Across the Bay

Monday, June 21, 2004

Cole Nidre

Juan Cole has made what can easily be his worst post this month. Here is a prime example of an Arabist uncritically using Arabic (false) folk etymologies, and uncritically adopting the worldview of his object of study. This uncritical attitude is further extended to an apologetic on behalf of the Muslim students at UCI (against "bigoted jews"). In both cases Cole doesn't at all entertain any alternative view. Instead he gives his the seal of approval. Then, after explaining the meaning of the Shahada, he "dragoman" Cole turns his aggressive side on us as well. It's very funny to read this after reading a piece on Orientalists by Robert Irwin which had the following interesting comment in its introduction:

"I would like to suggest ways in which orientalists may have been influenced by the oriental materials which they read, in three related areas: the study of poetry and belles-lettres, philology and the writing of history."

This post by Cole is a case of philology that's influenced by Arabic tradition, and then uncritically adopted as truth simply because it comes from the "native" sources. I.e., Cole shows how his ideology tampers with his trade as a critical scholar. It becomes quite ugly when he deals with philology.

But before we go into that, let's stay on the level of journalism. Cole expresses his disgust at Jewish groups who objected to the display of green stoles with Islamic writings on them. Nowhere does he provide evidence for his assertion that the Jewish Congress is attempting to associate Islamic confession of faith with terrorism! He simply assumes it based on one quote by the president of the UCI chapter of a Jewish fraternity! Cole doesn't entertain for one second the ritualistic (appearances) aspect of the stoles. He never addresses the legitimate question of "who else in the Islamic world wears green stoles save for the jihadists and suicide bombers"? A possible exception might be the Ashoura ceremonies where some wear head bands with Islamic inscriptions, but that leads to several other questions:

1- Why on earth should paraphernalia associated with specific Islamic rituals (at best, or Jihadist rituals at worst) be part of a secular university's graduation ceremony!? Free speech? Fine.

2- Why are people not supposed to associate those green stoles with the many parades and marches seen on TV, or with militants and suicide bombers who are photographed or videoed wearing them before they go out and bomb a bus or slit the throat of an innocent person (for which Cole then goes fishing for fake Arab apologies).

3- Are there any other students who decided to make such statements so intimately linked to religion on a graduation day at a secular school? Do you see anyone else doing this? If an evangelical Christian did this, would we hear the end of it from the ACLU? (And please, don't read this statement with FOX News eyes. Spare me.) After all, this is not a Muslim girl wearing a veil we're talking about here. It's not like stoles are part and parcel of every day required Islamic wardrobe.

But it gets worse. When Professor Cole decides to morph into Reverend Cole is where the hilarity begins.

"The shahadah or confession of faith is a universalist statement. It begins by saying "La ilaha illa Allah." "La" means "no" in Arabic. "Ilah" is god with a small "g", a deity of the sort that is worshipped in polytheistic religions like those of ancient Greece and Babylon. It is a cognate of the ancient Hebrew "eloh," which also means "god." One of the names for God in the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible is Elohim, which literally means "the Gods." Some scholars believe that the use of this plural is an echo of the process whereby a council of gods in ancient Near Eastern religion gradually become merged into a single figure, the one God.
...
So "La ilaha" means that there are no gods or small deities of the polytheistic sort. The ancient Arabs worshipped star-goddesses such as al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. These are the equivalents of Venus, Hera and Diana in classical mythology. The Muslim witness to faith denies that such deities exist.
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This point is why it is wrong to insist on using the word Allah in English rather than God. Allah is not a proper name. It is simply the Arabic word for "the God." A god is ilahun. The God is al-Ilahu. The close proximity of two "L's" in al-Ilah caused them to be elided together so that the word became Allah. But it just means "the God," i.e., "God." Christian Arabic-speakers also use Allah to refer to the God of the Bible."


This is all very interesting but unfortunately, the flip-side to this argument is that "the Muslim witness to faith" denies the existence of other deities that other people believe in today, not just classical or ancient times. Cole forgets that there are other faiths and religions besides Christianity and Judaism in the world!

