Why Shashi Tharoor is right on Britain’s colonial debt to India – Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant“Shashi’s 15-minute speech at the Oxford Union recently, as part of an eight-speaker debate on whether Britain owes its ex-colonies financial reparations, has gone viral with over a million views on YouTube. … Listen to the points Shashi makes in the video. Each one is valid—though he does commit two small errors.” — Minhaz Merchant

Shashi TharoorFirst, a disclosure: Shashi Tharoor is an old friend and colleague. I edited his column, “Worldview”, in one of my magazines for over ten years. His twin sons and my son were born in the same week, month and year and often lay in cradles side-by-side as we spoke on politics and life over dinner at each other’s homes.

That said, Shashi’s columns in my magazine received a more animated response than any of the other columns we carried at that time: Dr Henry Kissinger, Dom Moraes, L. K. Advani, Madhu Dandavate, I. K. Gujral and several others.
Shashi’s 15-minute speech at the Oxford Union recently, as part of an eight-speaker debate on whether Britain owes its ex-colonies financial reparations, has gone viral with over a million views on YouTube [see video below]. And so it should.
Listen to the points Shashi makes in the video. Each one is valid—though he does commit two small errors.
First, Britain’s “aid” to India is not 0.4 per cent of our GDP as he says. It’s one-twentieth of that—0.02 per cent ($410 million on a GDP of $2.10 trillion). Much of this aid, moreover, is tied to buying British goods and services. A better way to describe it would be “trade aid”.
The second error lies in Shashi’s concluding remarks at the Oxford Union debate: He says reparations for Britain’s colonial debt are theoretical since they can’t be quantified. An apology from Britain will therefore do.
He’s wrong on both counts. Britain’s colonial debt to India can in fact be quantified. And an apology alone won’t do.
In an article I wrote for The Illustrated Weekly of India over 25 years ago—then edited by Pritish Nandy—I did precisely that: quantify Britain’s colonial debt to India. Most of my article focused on the same areas as Shashi’s Oxford speech: Britain’s colonial rule destroyed India’s industries and made India a vassal for the newly industrialising Britain in the 19th century. But of that computation in a moment.
In yet another article for a daily newspaper, in 2007, I looked at Britain’s global colonial debt in historical terms:
“One of the great hidden secrets of British colonialism is the slave trade. It was a 250-year-long trade that disgraced Britain and brutalised an entire continent. British historians routinely gloss over it and Africa, hit twice by European rapacity (first by the slave trade, then by the colonial carve-up of the continent in the 19th century once “slaving” had officially ended), has not yet developed the historical scholarship to deal with and expose the full horrors of slave trafficking.”
Hugh Thomas“Lord Hugh Thomas, one of the world’s most accomplished historians on the Atlantic slave trade, describes the hellish journey inland even before the slaves were packed on to the slave ships: ‘The slaves were usually secured by placing the right leg of one and the left leg of another onto the same pair of fetters. If the fetters were connected by a string, these men could walk, though slowly. Every four slaves might also be fastened together by the necks, with a strong rope of twisted thongs and, at night, additional fetters would to put on their hands. Sometimes, a chain would be passed round their necks. Those slaves who protested were imprisoned in a thick billet of wood about three-feet-long and a smooth notch being made upon one side of it. The ankle of the slave was bolted to the smooth part by means of a strong staple, one ring of which was passed on each side of the ankle. All these fetters and bolts were made from African iron.'”
John Hawkins“In 2006, Andrew Hawkins, a descendant of Sir John Hawkins—the slaving pioneer—travelled to Gambia, a west African country from where thousands of Africans had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. He went, self-bound in chains, along with other chained white Englishmen and made a symbolic apology on behalf of his family to the people of Gambia. He was received by the vice president of Gambia, Isatou Njie Saidy, and 25,000 other ordinary Gambians.”
Andrew Hawkins & Isatou Njie-SaidyHere, in Hawkin’s words, is what happened next: “I apologised on behalf of my family. I apologised for the adults and children taken. There was a long pause and we really didn’t know what to expect—it was very nerve-wracking. They could have said, ‘We don’t accept your apology, go away,’ and were ready for that. It would have been understandable. But the vice president came forward and accepted the apology very graciously. She offered her forgiveness and then came forward and took the chains off. That was entirely impromptu and very moving.”
Hawkins and his volunteers apologised to the vice president of Gambia for the terrible injustice caused by Britain to Africa. But so far, no British prime minister has even hinted at a formal apology. The reason: an official government apology to Africans for the slave trade would open the floodgates for financial reparations and punitive damages for the crimes committed on the African people over a 200-year period. And those punitive damages would be substantial.
The small compensation British courts have forced the UK government to give to the victims of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s, based on classified documentary evidence made public in Britain, is the thin edge of the wedge. At a notional, inflation-adjusted cost of one lakh dollars per person in terms of net lost lifelong wages in his own country, the punitive damages on Britain as the principal slaving country would amount to two trillion dollars. Such reparations could change the face of modern Africa. But they would bankrupt Britain.
So how do we quantify Britain’s colonial debt to India? The computation has to take into account the following factors:
One, the difference between a) India’s GDP growth rate during 1757-1947 (the 190-year period of the British occupation, first under the East India Company and, from 1858, directly under the British government), b) India’s historical GDP growth rate (pre-1757) and c) its contemporary GDP growth rate (post-1947).
Two, the total value of goods and services exported during these three periods.
Three, the comparative social factors in these three periods—literacy, birth rates, death rates, infant mortality.
I computed all of these in my Illustrated Weekly piece of 1988 and, after adjusting for inflation, the debt owed by Britain to India in 1988 worked out to $500 billion. In today’s (2015) money that would be closer to three trillion dollars.
Winston ChurchillAs Shashi rightly points out in his Oxford Union debate, the cost of human rights abuse by the British is impossible to quantify. (The Churchill-induced Great Bengal famine of 1943 and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 were only two of the many atrocities that are impossible to quantify in terms of financial debt.) The economic debt though can be quantified.
So will India file a case in the International Court of Justice at the Hague to press Britain for financial reparations? Unlikely. India is a forgiving nation.
Shashi Tharoor, now 59, was “scolded” by the UPA president Sonia Gandhi for not toeing the Congress line on disrupting Parliament till Sushma Swaraj, Shivraj Singh Sonia-G & Shashi TharoorChouhan and Vasundhara Raje Scindia resign. At a meeting of the party on Tuesday, July 21, Shashi was the only one who disagreed with Sonia’s diktat: “First resignations. Then discussions.”
The next day, Sonia pulled him up, saying: “You always do this. It has become a habit with you.”

Perhaps Sonia should have a look at her Thiruvanthapuram MP’s Oxford Union speech on European, particularly British, colonialism which was harsh, dictatorial and brooked no dissent. She surely does not want the Congress—and especially the few sensible voices left in it—to follow in such unworthy footsteps. Daily O, 23 July 2015

» Minhaz Merchant is a biographer, editor, columnist and publisher in Mumbai.


What is the Koran? – Toby Lester

Toby Lester“Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North, and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinized, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings. … More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations.” – Toby Lester

Minarets of the Great Mosque of Sana'aIn 1972, during the restoration of the Great Mosque of Sana’a, in Yemen, laborers working in a loft between the structure’s inner and outer roofs stumbled across a remarkable gravesite, although they did not realize it at the time. Their ignorance was excusable: mosques do not normally house graves, and this site contained no tombstones, no human remains, no funereal jewelry. It contained nothing more, in fact, than an unappealing mash of old parchment and paper documents—damaged books and individual pages of Arabic text, fused together by centuries of rain and dampness, gnawed into over the years by rats and insects. Intent on completing the task at hand, the laborers gathered up the manuscripts, pressed them into some twenty potato sacks, and set them aside on the staircase of one of the mosque’s minarets, where they were locked away—and where they would probably have been forgotten once again, were it not for Qadhi Isma’il al-Akwa’, then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who realized the potential importance of the find.

Al-Akwa’ sought international assistance in examining and preserving the fragments, and in 1979 managed to interest a visiting German scholar, who in turn persuaded the German government to organize and fund a restoration project. Soon after the project began, it became clear that the hoard was a fabulous example of what is sometimes referred to as a “paper grave”—in this case the resting place for, among other things, tens of thousands of fragments from close to a thousand different parchment codices of the Koran, the Muslim holy scripture. In some pious Muslim circles it is held that worn-out or damaged copies of the Koran must be removed from circulation; hence the idea of a grave, which both preserves the sanctity of the texts being laid to rest and ensures that only complete and unblemished editions of the scripture will be read.

Some of the parchment pages in the Yemeni hoard seemed to date back to the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., or Islam’s first two centuries—they were fragments, in other words, of perhaps the oldest Korans in existence. What’s more, some of these fragments revealed small but intriguing aberrations from the standard Koranic text. Such aberrations, though not surprising to textual historians, are troublingly at odds with the orthodox Muslim belief that the Koran as it has reached us today is quite simply the perfect, timeless, and unchanging Word of God.

