Islam: Imams, Fatwas, Jihads and Jews-Sense and Nonsense about Muslims and the Middle East: An Interview with R. Stephen Humphreys

By Miele, Frank | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Islam: Imams, Fatwas, Jihads and Jews-Sense and Nonsense about Muslims and the Middle East: An Interview with R. Stephen Humphreys


Miele, Frank, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


R. Stephen Humphreys is a Professor of History and Islamic Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who has traveled extensively across the geographic crossroads we term the Middle East and its neighboring continents of Europe and Asia. His broad range of teaching and research interests extend from the rise of Islam in the 7th century down to the latest political, social, and economic upheavals in that region.

Professor Humphreys' specific interests include the formative period of Islam (600-900 CE ), how the diversity of Muslim peoples have defined themselves and their cultural identities through their body of historical writing, the medieval Muslim world, the Crusades (which he defines as "a distinctly European phenomenon that had a considerable impact in the eastern Mediterranean"), the international relations of the Middle East in the 20th Century, and the rise of contemporary Islamist movements.

His books include: From Saladin to the Mongols: The Ayyubids of Damascus, 1193-1260 (SUNYPress, 1977); Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry (Princeton University Press, 1991); and Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age (University of California Press, 1995, 2005).

Dr. Humphreys has been the recipient of many distinctions and honors, among them: Member, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ (1980-1981); Editor, International Journal of Middle East Studies (1994-1999); Distinguished Visiting Professor, American University in Cairo, Egypt (Fall, 1998); Professeur Invite, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France (Spring, 200l); President, Middle East Studies Association of North America (2001); and Visiting Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford University (2006-2007).

Daniel Pipes, founder of Campus Watch, and a well-known critic of Islam, Islamists, and Middle Eastern governments, has described Professor Humphreys as "a scholar deeply grounded in the past, someone with a wide context and a long perspective." With that level of respect across so broad a spectrum of opinion, SKEPTIC turned to Dr. Humphreys to enlighten us about the past, present, and future of Islam and tile Middle East.

Is Islam a Religion of Hatred and Violence?

SKEPTIC: IS Islam inherently a religion of hatred and violence?

Stephen Humphreys: The short answer is, "No." Islam, like any religion, is not inherently anything. It is what Muslims make of it. They've made many different things of it, sometimes all at the same time.

SKEPTIC: But some argue that the Qu'ran teaches that all non-Muslims are infidels and so commands them to spread their religion "by the sword"? True?

Humphreys: Again, no. Interpreting the Qu'ran is one of the most difficult things you can get into. The Qu'ran does not provide much context. Rather, it is a long series of exhortations, a few legal and religious commandments (many fewer than people would suppose), a body of stories about the ancient prophets that are intended to serve as examples for the present day, and, finally, some rather obscure illusions to current events. The Qu'ran does not tell us stories about what was going on in Muhammad's time. So figuring out what any verse of the Qu'ran actually meant to Muhammad and his followers or the first generation of Muslims and how, therefore, it should be interpreted, is a difficult art. Muslims did not develop a real framework for Qu'ranic interpretation until 100 to 200 years after the death of Muhammad.

There are passages in the Qu'ran that call for respect for other religions, at least those that have their own sacred scriptures, that is Judaism and Christianity, possibly Zoroastrianism (though the last is a bit vague). Other passages call for struggle against the infidels--Muhammad's opponents, that is--believers in the traditional religions of Arabia. All passages call for reconciliation with those who accept Islamic leadership. …

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