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Saturday, April 17, 2004
How not to refute Nevo
The "Byzantine plot" hypothesis (henceforth BPH), as Nevo and Koren developed it, attacks the foundation of Islam. Now, one can object to the BPH in many ways. The proper way, one would think, would be to investigate the hypothesis on its merits. I happen to think that Nevo and Koren did not make a terribly good case for it. I gave reasons for this based on what I know of the source material. That should be the end of it... right?
Well, no. I forgot that much of the world, often including myself, lives in the mental space of Chasm of Pandemonium. It seems that others are making different arguments against the BPH. They say it would piss off many people. They call it ideological. They say that the two scholars are not in the mainstream. Worst of all, they allude to Nevo and Koren's Israeli citizenship (yeah, they actually do). Let's just take these one by one...
First off, whether something is true or not has absolutely no relation to how many people believe it; and in the case of religion it has an exactly inverse relation to how devoutly they believe it. For believers, religion is caught up in ethnic identity; it is one of the anti-rational issues. Not only that, but disbelief is fatal. Nor can dissenters expect any help from the great "tolerant" middle: the neutrals see both sides as equally valid, they want to look tolerant, and for them the way of least resistance is too often to take the side of the most assertive bigot. No. What matters is who, on an individual basis, believes the theory; particularly if these people can be trusted as impartial.
The comment that Nevo and Koren are "ideological" is nothing but namecalling. Of course they have an Islam-neutral ideology. They're trying to be historians (never mind if they were successful at it). They have to assume that Islamic sources are tendentious. Even a Muslim historian, if he is ethical, must try not to be Muslim when he looks at the seventh-century sources.
That Nevo and Koren are not trained historians is also beside the point. Before he died, Nevo had been working at this as an amateur long enough that he could train himself. His seminal article, Towards a Prehistory of Islam, saw print in a peer-reviewed journal and became quite influential. A "real" scholar, Robert G Hoyland, wrote something that can be viewed as a rebuttal... except that it did not put the inscriptions in a chronological order... and begged the question repeatedly with comments like "An epitaph of 102 / 720 cites 67:1" (uh, wasn't that Nevo's point? that we didn't yet know if 67:1 was in (1) a sura and (2) the 67th such sura in a fixed order of suras, as of 102 AH?)... and ended by concluding, in effect, that no-one would ever figure this out. Some rebuttal! If this was the best mainstream scholarship can come up with, then there is a crying need for intelligent outsiders to come in and shake things up.
As for Nevo and Koren's Israeli citizenship, that goes to "motive"; and as posted below, motives don't matter if you're telling the truth. If Nevo and Koren did hate Islam, then they should be supporting the idea that sura 5 (the anti-Jewish one) was authentic. I happen to know at least four non-Islamic sources they could use to support that (it's not that hard). They could conclude that Islam was irredeemably anti-Semitic, and for an epilogue (epitaph?) announce that it's high time the UN declared Muhammad a false prophet and sent for a new Torquemada to rid the Earth of this heresy. But, you know, they didn't do that. They don't (and I don't) think Muhammad wrote sura 5. Go figure.
To sum up, there are plenty of ways to rebut the BPH. Nevo and Koren made enough mistakes that it might take another x-hundreds-page-book just to go through them all. But this farrago of sneers and insults I've been hearing from certain of the BPH's critics ought to be beneath decent people. It's illogical and it's snobbish, and it's far more pernicious than Nevo and Koren's misguided book.
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