In a recent article in Salon, Jeffrey Tayler goes on quite the tirade against Reza Aslan, and Aslan’s position that people who criticise Islam for what it says in the Koran are simply doing criticism wrong. Tayler, in a magnificent example of “Oh yeah?! Let me demonstrate exactly how correct you are!”, proceeds to sift out quotes from the Koran. I’m not exactly sure what Tayler is attempting to do, but I (for one) try to make an effort to understand what I’m criticising before committing it to print.
I’m going to deconstruct Tayler’s article here, and try to illuminate the various errors that he’s making.
Let’s start with Reza’s central claim that Tayler kicks off with:
“It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives. . . . After all, scripture is meaningless without interpretation. The abiding nature of scripture rests not so much in its truth claims as it does in its malleability, its ability to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires. . . If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in your scriptures to justify your beliefs. If you are a peaceful, democratic feminist, you will also find justification in the scriptures for your point of view.”
What’s Reza saying here? He’s saying that if you look at Islam, over a billion adherents scattered across the globe, with a variety of sects all purporting to being ‘true’ Muslims, following the ‘true’ Islam, and yet many of them believe very different things. Now, if they’re all deriving their ‘beliefs’ from the Koran, then this would not be possible. This, therefore, demonstrates that they are not lifting their beliefs directly from the Koran, but are applying their own interpretations to what they are reading. Y’know, just like Christians do with the bible.
What this means is that if all you know about someone is that they are a Muslim, but not which sect they adhere to, then you have no idea what their stance is on a particular verse. Zero. Zip. Nada. Just like if you talk to a Christian (and that’s all you know about them), you have no idea what *their* stance is on, say, homosexuality.
So it seems odd that Tayler would respond with
Now we have to stop and ponder what we are being sold here. Aslan is essentially taking a postmodernist, Derrida-esque scalpel to “scripture” and eviscerating it of objective content
Reza’s claim is how ‘believers’ (of whatever religion) interact with their book: they pick and choose, and they interpret (regardless of how much they claim that they aren’t). Reza is not the one “eviscerating” the Koran of “objective content”, Muslims are. Reza is merely reporting what he sees happening when he speaks to real, living believers. And lets be clear here: this is NOT unique to Muslims, but to all religions that claim they adhere to a holy text: find two believers, and you’ll find a disparity of beliefs, even though they both claim foundation in their holy text.
While I mostly agree with the rest of Tayler’s polemic, the opening salvo was just ridiculous. I’ve written before on the idea that ‘religion causes terrible behaviour‘, so I’m not going to rehash that here.