A Culture of Ambiguity

It is a daring hypothesis which is outlined in this year’s second eye-opener by Verlag der Weltreligionen (after Angelika Neuwirth’s tour de force of a European approach to the Qur’an; see my review here), Thomas Bauer’s Other History of Islam. In general, the 450 pages of the book are enjoyable reading telling a quite different story about the nature of Islam and Islamic societies. Bauer’s highly surprising conclusion is that heavily ambiguity-tolerant Islam had been “Islamicized” only after post-Enlightenment highly ambiguity-intolerant Western cultures had come into contact with Muslim societies as colonialists.

Bauer is Professor for Islamic Studies at the University of Münster, Germany. He explains in his book that Arabs, Turks, and Persians were very much fond of all kinds and levels of ambiguity, something which seems not to be compatible with ideologies, and something which comes as a surprise. In fact, in particular Islam is described in the 21st century as intolerant, fundamentalist, relentless. Bauer does away with the myths of an unambiguous final version of the Qur’an, explains why the rashidun Caliphs of the 7th century intentionally avoided diacritical marks, thus allowing for different meanings of a text which is to be recited anyway. The writing was always used only as aide-mémoire.

It is intriguing when Bauer compares the work on the right reading of the Qur’an by 15th century Damascene Ibn al-Jazari (d. 1429) with that by contemporary Saudi Arabian (and Salafi) Sheikh Ibn Uthaymeen (1925-2001). The former tolerant to any ambiguities, who had accepted that the Qur’an is a manifold, unlimited, hyper-textually structured, nonlinear text whose final meaning can never be comprehended in its entirety; the latter afraid of any ambiguity and fundamentalist (there is only one final version of the Qur’an). But that seems to be the by far dominant opinion of both Muslims and non-Muslims at the moment.

It might be questionable to designate whatever had been created in Islamic countries after the Arab conquest of the 7th century as Islamic as if there is no and has never been any secular life in Muslim societies. But anyway, examples for the amazing lust for ambiguity in Poetry reminds us of other fields of Islamic art which can be found on monuments and in the weavings of women. Isn’t Islam (and has always been) a cultural system rather than merely a religion?

What might stun the reader most is Bauer’s chapter on sex. It is true that in Islamic cultures sex had long been a rather uncomplicated issue. Bauer’s examples of “normal” and widely accepted same-sex relationships and the plenty of literature on it are very much intriguing. Apparently, that must have changed, since presently rather prude (Victorian!) manners seem to be more or less characteristic for particularly Arabic societies (and Iranian after their revolution).

Bauer offers an interesting explanation, namely that missionary zeal of (Victorian) Western colonialists, who were so shocked when meeting with fun-loving Egyptians (see Juan Cole’s Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East); and, at the same time, the desire of the well-educated middle class in Arabic countries to adopt Western values might have been the cause for an ambiguity crisis which ultimately led to shameful oppression of sexuality (a term which had been introduced in the West not before the 19th century) and, for instance, homophobia.

That hadad, or serious punishment under sharia law (for instance stoning for adultery or sodomy) had, in previous centuries, hardly ever been executed comes again as a big surprise. Bauer reports on just one case he came across, a qadi of the 17th century who had imposed the death penalty on a women for adultery. But it seems logic when considering that four witnesses would be necessary who could report on the act in detail, something which can usually never happen.

The Taliban in Afghanistan and Islamists in certain provinces in Nigeria who fought for more independence had applied had punishments in the last decade of the 20th century and had terrified the Western public. Now, after Western values had changed again after WWII, the “otherness” of Islamicized Islam could again be established. And now the West seems to have an interest in imposing a “sexual revolution” and “women’s lib” in particular on societies in Afghanistan and Iraq which had just abandoned their high tolerance for (sexual) ambiguity (one should remember how Kabul looked only in the 1970s).

Bauer’s book has an easily readable style although it contains numerous very valuable footnotes. It has the depth and breadth of, for instance, Edward Said’s Orientalism, but is unfortunately not yet translated into English. In the current discussion about “Islam as an ideology” it might be enormous helpful. It addresses both Western and Muslim audiences who might wonder what had happened to the richness of their culture in not only two centuries. What has caused the alleged decline and retardation of Islamic societies might just be the Western push during and after the 19th century for abandoning any ambiguity.

Last modified December 4, 2011.

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One Response to A Culture of Ambiguity

  1. Pingback: Arabic tessellations | Ackujalske

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