Reuel Gerecht and Jeffrey Goldberg vs. Pamela Geller

Geller wins.

The effectiveness of my colleague Pamela Geller in raising awareness of the issues surrounding the mega-mosque at Ground Zero and Islamic supremacism in general is proven by the fury of the mainstream media attacks on her. The New York Times has been pursuing her for weeks, culminating in a lengthy and slyly contemptuous profile that ran last Sunday. And now Jeffrey Goldberg has attacked her in his October 13 blog in The Atlantic, conscripting neocon Middle East expert Reuel Gerecht as an expert witness to remedy his own ignorance about the issues he raises.

Goldberg assaults Geller for having “leveled serious charges against Islam” in the recent Times interview, chief among them that “Muslims curse Jews and Christians during their five-times-a day prayer” and that “the Qur’an has never been properly translated,” which Goldberg claims amounts to “insinuating that it contains dark secrets about Muslims and their religious responsibilities.” Adds Goldberg: “This last bit struck me as outrageous, because, as a Jew, Geller should know that anti-Semites have spent nearly two thousand years insinuating that the Talmud contains secret instructions guiding the alleged Jewish attempt to dominate the world. To make the same unsupported charge against Islam is egregious.”

Yet in reality it is Goldberg, not Geller, who is talking about Muslims having "secret instructions" directing them to try to "dominate the world." All that Geller has said is that the Qur'an hasn't been properly translated; Goldberg invents what she was "insinuating." He obviously doesn’t feel he has the intellectual bona fides to close the deal, and so calls on Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and expert on Islam, for a little help. Gerecht, who admits to “an embarrassing ignorance about Pamela Geller,” should have ignored Goldberg’s invitation to pile on.

Gerecht admits that Geller’s concern about the harm that Islamic jihadists can do is “estimable,” but validates Goldberg’s criticism of her by going on to say that this concern “is no excuse for agitprop and what amounts to a slur against some of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century.” What slur? He is referring here to Geller’s comments to the Times about the accuracy of translations of the Qur’an and what Muslims pray about, jumping to the conclusion that in noting the inaccuracy of many Qur’an translations, Geller was intending to insult the scholars who produced those translations.

Gerecht says somewhat snidely that since Geller doesn’t know Arabic, she must be assuming that there is some sort of “scholarly conspiracy” on the part of Qur’an translators to hide the truth about Islam in their translations of the Qur’an. And he adds:

One has to ask whether Ms. Geller has perused the translation masterpiece by Cambridge's late great A.J. Arberry or my personal favorite, the awesomely erudite, more literal translation and commentary by Edinburgh's late great Richard Bell? Both gentlemen are flag-waving members of Edward Said's most detested species--Orientalists. Now if you look at these translations--especially if you look at Bell's, which is blessed with exhaustive notes in a somewhat complicated formatting--even the uninitiated can get an idea that Muhammad had trouble with Christians and especially Jews during his life. If you look at the Qur'anic commentary by Edinburgh's late great William Montgomery Watt (another Orientalist), who was always attentive to Muslim sensibilities in his writings, you can also fine [sic] in clear English Muhammad's unpleasant ruminations about Christians and Jews.

A.J. Arberry's is indeed an outstanding and accurate translation. Arberry, however, was not a Muslim, and accordingly his translation is not often used by Muslims, and when a non-Muslim cites it or other translations written by non-Muslims (such as N. J. Dawood's excellent edition for Penguin), Islamic apologists tend to dismiss it with the palpably false mystification that a non-Muslim cannot be trusted to render the Qur'an accurately or adequately. Thus in order to take that rhetorical weapon out of their hands, I generally use translations written by Muslims and for Muslims in my work, and these are the ones generally also used and cited by Muslims themselves.

Pamela Geller only told The New York Times interviewer that "a true translation, an accurate translation of the Koran, is really not available in English, according to many of the Islamic scholars that I've spoken to." No dark conspiracy theories about hidden content. That was all she said. And she’s generally correct. In fact, some of the translations by Muslims are particularly flawed. The widely read Qur’an rendered by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, for instance, is at some points a transparently apologetic whitewash.  In 4:34, the verse enjoining the beating of disobedient women, he has "beat them (lightly)," although "lightly" does not appear in the Arabic. Ali and another popular Muslim translation, that of Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, both use a stilted pseudo-King James Bible English, moreover, that frequently cloaks in obscurity passages that are hair-raising in Arabic. (Indicating their popularity is the fact that Ali and Pickthall are two of the three translations available on the popular and useful University of Southern California Muslim Students Association Islamic reference website.)