The mainly secular effort to reinterpret the Koran—in part based on textual evidence such as that provided by the Yemeni fragments—is disturbing and offensive to many Muslims, just as attempts to reinterpret the Bible and the life of Jesus are disturbing and offensive to many conservative Christians. Nevertheless, there are scholars, Muslims among them, who feel that such an effort, which amounts essentially to placing the Koran in history, will provide fuel for an Islamic revival of sorts—a reappropriation of tradition, a going forward by looking back. Thus far confined to scholarly argument, this sort of thinking can be nonetheless very powerful and—as the histories of the Renaissance and the Reformation demonstrate—can lead to major social change. The Koran, after all, is currently the world’s most ideologically influential text.

Sana'a ManuscriptLooking at the Fragments

The first person to spend a significant amount of time examining the Yemeni fragments, in 1981, was Gerd R. Puin, a specialist in Arabic calligraphy and Koranic paleography based at Saarland University, in Saarbrücken, Germany. Puin, who had been sent by the German government to organize and oversee the restoration project, recognized the antiquity of some of the parchment fragments, and his preliminary inspection also revealed unconventional verse orderings, minor textual variations, and rare styles of orthography and artistic embellishment. Enticing, too, were the sheets of the scripture written in the rare and early Hijazi Arabic script: pieces of the earliest Korans known to exist, they were also palimpsests—versions very clearly written over even earlier, washed-off versions. What the Yemeni Korans seemed to suggest, Puin began to feel, was an evolving text rather than simply the Word of God as revealed in its entirety to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century A.D.

Since the early 1980s more than 15,000 sheets of the Yemeni Korans have painstakingly been flattened, cleaned, treated, sorted, and assembled; they now sit (“preserved for another thousand years,” Puin says) in Yemen’s House of Manuscripts, awaiting detailed examination. That is something the Yemeni authorities have seemed reluctant to allow, however. “They want to keep this thing low-profile, as we do too, although for different reasons,” Puin explains. “They don’t want attention drawn to the fact that there are Germans and others working on the Korans. They don’t want it made public that there is work being done at all, since the Muslim position is that everything that needs to be said about the Koran’s history was said a thousand years ago.”

To date just two scholars have been granted extensive access to the Yemeni fragments: Puin and his colleague H.-C. Graf von Bothmer, an Islamic-art historian also based at Saarland University. Puin and Von Bothmer have published only a few tantalizingly brief articles in scholarly publications on what they have discovered in the Yemeni fragments. They have been reluctant to publish partly because until recently they were more concerned with sorting and classifying the fragments than with systematically examining them, and partly because they felt that the Yemeni authorities, if they realized the possible implications of the discovery, might refuse them further access. Von Bothmer, however, in 1997 finished taking more than 35,000 microfilm pictures of the fragments, and has recently brought the pictures back to Germany. This means that soon Von Bothmer, Puin, and other scholars will finally have a chance to scrutinize the texts and to publish their findings freely—a prospect that thrills Puin. “So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word,” he says. “They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion. The only way to break through this wall is to prove that the Koran has a history too. The Sana’a fragments will help us to do this.”

Puin is not alone in his enthusiasm. “The impact of the Yemeni manuscripts is still to be felt,” says Andrew Rippin, a professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, who is at the forefront of Koranic studies today. “Their variant readings and verse orders are all very significant. Everybody agrees on that. These manuscripts say that the early history of the Koranic text is much more of an open question than many have suspected: the text was less stable, and therefore had less authority, than has always been claimed.”

Koran by AliCopyediting God

By the standards of contemporary biblical scholarship, most of the questions being posed by scholars like Puin and Rippin are rather modest; outside an Islamic context, proposing that the Koran has a history and suggesting that it can be interpreted metaphorically are not radical steps. But the Islamic context—and Muslim sensibilities—cannot be ignored. “To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community,” says R. Stephen Humphreys, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “The Koran is the charter for the community, the document that called it into existence. And ideally—though obviously not always in reality—Islamic history has been the effort to pursue and work out the commandments of the Koran in human life. If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.”

The orthodox Muslim view of the Koran as self-evidently the Word of God, perfect and inimitable in message, language, style, and form, is strikingly similar to the fundamentalist Christian notion of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “verbal inspiration” that is still common in many places today. The notion was given classic expression only a little more than a century ago by the biblical scholar John William Burgon.

The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne! Every Book of it, every Chapter of it, every Verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it … every letter of it, is the direct utterance of the Most High!

Not all the Christians think this way about the Bible, however, and in fact, as the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1981) points out, “the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Kur’an in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, the Koran is the Word of God made text, and questioning its sanctity or authority is thus considered an outright attack on Islam—as Salman Rushdie knows all too well.

The prospect of a Muslim backlash has not deterred the critical-historical study of the Koran, as the existence of the essays in The Origins of the Koran (1998) demonstrate. Even in the aftermath of the Rushdie affair the work continues: In 1996 the Koranic scholar Günter Lüling wrote in The Journal of Higher Criticism about “the wide extent to which both the text of the Koran and the learned Islamic account of Islamic origins have been distorted, a deformation unsuspectingly accepted by Western Islamicists until now.” In 1994 the journal Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam published a posthumous study by Yehuda D. Nevo, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, detailing seventh- and eighth-century religious inscriptions on stones in the Negev Desert which, Nevo suggested, pose “considerable problems for the traditional Muslim account of the history of Islam.” That same year, and in the same journal, Patricia Crone, a historian of early Islam currently based at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, published an article in which she argued that elucidating problematic passages in the Koranic text is likely to be made possible only by “abandoning the conventional account of how the Qur’an was born.” And since 1991 James Bellamy, of the University of Michigan, has proposed in the Journal of the American Oriental Society a series of “emendations to the text of the Koran”—changes that from the orthodox Muslim perspective amount to copyediting God.

Crone is one of the most iconoclastic of these scholars. During the 1970s and 1980s she wrote and collaborated on several books—most notoriously, with Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977)—that made radical arguments about the origins of Islam and the writing of Islamic history. Among Hagarism’s controversial claims were suggestions that the text of the Koran came into being later than is now believed (“There is no hard evidence for the existence of the Koran in any form before the last decade of the seventh century”); that Mecca was not the initial Islamic sanctuary (“[the evidence] points unambiguously to a sanctuary in north-west Arabia … Mecca was secondary”); that the Arab conquests preceded the institutionalization of Islam (“the Jewish messianic fantasy was enacted in the form of an Arab conquest of the Holy Land”); that the idea of the hijra, or the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, may have evolved long after Muhammad died (“No seventh-century source identifies the Arab era as that of the hijra“); and that the term “Muslim” was not commonly used in early Islam (“There is no good reason to suppose that the bearers of this primitive identity called themselves ‘Muslims’ [but] sources do … reveal an earlier designation of the community [which] appears in Greek as ‘Magaritai’ in a papyrus of 642, and in Syriac as ‘Mahgre’ or ‘Mahgraye’ from as early as the 640s”).

Hagarism came under immediate attack, from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, for its heavy reliance on hostile sources. (“This is a book,” the authors wrote, “based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources.”) Crone and Cook have since backed away from some of its most radical propositions—such as, for example, that the Prophet Muhammad lived two years longer than the Muslim tradition claims he did, and that the historicity of his migration to Medina is questionable. But Crone has continued to challenge both Muslim and Western orthodox views of Islamic history. In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (1987) she made a detailed argument challenging the prevailing view among Western (and some Muslim) scholars that Islam arose in response to the Arabian spice trade.

Gerd R. Puin’s current thinking about the Koran’s history partakes of this contemporary revisionism. “My idea is that the Koran is a kind of cocktail of texts that were not all understood even at the time of Muhammad,” he says. “Many of them may even be a hundred years older than Islam itself. Even within the Islamic traditions there is a huge body of contradictory information, including a significant Christian substrate; one can derive a whole Islamic anti-history from them if one wants.”

Patricia Crone defends the goals of this sort of thinking. “The Koran is a scripture with a history like any other—except that we don’t know this history and tend to provoke howls of protest when we study it. Nobody would mind the howls if they came from Westerners, but Westerners feel deferential when the howls come from other people: who are you to tamper with their legacy? But we Islamicists are not trying to destroy anyone’s faith.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment—especially since Western Koranic scholarship has traditionally taken place in the context of an openly declared hostility between Christianity and Islam. (Indeed, the broad movement in the West over the past two centuries to “explain” the East, often referred to as Orientalism, has in recent years come under fire for exhibiting similar religious and cultural biases.) The Koran has seemed, for Christian and Jewish scholars particularly, to possess an aura of heresy; the nineteenth-century Orientalist William Muir, for example, contended that the Koran was one of “the most stubborn enemies of Civilisation, Liberty, and the Truth which the world has yet known.” Early Soviet scholars, too, undertook an ideologically motivated study of Islam’s origins, with almost missionary zeal: in the 1920s and in 1930 a Soviet publication titled Ateist ran a series of articles explaining the rise of Islam in Marxist-Leninist terms. In Islam and Russia (1956), Ann K. S. Lambton summarized much of this work, and wrote that several Soviet scholars had theorized that “the motive force of the nascent religion was supplied by the mercantile bourgeoisie of Mecca and Medina”; that a certain S. P. Tolstov had held that “Islam was a social-religious movement originating in the slave-owning, not feudal, form of Arab society”; and that N. A. Morozov had argued that “until the Crusades Islam was indistinguishable from Judaism and … only then did it receive its independent character, while Muhammad and the first Caliphs are mythical figures. “Morozov appears to have been a particularly flamboyant theorist: Lambton wrote that he also argued, in his book Christ (1930), that “in the Middle Ages Islam was merely an off-shoot of Arianism evoked by a meteorological event in the Red Sea area near Mecca.”

