A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints


There are three books sitting next to me on the table. In fact, there’re usually three books sitting next to me on the table when I write. The three books aren’t connected, except perhaps in their occupation of the little round table I do my best to write around, and round. The three books change. Constantly. Today they are, in descending order of pretension, Wheelock’s Latin 6th edition, Virgins? What Virgins? And Other Essays by Ibn Warraq, and Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Sometimes the books are there because I’m using them, like today, and sometimes they’re there because I just haven’t moved them back to the shelf–also, like today. Now, the Morrison is there by circumstance. I recently finished it, and I wanted to keep it around while I thumbed through some of the passages to find out why I didn’t like it as much as just about everyone else on the planet seemed to. A friend of mine recently sent me the Elif Batuman article from the London Review of Books, in which Batuman rails against MFA programs and the dangers of writing by committee. He claims Morrison’s Beloved falls into that camp. I don’t know–maybe. It seems plausible, and though the idea of an MFA program hasn’t appealed to me, I have plenty of friends who seem to have benefited from theirs, so I guess I just don’t have a dog in that fight. I figure that whatever you need to do to show up at the table and produce something is probably okay: get a degree, say a prayer, drink some scotch, find the right man or woman, leave the wrong one, sacrifice a chicken, whatever.

And speaking of tables, as in the one you show up to write on, that round one with the three books on it–well, that table is why the Latin is there. I was trying to work in a play on the Latin word mensa, which means “table,” and from which we get the word mind. It didn’t really work out–obviously. I was trying to get across the idea that it’s important to have enough books on the table. A clean table is nice. It’s important even. And you certainly don’t want to have too many books on the table, because then you can’t clear a space to write, but if you don’t have any books on the table, you risk the dubious reinvention of subjects that have been well covered.

The third book, Virgins? What Virgins?, is written by the Pakistani secularist Ibn Warraq, who is highly critical of Islam and approaches its theology and history with a skeptic’s eye. Indeed, Ibn Warraq is not the only non-Western critic of Islam or radical Islam–far from it. There’s the 9th century Muhammad al Warraq and his student, Ibn al-Rawandi, both of whom seemed to have believed in God but not the rigidity of Islamic religious practices, not to mention the excellent contemporary scholar, Asma Afsaruddin–who is also a woman. And that’s just three. Three books for your table. Three books, not including Ibn Warraq, if you’ll permit the very obvious metaphor of people as books, which is probably okay if you’re on board with tables as minds.

I mention them to reject, in its entirety, the current public “debate” in the West on Islam. There is an entire pen of writers and intellectuals that place their pulpits on empty tables, and if not empty, then nearly so. On their tables you might find Aristotle and Bacon, but not Averroes, the 12th-century Muslim intellectual largely responsible for introducing Plato Inc. to the West. You’ll find Orwell, but not David Tracy, one of the most prominent Catholic theologians of the 20th century. Nor does it help when the argument is put forward that the Middle East was wrecked by colonialism. It is true that dividing up land like pieces of a holiday pie is bound to cause some problems, but the Middle East is an example of what happens when a larger organism, for instance an Ottoman Empire, dies: its digestion is at war with its desire, and it lives by impulse, as it slowly retreats into the past. The Middle East was in ruins long before we drew arbitrary borders and exported obesity.

Now the debate over fundamentalism is an important one; religious and political oppression, ditto; the subjugation of women–fuck that! I’m against all of those things. Is it true that the Quran relies on warlike imagery? Yes, absolutely true. And it’s not all a metaphor; 600 A.D. Arabia was a tough place to be. To be honest, given the ubiquity of war, I don’t think considerations about its just prosecution are strange. But let’s leave behind the Quran for a moment. Let’s just play with some numbers. According to several sources, including this one, in 2008 there were 1.63 billion Muslims in the world. That’s 24% of the total population of the planet–nearly 1 in 4 people are Muslim. That’s at least one Muslim in every teacup, every single day, at Disneyland–if you take four people that is, which I’m told is the optimum number.

Now, stay with me for a second.

