The non-evidential Islamophobia of Sam Harris

Islamophobia etymologically refers to a view which has some irrational fear of Islam at its core. But the term can also be used of those who use rhetoric and misinformation to cause other people to have an irrational fear of Islam. In this piece I will accuse Sam Harris of the latter of the two. I do not pretend to know whether Harris suffers irrational fears of Islam but the evidence is clear that he wants others to be afraid of Islam and to treat it as something which is a threat to what he views as a modern way of living.

I will also add that I am getting somewhat weary of the ‘Fox News’ approach to commentary on Britain and Europe more generally in which even some otherwise intelligent North-Americans appear to be buying into. Harris will serve as a prime example for this today. [1]

I wish to respond to part of a dialogue which took place between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris on the 23rd June 2018 at Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver. [2]

From 28 minutes in Harris is setting his case against ‘religion’ out by claiming that there are some very obvious problems in the primary holy books of religion. He cites the advocation of slavery in the Bible and the Qur’an as a prime example. (I’m not going to deal with that issue right now but that claim is itself open to serious academic debate. See Christine Hayes’ Old Testament Yale course for example.) He then cites the Qur’an as saying the way to deal with theft is to cut the hands off the thief. I assume he is referring to Surah 5:38: “[As for] the thief, the male and the female, cut [some translations say amputate] their hands in recompense for what they commiteed as a deterrent from Allah.” Now this translation may seem plain and unambiguous to Harris but, once again, he’s not done his homework. There are many Muslims who take issue with this English translation of the Arabic. One commentator even finds four possible interpretations of the Arabic after exporing the Arabic terminology for ‘cut’ and ‘hands’ [3]:

Thus, it is possible to understand the punishment for thieves in four alternative ways:
(1) cutting off their hands
(2) cutting or marking their hands
(3) cutting their means/power to steal, e.g. detention/jail.
(4) cutting their sustenance, e.g. in order to compensate the value of the theft.

Even among Muslim jurists who take the more literal reading it should be noted that there are disagreements in interpretation. This is noted in another commentary on the verse [4]:

The Prophet (peace be on him) also instructed that the punishment of cutting off a hand should not be applied in cases where the value of the article stolen is less than that of a shield. In the time of the Prophet (peace be on him) according to a tradition from Ibn ‘Abbas, this was ten dirhams; according to a tradition from Ibn ‘Umar, it was three dirhams; according to a tradition from Anas b. Malik, it was five dirhams; and according to another tradition from ‘A’ishah, it was a quarter of a dinar. Owing to this discrepancy, there is disagreement among jurists regarding the minimum value of the goods stolen which merits the punishment of cutting off a hand. This value, according to Abu Hanifah, is ten dirhams whereas according to Malik, Shafi’i and Ahmad b. Hanbal, it is one quarter of a dinar (three dirhams). (For traditions on objects and amounts of things on which the hand of the thief is to be cut off, see Bukhari, ‘Hudud’, 13; Muslim, ‘Hudud’, 1-7; Abu Da’ud, ‘Hudud’, 12, 13; Tirmidhi, ‘Hudud’, 16; Nasa’i, ‘Qat’ al-Sariq’, 5, 8-10 – Ed.)

Al-Bukhari [5] also takes this view but there are caveats such that such thefts cannot be trivial or due to desperation for food. Whilst there are other Muslims who reject the literal interpretation entirely and interpret the verse as saying nothing more than the person should be prevented from stealing anymore (Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad). [6] Some see it as culturally and historically outdated. So much for the matter being an “unambiguous injunction” as Harris incompetently asserts (28:23)!

Harris then suggests that the only reason change takes place in religion is because of outside influence from humanism, secularism, and scientific rationality. Of course, he doesn’t make a case for this but merely asserts it. Even though Peterson points out that it was Christians who were at the forefront of the abolition of slavery in Europe Harris attempts to dismiss this historical fact (and a historical fact it is) by suggesting there were Christians on both sides of the issue. The audience clearly think this is a witty retort and there are lots of laughs but it’s not witty in the slightest. It’s completely trivial. Among the non-religious there were people on both sides as well. Does that invalidate the non-religious ethical reformers of their time? Of course not. Harris is attempting to invalidate any evidence which deconstructs his overlysimplistic (to say the least) narrative. But it’s mere desperation. He also does not seem to spot that this admition (that religion changes over time) damages his central thesis (viz. religion is old, outdated, and inflexible).

Now we come to the bit I’m really going to take pleasure in refuting. It will be a pleasure to do so because it can be done quickly and easily and because it’s a classic case of Harris trying to sound authoritative about the subject of religion whereas in reality he’s not.

At roughly 34 minutes in he declares that, even in the western world, we are encountering Muslims “of the 14th century.” At 34:40 he boldly proclaims:

The fact that 0% of UK Muslims think homosexuality is acceptable…

0% eh? So I only need to find one single Muslim in the UK who thinks homosexuality is acceptable to refute you? This ought to be easier than refuting his moral theory (although, in fairness, he did elect himself as the arbiter of judging whether anyone had achieved this and it should not surprise anyone the result was the same as when creationist Kent Hovind tried the same stunt many years earlier).

How about the fact that the first homosexual Muslim marriage took place in the UK back in July of 2017? Will that do? I mean, I think it’s highly unlikely the participants think that homosexuality is unacceptable! [7] Given this marriage took place two weeks short of a year before the Peterson/Harris dialogue it seems safe to conclude that Harris is not exactly up-to-date with his information (or one might say propaganda).

In that article from The Guardian (footnote 7) you will also see the name of Umber Ghauri – a pansexual, agender Muslim – mentioned as a voice from within the Muslim LGBTQI+ community.

Then there was a poll taken back in 2016 which found that only half of all British Muslims thought that homosexuality should be illegal. [8]

Notice the polarisation of Harris’ terms. He talks about wanting to have a 21st century discussion about ethics and suggests Islam is dealing in 14th century ethics. But the legalisation of homosexual marriage only took place in 2014 in Britain! Now clearly that was in response to changing attitudes over many prior years but you only have to go back thirty years to find homophobia rife in UK culture. Was the UK like some medieval Arabian culture back in the 1980s? The worst you could conclude is that Islam appears to take a 1980s British cultural view on homosexuality! Maybe for some that’s not good enough but let’s not be peddling lies to people to further some anti-religious agenda which is, somewhat ironically, lacking in empirical evidence and painfully superficial.


[1] Have a quick look at this video to see what I’m referring to:



[2] You can see it here:












About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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