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After Mohammed: On reading reviews of my “Mohammed. Perspectieven op de Profeet”
What every author dreads most is not a bad review, but not to be reviewed at all. I’m happy to say that my recent book (Mohammed. Perspectieven op de Profeet, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017) has escaped this gloomy fate. In fact, I’ve been surprised by the great number of reactions, most of them approving, a few less so, the book has elicited in the Dutch media, as well as in private correspondence. People in the Netherlands sometimes complain that universities need to do more to reach out to society, to stimulate the general public’s interest in research and science. I, for one, have always been impressed by just how much reporting about research, including in the Humanities, there is in Dutch newspapers, and by the great regularity with which Dutch scientists and scholars contribute to them – far greater, I would say, than in countries such as the U.K. or Germany, not to mention the U.S.
Here I’d like to respond to some of the reactions to my book, albeit on a modest scale, to pause and reflect on what’s been written. I’ll start with the accolades (to put myself into a positive frame of mind) and then move on to the more critical stuff.
Mohammed’s biography on an A4?
The NRC was the first major newspaper to draw attention to Mohammed. Dirk Vlasbloom, at the paper’s science desk, totally ‘gets’ what the book is all about: not the historical Mohammed, but the ‘received’ Mohammed, Mohammed as he was imagined in the centuries that followed his death, in both the Islamic world and the West (“Was de Profeet een voorbeeldig mens of bovenmenselijk?”, 18-19 November 2017). I cannot fully agree with his claim that “what we know about over his [Mohammed’s] biography can be summarised on an A4”, even though I’m afraid my book may have given him this impression. As a matter of fact, I think we can know a bit more than that. Not much more, but a couple of A4s could certainly be filled with the basic contours of Mohammed’s biography. Where I do think the quest for the “historical Mohammed” is doomed (largely) is in regard to Mohammed’s rulings, reported in the Hadith literature, on normative ethical, legal, and political questions. But let me not distract from the positive tenor of Vlasbloom’s review. My narrative, according to Vlasbloom, unfolds “a big canvas in a small book” and offers a “crystal-clear summary” of Mohammed’s reception history. “Those who protect Islam against unreasonable attacks,” writes Vlasbloom, “are quickly disqualified as apologists. And those who howl with the wolves lose their academic objectivity. Lange is not an apologist, he is an expert on the topic. And the topic is so colourful that the black-and-white patterns of the [Islam] ‘debate’ cannot do it justice in the least. Lange’s book does do that.”
Bernhard Reitsma, writing in the Nederlands Dagblad, is also unreservedly appreciative (“Wie is de echte Mohammed”, 29 December 2017). A professor of Christian theology at Amsterdam Free University specialising in the historical relationships between the Church and Islam, he writes with an eye to the fraught relationship between Christians and the Islamic prophet. What I like about Reitsma’s review is his thorough attempt to convey to his readers the complexity of the picture, or at least some of the diversity of opinions and meanings claimed by Mohammed in the various Islamic traditions, in Islamic law, mysticism, philosophy, and so forth. “Who, then, is the ‘true’ Mohammed?” he asks, fully aware that there is no straightforward, easy answer to the question. I suppose for the positivists, this is and will remain the most difficult pill to swallow: that there is not one, but several Mohammeds, and that the “historical Mohammed” remains the most elusive of these. “Those who want to insist on the notion that Mohammed is a violent prophet who inspires Muslims to hatred against Jews and Christian and to attacks and violence should not read this book. Those who want to acquire a realistic impression of what the Prophet means to Muslims cannot do without it.”
Marijke Laurense’s review in Trouw, though generally well-disposed, sees in this (to my mind, unsolvable) problem “a reason not to read the book” (“Welkom venster in een uitzichtloos islamdebat”, 10 January 2018). She, too, appears to fall into the positivist trap. Fortunately, in addition, she also sees a great many “reasons to read this book” – for example, the number of surprising facts about the Prophet one learns from it, and the welcome nuances the book introduces in times of a “hopeless Islam debate”, mired as it is in apodictic claims about the ‘true’ Mohammed. My interest in the topic, she claims, is “not genuinely academic”, because I suggest in the book that the intimate way in which Muslims on occasion identify themselves with the Prophet should be taken seriously. I admit I fail to see why this stance is “not genuinely academic” – unless we want to reduce the task of the Humanities to the discovery of facts, regardless of their meaning(s) to people. My definition of scholarship is certainly far broader than that. Similarly, Laurense criticises that I “circle around a middle-of-the-way position”; this, she suggests, will not be enough to “totally convince Sylvain Ephimenco”.