Not surprisingly, then, given the biases of much non-Islamic critical study of the Koran, Muslims are inclined to dismiss it outright. A particularly eloquent protest came in 1987, in the Muslim World Book Review, in a paper titled “Method Against Truth: Orientalism and Qur’anic Studies,” by the Muslim critic S. Parvez Manzoor. Placing the origins of Western Koranic scholarship in “the polemical marshes of medieval Christianity” and describing its contemporary state as a “cul-de-sac of its own making,” Manzoor orchestrated a complex and layered assault on the entire Western approach to Islam. He opened his essay in a rage.

The Orientalist enterprise of Qur’anic studies, whatever its other merits and services, was a project born of spite, bred in frustration and nourished by vengeance: the spite of the powerful for the powerless, the frustration of the “rational” towards the “superstitious” and the vengeance of the “orthodox” against the “non-conformist.” At the greatest hour of his worldly-triumph, the Western man, coordinating the powers of the State, Church and Academia, launched his most determined assault on the citadel of Muslim faith. All the aberrant streaks of his arrogant personality—its reckless rationalism, its world-domineering phantasy and its sectarian fanaticism—joined in an unholy conspiracy to dislodge the Muslim Scripture from its firmly entrenched position as the epitome of historic authenticity and moral unassailability. The ultimate trophy that the Western man sought by his dare-devil venture was the Muslim mind itself. In order to rid the West forever of the “problem” of Islam, he reasoned, Muslim consciousness must be made to despair of the cognitive certainty of the Divine message revealed to the Prophet. Only a Muslim confounded of the historical authenticity or doctrinal autonomy of the Qur’anic revelation would abdicate his universal mission and hence pose no challenge to the global domination of the West. Such, at least, seems to have been the tacit, if not the explicit, rationale of the Orientalist assault on the Qur’an.

Despite such resistance, Western researchers with a variety of academic and theological interests press on, applying modern techniques of textual and historical criticism to the study of the Koran. That a substantial body of this scholarship now exists is indicated by the recent decision of the European firm Brill Publishers—a long-established publisher of such major works as The Encyclopaedia of Islam and The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition—to commission the first-ever Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto, and the general editor of the encyclopedia, hopes that it will function as a “rough analogue” to biblical encyclopedias and will be “a turn-of-the-millennium summative work for the state of Koranic scholarship.” Articles for the first part of the encyclopedia are currently being edited and prepared for publication later this year.

The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an will be a truly collaborative enterprise, carried out by Muslims and non-Muslims, and its articles will present multiple approaches to the interpretation of the Koran, some of which are likely to challenge traditional Islamic views—thus disturbing many in the Islamic world, where the time is decidedly less ripe for a revisionist study of the Koran. The plight of Nasr Abu Zaid, an unassuming Egyptian professor of Arabic who sits on the encyclopedia’s advisory board, illustrates the difficulties facing Muslim scholars trying to reinterpret their tradition.

The Koran is a text, a literary text, and the only way to understand, explain, and analyze it is through a literary approach,” Abu Zaid says. “This is an essential theological issue.” For expressing views like this in print—in essence, for challenging the idea that the Koran must be read literally as the absolute and unchanging Word of God—Abu Zaid was in 1995 officially branded an apostate, a ruling that in 1996 was upheld by Egypt’s highest court. The court then proceeded, on the grounds of an Islamic law forbidding the marriage of an apostate to a Muslim, to order Abu Zaid to divorce his wife, Ibtihal Yunis (a ruling that the shocked and happily married Yunis described at the time as coming “like a blow to the head with a brick”).

Abu Zaid steadfastly maintains that he is a pious Muslim, but contends that the Koran’s manifest content—for example, the often archaic laws about the treatment of women for which Islam is infamous—is much less important than its complex, regenerative, and spiritually nourishing latent content. The orthodox Islamic view, Abu Zaid claims, is stultifying; it reduces a divine, eternal, and dynamic text to a fixed human interpretation with no more life and meaning than “a trinket … a talisman … or an ornament.”

For a while Abu Zaid remained in Egypt and sought to refute the charges of apostasy, but in the face of death threats and relentless public harassment he fled with his wife from Cairo to Holland, calling the whole affair “a macabre farce.” Sheikh Youssef al-Badri, the cleric whose preachings inspired much of the opposition to Abu Zaid, was exultant. “We are not terrorists; we have not used bullets or machine guns, but we have stopped an enemy of Islam from poking fun at our religion…. No one will even dare to think about harming Islam again.”

Abu Zaid seems to have been justified in fearing for his life and fleeing: in 1992 the Egyptian journalist Farag Foda was assassinated by Islamists for his critical writings about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and in 1994 the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed for writing, among other works, the allegorical Children of Gebelawi (1959)—a novel, structured like the Koran, that presents “heretical” conceptions of God and the Prophet Muhammad.

Deviating from the orthodox interpretation of the Koran, says the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun, a professor emeritus of Islamic thought at the University of Paris, is “a very sensitive business” with major implications. “Millions and millions of people refer to the Koran daily to explain their actions and to justify their aspirations,” Arkoun says. “This scale of reference is much larger than it has ever been before.”

MuhammadMuhammad in the Cave

Mecca sits in a barren hollow between two ranges of steep hills in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia. To its immediate west lies the flat and sweltering Red Sea coast; to the east stretches the great Rub’ al-Khali, or Empty Quarter—the largest continuous body of sand on the planet. The town’s setting is uninviting: the earth is dry and dusty, and smolders under a relentless sun; the whole region is scoured by hot, throbbing desert winds. Although sometimes rain does not fall for years, when it does come it can be heavy, creating torrents of water that rush out of the hills and flood the basin in which the city lies. As a backdrop for divine revelation, the area is every bit as fitting as the mountains of Sinai or the wilderness of Judea.

The only real source of historical information about pre-Islamic Mecca and the circumstances of the Koran’s revelation is the classical Islamic story about the religion’s founding, a distillation of which follows.

In the centuries leading up to the arrival of Islam, Mecca was a local pagan sanctuary of considerable antiquity. Religious rituals revolved around the Ka’ba—a shrine, still central in Islam today, that Muslims believe was originally built by Ibrahim (known to Christians and Jews as Abraham) and his son Isma’il (Ishmael). As Mecca became increasingly prosperous in the sixth century A.D., pagan idols of varying sizes and shapes proliferated. The traditional story has it that by the early seventh century a pantheon of some 360 statues and icons surrounded the Ka’ba (inside which were found renderings of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, among other idols).

Such was the background against which the first installments of the Koran are said to have been revealed, in 610, to an affluent but disaffected merchant named Muhammad bin Abdullah. Muhammad had developed the habit of periodically withdrawing from Mecca’s pagan squalor to a nearby mountain cave, where he would reflect in solitude. During one of these retreats he was visited by the Angel Gabriel—the very same angel who had announced the coming of Jesus to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth some 600 years earlier. Opening with the command “Recite!,” Gabriel made it known to Muhammad that he was to serve as the Messenger of God. Subsequently, until his death, the supposedly illiterate Muhammad received through Gabriel divine revelations in Arabic that were known as qur’an (“recitation”) and that announced, initially in a highly poetic and rhetorical style, a new and uncompromising brand of monotheism known as Islam, or “submission” (to God’s will). Muhammad reported these revelations verbatim to sympathetic family members and friends, who either memorized them or wrote them down.

Powerful Meccans soon began to persecute Muhammad and his small band of devoted followers, whose new faith rejected the pagan core of Meccan cultural and economic life, and as a result in 622 the group migrated some 200 miles north, to the town of Yathrib, which subsequently became known as Medina (short for Medinat al-Nabi, or City of the Prophet). (This migration, known in Islam as the hijra, is considered to mark the birth of an independent Islamic community, and 622 is thus the first year of the Islamic calendar.) In Medina, Muhammad continued to receive divine revelations, of an increasingly pragmatic and prosaic nature, and by 630 he had developed enough support in the Medinan community to attack and conquer Mecca. He spent the last two years of his life proselytizing, consolidating political power, and continuing to receive revelations.

