courage to achieve immortality. Seeing them as immortals before their deaths, allows us to conceive of the courage to speak and express our critical world view as an everyday courage, and a everyday concern.

Like many of you, I have done little but read the news from Gaza in the past few weeks. I have shuddered in witnessing how everyday life in Gaza has vanished under plumes of smoke and under debris. I feel helpless and I try to read poets and I try to reconcile my sorrow at a world spinning away.

For Gaza, for Syria, for Iraq, for minorities in Pakistan, this summer of destruction is etched in poetry. For resistance, for hope, please read Lal Ded, Sarmad, Darwish, and Faiz:

Forever thus
have people tangled with tyranny;
nor their rituals new, nor our ways new.

Forever thus
have we blossomed flowers in fire;
nor their defeat new, nor our victory new.


I am a woman; writing books and pamphlets in prison; working to unionize workers in Berlin. I am kidnapped, shot in the head, and my body is dumped in the canal.

I’m telling you that as soon as I can stick my nose out again I will hunt and harry your society of frogs with trumpet blasts, whip-crackings, and bloodhounds-like Penthesilea I wanted to say, but by God, you people are no Achilles. Have you had enough of a New Year’s greeting now? Then see to it that you stay HUMAN… Being human means joyfully throwing your whole life “on the scales of destiny” when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud. Ach, I know of no formula to write you for being human…

———
  1. translation from Kashmiri original by Sonam Kachru []

My Dear Americans

My Dear Americans
My Dear Americans
Happy July 4th, my dear Americans. Here is a short made by Arpita Kumar, being screened at PBS ONLINE FILM FESTIVAL.

Here is what Kumar told us about the short:

I made My Dear Americans during my Project Involve fellowship at Film Independent in Los Angeles. We were asked to pitch short film projects focused on the theme of traditions. I thought it would be interesting to focus on an American tradition but from the point-of-view of an outsider. I chose to build a narrative around the 4th of July tradition since it’s the most American and patriotic of the holidays. And, I decided on a Sikh couple as the outsiders largely because around that time there was a shooting in a Sikh Gurudwara in Wisconsin. The white supremacist perpetrator associated the Sikhs with Osama Bin Laden and it shocked me that there was such ignorance about the Sikh community still. It had been more than a decade since 9/11 and the backlash continued. I realized that we cannot do much about the ignorance of others. What we can do is change our reaction to their ignorance. And, that inspired the film and the actions of the wife, Tejpreet.

I arrived in the U.S. eleven years ago with the unbearable enthusiasm of Baldev – the husband in the film – for all things American. Over the years, the enthusiasm has not tapered but my mind has gained a more complex understanding of national identity, displacement, and the idea of home. The film is a window into that mindscape.

Additionally, every time I start a film I give myself a challenge and for this one it was to tell a story with as little dialogue as possible. Watch and let me know if I succeeded. Also, vote.

Fifteen Years After Eqbal Ahmad: A Call

eqbalahmad Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the passing of Eqbal Ahmad (1932 – 1999). Who was Eqbal Ahmad?

On 10 Feb, 1971, a letter appeared in The New York Times titled “Eqbal Ahmed: A Defense” signed by faculty at Princeton.

To the Editor:

Leaders in the movement to end the prolonged, cruel and useless violence against millions in Indochina have now been indicted by the Justice Department for conspiracy to blow up a heating system and kidnap a Presidential adviser. As Fathers Daniel and Phillip F. Berrigan have already right said, such a plot would be a “grotesque” response by “deranged” people – a “caricature” of the dedicated mass action still required to end the war.

We are writing about one of those indicted – a former student at Princeton and a good friend, Eqbal Ahmad, now a Fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs.

Everything we know about Dr. Ahmad is contrary to that of which he is accused. He is a scholar in political science who has established an international reputation with his published work on revolution. He has also translated his analysis into action.

He was one of the first to denounce romantic revolutionaries for substituting personal heroics for truly difficulty task of fashioning new links among the exploited, the powerless, the excluded and those who know what sustained work is required to transform individuals and society.

