Ed Husain: this week’s Prester John

Prester John was a fabulous Christian King of the East, famed for his power and wisdom. European Christendom could be saved from the vast ascendant armies of the Islamic world, if only word could be got to him to attack the Islamic empire from behind. Together the eastern Nestorian king John and Western knights would defeat Islam and save Europe. A letter from John, widely circulated in Europe by the clergy, added fuel to the fire. John’s kingdom of 72 states, was a crime free paradise surrounded by the Muslim horde. The small matter of John being an entirely fictitious creation of the fevered imagination of European Christianity prevented this Baldric-esque “cunning plan”.

One thousand years later, little has changed in the dynamic between the Rum and the Muslims. Now however, the western consensus is that it is the Islam at the heart of the Muslim world that is antithetical to “progress”, that Muslims must therefore be separated from a coherent understanding of Islam, and that the only person who can achieve this is someone from within the faith. A theological Saracen version of the Prester John fable.

Over the last 30 years several “Muslims” have been auditioned for the part. The first was the Bengali author Taslima Nasreen, who was immediately attractive because of her gender, her somewhat confused but resolutely secular views and the riots against her in her homeland. Unfortunately for her neo-liberal boosters, Nasreen was a dunce, her poetry was so bad that she sank like a stone helped along by her repellent personal qualities.

My life, like a sandbar,
has been taken over by a monster of a man
who wants my body under his control
so that, if he wishes,
he can spit in my face,
slap me on the cheek,
pinch my rear;
so that, if he wishes,
he can rob me of the clothes,
take my naked beauty in his grip;
so that, if he wishes.
he can chain my feet,
with no qualms whatsoever whip me,
chop off my hands, my fingers,
sprinkle salt in the open wound,
throw ground-up black pepper in my eyes,
with a dagger can slash my thigh,
can string me up and hang me.

More recently she has tried to re-enter the public debate about Islam with an autobiography in four parts (one would ask why such an august personage should limit their biography to only four parts?). Surely the public has a right to a more detailed description of every dump she took.

She was rapidly overtaken by a more serious academic figure who used the nom de plume Ibn Warraq. He is an Urdu speaking Muhajir from India to Pakistan who was schooled in the UK at the University of Edinburgh. Ibn Warraq is initially plausible as an academic, although the more one reads him, the more his works degenerate into a polemic, unforgivable for a supposed work of scholarship. His work also suffers from his poor grasp of classical Arabic (Fusha) causing him to make frequent errors. In the references he includes works without any scholarly value but rather solely because of “their hostility to Islam“.

More serious still is the compiler’s heavy-handed favoritism for certain revisionist theories (particularly those of John Wansbrough), resulting in a thoroughly one-sided selection of articles and translations that constitute the bulk of the volume. These include works, mostly well-known, by Ernest Renan, Henri Lammens (including a complete translation of his monograph “Fatima and the Daughters of Muhammad”), C. H. Becker, Arthur Jeffery, Joseph Schacht, Lawrence I. Conrad, Andrew Rippin, J. Koren and Y. D. Nevo, F. E. Peters, Herbert Berg, and G. R. Hawting. Most of these were landmark contributions to the lengthy debate on the origins of Islam, by scholars who had (have) strong opinions about it and were possessed of full mastery of the primary languages (especially Arabic) and sources. “Ibn Warraq’s” bias, however, causes him to omit fine contributions that pose challenges for some revisionist ideas—by H. Motzki, U. Rubin, and many others. This lopsided character makes The Quest for the Historical Muhammad a book that is likely to mislead many an unwary general reader.

Titling his book Why I am not a Muslim served only to highlight that the author was not of the caliber of Bertrand Russell.

But it was not his sloppy scholarship that was his undoing as secularism’s brown knight, rather his gender and his anonymity; it’s hard to be on the lecture/book tour circuit without a face. A more attractive candidate is Ayan Hirsi Ali, the fraudulent Somali asylum seeker turned anti-immigrant MP. Recently her “infidel” tour came down under. Ali’s thesis, if it can described as such, is that she had her genitals mutilated, that she grew up in Somalia and that she was a woman in an illiterate tribal society at war with itself, and that this was entirely and solely because she and her society were Muslim. When she arrived in Holland, she was perplexed by its perfection which sent her on an intellectual journey to secularism.

As a thesis it’s pretty lame, but it’s popular. One can reasonably ask, why her appalling life story is not caused, for example, by being a black African, rather than being a Muslim? The reason is, of course, beyond the white-pride community, there is not an audience for such a view. Similarly, one may ask that when Islam was at its zenith, the Muslim world was the most prosperous and innovative part of the classical world, why her argument cannot be deployed in favor of Islam, rather than against it.

The Ali thesis is preposterous, but like Prester John’s epistle, it fits neatly into the West’s imagination of the other. The world however, is now much more skeptical and multi-polar, and tripe like this does not stay unexamined for long (as Irshad Manji discovered) and more recently reviewers have asked some obvious questions of it.

In a similar vein, another “Muslim” who experienced a secular epiphany coincident with visa and financial problems, is Wafa Sultan. Fortunately her secularism has afforded her a more attractive and rewarding career path.

More recently and more importantly Eddie Husain’s personal narrative of his time as one of Lenin’s vanguard October revolutionaries in The Islamist has become the new work from a Muslim with which to club 1.3 billion Muslims. Given my previously expressed views on the modern religious innovation of Islamism, one would expect us to be sympathetic to Husain, but you would be mistaken. Husain’s narrative is a deeply flawed account of his life from a man who is unable to accept that the core of his problem is himself, and the poor choices that he has made. He now presents himself as another of Islam’s self-styled liberal reformers. Although the product has changed, Husain’s earnestness and enthusiasm for his newfound ideology (much like that of the nighttime TV shopping channel spruiker) has not.

Reading his words one is struck by how little Islam Eddie actually understands. Husain’s failure as a Muslim remains the most damming (but unintended) reflection on the group who “trained” him. For us within the Muslim community, it is unsurprising that an Eddie Husain figure would arise from the ranks of HT. I don’t wish to recount the flaws in this work, which have been well documented here, here, here, here and here. But essentially it is that Eddie has mistaken his experience with HT for an experience with Islam.

In the wake of the recent Glasgow self-immolation/bombing more ex-HT wallas have come out of the woodwork to denounce Islam, when really they should be denouncing themselves. Whilst they seem to offer the truth of the ex disciple turned whistle-blower, I have not seen or read anything that encourages me to believe that their personal megalomania and narcissism has in any way diminished.

Whilst all of these authors may offer some insights, with varying degrees of faithfulness, the uselessness of this genre in literature is equivalent to the ‘I was ravished by an Arab, ravish me again” school of writing. They offer the easy conformation of our pre-existing beliefs, but as an instrument to navigating the wider encounter with the Muslim world, they are as irrelevant.

On both sides of the isle, much more nuanced scholarship is now long overdue.