The “Essentialism” Devil and Daniel Pipes















Said and Pipes: An “Essentialist” Harmonic Convergence?

Daniel Pipes’ 5/13/13 essay in The Washington Times derides “those who focus on Islam itself as the problem”—identifying Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, and Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders by name.

Most of his essay re-affirms (but never establishes by dint of hard doctrinal and historical facts) the same glib, tired arguments Pipes has discussed before: Islam’s prophet Muhammad was not an “Islamist,” and was not responsible for “Islamism,” which is a “modern extremist variant” of Islam; an “unbearable” discordance between “pre-modern accomplishment and modern failure” caused the (mass?) “psychic trauma” which engendered “Islamism” in the 1920s; and a mere 10-15% of Muslims support what Pipes terms “Islamism.”

Pipes concludes his latest iteration of “Islam Versus Islamism” by attacking those (such as Ali, Sultan, and Wilders) who reject its shoddy premises for their ostensibly uninformed “succumbing” to what he terms “a simplistic and essentialist illusion” of the Muslim creed. Ironically, Pipes’ latter claim of “essentialism” re-packages the post-modern incoherence of Edward Said, as demonstrated brilliantly by Philosophy Professor Irfan Khawaja. As Khawaja observed in 2007:

If Said thinks that Islam is different from other abstract nouns, he needs to tell us why… And yet, as we have seen, he often treats abstract nouns in an essentialist fashion. So it should follow that Islam can be treated the same way. And yet that is precisely what he takes to be the cardinal sin.

Adding insult to irony, Said (a Pipes nemesis, as Said’s comments, extracted here, reveal) accused Pipes himself of “essentialism,” largely, one assumes, for frank comments by the latter on Islam—not “Islamism”—as an inherently, even “immutably” political ideology!

Circa 1983, in his In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power, Pipes noted, “[T]he press and scholarship too often…ignore Islam’s role in politics.” He warned,

Approaching Islam in politics with the Christian experience in mind is misleading. Because the community of Christians shares almost no political traits, there is a mistaken predisposition to assume Muslims do not.

Elaborating on this yawning gap between Islam and Christianity, Pipes highlights, appropriately, the unique impact of  Islam’s religio-political “law, ” the Sharia:

Islam, unlike Christianity, contains a complete program for ordering society…Islam specifies exact goals for all Muslims to follow as well as the rules by which to enforce them…Along with faith in Allah comes a sacred law to guide Muslims, in all times and places. That law, called the Sharia, establishes the context of Islam as a political force…Adjusting realities to the Sharia is the key to Islam’s role in human relations…Mainstream Muslims (that is, Muslims whose faith is acknowledged as valid by a majority of other Muslims) follow legal tenets so similar to each other that their differences can be ignored

Never invoking “Islamism,” Pipes concludes, with this pellucid assessment of how Islam, since its advent, has been a creed imbued, singularly, with politics:

[I]n Islam, where, in Max Weber’s view, “an essentially political character marked all the chief ordinances,”…[the] connection to politics has been immutably deep from the very inception of the religion

Great Western Orientalist scholarship, dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, supports Pipes’ 1983 understandings of Islam as indissolubly linking religion and politics. Moreover, these seminal analyses and contemporary polling data debunk his now oft repeated, glib formulations.

Muhammad really was a jihadist—or in Pipes’ current terminology, an “Islamist”:

Notwithstanding Daniel Pipes’ denial that Muhammad indeed remains the prototype “jihadist,” (i.e., “Islamist”), the renowned Islamologist Arthur Jeffery, in his review of A. Guillaume’s seminal 1955 English translation of the defining pious Muslim biography of Islam’s prophet by Ibn Ishaq, remarked:

Years ago the late Canon Gairdner in Cairo said that the best answer to the numerous apologetic Lives of Muhammad published in the interests of Muslim propaganda in the West would be an unvarnished translation of the earliest Arabic biography of the prophet. In this present volume such a translation is put into our hands in a beautifully printed and produced book. … Byzantine, Syriac, and Armenian writers who mention him say only that he was a merchant who appeared as a prophet and sent the Arabs out on their wars of conquest.