What's more, even the best, most literal translation of the Qur'an does not give the full flavor of some phrases and passages, since the general English reader will not be aware of their precise theological significance in Islam. For example, the phrase "strive in the path of Allah," which appears in numerous places and various permutations in the Qur'an, refers in Islamic theology specifically to fighting hot war, with weapons, not to metaphorical verbal conflict or some other kind of conflict. But unless one is reading along with commentaries, this phrase will look more like a pious exhortation to be more religious than a call to take up arms.

Now what did Pamela Geller say? "Now I also believe that a true translation, an accurate translation of the Koran, is really not available in English, according to many of the Islamic scholars that I've spoken to." That is a general statement made in conversation and not in a scholarly setting with any intention of forensic precision; nonetheless, it is generally true: ask any honest native Arabic speaker and they'll tell you that Qur'an translations in English in the main do not convey the full martial flavor of the original, and the principal translations have the defects noted above. As she was speaking in context about what Western non-Muslims as well as Western Muslims generally understand about Islam, the existence of largely accurate translations like those of Arberry, Bell, and Dawood does not render her statement false: she was speaking about popular understanding, not about what is known among academics.

After haughtily admonishing Geller to read more and blog less, Gerecht continues the amicus curiae brief he has given to Goldberg by turning to her comments about what Muslims pray about in their five times a day observances. In that connection, Gerecht says: “I certainly have no perfect way of knowing what Muslims think when they pray, but I really do think they know what they're doing.”

That is a very large and vague assertion. Gerecht is certainly aware that most Muslims are not Arabs, and yet no matter where they are and what language they speak, they must pray in Arabic; huge numbers recite syllables by rote without having any precise idea of what they're saying. They may “know what they're doing,” in terms of engaging in Islamic prayer in a general sense, but is Gerecht saying that they know all the details of what they're saying, along with the theological and political implications? I have spoken to many non-Arab Muslims who have confirmed that a large number do not, and this has been widely reported, particularly in connection with the madrassas in Pakistan. Is Reuel Gerecht really interested in denying it?

He writes, “If westernized Muslims are facing the Almighty, they know what's in their hearts. Devout Muslims need not hate Jews and Christians to worship the Creator.” But Pamela Geller didn’t say that they did. She merely said that they probably didn’t know that “when they pray five times a day that they're cursing Christians and Jews five times a day.” Gerecht then asserts that just as Christian doctrine doesn't require Christians to slaughter Jews (although he seems to harbor an immense distaste for Christianity, far exceeding any revulsion he may feel toward Islamic jihadists and supremacists), so also Islamic doctrine doesn't require Muslims to slaughter Jews. This is, again, a red herring, since Pamela Geller didn't say that it did, but Gerecht seems to have forgotten this key hadith, in which Muhammad says that the wholesale slaughter of Jews by Muslims will usher in the end times:

Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews.

“In my experience,” Gerecht says, “most Muslims do not think about Jews and Christians at all when they pray.” But Geller wasn’t commenting on what Muslims think about; she was talking about what they probably don’t know—that their prayers involve curses of Jews and Christians. And indeed, when praying the requisite five prayers a day, an observant Muslim will recite the Fatihah, the first surah of the Qur'an and the most common prayer in Islam, seventeen times. The final two verses of the Fatihah ask Allah: "Show us the straight path, the path of those whom Thou hast favoured; not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray." The traditional Islamic understanding of this is that the path of those who have earned Allah's anger are the Jews, and those who have gone astray are the Christians.

This is not my interpretation; it comes from the classic Islamic commentaries on the Qur'an. The renowned Qur'anic commentator Ibn Kathir explains that "the two paths He described here are both misguided," and that those "two paths are the paths of the Christians and Jews, a fact that the believer should beware of so that he avoids them. The path of the believers is knowledge of the truth and abiding by it. In comparison, the Jews abandoned practicing the religion, while the Christians lost the true knowledge. This is why 'anger' descended upon the Jews, while being described as 'led astray' is more appropriate of the Christians."

The Hadith also contains material linking Jews to Allah's anger and Christians to his curse, resulting from their straying from the true path. (The Jews are accursed also, according to Qur'an 2:89, and both are accursed according to 9:30).

So once again, what did Pamela Geller say? "And I don't think that many westernized Muslims know when they pray five times a day that they're cursing Christians and Jews five times a day. I don't think they know that." There is a solid foundation for that idea in the content of Islamic prayer and the ways those prayers have been understood by mainstream Islamic theologians.

Reuel Gerecht may be a friend of Jeffrey Goldberg, but he shouldn’t have rented out his erudition to Goldberg to prosecute a vendetta against Pamela Geller for leading an opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque that is shared by seventy percent of all Americans. Gerecht is right in saying in his note to Goldberg that people should be treated in their full complexity, not as walking abstractions. He has in mind residents of the Islamic world, but such charity begins at home.