The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Yale professor Frank Griffel has posted to Academia his Die Welt des Islams review of SF Starr, Lost Enlightenment. This is not Griffel’s first rodeo; the man has reviewed other books that tackle “the Muslim Mind” of the post-Umayyad Middle Ages. Of Griffel’s targets, the one I’d read before our reviewer got to it was Reilly’s Closing of the Muslim Mind. I was unimpressed with Griffel’s take on that book. Griffel has issues with this one, too… and, again, I have issues with Griffel’s review. I disclose up front that, this time, I have not read the source material. But that wasn’t necessary in this case…

Here, Starr was working the Central Asian beat. The Silk Road has featured in several recent English-language treatments, of variant quality. A few of these books have been reviewed at Razib’s place. I shan’t complain about yet another book on this topic, concerning its Islamic period; I’d had to read up on this context for mine own work, especially “Throne of Glass”. And Griffel does commend Starr for tying Islamic Central Asia into a narrative.

I concede with Griffel that Starr has fallen into ethnocentric bias. Starr knows Reilly’s phrase closing of the Muslim mind (Griffel, 278) but doesn’t share Reilly’s enthusiasm for the Mutazila (Griffel, 275). The Mutazila happened to include many Arabs. I add that, when the ‘Abbasids favoured this school, their caliphate was (famously) tolerant to its Christian and Jewish subjects, of whom the former in its Asian provinces were predominantly Aramaean and the latter still spoke in Aramaic. Elsewhere Griffel argues that Starr is ethnocentrically pro-Iranian. That might explain why Starr downplays the Semites of the Mutazila and its clients. Based on Griffel’s quotes Starr doesn’t much like Turks, either, whilst we’re on topic.

I also agree that it’s high time Islam-skeptics quit holding Ghazzali as the great satan corrupting the (Sunni) Islamic mind (Griffel, 276-7). Everyone knows that something “went wrong” in the Sunni mind over the last few centuries, but for that Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Kathir are more culpable. As to what I said about Reilly ignoring Ibn Khaldun, here the man whom Starr ignorantly ignores is Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. And we’re all awaiting a good study of the Nishapuri school of tafsir – we don’t even yet have proper editions of most of those tafasir, from Wahidi to Tha’alibi.

But Griffel overreaches too. Griffel notes that Starr sees ethnic conflicts between Turks, Iranians, and Arabs; to Griffel, Starr creates or rather projects these. If I am reading at all correctly Darwin Press’s books Studies on Muslim Apocalyptic and Arabs and Others in Early Islam, these conflicts did exist; Muslim Arabs composed reams of paranoid apocalyptic rant that we can hardly avoid labelling as racist. I can add Ethiopians and Berbers to the many foreigners the average Muslim Arab of the time feared and hated. On the ‘ajami side, I raise the phenomenon of Crone’s “Nativist Prophets”; and that it didn’t take all that long for the ‘Abbasids’ outer provinces to go it alone, like the Samanids and their “Iranian Intermezzo”. This is all hard to explain if Arab rule was so wonderful to the locals. We on the Dissident Right see ethnic friction as an inevitability in any diverse empire. So I have no idea why Griffel is complaining about this basic fact, unless it’s that Starr didn’t footnote well enough; or that Griffel has his own, anti ethnocentric, bias.

Griffel slips back into cant (American neo-conservative, 275; Islamophobe, 278), which still annoys me, but from his pen I’m having to get used to it. I also observe that Griffel accuses Starr of a “bias against Islam” (275) where just a few lines later he lets slip that Starr defends the Ismaili Shia (276) and laments the divisions between Shia and Sunni generally (278). Griffel offloads further self-contradictions on Iran’s relation to Central Asia. First Griffel complains that Starr includes Khorasan and Sakastan / Sijistan. These, Griffel wants for Iran and the wholly artificial modern entity “Pakistan”, two countries that are not part of Central Asia. Later Griffel complains that Starr does NOT include Iran (278). Even given that, anyone must be amused at this reviewer’s attempt to stick the freethinker Ma‘arri into Starr’s Oriental Islamic culture. All I’ll say to Griffel on this is, be careful what you wish for.

It seems we do need a better treatment of post-conquest Central Asia than what Starr has given to us. But tiresome politically-driven pieties are of no service to any reviewer. At this point of reading Griffel’s reviews I don’t anymore think the man can help himself. That’s why we need good editors, better than the ones Die Welt des Islams got.

UPDATE 6/13/2017: Razib Khan's review.

posted by Zimri on 18:44 | link | 0 comments

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