Date: 28/09/2020
Email: Keep my email address private
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question for Carl Ernst

Dr. Carl W. Ernst, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a leading scholar of Islam, received a major new prize from an Arab cultural organization in Cairo on July 4.

Ernst was awarded the prize for his recent book Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (UNC Press). - from this news item

Why do I suspect that "Following Muhammad" would not be recognized by Snouck Hurgronje, or St. Clair Tisdall, or Sir William Muir, or Tor Andrae, or Maxine Rodinson, or David Margoliouth,or Joseph Schacht, or Ignaz Goldziher, as presenting a recognizable view of Muhammad, while the straightforward presentation of Muhammad's life, as set down by the most authoritative Muslim biographers, which is what Robert Spencer has done in his forthcoming (October 9) biography of Muhammad -- "polemical" and "unscholarly" as Ernst may try to dismiss it, as will 3/4 of the membership of MESA Nostra, while the remaining 1/4 will be secretly delighted with Spencer's book, and only wish that they had dared to produce something similar, but had too much, departmentally, to lose, so it required an intelligent outsider to do the necessary job, and Spencer came along, and did it.

A few years ago, entering freshman at the University of North Carolina were required to read "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" by Michael Sells. This bowdlerized version of the Qur'an, turning it into some kind of cross between Rumi and Omar Khayyam, conveyed absolutely nothing to those hapless freshman about what Islam, or about what the Qur'an, is all about. Leaving aside the Sunna, reducing the Qur'an to those softer "Meccan" suras," it was a guide to nothing at all.

Sells himself, I think, may even be coming around to the fact that his recension has missed something. He may, by degrees, come to realize that his "Approaching the Qur'an" deceives. But he has his own investment in it, and perhaps his reluctance to realize the folly of offering young people, young Americans, a further prolonging of their misunderstanding and naive trust that "all religions teach the same thing" -- of course they don't -- might be understood on that basis (it would be fascinating to hear from Michael Sells himself on whether he now has just a bit of a doubt about what, for example, the great Western scholars of Islam, and of the Qur'an -- let's try to imagine what Crone or Hawting or Ibn Warraq or Luxenburg would make of this, or what any of the thousands of native speakers of Arabic who have become defectors from Islam would say about the pedagogic value of "Approaching the Qur'an."

Yet Carl Ernst, a professor at the University of North Carolina who taught Islam, was all for this exercise in disinformation. He saw nothing wrong, he saw everything right, in pushing this forced mental march through what essentially is no different from the propaganda of an army of apologists who, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have been having the time of their lives pulling the wool, through the deployment of taqiyya and tu-quoque, over the eyes of all kinds of unsuspecting Infidels.

So at least one question -- not a debate question in the context of some non-appearance with Robert Spencer, but a question that has been waiting to be put, so that a clear answer might be given, needs to be pointedly put to Carl Ernst, who no doubt is infuriated by the notion that anyone outside the cozy and well-patrolled confines of MESA, MESA Nostra, should have the gall to ask him anything, much less expect him to supply an answer.

But such a question exists. And Carl Ernst owes an answer to that question, owes it to the affected students who in the past were required to derive their knowledge of Islam from "Approaching the Qur'an," owes it to the parents of those students, owes it to other faculty members in the University of North Carolina system who may not like the idea, may not approve of the idea, of that kind of apologetics calling into question support for the university, from intelligent and inquisitive alumni, and trustees, and members of the North Carolina legislature. Not everyone on that faculty is a wilting violet, not all will be inclined to defer to his "credentials" and his "expertise" quite so readily as he may think -- there are all kinds of deservedly self-assured people on the faculty there who may have taken it upon themselves, in the years since that brouhaha over Required Reading, to find out for themselves, by reading and studying, not only what the Qur'an contains, but what it means, and what "naskh" or abrogation means, and further, what the hadith are all about, and what is the tremendous significance of Muhammad, uswa hasana, al-insan al-kamil, and every detail of his life, including the Khaybar Oasis attack, the decapitation of the Banu Qurayza, the assassinations of Asma bint Marwan and Abu Akaf, and of course little Aisha, on her swing, and with her toys.

And this is the question:

Why did you, Carl Ernst, who knows the contents of the Qur'an, knows about the interpretive doctrine of abrogation, knows the hundreds of violent verses against the Unbeliever, knows what the Qur'an has been taken to mean through time and space by Believers, knows of the uncompromising division between Believer and Infidel, knows what the Hadith -- the Hadith of Al-Bukhari and Muslim -- further offer as a gloss on the Qur'an, and what the Sira, the biography or biographies of Muhammad, offer by way of the Perfect Man suitable for emulation -- why did you not only see nothing wrong, but everything right with the idea of inflicting, as a requirement, on innocent incoming freshman, at a time when it was clear that an intelligent knowledge of Islam was important for reasons of national security, and was not something to be trifled with -- why were you so enthusiastic about the use of that so-called version of the Qur'an, that travesty known as "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" (or was it "The Lyrical Suras" -- I forget) which even its compiler, one suspects, must be beginning to question.

Answer your colleagues. Answer those students and their parents. Answer discontented alumni, and trustees, and members of the legislature of North Carolina, some of whom will have the contents of this query made known to them, and not all of them are likely to be charitable when egregious examples of educational malpractice are brought to their attention.