The final statement is almost a standard formula in apologetic circles, like the "unity of path and destiny" in Syrian-Lebanese official circles. But it's simply bad philology. Cole's explanation of the unusual phonology of "Allah" as an elision is ridiculous. What other examples are there in Arabic that would support this? For example, why doesn't it occur in a word like al-alīm (the painful) where the exact same elements exist, i.e. al (definite article)+hamza (glottal stop)+L+long vowel? Furthermore, how does Cole explain the existence of a regular form al-'ilāh which he himself refers to? Why did elision not occur there? Also, Cole has no explanation for the irregular pronunciation of the L's in Allah. For instance, that's not how the L's are pronounced in words like al-lāHiq (the following), or al-lā'ib (the player) where you have two L's followed by a long A. (Cole leaves all other explanations out. For instance, the possible role of Aramaic phonology is not explored, in all likelihood because Cole knows nothing about Aramaic or Semitic philology. The Aramaic alāhā' and its phonology are possibly what's behind Allah. That's one theory at least. I.e. it could be a loan, an almost frozen form, with the loss of the final ā' from the Aramaic. Finding an Aramaic word (or Persian for instance) in the Quran is not miraculous. Siegmund Fraenkel pursued it in the late 19th c. in his classic work on foreign and loan words in Arabic. More recently, and less successfully, Christoph Luxenberg attempted to seek an underlying Aramaic matrix to the Quran. His work is very rough and methodologically flawed, but still has some interesting possibilities. It is certain that more work is needed in that particular area of Arabic-Aramaic contact and interaction, and that much of the Quranic world lies in that contact. See also this more sound (but technical) article by François de Blois. See also his review of Luxenberg, which could have been kinder.)

The etymology that Cole provides is the traditional Arabic folk etymology which explains the form as "al" (the definite article) + "ilāh" ("god"), i.e., The God, which is then given a theological explanation linking it to monotheism. Cole continues with his remarks about Arabic-speaking Christians. Readers are reminded that Arabic has been forced on the people of the Levant since the Islamic invasions of the region.

The basic problem in Cole's explanation is that he's going back and forth between two points: 1- That Allah is not a proper name, but rather is the generic word for "deity", and 2- specific narratives and definitions. The paradox is exemplified by the following quote:

"And, the Koran also identifies Allah or "God" as the God of Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, David, John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as of Muhammad. So, "there is no God but God." There is no difference in sentiment between this statement and the phrase, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord." (Dt. 6:4)."

Cole couldn't have picked a worse biblical verse to back his statement (see below)! The earlier claim was that Allah was not a proper name, but a generic term like the Hebrew elohim (although Cole qualified the term elohim as one of the names of God!!). But then he introduces the Quran's definition of who "Allah" is, which is by linking him to individuals (and of course the narratives behind them. Also, by extension, in a few cases, it links them to their movements). So, the Quranic Allah is the god of Abraham down to Muhammad. The Christian god is the god of Abraham down to Jesus. Needless to say, the Jewish god includes neither Muhammad nor Jesus. I.e. God's "narrative" is very different in all three cases. To tell a Christian that his God includes acknowledgment of Muhammad (I'll explain in a second) is blasphemy. You're no longer a Christian if you believe that. So Cole is merely stating the obvious when he says that Christian Arabic speakers would use the Arabic word! But Cole confuses lexicon and theology. Just because Christians use the word Allah, it doesn't mean that they imply an identity of concepts or divinities in their theology (again, the clash between a nameless universal and a defined local). In fact, Christians use phrases like "allah taba'on" (their god) in reference to Muslims. If Allah is the universal monad that Cole is preaching to us, why then would a Christian emphasize difference? That is because the universal is based on a local definition which itself is then universalized. Let me add another example provided by Cole himself. When he decided to bring in Hebrew Elohim he neglected to mention that the same word was used by all the neighboring Canaanites! Does that mean that the Canaanites and the Israelites all worshipped the same god? (There is no solid proof of Yahweh outside Israel. He was their national god like Qôs for the Edomites, Chemosh for the Moabites, Haddad for the Arameans, etc.) So when an Israelite used elohim it was clearly and narrowly defined and it wasn't interchangeable with his neighbors' elohim. But that is exactly Cole's argument with regards to Allah. That's because Cole confuses or simplifies several things here. The "early" material he's talking about would be a reference to El, the famous Canaanite god who was probably also an Israelite god early on before the domination of Yahwism. But El is a specific name (even if the name itself simply means "deity") and thus a specific figure. See F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cole grossly simplifies a very complex phenomenon of convergence and religious history displayed in the Bible, where several words and concepts get reinterpreted. See the reference to Mark Smith's works below. Finally, just like El is both a generic and proper name -- meaning deity -- why can't we say that Allah is also a generic as well as a proper noun? The traditional Arabic etymology of al (definite article) + ilāh ("deity") doesn't matter here since in Canaanite, El by itself can be definite or indefinite because early on definiteness was not marked morphologically.

The logical problem is the confusion between a philosophical deity that Cole is describing and its specific embodiment in a particular narrative. The former deity is not linked to a narrative, for once it is, it becomes more narrowly defined.

