The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Constellation: The Internet ≅ Islam

I’ve reading semi-extensively (i.e., as much as I can without breaking down and buying any more books) about the history of Islam. I’m partly motivated by a desire to better understand its philosophy and manuscript traditions, partly for a half-dozen other reasons too complicated to explain, but mostly just from long-standing interest. A few of my Kottke posts came out of this, as Robin pointed out.

So the best article I’ve come across in a while that touches on all of these things is “What is the Koran?” which appeared in The Atlantic back in 1999. It’s an examination of scholarly debates over the historicity of the Koran, and the propriety of Western scholars applying empirical/rationalist techniques to a holy text (especially when, historically-speaking, Orientalism of this kind hasn’t been motivated by knowledge for knowledge’s sake), plus clampdowns on Muslim writers who’ve brought the traditional history into question.

(Brief summary: Mohammed didn’t write, but received revelations from God, which he recited and others memorized and/or wrote down. A while later, just as with Christianity, a council produced an officially sanctioned text, knocking out variant copies and apocryphal texts, some of which were… extremely interesting. So, let’s imagine the Gnostic Gospels coming out in a country ruled by fundamentalists.)

Anyways, part of the problem these scholars are struggling with is just how FAST Islam grew from outsider rebels to ruling establishment:

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.

But one of the things that happened during this period is that Islam went from wild, oral, incomprehensible traditions to scholarly/poetic/cultural flowering to clamped-down authoritarian fundamentalism:

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.

Okay. Now let’s read The Economist, “The future of the internet: A virtual counter-revolution“:

THE first internet boom, a decade and a half ago, resembled a religious movement. Omnipresent cyber-gurus, often framed by colourful PowerPoint presentations reminiscent of stained glass, prophesied a digital paradise in which not only would commerce be frictionless and growth exponential, but democracy would be direct and the nation-state would no longer exist…

Fifteen years after its first manifestation as a global, unifying network, it has entered its second phase: it appears to be balkanising, torn apart by three separate, but related forces…. It is still too early to say that the internet has fragmented into “internets”, but there is a danger that it may splinter along geographical and commercial boundaries… To grasp why the internet might unravel, it is necessary to understand how, in the words of Mr Werbach, “it pulled itself together” in the first place. Even today, this seems like something of a miracle…

One reason may be that the rapid rise of the internet, originally an obscure academic network funded by America’s Department of Defence, took everyone by surprise. “The internet was able to develop quietly and organically for years before it became widely known,” writes Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard University, in his 2008 book, “The Future of the Internet—And How To Stop It”. In other words, had telecoms firms, for instance, suspected how big it would become, they might have tried earlier to change its rules.

Maybe this is a much more common pattern than we might realize; things start out radical and unpredictable, resolve into a productive, self-generating force, then stagnate and become fixed or die. Boil it down, and it sounds fairly typical. That how stars work, that’s how cities work, maybe that’s just how life works.

But in both articles, Islam and the Internet are presented as outliers. Judaism and Christianity didn’t grow as fast as Islam did, and their textual tradition produces similar problems, but don’t appear to be as sharp. Likewise, information networks like railroads, the telegraph, and telephone are presented as normally-developing; the internet is weird. Either this pattern is more common than we think it is, or it isn’t. Either way, it’s a meaningful congruence.

If that’s the case — if we can use the history of Islam to think about the internet, and vice versa, then what are the lessons? What are the porential consequences? What interventions, if necessary, are possible? (We have to confront the possibility in both cases that any intervention might be ruinous.)


Yeah, and re: Islam’s explosive growth, early on: triumph & expansion became proof of the faith’s legitimacy. It’s like: “Um, clearly we are right, because we are winning.”

There’s (maybe) an echo of that material validation in the internet boom: “Um, clearly we are right, because we are rich.”

In both cases: what happens when the growth slows, stagnates, or reverses? We know what happened (or is happening) with Islam. On the internet side, it’s been interesting to see so many people so quickly abandon core principles like openness & decentralization, as the momentum and money have moved elsewhere, e.g. to the iPhone ecosystem. (I include myself among these people.)

More broadly: what’s on your history of Islam reading list?

I read “No god but God” a while ago, and “Destiny Disrupted” more recently—which has (I think) one of the best introductions I’ve read in a long time, and which I still intend to transcribe for Snarkmarket sometime.

Tim Carmody says…

The books I’ve been reading are really elliptical. Paper Before Print is about the writing/book traditions of the Middle East; The Inner Touch by Daniel Heller-Roazen is about how Greek philosophy got translated through to the Enlightenment through Arabic philosophers (specifically one idea, “the sense of sensation”); I’ve been reading as much Averröes as I can find; George Bataille’s The Accursed Share, which is this totally weirdo (but at the same time totally great) book about “general economies,” or what happens when nobody extracts or gobbles up a productive surplus, and the whole network just grows and grows. A very compelling take on the animal kingdom, Aztec sacrifice rituals, Islamic conquest, Stalinist expansion, and a half-dozen other things.

Ditto to Robin, I’d love to see the reading list.

anon says…

My understanding is very different from yours………
—-(Eastern)Christians and Jews were a part of the Arabian landscape…and the Quran addresses both these groups. Therefore, interaction and dialogue between groups happened from the very beginning of Muslim history.
—-The philosophical debates happened because 1) The Muslims came into contact with sophisticated civilizations such as the Persians and the Egyptians—and needed to explain Islam to those who had questions—-they did this by taking advantage of Greek knowledge (such as the Socratic dialogues…etc) and from this evolved the Kalam school of scholars. 2)As philosophical needs increased from merely question and answer to deeper questions—such as, is there free-will or predetermination—-etc, as the debates became more sophisticated—–one side effect of this was determining the status of the Quran–and two opposing ideas came to be debated.
—–“Muslim understanding of the Koran as the literal and uncreated Word of God has remained constant.”–Technically, this is a correct statement, but does not reflect actual Muslim thought or practice. Though the Quran is considered the word of God, human agency is required to understand it. This function was initially provided by the Prophet(pbuh) and these are called the Hadith (sayings). How he implemented the teachings are the Sunnah and the Quran has always been understood with the understanding that historical context, hadith and sunnah lend meaning to it. This is called the “Tafsir” (commentary). (Neither the Torah, nor the Quran are read “raw” the way Christians read the Bible)
—-“Inimitability”….the Quran is recited in Arabic because that is the language in which it was revealed. Translations in all languages are available and important because the Quran itself says it must be understood. The idea of inimitability comes from the Quran also—there are two challenges laid out by the Quran to those who say it is the work of man….1) the challenge to an individual to make a single surah (chapter) like that of the Quran (the smallest surah is only about 4 verses or so)….2) the challenge to a group to come up with 10 surahs like that of the Quran (the Quran has 114 surahs) Neither challenge has been met.
—-When the Quran is recited in Arabic, it has a rythm, a harmony in it that can be soothing and appealing.
—-Metaphorical/Literal—-there are a couple of verses in the Quran that says that it is both literal (“clear”) in some places, and metaphorical (“similitude”) in others—and that one must pursue knowledge to understand. Therefore Muslims have always read the Quran with this understanding.

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