Nearly a century ago (in 1915), W.H.T. Gairdner, the great Arabic linguist and scholar of Islam, had indeed noted dispassionately what is readily apparent from Muhammad’s actual biography (as opposed to the treacly Muslim hagiography), based exclusively on the reverent Muslim sources:

As incidents in the life of an Arab conqueror, the tales of raiding, private assassinations and public executions, perpetual enlargements of the harem, and so forth, might be  historically explicable and therefore pardonable but it is another matter that they should be taken as a setting forth of the moral ideal for all time.

Four years later, in 1919, Gairdner wrote an essay titled “Muhammad Without Camouflage,” responding to a mendacious birthday tribute panegyric of Islam’s prophet written collaboratively by Muslims and non-Muslims. A particularly trenchant segment of Gairdner’s rebuttal discussed the slaughter of the vanquished Medinan Jewish tribe, Banu Qurayza, whose massacre became an important motif in jihad war jurisprudence. Relying exclusively upon Muslim sources, Gairdner highlighted without equivocation the pivotal role that Muhammad himself played in orchestrating the overall events:

The umpire who gave the fatal decision (Saad) was extravagantly praised by Muhammad. Yet his action was wholly and admittedly due to his lust for personal vengeance on a tribe which had occasioned him a painful wound. In the agony of its treatment he cried out: “O God, let not my soul go forth ere thou has cooled my eye from the Bani Quraiza” [Banu Qurayza]. This was the arbiter to whose word the fate of that tribe was given over. His sentiments were well-known to Muhammad, who appointed him. It is perfectly clear from that that their slaughter had been decreed. What makes it clearer still is the assertion of another biographer that Muhammad had refused to treat with the Bani Quraiza at all until they had “come down to receive the judgment of the Apostle of God.” Accordingly “they came down”; in other words put themselves in his power. And only then was the arbitration of Saad proposed and accepted — but not accepted until it had been forced on him by Muhammad; for Saad first declined and tried to make Muhammad take the responsibility, but was told “qad amarak Allahu takhuma fihim,” — “Allah has commanded you to give sentence in their case.” From every point of view therefore the evidence is simply crushing that Muhammad was the ultimate author of this massacre.

Finally, the modern Muslim scholar Ali Dashti’s biography of Muhammad, 23 Years:  A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, has also chronicled Muhammad’s “changed course” at Medina, where the Muslim prophet begins to “issue orders for war” in multiple and repeated Koranic revelations (Sura [chapter] 9 being composed almost entirely of such war proclamations — permanent injunctions against pagans, Jews, and Christians). Prior to describing some of the numerous assassinations Muhammad ordered, Ali Dashti observes

…Islam was gradually transformed from a purely spiritual mission into a militant and punitive organization whose progress depended on booty from raids and [tax] revenue….The Prophet’s steps in the decade after the hejra [emigration from Mecca to Medina] were directed to the end of establishing and consolidating a religion-based state. Some of the deeds done on his command [were] killings of prisoners and political assassinations…

Orientalists on the inherently political nature of Islam, and the Islamic “revival” evident at least four decades before “the 1920s” advent claimed by Pipes:

What follows are the observations of Jacob Burckhardt (d. 1897), an iconic figure in the annals of Western historiography, and two seminal Western analysts of Islam, C. Snouck Hurgronje (d. 1936), and Ignaz Goldziher (d. 1921). Burckhardt and Hurgronje underscore the intrinsic political nature of Islam, while Goldziher reminds us that the modern era transnational Islamic revival movement (described as Pan-Islam or Pan-Islamism, when the words were used interchangeably), contra Pipes’ assertion “Islamism” began in “the 1920s,” was well under way at least four decades earlier.

Burckhardt (1865-1885):

In Islam, where this fusion [between state and church] took place, the whole culture was dominated, shaped and colored by it. Islam has only one form of polity, of necessity despotic, the consummation of power, secular, priestly and theocratic, which was transferred from the Caliphate to all dynasties. Thus all its parts were mere replicas of the world empire on a small scale, hence Arabized and despotic.

