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Nominating Ernst, Or, I Need A Stiff Drink Before Dinner
A year ago -- on September 1, 2006 -- I nominated Professor Carl Ernst to be the 2007 recipient of the King Faisal Prize (category: Services to Islam). For some reason he did not get it; I trust my nominating him did not work against him. In any case, I would like to take this occasion to nominate Professor Carl Ernst yet again, for few have worked as tirelessly as he has to promote, through Islamic "art and music," the image of Islam on his own campus, and on campuses throughout America through "workshops" and list-serves and all the rest of what we have come to expect of them.
The best evidence for this tireless working on behalf of Islam are the words of Professor Ernst himself in the interview he gave, to a Chapel Hill paper, about the reasons for his being chosen to receive the Barshrahil Prize. Here in pertinent part, is what he noted:
"Dr. Al-Freih was very impressed by what she saw of our efforts, and she expressed the wish to support this new initiative.[the Muslim Network Consortium] As a member of the jury for the Bashrahil Prize, she was in a position to take action by nominating Following Muhammad [by Carl Ernst] for the prize at its board meeting in May; she did so with a 7-page letter in Arabic that summarized the contents of the book and highlighted its main features, especially the fact that it is written in a clear style that is accessible to non-specialist readers.. She particularly emphasized the point that my book makes regarding phenomena such as extremism and terrorism, as being the results of particular modern political mentalities rather than being somehow essentially part of Islam."
And why was that so important? Well, Professor Carl Ernst explains:
[Interviewer] Why was Following Muhammad nominated for this prize, rather than other books on Islam?
[Ernst] Muslims around the world have become acutely aware that, especially since the terrorist attacks against US targets in September 2001, there has been a spate of publications in America that have increasingly argued that terrorism is inextricably associated with Islam. These anti-Islamic publications range from the urbane and scholarly condemnations of modern Islamic countries by Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis to the rabid denunciations of Islam emanating both from right-wing think tanks and fundamentalist Christian organizations. This stream of negativity causes considerable concern in majority Muslim countries, since these books offer, explicitly or implicitly, a justification for new military incursions that will inevitably be seen as a new colonial regime to the peoples of the Middle East.
Following Muhammad is not an apologetic defense of Islam, nor was it written by a Muslim; defenses of Islam based on Islamic ideals are indeed readily available, but they fail to address the questions raised by the conflicts of recent years. By offering a reasoned critique of colonialism as well as a critique of ideologies like fundamentalism, Following Muhammad demonstrates that it is possible for an American author to provide a fair-minded introduction to Islam for non-Muslims. The book also provides access to Islamic civilization and culture from aesthetic and ethical perspectives, which can be appreciated by readers of any background, and it makes clear how the Qur'an and especially the Prophet Muhammad function as centers for the values and aspirations of Muslims from many backgrounds. Moreover, by emphasizing the multiplicity and pluralism characteristic of Muslim societies throughout history, the book makes it possible to reconsider the phenomenon of Islam from a non-fundamentalist perspective (whether on the part of Muslims or non-Muslims)."
So Ernst's book offers that Old Reliable of the apologists, who if they fail to stop inquisitive students of Islam one way ("you don't know Arabic, so you can't comment on Islam") they will try another: "Islam is not a monolith, so Infidels can never ever generalize about something called 'Islam" or indeed make any statement at all (unless of course those inquisitive students wish to praise it, for special exception is made for such praise). And he uses the "aesthetic" approach -- the same approach, more or less, that is used in the books by his fellow-collaborator John Esposito, with all those pretty pictures of blue mosques and the escalier derobe, in reddish baked clay, of the Samarra mosque, and Iznik tiles, and old prints of turbaned Turks from the 16th century, so that the reader or student is so bedazzled with all the couleur locale of Islam that he stops thinking about such questions as: well, what does Islam teach Muslims to think about, teach them how to regard, teach them how to treat, Infidels? No wonder Carl Ernst chooses to emphasize the "aesthetic" angle. You would too, if you had to defend Islam, wouldn't you? And of course, you would stay far away from such matters as the severe constrictions on modes of expression, on the prohibition on statuary, and on depictions of humans (no portraiture in Islam, no living creatures at all -- and the odd Bellini portrait of one or more of the Ottoman padishahlar is the exception that proves the rule, and Mughal miniatures ditto).
And then he indulges himself. Bernard Lewis is guilty of having produced an "urbane and scholarly condemnation" -- Lewis, who at his apologetic worst has written paragraphs more compelling and useful than the entire output of Carl Ernst, Ph.D. And then there are the "rabid denunciations" of the mad-dog rightwingers, in the cartoonish ernstian presentation of the universe. But "Following Muhammad" is not, Ernst himself says, an apologetic work. Not at all. He wouldn't do what the enemies of Islam do, that Bernard Lewis and so many others have done. Of course he fails completely to list any of those many others who have not presented Islam in anything like the manner of gentle Sufi and sinister apologist Carl Ernst. He tells us nothing, he mentions nothing, about the work of such scholars of Islam as Snouck Hurgronje, Antoine Fattal, Majid Khadduri, David Margoliouth, Joseph Schacht, Edmond Fagnan? Georges Vajda, Henri Lammens, S. D. Goitein, Franz Rosenthal, Gustav von Grunebaum, or a hundred others whose works have transcended their time, and who were not, when they wrote, subject to the bully-boy tactics of Said or epigones of Said, or the MESA-Nostrans who have fanned out across academic America and who, armed with Arab, especially Saudi, money, have done such damage to the understanding of Islam -- damage most apparent in the folly of the effort in Tarbaby Iraq.
Here's a little more of Carl Ernst on Carl Ernst:
"By offering a reasoned critique of colonialism as well as a critique of ideologies like fundamentalism, Following Muhammad demonstrates that it is possible for an American author to provide a fair-minded introduction to Islam for non-Muslims. The book also provides access to Islamic civilization and culture from aesthetic and ethical perspectives..."
Can you stand any more of this? I can't. I quit. For now. I need a stiff drink before dinner.