The Islamic tradition has it that when Muhammad died, in 632, the Koranic revelations had not been gathered into a single book; they were recorded only “on palm leaves and flat stones and in the hearts of men.” (This is not surprising: the oral tradition was strong and well established, and the Arabic script, which was written without the vowel markings and consonantal dots used today, served mainly as an aid to memorization.) Nor was the establishment of such a text of primary concern: the Medinan Arabs—an unlikely coalition of ex-merchants, desert nomads, and agriculturalists united in a potent new faith and inspired by the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad—were at the time pursuing a fantastically successful series of international conquests in the name of Islam. By the 640s the Arabs possessed most of Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt, and thirty years later they were busy taking over parts of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia.

In the early decades of the Arab conquests many members of Muhammad’s coterie were killed, and with them died valuable knowledge of the Koranic revelations. Muslims at the edges of the empire began arguing over what was Koranic scripture and what was not. An army general returning from Azerbaijan expressed his fears about sectarian controversy to the Caliph ‘Uthman (644-656)—the third Islamic ruler to succeed Muhammad—and is said to have entreated him to “overtake this people before they differ over the Koran the way the Jews and Christians differ over their Scripture.” ‘Uthman convened an editorial committee of sorts that carefully gathered the various pieces of scripture that had been memorized or written down by Muhammad’s companions. The result was a standard written version of the Koran. ‘Uthman ordered all incomplete and “imperfect” collections of the Koranic scripture destroyed, and the new version was quickly distributed to the major centers of the rapidly burgeoning empire.

During the next few centuries, while Islam solidified as a religious and political entity, a vast body of exegetical and historical literature evolved to explain the Koran and the rise of Islam, the most important elements of which are hadith, or the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad; sunna, or the body of Islamic social and legal custom; sira, or biographies of the Prophet; and tafsir, or Koranic commentary and explication. It is from these traditional sources—compiled in written form mostly from the mid eighth to the mid tenth century—that all accounts of the revelation of the Koran and the early years of Islam are ultimately derived.

Ishmael & Abraham build  Ka'aba“For People Who Understand”

Roughly equivalent in length to the New Testament, the Koran is divided into 114 sections, known as suras, that vary dramatically in length and form. The book’s organizing principle is neither chronological nor thematic—for the most part the suras are arranged from beginning to end in descending order of length. Despite the unusual structure, however, what generally surprises newcomers to the Koran is the degree to which it draws on the same beliefs and stories that appear in the Bible. God (Allah in Arabic) rules supreme: he is the all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-merciful Being who has created the world and its creatures; he sends messages and laws through prophets to help guide human existence; and, at a time in the future known only to him, he will bring about the end of the world and the Day of Judgment. Adam, the first man, is expelled from Paradise for eating from the forbidden tree. Noah builds an ark to save a select few from a flood brought on by the wrath of God. Abraham prepares himself to sacrifice his son at God’s bidding. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and receives a revelation on Mount Sinai. Jesus—born of the Virgin Mary and referred to as the Messiah—works miracles, has disciples, and rises to heaven.

The Koran takes great care to stress this common monotheistic heritage, but it works equally hard to distinguish Islam from Judaism and Christianity. For example, it mentions prophets—Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb, Luqman, and others—whose origins seem exclusively Arabian, and it reminds readers that it is “A Koran in Arabic, / For people who understand.” Despite its repeated assertions to the contrary, however, the Koran is often extremely difficult for contemporary readers—even highly educated speakers of Arabic—to understand. It sometimes makes dramatic shifts in style, voice, and subject matter from verse to verse, and it assumes a familiarity with language, stories, and events that seem to have been lost even to the earliest of Muslim exegetes (typical of a text that initially evolved in an oral tradition). Its apparent inconsistencies are easy to find: God may be referred to in the first and third person in the same sentence; divergent versions of the same story are repeated at different points in the text; divine rulings occasionally contradict one another. In this last case the Koran anticipates criticism and defends itself by asserting the right to abrogate its own message (“God doth blot out / Or confirm what He pleaseth”).

Criticism did come. As Muslims increasingly came into contact with Christians during the eighth century, the wars of conquest were accompanied by theological polemics, in which Christians and others latched on to the confusing literary state of the Koran as proof of its human origins. Muslim scholars themselves were fastidiously cataloguing the problematic aspects of the Koran—unfamiliar vocabulary, seeming omissions of text, grammatical incongruities, deviant readings, and so on. A major theological debate in fact arose within Islam in the late eighth century, pitting those who believed in the Koran as the “uncreated” and eternal Word of God against those who believed in it as created in time, like anything that isn’t God himself. Under the Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-833) this latter view briefly became orthodox doctrine. It was supported by several schools of thought, including an influential one known as Mu’tazilism, that developed a complex theology based partly on a metaphorical rather than simply literal understanding of the Koran.

By the end of the tenth century the influence of the Mu’tazili school had waned, for complicated political reasons, and the official doctrine had become that of i’jaz, or the “inimitability” of the Koran. (As a result, the Koran has traditionally not been translated by Muslims for non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. Instead it is read and recited in the original by Muslims worldwide, the majority of whom do not speak Arabic. The translations that do exist are considered to be nothing more than scriptural aids and paraphrases.) The adoption of the doctrine of inimitability was a major turning point in Islamic history, and from the tenth century to this day the mainstream Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.

The School of Oriental and African StudiesPsychopathic Vandalism?

Gerd R. Puin speaks with disdain about the traditional willingness, on the part of Muslim and Western scholars, to accept the conventional understanding of the Koran. “The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear,'” he says. “But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense. Many Muslims—and Orientalists—will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible—if it can’t even be understood in Arabic—then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not—as even speakers of Arabic will tell you—there is a contradiction. Something else must be going on.”

Trying to figure out that “something else” really began only in this century. “Until quite recently,” Patricia Crone, the historian of early Islam, says, “everyone took it for granted that everything the Muslims claim to remember about the origin and meaning of the Koran is correct. If you drop that assumption, you have to start afresh.” This is no mean feat, of course; the Koran has come down to us tightly swathed in a historical tradition that is extremely resistant to criticism and analysis. As Crone put it in Slaves on Horses,

The Biblical redactors offer us sections of the Israelite tradition at different stages of crystallization, and their testimonies can accordingly be profitably compared and weighed against each other. But the Muslim tradition was the outcome, not of a slow crystallization, but of an explosion; the first compilers were not redactors, but collectors of debris whose works are strikingly devoid of overall unity; and no particular illuminations ensue from their comparison.

Not surprisingly, given the explosive expansion of early Islam and the passage of time between the religion’s birth and the first systematic documenting of its history, Muhammad’s world and the worlds of the historians who subsequently wrote about him were dramatically different. During Islam’s first century alone a provincial band of pagan desert tribesmen became the guardians of a vast international empire of institutional monotheism that teemed with unprecedented literary and scientific activity. Many contemporary historians argue that one cannot expect Islam’s stories about its own origins—particularly given the oral tradition of the early centuries—to have survived this tremendous social transformation intact. Nor can one expect a Muslim historian writing in ninth- or tenth-century Iraq to have discarded his social and intellectual background (and theological convictions) in order accurately to describe a deeply unfamiliar seventh-century Arabian context. R. Stephen Humphreys, writing in Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (1988), concisely summed up the issue that historians confront in studying early Islam.

If our goal is to comprehend the way in which Muslims of the late 2nd/8th and 3rd/9th centuries [Islamic calendar / Christian calendar] understood the origins of their society, then we are very well off indeed. But if our aim is to find out “what really happened,” in terms of reliably documented answers to modern questions about the earliest decades of Islamic society, then we are in trouble.

The person who more than anyone else has shaken up Koranic studies in the past few decades is John Wansbrough, formerly of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Puin is “re-reading him now” as he prepares to analyze the Yemeni fragments. Patricia Crone says that she and Michael Cook “did not say much about the Koran in Hagarism that was not based on Wansbrough.” Other scholars are less admiring, referring to Wansbrough’s work as “drastically wrongheaded,” “ferociously opaque,” and a “colossal self-deception.” But like it or not, anybody engaged in the critical study of the Koran today must contend with Wansbrough’s two main works— Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation (1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: Content and Composition of Islamic Salvation History (1978).

Wansbrough applied an entire arsenal of what he called the “instruments and techniques” of biblical criticism—form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, and much more—to the Koranic text. He concluded that the Koran evolved only gradually in the seventh and eighth centuries, during a long period of oral transmission when Jewish and Christian sects were arguing volubly with one another well to the north of Mecca and Medina, in what are now parts of Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq. The reason that no Islamic source material from the first century or so of Islam has survived, Wansbrough concluded, is that it never existed.