Now, this is interesting. Not only because I didn’t know who Sylvain Ephimenco was (now I do), but also because the suggestion here is that my book should convince Sylvain Ephimenco that his views about Islam are erroneous (based on what I’ve read, he thinks for example that Salafism is generally and unfailingly “evil”, and that the dysmal human rights record in countries of the Islamic world is due, first and foremost, to the Muslim faith, not to other factors, tyranny for example). My response is to say that my hope in writing the book was not to convince critics of Islam, but to initiate debate, to break open the rigid mold of the ‘Islam debate’, with its entrenched positions of modernism/positivism/scientism on the one hand, and of postmodernism/relativism on the other hand. Dare to be gray! (And visit http://www.dtbg.nl/org/index.html) When a longish – and I thought, very perceptive – portrayal of me and my book was published in the Friesch Dagblad (Jurgen Tiekstra, “Het raadsel Mohammed een beetje ontsluierd”, 13 January 2018), an angry reader sent an email saying that he was “surprised and outraged” that the newspaper would give room to my views, wrongheaded as they are because they serve to “appease readers” and cover up the historical truth that Mohammed was a violent and misogynistic man. I replied (because I cannot deny that such accusations, as wildly one-sided as they may be, touch a nerve) suggesting that the reader should look into my book instead of forming his opinion on the basis of Tiekstra’s article, which was necessarily a summary. I haven’t heard back; possibly the suggestion registered.
Leo de Haes, a Flemish journalist, summarises my book on the Belgian website Liberales (the name is programmatic) by writing that “every Islamic sect, every era, every region has invented its own Mohammed… Lange puts these diverse images on show in an extremely clear way” (18 December 2017, http://www.liberales.be/teksten/2017/12/19/mohammed-perspectieven-op-de-profeet-christian-lange). This sounds flattering enough, and indeed De Haes, like Laurense, has many good things to say about Mohammed: “The many perspectives presented in Lange’s book are highly educative, sometimes entertaining, but above all they show why the Prophet, in all his flexible reshapings, remains unchangingly important and inspiring to Muslims”. But there is criticism, too. De Haes suggests that my interpretation of the right for freedom of expression is too lax, as if my argument was that Mahfouz should not have written his Children of the alley, nor Rushdie his Satanic verses. “Maybe Christian Lange does not mean it that way, but Michel Houellebecq would see in this laxity a typical example of ‘soumission’. Too bad, it besmirches an otherwise extremely interesting book.” Of course, my point is not that Mahfouz or Rushdie should have been prohibited from writing and publishing their novels, and I certainly don’t say so in my book. There’s nothing to “relativize” here. In fact I’m an admirer of both authors. The best my book can accomplish, I suppose, is to inspire people who feel compelled to voice an opinion about Mohammed to – well, to think, not just about the right for the freedom of expression, but about Muslim sensibilities and whether it’s a good idea to trample on them. (I would say: this may be necessary on occasion, but not as a rule.) As for invoking Houellebecq, frankly I think that’s quite beside the point. Soumission, one of my favorite novels of 2015, is about a professor of French literature who converts to Islam in a future, dystopian France-turned-into-a-Salafi-country in order to save his university position and marry several female students. I’m not quite there yet, and neither is the Netherlands. I guess my mood is simply not as apocalyptic as that of De Haes.
I am grateful to all those who have taken the trouble to read and comment on my book. A former student of mine, Annelies Waterlander, recommended it to the readers of the University of Utrecht’s digital newspaper as a “tasty winter read” (“Meer begrip voor de profeet Mohammed”, DUB, 19 December 2017). Richard Kroes, on his blog, offers a good and critical summary (http://sargasso.nl/perspectieven-op-mohammed/), including of the book’s ‘reception history’ approach – which prompts predictable comments in the chatroom that Kroes, and by extension, Lange, are “postmodern appeasers”. (Sorry, Richard! And about your question about my sources for the Cordoban martyr movement: I based my account on Tolan, Saracens, Arjana, Muslims in the Western imagination, and Reeves, Muhammad in Europe – I’d have to look up exact page numbers.) My former colleague in Utrecht, Johan Goud, in a thoughtful Facebook post, encouraged me to see Mohammed also in the light of the contemporary geopolitical situation in the Near East: spot-on! Not to forget the many messages, often with useful corrigenda, that have reached me through email. And apparently, a couple of reviews are still to come. Perhaps that will be an occasion to continue the conversation. In the meantime, I’m ploughing ahead with my other projects: https://sensis.sites.uu.nl/