His writings have analyzed the disadvantages of conspiracy and terror when used by revolutionaries and emphasized the need to concentrate on isolating all unjust regimes morally and politically. A group of extreme leftist students last year stormed into the Adlai Stevenson Institute and deliberately destroyed Eqbal Ahmad’s research notes.

In our view, Eqbal Ahmad understands well the underlying social forces that impel rulers to persist in runious wars, and allow revolutionaries with deep roots among their own people to succeed despite the might brought against them by great powers. This among other things has made him a first-rate teacher and analyst and also one of the most persuasive opponents of the Vietnam war on campuses in this country and abroad.

Eqbal Ahmad’s public record of scholarship and advocacy makes the accusation appear highly implausible to us.

Henry Bienen, Kathyrn Boals, Henry H. Eckstein, Richard A. Falk, Manfred Halpern.
Princeton, N. J. Feb. 1, 1971
The writers are members of Princeton University faculties

Edward Said, when remembering Eqbal Ahmad, did so with such love and grace that every single time I have read those words, I have found myself transported to those conversations Said notes – with Darwish, or Faiz or Paley.

Yet, Said left unsaid what Ahmad would mean to the future, our present. The Harrisburg Seven are now forgotten. I rarely find Ahmad cited in contemporary scholarship and I rarely see his figure evoked in a genealogical manner to the many critical thoughts on empire or global south. He did not leave behind “the big book” I guess. Perhaps most critically, I have rarely heard young scholars of Pakistan incorporate his work into their own.

A small group of us, wish to mark today, the anniversary of Eqbal Ahmad‘s fifteenth year, and raise a call for submissions. We wish to create a small print ‘zine to be published in Fall 2014. We ask for reflections on Eqbal Ahmad’s work and the ways in which it intersects with your own practices and theologies. Please contact me or leave your contact information in comments, if you are interested. We would also like you to read Eqbal Ahmad, if you have not encountered him before. We recommend The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad (2006).

You can also look at the archivization project at our beloved SAADA on Eqbal Ahmad.

We thank you.

Waziristan, U.S.

Drones and the Obama Administration

I gave the following remarks on 26 March 2014.

There currently exists a limit in the liberal critique of the drone program: there is a discussion about the efficacy of the program – and with it an emphasis on collecting numbers of casualties, of some matrices of sorting the dead into militants and civilians; there is a discussion of the legality of the program – with it the implications for state capacity to fight terrorism or to punish individuals; there is a historicizing of drones within imperial histories of violence upon colonized spaces –and with it a linking of US regime to earlier British or European regimes. In any of these cases, there is an assumption that the critic is making a moral case against the usage of drones for imperial over-reach or against blowback, but which stops at not knowing the precise numbers of civilian casualties and hence in suspension.

Priya Satia’s recent essay on the history of drones links British and later US regimes of power and is highly critical of imperial outreach and in an exemplary fashion. Yet Satia concludes: “Only intense public pressure can force lawmakers to have a conversation about what drones should be used for, as has been true of the limits we want to impose on other technologies, from computers to land mine.”1 Satia’s reversion to an idealized liberal democratic politics is incongruent to the critique of lawmakers from the long twentieth century that Satia herself thoroughly documents in her work. What Satia does not do is question the very gaze that allows lawmakers to constitute a space of exception for a vast swarth of subaltern subjects and reject the premise in the first place.

It is not an advisable position to take: after all, the drones ostensibly target a group of individuals (al- Qaeda or Taliban) who as well make no distinction between civilian and military and who have carried out a long string of horrific violence against various states. Being deemed outside of Reason, of History and, markedly, of Time, the only option is to eliminate them with force, and in this particular chain of calculations, the drone program, however flawed, represents the best case scenario.