To Wansbrough, the Islamic tradition is an example of what is known to biblical scholars as a “salvation history”: a theologically and evangelically motivated story of a religion’s origins invented late in the day and projected back in time. In other words, as Wansbrough put it in Quranic Studies, the canonization of the Koran—and the Islamic traditions that arose to explain it—involved the

attribution of several, partially overlapping, collections of logia (exhibiting a distinctly Mosaic imprint) to the image of a Biblical prophet (modified by the material of the Muhammadan evangelium into an Arabian man of God) with a traditional message of salvation (modified by the influence of Rabbinic Judaism into the unmediated and finally immutable word of God).

Wansbrough’s arcane theories have been contagious in certain scholarly circles, but many Muslims understandably have found them deeply offensive. S. Parvez Manzoor, for example, has described the Koranic studies of Wansbrough and others as “a naked discourse of power” and “an outburst of psychopathic vandalism.” But not even Manzoor argues for a retreat from the critical enterprise of Koranic studies; instead he urges Muslims to defeat the Western revisionists on the “epistemological battlefield,” admitting that “sooner or later [we Muslims] will have to approach the Koran from methodological assumptions and parameters that are radically at odds with the ones consecrated by our tradition.”

Dr Nasr Abu ZaydRevisionism Inside the Islamic World

Indeed, for more than a century there have been public figures in the Islamic world who have attempted the revisionist study of the Koran and Islamic history—the exiled Egyptian professor Nasr Abu Zaid is not unique. Perhaps Abu Zaid’s most famous predecessor was the prominent Egyptian government minister, university professor, and writer Taha Hussein. A determined modernist, Hussein in the early 1920s devoted himself to the study of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry and ended up concluding that much of that body of work had been fabricated well after the establishment of Islam in order to lend outside support to Koranic mythology. A more recent example is the Iranian journalist and diplomat Ali Dashti, who in his Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed (1985) repeatedly took his fellow Muslims to task for not questioning the traditional accounts of Muhammad’s life, much of which he called “myth-making and miracle-mongering.”

Abu Zaid also cites the enormously influential Muhammad ‘Abduh as a precursor. The nineteenth-century father of Egyptian modernism, ‘Abduh saw the potential for a new Islamic theology in the theories of the ninth-century Mu’tazilis. The ideas of the Mu’tazilis gained popularity in some Muslim circles early in this century (leading the important Egyptian writer and intellectual Ahmad Amin to remark in 1936 that “the demise of Mu’tazilism was the greatest misfortune to have afflicted Muslims; they have committed a crime against themselves”). The late Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman carried the Mu’tazilite torch well into the present era; he spent the later years of his life, from the 1960s until his death in 1988, living and teaching in the United States, where he trained many students of Islam—both Muslims and non-Muslims—in the Mu’tazilite tradition.

Such work has not come without cost, however: Taha Hussein, like Nasr Abu Zaid, was declared an apostate in Egypt; Ali Dashti died mysteriously just after the 1979 Iranian revolution; and Fazlur Rahman was forced to leave Pakistan in the 1960s. Muslims interested in challenging orthodox doctrine must tread carefully. “I would like to get the Koran out of this prison,” Abu Zaid has said of the prevailing Islamic hostility to reinterpreting the Koran for the modern age, “so that once more it becomes productive for the essence of our culture and the arts, which are being strangled in our society.” Despite his many enemies in Egypt, Abu Zaid may well be making progress toward this goal: there are indications that his work is being widely, if quietly, read with interest in the Arab world. Abu Zaid says, for example, that his The Concept of the Text (1990)—the book largely responsible for his exile from Egypt—has gone through at least eight underground printings in Cairo and Beirut.

Another scholar with a wide readership who is committed to re-examining the Koran is Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian professor at the University of Paris. Arkoun argued in Lectures du Coran (1982), for example, that “it is time [for Islam] to assume, along with all of the great cultural traditions, the modern risks of scientific knowledge,” and suggested that “the problem of the divine authenticity of the Koran can serve to reactivate Islamic thought and engage it in the major debates of our age.” Arkoun regrets the fact that most Muslims are unaware that a different conception of the Koran exists within their own historical tradition. What a re-examination of Islamic history offers Muslims, Arkoun and others argue, is an opportunity to challenge the Muslim orthodoxy from within, rather than having to rely on “hostile” outside sources. Arkoun, Abu Zaid, and others hope that this challenge might ultimately lead to nothing less than an Islamic renaissance.

The gulf between such academic theories and the daily practice of Islam around the world is huge, of course—the majority of Muslims today are unlikely to question the orthodox understanding of the Koran and Islamic history. Yet Islam became one of the world’s great religions in part because of its openness to social change and new ideas. (Centuries ago, when Europe was mired in its feudal Dark Ages, the sages of a flourishing Islamic civilization opened an era of great scientific and philosophical discovery. The ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans might never have been introduced to Europe were it not for the Islamic historians and philosophers who rediscovered and revived them.) Islam’s own history shows that the prevailing conception of the Koran is not the only one ever to have existed, and the recent history of biblical scholarship shows that not all critical-historical studies of a holy scripture are antagonistic. They can instead be carried out with the aim of spiritual and cultural regeneration. They can, as Mohammed Arkoun puts it, demystify the text while reaffirming “the relevance of its larger intuitions.”

Increasingly diverse interpretations of the Koran and Islamic history will inevitably be proposed in the coming decades, as traditional cultural distinctions between East, West, North, and South continue to dissolve, as the population of the Muslim world continues to grow, as early historical sources continue to be scrutinized, and as feminism meets the Koran. With the diversity of interpretations will surely come increased fractiousness, perhaps intensified by the fact that Islam now exists in such a great variety of social and intellectual settings—Bosnia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States, and so on. More than ever before, anybody wishing to understand global affairs will need to understand Islamic civilization, in all its permutations. Surely the best way to start is with the study of the Koran—which promises in the years ahead to be at least as contentious, fascinating, and important as the study of the Bible has been in this century. – The Atlantic, January 1999

» Toby Lester, the author of Da Vinci’s Ghost (2012) and The Fourth Part of the World (2009), is an American writer and an editor. In addition to writing books, he is a longtime contributor to The Atlantic, for whom he has written extensively. He can be contacted through his website.

Innocence of Muslims: The Hidden Origin of Islam with Gerd R. Puin

Koran Documentary with Antony Thomas

Wendy’s Revenge: Plagiarism charge against Rajiv Malhotra is a red herring – Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajeev Srinivasan

“This fuss about Malhotra’s books may be direct revenge for what happened to Wendy’s books a few months ago: upon being accused of hurting the sentiments of Hindus, her publisher unilaterally withdrew her books on Hinduism, which were allegedly a travesty of true research, not to mention full of gratuitous titillation and insults. Malhotra was the person who first challenged Wendy and her brood 15 years ago, and now the objective is to bully his publisher into withdrawing his books: sweet revenge indeed.” – Rajeev Srinivasan

Rajiv MalhotraThere has been a lot of commotion over on social media lately about the books written by Indian American author Rajiv Malhotra, who has single-handedly stood up to forces in US academia who paint, according to him, a negative, motivated, and false picture of Hinduism. This is not a purely abstract issue, as it impinges on soft power, positioning, and the marketing of India to the world, something that previous governments paid scarcely any attention to, but the current one does.

To put it simply, the issue is as follows: one Richard Fox Young, apparently an employee of a Christian seminary in Princeton, NJ, where Malhotra also resides, has gone on the warpath against Malhotra, accusing him of plagiarism, based on some material that was allegedly quoted without explicit attribution in his books Indra’s Net and Breaking India. Young’s crusade against Malhotra is not new: I personally have had to block Young on Twitter because he bombarded me when I supported Malhotra.

Richard Fox YoungNow, a disclaimer is in order: I have known Rajiv Malhotra for some years, and we have corresponded on occasion, although we have never met. While I don’t agree with him on everything, I am broadly in sync with him; and I have had no financial dealings whatsoever with him or any entities with links to him. There are friends of mine who disagree with him on style or substance, but when it comes to an external attack, we all stand with Rajiv.

On taking a brief look at the whole imbroglio, I see an old game being rehashed: certain anti-India and anti-Hindu forces are at play, and have been, in academia and elsewhere, for some years. There is a certain #DeepState at play, which I alluded to a few months ago in when I suggested that India has been deemed a part of a new #AxisOfEvil. I see no reason to change that view, as the same dramatis personae are at work here too: pals of the USCIRF – Cold Warriors of religion, focused on conversions.

I wrote about this clash of civilisations in “Fear of Engineering” in 2002, including the fact of Rajiv Malhotra, Sankrant Sanu, et al standing up to entrenched antipathy towards Hindus in American academia, led by ‘den mother’ Wendy Doniger Flaherty and “Wendy’s Children”, as Malhotra dubbed her acolytes. What was a somewhat obscure tiff in American academia then has now become quite an issue in India now.