Let's go back to Cole's biblical quotation and you'll see what I mean. He quotes the Shema' (Deut 6:4), but doesn't go on using Hebrew, which obscures the fundamental error in his assumption. The verse in Hebrew reads Yahweh for "Lord" (Yahweh Elohenu, Yahweh eHad). So it is Yahweh who's the "elohim" of the Israelites. It is Yahweh who is "one". It's a proper name bound within a specific narrative. That narrative is then turned into a universalist worldview, but the twist is that the universal deity isn't an amorphous "eloah" but it's specifically Yahweh, the god of Israel. So Cole's assertion that there is no difference between the Shahada and the Shema' is right on one level, but so decisively wrong on another, more crucial level! You can't say that Allah is not a proper name and compare it with a biblical verse that explicitly pledges allegiance to a god with a proper name!

After this long explanation, one can see that the Shahada that Cole is defending as universalistic actually isn't. The Shahada does not stop at "there is no god but god" (assuming a generic function for Allah). The confession continues with an essential (logical) conjunction "and Muhammad is his prophet" (wa MuHammadun rasūlu Allah. This is not reflected in the translation given in the OCR piece). The conjunction and its essential combination of Allah and his apostle (see the parenthesis slightly below) clearly takes away the universalist aspect and links it to a specific narrative in time and space. (The proper translation of rasūl is "apostle." To use Cole's method, whenever you'd find the Greek apostolos [apostle] it usually corresponds to Aramaic šlīHā' which is used for the 12 apostles. Cole used the example of nabī which would correspond to Greek prophētes. "Messenger" is usually the translation of the Aramaic malakā' which corresponds to Greek angelos. But Cole's point on the interchangeability of "prophet" and "apostle" [rasūl] in the Quran is basically correct.)

Cole of course enlightens us that the Jewish and Christian prophets are respected in Islam (thank you very much, that really matters to me, a dhimmi) but for some reason fails to see how all other religious expressions are deemed kufr (apostasy) or ishrāk (polytheism) in the Quran, and the latter includes Christianity. So before attacking "bigots" in the Jewish congress, Cole should take a deep look at the attitude towards other religions in Islam (outside Christianity and Judaism), and then take a look in the mirror. And then maybe, consult with the French about religious paraphernalia.

Cole tries to wiggle out of this one by saying:

"The Koran does not represent Muhammad as the only prophet or recipient of divine revelation. Even the bees receive a form of wahy or revelation from God. God has sent a prophet "to every city," it maintains. Not only are all the biblical figures prophets, but so are John the Baptist and Jesus, and even ancient Arabian prophets are accepted. In India, many Sufi Muslims were perfectly comfortable accepting Krishna and Ram as prophets. Of course, committed Muslims believe that Muhammad is the most recent messenger and the most appropriate one in which to believe, but they don't deny the validity of others such as Moses. And, in traditional Islamic law, it is perfectly all right for human beings to follow other prophets of the one God, whether they be Christians, Jews or members of some other monotheistic religion. This tolerance was implemented for the most part, though there were lapses, and some serious ones. It can be contrasted with medieval Christianity, which often expelled Jews and Muslims or forcibly converted them."

Let me pick one flaw in this long list of errors. (Where do I start?)
Whereas Cole started the paragraph discussing the Shahada, he moves to discuss the Quranic view of prophets. But the Shahada includes only Muhammad, not Moses or Jesus or anyone else. It is Muhammad who is the final and also the most beloved of god's prophets. His words are correctives (not just additions) and the perfection of god's message. The Quran certainly doesn't give you the choice of picking your favorite prophet and that God will be "cool with it"! Do you know of any religion that writes a book and hails a prophet only to tell you that you can easily ignore him and adopt whomever you want!? Christianity doesn't have that, neither does Islam.

But there's another thing. Cole thinks that tolerance should only include Jews and Christians (and I'm not going to debate the dhimmi issue here, which by itself would put a stick in Cole's wheels. "serious lapses" is right!) Cole basically is outraged at Jews (and Christians) for allegedly "attacking" Islam (he assumes that of course and doesn't bother to prove it!) His response is that Islam is "tolerant" (again, use of a word with very different meaning) of Jews and Christians (as if there are only Jews and Christians in the world, or indeed the US!). But, what that also means by extension is "to hell with the rest!" Cole gets even funnier when referring to Sufis. I.e., by referring to a sect (severely influenced by Christianity and eastern mysticism) deemed heretical by orthodox Islam! It's like a Catholic bishop referring to Mormonism as a good source for Catholic dogma! What dishonest nonsense! Of course Cole has to turn it on those goddamned medieval Christians! Mea Culpa...

So based on what I've established above, Cole's conclusion is not only logically flawed, it's also a bunch of fantasies:

"So both elements of the confession of faith in Islam are universalistic. The one God is the God of all being, and Muhammad as prophet exists within a moral universe of many prophets, and comes in a long line of true prophets, with much the same message as they had, concerning the compassion and love of the one God for his creation."