What I would like to do is point out a particularly US based history (not British or European) both for the targeting of a space as one out of civilization and with categorizing violence on that space as righteous. In an earlier essay, on the question of technology and the act of “seeing” that governs the technical sophistry of drone warfare (“Adam’s Mirror: The Frontier in the Imperial Imagination“) I made a particular argument for us to consider the history of US regimes of power. My argument today furthers that claim by stating that drones do not represent any paradigmatic shift. Rather, the drone program is a continuation of a long history of risk minimization and political marginalization of people-as-population whose presumed opacity helps the US polis imagine the worst. In this regard, the particular spatialization of violence enacted in the drone strikes has been at-home in the foundational ethos of US state-hood.

First, the question of space itself – the un-goverened or semi-governed space, which is thought to lie at the borderlands or at the frontier. It is a site of anxiety, a source of disruption, a place where inclement forces gather to plot, and to attack. It is the space which orients our actions (“Wild West” or “Tribal Areas”) away from civitas to jus bellum. It is regularly invoked elsewhere in contemporary discourse, but it is rather closer to home.
Continue reading Waziristan, U.S.

———
  1. Priya Satia, “Drones: A History from the British Middle East,” Humanity 5 (Spring 2014): 1-31. []

In Defense of The Hindus: An Alternative History

It seems like only yesterday that I was present in Foster Hall for Wendy Doniger’s book launch. After I posted on it on CM, a healthy discussion happened, to which Wendy graciously responded. The generosity of her response showcases her unmatched pedagogic spirit and how, with humor and humility, she has shaped our collective understanding of the past.

In the aftermath of Penguin’s rather shameful decision to pull the book from India, a number of responses have emerged. I happen to concur with EPW’s take.

Below is a statement from some of her students at UChicago, to which CM adds its name:
This statement expresses the views of the individuals listed below and does not represent the views of the University of Chicago or any of its departments.

We, the undersigned, as students of South Asia, strongly condemn the withdrawal by Penguin Press India of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from distribution in India. We believe that this work has been attacked because it presents a threat to orthodox Brahminical interpretations of Hinduism. We believe that this attack is part of ongoing attempts by upper­caste extremist Hindu forces to stifle any alternative understandings of Hinduism. As students in the United States, we are acutely aware that North American organizations of the Hindu right initiated the protests against Wendy Doniger’s scholarship. Hindu right wing organisations in India have worked in tandem with their North American counterparts to suppress alternative voices in India and too often violently. We are deeply concerned about the alarming increase in attacks on any academic study of Hinduism that does not fit these groups’ narrow and exclusionary vision of Hinduism which is part of their desire to create a Hindu India that excludes the religious minorities of Indian Muslims and Indian Christians.
Wendy Doniger, a respected scholar who is devoted to the study of Hinduism, has astutely recognized the great danger to human life and the plural practices and beliefs of Hindus posed by these groups. She has courageously refused to bow to their pressures to curtail her scholarship and has consistently challenged the Hindu right. By tracking the formation of myth through history, her work undermines these groups’ exclusionary claims on the past.

As researchers we know that a singular narrative of Hinduism, as of any living tradition, is completely untenable. This incident is indicative of the genocidal imagination of these groups that seek to extinguish the idea of a plural and secular India. This attack on Wendy Doniger’s scholarship is reminiscent of the earlier attacks on the scholarship of AK Ramanujan carried out by Hindu fundamentalist student organisations. We protest the rise of majoritarian narratives that curtail different ways of knowing the world and urge scholars, researchers, academics and people of all persuasions to call for Wendy Doniger’s book to be brought back into circulation in India. We join others who have articulated their protest against the withdrawal in refusing the singular, elitist and exclusionary imaginings of the past that are used to do violence to our shared present.

Signed:
Shefali Jha
Malarvizhi Jayanth
Ahona Panda
Aakash Solanki
Sayantan Saha Roy
Tejas Parasher
Suchismita Das
Abhishek Bhattacharyya
Joya John
Emma Meyer
Kyle Gardner
Erin Epperson
Victor D’Avella
Joseph Grim Feinberg
Ranu Roychoudhuri
Ishan Chakrabarti
Margherita Trento
Adam O’Brien
Madlyn Wendell
Jeff Wilson
Jetsun Deleplanque
Leah Richmond

In solidarity:
Ankit Agrawal