Prof Wendy DonigerThere is an even greater link. This fuss about Malhotra’s books may be direct revenge for what happened to Wendy’s books a few months ago: upon being accused of hurting the sentiments of Hindus, her publisher unilaterally withdrew her books on Hinduism, which were allegedly a travesty of true research, not to mention full of gratuitous titillation and insults. Malhotra was the person who first challenged Wendy and her brood 15 years ago, and now the objective is to bully his publisher into withdrawing his books: sweet revenge indeed.

This is a pretty good tactic, and is an old one. The RISA group of mostly American religious academics who act as gatekeepers for Western Indology has consistently excluded those other than their own through the spurious argument of ‘scholarship’. This is defined as having been a PhD candidate under one of them: a clear case of intellectual incest. Indeed, Wendy has spawned—in nice counterpoint to Romila Thapar in India—an entire generation of Hindu-hating ‘scholars’, both Indian and Western.

Prof Michel DaninoThey have sought to denigrate the ‘insider’ perspective of Hinduism, as experienced by practicing Hindus or sympathetic scholars, and lionised an ‘outsider’ perspective (the words ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ are used to refer to these points of view) of hostile anthropologists (or colonial administrators in British Raj days). For instance, they have kept out scholars like Michel Danino, quite possibly the foremost authority on the Sarasvati river and thereby the best debunker of the entire ‘Aryan Invasion Fairytale’. This is not surprising: let us remember Galileo Galilei, who was almost burnt at the stake for upsetting the carefully built-up sinecures of insiders who had made their careers out of heliocentrism.

But that RISA citadel is under attack, as Hindus, both scholars and lay people, have begun to question them, turning the microscope back on them, and asserting that the western world-view is not universal (which Malhotra has done explicitly, by treating the West as anthropological specimens to be viewed through the lens of Hindu philosophical systems).

No, the western view is true for all people and for all time. An example is in the concept of ‘intellectual property rights’. The traditional knowledge and intellectual property of Hindus, freely given by pundits, have been quietly expropriated by western scholars (‘embrace-extend-exterminate’, the famous Microsoft strategy), who then turn around and assert that it is their property (the U-turn Hypothesis), for which they hold IPR. Westerners zealously guard their IPRs with patents and copyrights and so on. We remember the neem and turmeric patents. The tactic is also subtler: the appropriation of yoga into ‘Christian yoga’; the demonisation of coconut oil by cleverly comparing hydrogenated coconut oil to extra-virgin olive and saffola oil; and so forth.

BrahmaguptaHindus have a different, yet internally consistent, view of knowledge. They have traditionally created knowledge and simply put it in the public domain for anyone to use, without even signing their work. Is that wrong? Does this mean that Hindus were not innovative? Far from it. We don’t know who invented the decimal system (it was possibly Brahmagupta), but did it benefit society? Yes, it did, although it may not have benefited Brahmagupta personally through royalties, and indeed he may not have cared about the money, anyway.

In the West, too, the rise of Unix/Linux and open-source software has made it clear that ‘copyleft’ or freely opening up intellectual property, is not the end of civilisation as we know it; on the contrary, it can lead to very fine products and benefit society. Indeed, as opposed to Microsoft’s IPR-heavy Windows, 98 percent of us now carry mobile devices based on the open-source philosophy of Unix/Linux, GNU and the Free Software Foundation. So it’s clear that an alternative point of view may well be as valid as the conventional wisdom. Creative Commons is another example.

Staying with IPR for a moment, let us consider the basis of the attack on Malhotra: that he has plagiarised. Insofar as I can tell, what he is accused of is acceptable under the definition of ‘fair use’ in the US Copyright Act 1976, 17 USC Section 107, and under ‘fair dealing’ in the Indian Copyright Act of 1957, Section 52. If you peruse these provisions, you will find that the quoting of copyright materials for ‘research’ is allowed without hindrance, as it is for teaching as well, so long as it is not used for monetary benefit to the user.

Thus, there is little basis in fact for the allegation, a priori, and I suspect that if Malhotra sues, he will win. However, it is an excellent tactic, known as “throwing some mud and seeing how much will stick”. The objective is not to penalise the alleged plagiarism, but to create the impression that Malhotra is intellectually dishonest, the equivalent of accusing him of a felony, which will remain as a stain even if he is exonerated. That is the objective of Wendy’s Revenge: hopefully, it will cause him to self-censor.

Sister AnitaThis technique has been used to devastating effect in the past. One example is the Nun Rape Syndrome. In 1998, there was a big hoo-ha over an alleged rape of four Catholic nuns in Jhabua, in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, and Hindu groups were immediately accused. To be honest, it’s not clear why the rape of a nun is more heinous than the rape of any lay woman: it’s, alas, pretty routine, just ask Sisters Anita and Jesmi. Anyway it turned out that the rapists were themselves Christians. The story then disappeared, but there were no apologies for libel against Hindus.

The same thing happened in West Bengal recently. An elderly nun was allegedly raped, and since the BJP is running the government of India, blame was immediately directed at Hindu organisations. Then it turned out that the rapists were Muslims, illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, and the nun was also spirited away. Once again, the story was swept under the carpet, but no apologies.

Dr. Atanu DeyInterestingly, Indian ‘sepoys’, the brainwashed or the mendacious, are in the forefront of the attacks. I have read several of them, and also devastating counters by Malhotra and Danino as well as an excellent piece by Atanu Dey showing up their hypocrisy.

Sadly, I also found the usual champions of ‘Freedom of Speech’—including a bunch that went to a big conference in Singapore just weeks ago on this topic—strangely silent. But that is par for the course. They shouted from the rooftops about M.F. Husain’s FoS, but were quiet about Tasleema Nasrin’s FoS, even when she was manhandled by some people. They went on and on about Perumal Murugan’s FoS, but were deafeningly silent about Joe D’Cruz’s FoS. The sepoys obviously know what to think and where their selective outrage must be directed: their handlers must be telling them regularly.

Madhu KishwarThus the entire arsenal of the #DeepState has been brought out, including the sleeper cells. The fact that the allegations are baseless will not matter, and the nasties will succeed in their objective of shutting down Rajiv Malhotra unless all of us who support our civilisation are vocal in our resistance. To start with, you could sign the petition that is circulating online here. But that isn’t enough: do get active in fighting back. This is just the tip of the iceberg in the withering assault on Hindu civilisation. – Firstpost, 19 July 2015

See also

The first step towards de-mythifying Nehru – Anirban Ganguly

Dr Anirban Ganguly“The book’s manner of discussing Nehru’s shortcomings directly and unequivocally, and basing the discussion on solid primary and secondary sources, and its way of linking Nehru’s legacy to the challenges of the present Indian polity make the study even more interesting. The predominant Nehruvian narrative has almost always depicted him as a great democrat, liberal, man of vision and an indefatigable administrator. Singh’s work challenges each of these assumptions and through a complex web of arguments and analysis proves the hollowness or unilateralism of these.” – Dr Anirban Ganguly

Jawaharlal Nehru was the archetypical Indian brown sahib.When he had just been two years in office, Prime Minister Nehru once wrote to a close colleague expressing a view which would, 15 years later, in a sense define the decadent political legacy he would eventually leave behind. “I have repeatedly made a mess of things, but, I hope, I have not forgotten the major ideals which Gandhiji taught us…. His (Gandhiji’s) face comes up before me, gentle and reproachful, sometimes I read his writings, and how he asked us to stick to this or that to death, whatever others said or did. And yet these very things we were asked to stick to slip away from our grasp. Is that to be the end of our labour?” Indeed, after an uninterrupted 17 years of steering the ship of the Indian state, Nehru had led the nation “up the blind alley”.

R. N. P. SinghIn his new book, Nehru: A Troubled Legacy, R.N.P. Singh, a former officer of the Intelligence Bureau and author of a number of books on modern India who is presently a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation, examines in some detail Nehru’s legacy and weaves a narrative that looks at his other dimensions, shorn of all hagiographic sentimentalism.

Nehru, argues Singh, “left behind a confused and anaemic legacy of political culture, with the result that the foundation of Independence laid by him affected not only the present and the future generations of Congress party, but the entire political spectrum of the country…. His arbitrary, autocratic and impulsive decisions shaped India’s political culture in such a way that it diverted the course of politics to the point of systemic failure for the first six decades of Independence”. Singh asks to “ponder as to what went wrong with the foundation of independent India”. Did the “pillars of freedom” go “to the hands of incapable architects?” This book provides significant points to ponder over these questions.

Arranged in eight chapters and with a large appendix section that brings together, for the benefit of the lay reader and serious researcher, a collection of letters that essentially deal with crucial issues in the Nehru era, Singh’s book comes as an important intervention in the process of dismantling the Nehruvian consensus. Chapters such as ‘Seeds of Dynastic Democracy’, ‘Betrayal of Democratic Values’ and ‘Defence Policy in Post-Independence India’ (1947-62) introduce dimensions that are bound to generate a greater interest and certainly aid in making a fresh start to the assessment of India’s first Prime Minister and his complex legacy.