Hurgronje (1882–1915):

Islam has never favored democratic tendencies . . . Muslim law has always aimed at controlling the religious, social, and political life of mankind in all its aspects without qualification, and the life of those who follow the tolerated religions to a degree that prevents their activities from ham­pering Islam in any way . . . [R]ules of Mohammedan [Islamic] law which control the relations of the “faithful” to the “unbelievers” can only be characterized as humane . . . if we start on the supposition . . . that kafirs [non-Muslim infidels] are the inferiors of Muslims in this world. That law declares it to be permissible in some cases, in others commendable and even obligatory, to slay infidels, or to kidnap or enslave them. Many ways are left open to the Muslim of cheating individual kafirs or an infidel government without sinning against God. Under the Mohammedan law religious liberty is intolerable as involving the coexistence of truth with falsehood, and of the service of the true God with paganism. . . . The whole set of laws, which according to Islam, should regulate the relations between believers and unbelievers, is the most consequent elaboration imaginable of a mixture of religion and of politics in their medieval form. That he who possesses material power should also dominate the mind is accepted as a matter of course; the possibility that adherents of different religions could live together as citizens of the same state and with equal rights is excluded. Such was the situation in the Middle Ages not only with Mohammedans. . . . The difference chiefly is this, that Islam has fixed all these medieval regulations in the form of eternal laws, so that later generations, even if their views have changed, find it hard to emancipate themselves from them.

Ignaz Goldziher (1882):

In recent times the Muhammadan world has been excited by a powerful idea. This is the idea of Panislamism. The spiritual fusion of politically dis­arrayed Islam into a great unity. The external form of this unity is the insti­tution of the indivisible Caliphate, which is the oldest political structure of Islam. . . . With regard to Islam, the unification of Muhammadan powers, and the awakening of the awareness of their unity and solidarity under a common authority is seen as the sole remedy against the dangers lurking in the womb of the future. And this unification is only conceived under the flag of the united Caliphate of Islam. . . . [T]he idea of Panislamism is a militant idea in their [Muslim] eyes, as it was a militant idea at the time of the birth of young Islam. This idea now reigns over Muhammadan public opinion, in some places with such power that the representatives of European governments now complain of it.

The Sharia defined:

Derived from Islam’s most important canonical texts—the Koran and hadith (the canonical collections of the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s deeds and pronouncements)—and their interpretation and codification by Islam’s greatest classical legists, Sharia, is not merely holistic, in the general sense of all-encompassing, but totalitarian, regulating everything from the ritual aspects of religion to personal hygiene to the governance of a Muslim minority community or an Islamic state, bloc of states, or global Islamic order. Clearly, this latter political aspect is the most troubling, being an ancient antecedent of more familiar modern totalitarian systems. Specifically, Sharia’s liberty-crushing and dehumanizing political aspects feature open-ended jihadism to subjugate the world to a totalitarian Islamic order; rejection of bedrock Western liberties—including freedom of conscience and speech—enforced by imprisonment, beating, or death; discriminatory relegation of non-Muslims to outcast, vulnerable pariahs, and of even Muslim women, to subservient chattel; and barbaric, mandatory “hadd” punishments which violate human dignity, such as amputation for theft, stoning for adultery, and lashing for alcohol consumption


Contemporary polling data which demonstrate the overwhelming appeal of Sharia supremacist states to ordinary Muslims debunking Pipes glib assertion that only “10-15%” of Muslims are “Islamists”:

Despite a number of (deliberately?) mitigating biases, both methodological and interpretative, the latest Pew Research Forum report, “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society,” released April 30, 2013, confirms the broad appeal of the totalitarian Sharia, Islam’s religio-political “law,” across Islamdom. Responses to this question on the Sharia, comprised the surveys’ salient—and pathognomonic—finding. The question was, “Do you favor or oppose making sharia law, or Islamic law, the official law of the land in our country?” Data from the nations with the five largest Muslim populations (as per 2010) surveyed, Indonesia (204 million), Pakistan (178 million), Bengladesh (149 million), Egypt (80 million), and Nigeria (76 million), revealed:

  • 72% of Indonesian Muslims, 84% of Pakistani Muslims, 82% of Bengladeshi Muslims,  74% of Egyptian Muslims, and 71% of Nigerian Muslims supported making Sharia the official state law of their respective societies. The population-weighted average from these 5 countries was 77% supportive. (Composite regional data confirmed these individual country trends—84% of South Asian Muslims, 77% of Southeast Asian Muslims, 74% of Middle Eastern/North African Muslims, and 64% of Sub-Saharan African Muslims favored application of the Sharia as official state law.)

One must ask, “What Went Wrong” with Daniel Pipes who now sprays (Edward) Saidian charges of “essentialism” at brave Muslim freethinkers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan, as well as the stalwart Dutch politician Geert Wilders, for simply rejecting his incoherent, self-contradictory mantras on “Islamism”.


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