The University of Chicago runs something called the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST), which keeps statistics on every act of terrorism. Unfortunately, the statistics are only compiled through 2008, but it’s still a fairly accurate picture of what the world looks like today. In 2008, according to the database, there were 5,922 deaths attributed to Islamic terrorist attacks and 6,911 wounded. So, let’s see: that’s 5922 divided by 1.63 billion–I’m just trying to get a percentage here–for a grand total of .00036% of the world’s Muslims who were responsible for deaths by suicide attack in 2008. Now, of course, that doesn’t take into account the network of operators that supports them, or those who are silent or complicit in their actions, but even if you claim that it takes 1,000 supporters for every murder, a very large and unlikely number, then we’re still at .36%.

You literally have a better chance of being killed by falling down, .4%, than you do of being killed by an Islamic terrorist, even with my massive inflation of the numbers. And if you take out the speculation and just include the numbers for which we have actual facts, you have a better chance of being killed by an asteroid impact than a terrorist. And if you really want to have that discussion and start looking at rates of violence around the world, such as the U.S., trust me, it’s not a favorable comparison.

As I said, extremism is a real threat, and a grave one in many Muslim countries, but extremism is always terrifying, regardless of the creed. The treatment of women and religious minorities in many Muslim countries is abhorrent, as was the treatment of slaves in America. Beloved makes that painfully clear. Slavery was a nadir in U.S. history, as the 20th- and 21st-century political iterations of this 1400-year-old tradition will, I hope, be similarly described someday. My point is that all of this talk about whether Islam is a violent religion or not sort of misses the obvious answer of, “No.”

No. Islam is not a violent religion. It’s a religion, yes, and made up of people, and because it’s made up of people it’s capable of leveraging great works and great calamities. Now, if you want to have a discussion about that Gordian Knot called human nature, or our deep need for authority, or why Venus shacks up with Mars, then I’m right there with you. Those are deep questions, worthwhile questions. In fact, the nature of Islam is a pretty interesting question too, but there should be a few more books on the table before we tackle it.

4 Responses to Islam

  1. slt says:

    Way to keep your reading light. Also, if I have to ever slog my way through Beloved or The Bluest Eye again, I’ll kill myself…not that anyone asked.

    Thanks, as always, for sharing your words!

  2. Seph says:

    I love this post. Especially the line about sacrificing a chicken or whatever. You led me from books on the table back to how we think about things and the resources we use to do so. Right on. the subtext here is that some (American?) thinking about Islam, what it means and what it portends is skewed by fear. Yes, in the cave, the night is dangerous and full of bad promises.

    I wonder though about why Beloved didn’t resonate with you. Truth, it took me a couple of times reading it to feel I was with the story. But there are moments of deep, incalculable beauty, and it’s one of the novels I’ve read that make me think that the alchemy of fiction is powerful magic. I have never read another passage in literature that did what the bit about the Chokeberry tree on the back of the main character did for me: It says pain and regret and wonder, sexual desire and a pain of home at the same instance.

    Still, I understand that this response is just my own. What, I wonder, are the descriptions of the world that make sense to you, to me? What key must they be pitched in to make us hum along?


  3. AsiaBill says:

    I appreciate the links to the Muslim writers you included and to the Muslim stats link. Last time I checked there was one billion Muslims, one billion Catholics and a billion Hindus so it seems all three segments of humanity aren’t exactly teaching birth control to help improve their members’ standard of living. It’s been a busy 2 months so haven’t followed you past dozen blog entries but plan to catch up in the upcoming months as I’m finally heading out toward Sri Lanka next Tuesday for my first 8 month trip across Asia tot eh Med. Sea, maybe East Africa & Madagascar in years.

    If the world’s industries and employees weren’t so dependent on American consumerism being their prime customer base the international news agencies and international educational institutions may not be so SOFT when casting blame and accusations of cultural mass murder or religious based violence worldwide. My wife and I from the moment it happened in NYC while living in nearby CT see this whole 911 thing as a reaction by the intelligence and enforcement communities and government employees as the only way of saving their jobs and livelihood from being downsized after the end of the “Cold War”. FEAR has always proved profitable and enabled those universal spheres of power to continue to control the future of humanity as they have done so in the past few centuries.

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