Nehru: A Troubled LegacyThe book’s manner of discussing Nehru’s shortcomings directly and unequivocally, and basing the discussion on solid primary and secondary sources, and its way of linking Nehru’s legacy to the challenges of the present Indian polity make the study even more interesting. The predominant Nehruvian narrative has almost always depicted him as a great democrat, liberal, man of vision and an indefatigable administrator. Singh’s work challenges each of these assumptions and through a complex web of arguments and analysis proves the hollowness or unilateralism of these.

In the end, the author observes that with the passage of time and with the “advent of genuine academic freedom one can be certain that many more tomes will follow to add to what we know about Nehru, the man and the politician. This will make for a more credible and dispassionate assessment of Nehru and for robust research in our universities”. And when this happens, argues Singh, “our view of Jawaharlal Nehru will change, the gap between history and truth will stand bridged” and the “coloured versions produced over the last sixty years … will cease to be relevant”.

Singh’s book is a decisive first step towards bridging that gap between “history and truth”; it is a major contribution to the de-mythification of Nehru. – The New Indian Express, 19 July 2015

» Dr Ganguly is Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi. Email anirbangan@gmail.com

Mihir Sharma’s abusive article and Michel Danino’s civil response to it – BS

“While classical India refined and practised the art of debating, Mihir Sharma’s vituperative but crassly ignorant language is fairly typical of a trend to demonize what one does not agree with—a trend that has taken the place of academic debates in much of India’s intellectual life. It does spare one the trouble of having to study, carefully weigh arguments and evidence, and engage other viewpoints in a civilized manner.” — Prof Michel Danino 

Mihir S. SharmaThe Rajiv Malhotra issue is a cautionary tale for publishers – Mihir Sharma  

Rajiv Malhotra, who writes angrily from New Jersey about American attempts to monopolise the conversation about India and Hinduism, is in trouble. True to form—he is, after all, more loudly Indian than anybody else, especially anybody else not in New Jersey—the trouble he is in is that quintessentially desi problem, plagiarism.

The facts are these. Richard Fox Young, who teaches at a seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, released a series of passages on Twitter from Mr Malhotra’s books, Breaking India and Indra’s Net. In some cases, Mr Malhotra appeared to have lifted whole passages from various academic books without sufficient attribution—particularly from Unifying Hinduism by Andrew J Nicholson, published by Columbia University Press in 2010. This is no coincidence, but it is gently ironic: Indra’s Net makes the argument for Hinduism’s philosophical unity, precisely the kind of effort that Prof Nicholson examines in Unifying Hinduism. In addition, Prof Young points out how Mr Malhotra sometimes uses plagiarised passages in completely different contexts—an impressively complex feat of intellectual deception.

Rajiv Malhotra: Being different!Mr Malhotra‘s response, when it came, was instructive. As detailed by Shoaib Daniyal on the web site scroll.in, Mr Malhotra—who tends not to deviate from his pet passions—denounced Western standards of referencing as unnecessary for Indian scholars. In other words, quotation marks are a despicable Macaualayite imposition on India’s ancient civilisation. I wish I was making this up, but I don’t have the imagination. This is Mr Malhotra’s direct quote: “Sanskrit language has no quotation marks, yet scholars cited others for thousands of years. Western standards not the only way to acknowledge.”

In effect, Mr Malhotra has accepted Prof Young’s charges of plagiarism, but denied their importance. Good for him. I look forward to a bright future—25 years on, as Amit Shah assures us—when we will never need to use quotation marks at all. Think of the time saved on tiny phone keyboards! If only the iPhone could make copying and pasting a bit easier for us desis, we could really conquer academia.

(I should make one thing clear parenthetically: I have closely followed Mr Malhotra’s writing for 15 years, and deeply admire much about him. His energy, for one. Thanks largely to that he has, like Subramanian Swamy, built up an online following that thinks he is a once-in-a-lifetime genius, doing god’s work in a difficult and inhospitable environment.)

But Professor Young’s accusations create a somewhat difficult predicament for Mr Malhotra’s publishers, Harper Collins. I assume Mr Malhotra sells well—his are the kind of books loved by engineers who possess an inchoate anger and disdain for the humanities. Somebody within Harper Collins will be saying: look, we’re a business. We are not an academic publisher. So we must not be held to the standards of peer review and referencing that such publisher must perforce follow. We really have one major constraint: profitability. Can we shut down Mr Malhotra, who makes money for us, because of academic nit-picking about plagiarism? (Not to mention the fact that, were Harper Collins to let Mr Malhotra go, he would unquestionably send his millions of devoted fans on jihad against his unfortunate ex-publishers.)

And we reach, thus, a deeper question. To what degree can we trust “serious” works of non-fiction from non-academic presses? To be frank, few publishing houses, here or abroad, can afford the kind of reviewing and editing that comes up to the standard of, say, the average academic journal. Academic presses come somewhere in between. I think they would at least ensure that referencing and footnoting was clear and accurate. Recently one of our finest public intellectuals told me that, in the end, he was unclear what advantages an academic publisher would have for non-fiction over a trade publisher. I think I now have an answer to that question. Mr Malhotra would have found it more difficult to get away with this apparent intellectual dishonesty in an academic publisher.

This is the correct context in which to view the constant, irritating whine from India’s social conservatives that they have been excluded from academia. (A whine that is used to justify all sorts of saffronisation and interference.) There is more to the story than just the unscrupulous Marxists and post-Marxist domination of academic institutions—after all, this domination has not stopped a strong liberal grouping from developing within Indian history, political science and economics. No, this incident underlines the true tragedy of Indian social conservative “scholarship”: that most of its critics are right. The authors who write the “path-breaking” studies that “Western-style academia doesn’t want you to read” are in fact, most likely, peddling outlandish work that would easily fail the standards that the existing body of work has had to meet. The Shrikant Talageris and the Michel Daninos of the world, like the Rajiv Malhotras, are online heroes rather than respected historians or linguists because their work just doesn’t match up. The endless ways in which the “new Hindu right” uncovers ways in which caste and external migrations were invented but the Saraswati was not are not being suppressed because of a giant Western conspiracy; they simply don’t meet the academic standards required to conclude that they’re not just a bunch of crackpot theories dreamed up by nativist bigots. – Business Standard, 14 July 2015

» Mihir S. Sharma trained as an economist and political scientist in Delhi and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is editor of the opinion pages at the Business Standard. 

Prof Michel DaninoMy response to Mihir Sharma’s false charges – Michel Danino

In his article “The Rajiv Malhotra issue is a cautionary tale for publishers”, Mihir S. Sharma finds it necessary to close with the following statement: “The Shrikant Talageris and the Michael Daninos of the world, like the Rajiv Malhotras, are online heroes rather than respected historians or linguists because their work just doesn’t match up. The endless ways in which the “new Hindu right” uncovers ways in which caste and external migrations were invented but the Saraswati was not are not being suppressed because of a giant Western conspiracy; they simply don’t meet the academic standards required to conclude that they’re not just a bunch of crackpot theories dreamed up by nativist bigots.”

While Mihir Sharma is welcome to his opinions, he has no right to misrepresent, abuse and demonize people whose work he is completely ignorant of. I will not speak for Rajiv Malhotra or Shrikant Talageri, but I protest against his statement concerning me. I am by no means an “online hero”, maintaining neither a website nor a blog nor a Facebook account. My work on ancient India has spread through my books and papers, which have been published by reputed publishers and journals of Indology and archaeology in India and abroad. I have also contributed chapters to over twenty scholarly volumes. I am sure Mihir Sharma has read none of my work; indeed, he cannot even spell my name correctly.

Thus he implies that the Sarasvati River is “invented”, which means he has not read my The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati published by Penguin India in 2010 and warmly reviewed by many national newspapers (including Business Standard: see here and here) as well as Current Science and reputed journals of archaeology such as Man and Environment and Puratattva. Had he read it, he would have known that the vanished Vedic river was identified with the now dry Ghaggar-Hakra of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Cholistan, not by a few “nativist bigots”, but in 1855 by the French geographer Louis Vivien de Saint-Martin. In the next few decades, nearly all European Indologists, from H.H. Wilson and F. Max Müller to M. Monier-Williams, A.A. Macdonell, A.B. Keith or F.E. Pargiter, and more recently L. Renou, A.L. Basham or Jan Gonda, accepted Vivien de Saint-Martin’s thesis. Geologists such as the British R.D. Oldham (1886) joined in, followed by geographers such as the Indian Shamsul Islam Siddiqi (1944) or the German Herbert Wilhelmy (1969). Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, was one among many who, in the 19th century, published maps clearly naming the Sarasvati as a tributary to the Ghaggar. The celebrated British archaeologist and explorer Marc Aurel Stein was the first to discover Harappan sites along the bed of the dry river and published his findings in a 1942 report entitled “A Survey of Ancient Sites along the ‘Lost’ Sarasvati River.” The late British archaeologist Raymond Allchin fully accepted the river’s identification, as did his U.S. colleagues the late Gregory L. Possehl or J.M. Kenoyer, among others. I could line up many more non-“nativist” names. If there was a “Western conspiracy”, to use Sharma’s name, it was to conclude that the Sarasvati had been a very real river—like all others listed in the Rig-Veda—and could be precisely placed on the map. While there are still important geological issues to be resolved, my book has brought together literary, cultural, archaeological and geological evidence in an objective and open-ended manner.