No! Both elements are not universalistic. They're only universalistic in Cole's fanciful and erroneous interpretation. Furthermore, all this is of course assuming a benign understanding of "universalistic". It could very easily be taken as "imperialistic" (a word that's reserved to America in Cole's dictionary). In fact, the roots of Israelite universal monotheism are most likely found in Assyrian imperialism and its encroachment on the Israelites' world, and the reverberations thereof. See Mark Smith's The Early History of God and The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. The local deity is faced with the imperial Ashur and requires a reinterpretation. (Also, Cole doesn't discuss the unifying role of Islamic monotheism among the tribes in the Peninsula, where all the older religions were decimated and converted to Islam. So in a sense, the unity "in heaven" had a reflection in the unity "on the ground." But Cole is too busy preaching to actually go into any of that.)

Thus Muhammad doesn't exist in a moral universe of "many prophets". He is a final corrective addendum to (and re-edition of) a preexisting Jewish and Christian narrative. The prophets therefore are almost exclusively Jewish and Christian. Not much else (definitely no atheists) exists in that universe. So it's hardly tolerant in the full sense, especially considering the time elapsed since the 7th c.! God's creation is very much layered in the Islamic view. The kuffār don't fall under God's "love and compassion", not by a long shot!

"For these Muslim graduates of the University of California to implicitly sacralize the secular learning they received there by associating it with the prayer that God should increase them in "knowledge" is another universalist sentiment. Many Taliban would have denied that there was any `ilm/knowledge to be had at the University of California.

So, the bigots should back off and stop demonizing the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. In multicultural America, moreover, an atmosphere of religious tolerance is the only safeguard against pathologies like antisemitism."


This is an arrogant joke. I would like to see Cole's reaction if a born-again evangelical decides to turn a graduation ceremony to a testimony about God's love through Jesus. Both are universalistic. God is one, and Jesus is a prophet among many! This is simply absurd. This is apologetics gone too far. Are we graduatin' or are we proselytizin'? Or are we, as the piece in the OCR suggests, making political statements? In Cole's case, we're simply preachin'.

Also, why did Cole jump to the other 1.3 billion Muslims!!! What does this have to do with anything!? But it makes sense if you adopt Cole's faulty premise. It's a premise that Edward Said perfected.

To top it all off, he places his sermon under the skirt of "multiculturalist America"... You could see that coming a mile away! First of all, multiculturalist America still has rules about religion in the public sphere, freedom of expression notwithstanding. Second, this is not a mere celebration of pluralism. This, especially if every religious person decides to parade a religious message at every public event, amounts to nothing more than a religious show down. We (non-believers) then have to naturally "tolerate" not only that, but sermons by your favorite post-colonial ME expert about how bigoted we are and how crappy medieval Christianity was!

But notice that nowhere in this long homily did Cole entertain the possibility that the students might be parading a particular political, or politico-religious agenda, and how to view that if it were the case. Why are we to completely throw out any possibility of their sympathy with Hamas? Who are the students? What did they say about why they were wearing those stoles?

Contrast that attitude with the following statement:

"Rumors also swirled that the inscriptions involved support for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization, the paramilitary wing of which sponsors suicide bombings against Israeli targets as a way of fighting Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian land."

The students' possible political motives are only "rumors." But even if they were just rumors, Cole takes the time to describe what Hamas is: an Islamist organization, the "paramilitary wing of which" "sponsors" suicide bombings against Israeli "targets"as a way of fighting "Israeli occupation and annexation of Palestinian land." Any more nuance and I'll puke. Israeli women and children are "targets". Nowhere in there is the Hamas charter mentioned where there is no Palestinian and Israeli land. You know what I mean of course. In Hamas' utopia, there is no Israel.

In the end, if people want to flaunt religious symbols I think they have the right to do so (and here it's obvious that it would stand out as a statement. Of what? It depends... For instance, the OCR quotes a certain student who said: "We are being called terrorists when all we are doing is speaking out." How is wearing very specific religious paraphernalia "speaking out"? What is it speaking out against?). Whatever the case may be, what is certain is that no one needs Cole's emetic overkill apologetics.

Cole has made several poor posts on his blog, but this one is definitely up there. But before he starts yelling and preaching at the whole world (i.e. "them bigoted Jews," but of course not the French who banned any such behavior), he should carefully ponder this statement in the piece he linked to, and contrast it with the Islamic world:

"UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone issued a letter to the campus on the controversy, reiterating that UCI will not ban the students from wearing the stoles."

Before he goes off, he should always remember the status of non-Muslims and of religious liberties in the Muslim world (since he immediately jumped to the 1.3 bil. Muslims). This would give the "serious lapses" he barely mentioned a whole new, contemporary meaning, not unlike the medieval Christianity he attacked.