I’m a regular reader of The Daily Dish by Andrew Sullivan. I generally like his take on religion, and I find his criticism of religion to be even-handed and insightful. However, he recently published a quote by Sam Harris saying that the Qur’an is “not that good,” followed by his own question of “can any readers counter?” It was a shocking and, I thought, lazy post. Not because of Harris’ statement, which is to be expected, but that Sullivan would give it air and frame it in such a way as to give the impression that he agrees. I was very pleased to see that numerous readers did respond, and Sullivan did give them the space to do so.
I was most impressed by the last commentator, an incoming graduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The individual wrote about many of the things that make the Qur’an valuable to Muslims, and attacks many of the assumptions present in Harris’ quote. The Qur’an is a text in Arabic, a language to which I do not believe Harris has access. How do you judge the value of a text if you don’t know the language, or even know how to judge a translation? The King James Version of the Bible is considered a masterwork of English literature, but it is not sound in its translation. I can go on, but again, Sullivan’s commenter did a good job with many of the technical aspects.
However, I want to point out just how paternalistic, arrogant, colonialist, and generally ignorant Harris sounds. (I suppose ignorance is actually a precursor to all the other adjectives.) Here is a text that has over 1.6 billion adherents all over the world, with a 1400-year history. Along comes a privileged white male telling them that he has read the foundational text of the religion and that it has no redeeming value. So all these people, all that history, has no meaning because Harris says so. They are all wrong. He will save them. What of all the people in America who read Jalal ud-Din Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, who was so deeply inspired by the Qur’an that his oevre is called the Qur’an in Persian? Are they wrong too? Is Sam Harris really the only person on Earth who knows that the Qur’an has no value?
Harris also says “you can wander blindfolded into a Barnes & Noble, and the first book you pick off the shelf will have more wisdom than the Quran.” This quote is simply a re-working of Thomas Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Education, in which he says “I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”
It’s amazing how imperialism and racism are so closely intertwined and persistent, and always under a veneer of civilization. I know Harris thinks he is being original and provocative, but at best he is being derivative and puerile. I am more shocked that Sullivan, with his awareness of British history, not only did not see the connection, but gave it a serious airing.