Lastly, while classical India refined and practised the art of debating, Mihir Sharma’s vituperative but crassly ignorant language is fairly typical of a trend to demonize what one does not agree with—a trend that has taken the place of academic debates in much of India’s intellectual life. It does spare one the trouble of having to study, carefully weigh arguments and evidence, and engage other viewpoints in a civilized manner. – Business Standard, 14 July 2015

» Prof Michel Danino is a guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar, and the convener of the International Forum for India’s Heritage. He is also a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research.

Bobby Jindal is so white – S. Shankar

Bobby Jindal

Prof S. Shankar

“Bobby has invested in a tee shirt for his presidential campaign that reads ‘Tanned. Rested. Ready.’ Clearly stated. Just so there’s no confusion in anybody’s mind who and what he is. He is a white man with a tan, not brown. Got that? And for good measure, Bobby’s also a Christian. He converted at a young age from his parents’ Hinduism. You can’t be white without being Christian in America. And especially not in Louisiana.” – Prof S. Shankar

It’s hard being a South Asian in America. Just ask Bobby Jindal, he’ll tell you. It’s so hard, he’s white. After all, if you are South Asian you live your life in the public eye as a stereotype. As a doctor or a software engineer. A cab driver or an abused domestic worker. Or a terrorist. Bobby is no terrorist. He is a politician. He is the Governor of the State of Louisiana. And he’s running for President. That is why Bobby is white. That is why he can’t be brown. No way, no how. Think about it. When was the last time America had a brown president?

It is true America has a black president. Bobby knows Barry is black. But he doesn’t want to be black for the same reason he doesn’t want to be brown. His way of getting taken seriously requires him to be white. Anything else is exhausting for Bobby.

There have been a few times — as in, a few times every day when he passes a reflection of himself — when the thought has crossed Bobby’s mind that he might, really, when all is said and done, still be brown. Bobby doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like the unwelcome intimation of his possible brownness trudging wearily across the desert of his mind. Like some undocumented migrant worker crossing into Arizona from Mexico.

It’s exhausting for Bobby. Thinking about being a South Asian in America in 2015. Getting people to take you seriously as a politician because — no, make that, if — you are brown. Exhausting. Even though you were born in America. And have a certificate to prove it. Exhausting.  Bobby doesn’t like being exhausted — so much easier to be white!

That’s why Bobby has invested in a tee shirt for his presidential campaign that reads “Tanned. Rested. Ready.” Clearly stated. Just so there’s no confusion in anybody’s mind who and what he is. He is a white man with a tan, not brown. Got that? And for good measure, Bobby’s also a Christian. He converted at a young age from his parents’ Hinduism. You can’t be white without being Christian in America. And especially not in Louisiana.

Bobby studied biology at Brown University, but don’t ask him about evolution. He doesn’t like to answer questions about that little scientific theory. As Governor of Louisiana, he has made it his business to give as much succour as possible to creationists, those Christians who believe that God created the world in seven days and evolution is a hoax. Dinosaurs? What dinosaurs? Has anyone seen one? Bobby hasn’t, which is why he thinks any good Christian, especially one who would be the president one day, should support creationism.

Bobby knows a presidential campaign is hard, really hard. Gruelling even. But Bobby is not worried. He is Christian, he is tanned, he is rested, he is ready. And most important of all—he is white. When you are a politician, it’s so, so much easier being a Christian named Bobby who is white.Then you don’t have to explain yourself all the time. You don’t have to explain, for example, why you are called Piyush, the name by which Bobby was once known to most people and which is still his real name. You don’t have to explain why you worship so many strange gods — since Christian gods are never strange in America. The alternative to being white is very exhausting for Bobby. He would have to try to change racist American society as a brown man. But why? After all, it’s so much easier to change himself into a white one.

No, Bobby can’t be brown. It just won’t do. Bobby is not a doctor or a software engineer. Or a cab driver or an abused domestic worker. Or a terrorist. He is a politician. The two-time Governor of Louisiana. And he is running for President. He can’t be brown — it’s just too hard being a brown politician. That is why he is white, so white. See his portrait, if you don’t believe Bobby.

Bobby Jindal is so white his first act as President would be to deport his own father for being brown. – The New Indian Express, 14 July 2015

» S. Shankar is a novelist and a cultural critic. He teaches at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, and blogs at http://www.sshankar.net.

Bobby Jindal

Bobby Jindal


C. I. Issac: Christian ICHR member calls for ban on conversions – G. Sreedathan

G. Sreedathan“Although a St Thomas Christian himself, Issac disputed the claim that St Thomas landed in Kerala and converted Namboodiri Brahmins. ‘They are targeting higher jatis. They realized that without converting Brahmins they can’t bust the very foundation of Hinduism. In this line they deputed Robert de Nobili, an Italian padre, to Madurai in 17th century CE and he studied Sanskrit and wrote Jesus Veda, and lived in sanyasin attire in order to convert high-class Hindus, and miserably failed.'” – G. Sreedathan

Prof C. I. IssacThe lone Christian member in the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) under the Human Resources Development ministry and noted historian, C. I. Issac, has put up a passionate defence of the Sangh Parivar’s ghar wapsi (home coming) programme and called for a ban on conversions.

A retired history professor and author of over 10 books, including Evolution of Christian Church in India, Issac is now vice-president of Kerala-based right-wing think-tank Bharateeya Vichara Kendram. “Ghar wapsi is not religious conversion. It is a measure of opening doors for those who left earlier from poorva dharma due to historical reasons. Article 25 of the Constitution is not a provision for a one-way traffic or of a non-return valve. In no way with this Article, the founding fathers of our Constitution thought of any sort of conversion. Their intention was the healthy coexistence of all cultures and religious groups. Conversion by brainwashing, coercion, allurement, incentives, etc. is cruel in cultural terms,” said Issac.

According to him, ghar wapsi is a legitimate right of the Hindus. This movement began not only after May 26, 2014.  “Its origin in Kerala goes back to British period that is 1921. It started systematically as the shuddhi movement in the 19th century CE by Arya Samaj leader, Swami Dayananda Saraswati.”

Calling for capital punishment for indulging in conversions, he said, “The conversion is a criminal offence against humanity. The death of a religion means the total vanishing or death of a culture, civilization and knowledge system which generated by a religion through generations…. We lost the Greeks, Mayans, Persians, Romans, etc, like classical societies legacies. We missed Bamian rocks of Afghanistan. Nobody can New Delhi Archbishop Anil J.T. Coutoretrieve the lost knowledge. They have a substantial, objective, and observationally demonstrated information framework, obtained through generations. We, as an enlightened society, are bound to secure all societies and their commitments appropriately,” he added.

When his attention was drawn to Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto’s statement in an interview to Business Standard that he has a problem with the word ghar wapsi and not conversion, he said, “Behind this answer a fraudulent design is hidden. Ghar wapsi means return to poorva dharma. In it there is nothing as wrong. On the other hand, if it is conversion they can level charges against the Hindu society in international forms that Hindus are forcibly converting Christians to Hinduism, Hindus are fundamentalists, etc. Now they can’t raise such allegations. Above all in Hinduism there is no provision of conversion to Hinduism. Prima-facie, one may feel it is an innocent and genuine demand. But in fact it is cunning and putting Hindus in doldrums.”

Claiming himself to be a practicing Christian, he said, “The Church has good relations with me. When I was nominated to ICHR, the bishop arranged a meeting to congratulate me. I believe in Christ but I don’t believe Christ as the only way.”

On Delhi church attacks, he said, “Martyrs and saints are fuels for the gigantic engines of the Church (like jihadis for Islam) without which it cannot sustain. The nature and character of the Delhi church attack is doubtful. All the churches subjected attacks were suffered with minor damages. After the Delhi election they never pressed for the arrest of the persons behind attack or further investigations. It can be considered as a self-goal strategy.”

St. ThomasAlthough a St Thomas Christian himself, Issac disputed the claim that St Thomas landed in Kerala and converted Namboodiri Brahmins. “They are targeting higher jatis. They realized that without converting Brahmins they can’t bust the very foundation of Hinduism. In this line they deputed Robert de Nobili, an Italian padre, to Madurai in 17th century CE and he studied Sanskrit and wrote Jesus Veda, and lived in sanyasin attire in order to convert high-class Hindus, and miserably failed. Madras Bishop Arulappa bribed Ganesh Iyer and converted him as John Iyer and deputed him for manipulations and attempted to high-jack ancient Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar.” – Business Standard, 11 July 2015

» G. Sreedathan Sr Assistant Editor at Business Standard, New Delhi Area.

Roberto de Nobili


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