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Understanding Islam

In response to:

Response from the August 12, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

In your issue of August 12 last, you kindly published a letter concerning a review by Mr. Clifford Geertz of my book Islam in the Modern World and Other Studies, which had appeared in you pages on May 27 previous. In this letter I asked your reviewer either to justify various animadversions generously scattered in his article, or else to have the grace to retract them. Mr. Geertz has remained mute. Grace is an attribute of self-confidence, and he may well have decided that this was a case where muteness was the better part of valour. Would that this thought had occurred to him before he decided to unveil his thoughts before the public.

Mr. Geertz seeks to enlighten your readers about the real meaning of my book, and my hidden motives in writing it. He begins by disclosing the results of his minute researches into my history, my place of birth, my religion and my employment. Then, setting up his sociological apparatus, and deploying his patent comparative method, your reviewer (himself of course born nowhere, blithely free of superstition, and blessedly unencumbered with employment) deduces—such are the wonders of science—that I am “from the right,” and secretly “bent on making myself into a Burke for our time.” These discoveries are all the more remarkable in that as I do not personally know Mr. Geertz, he also, to the best of my knowledge and belief, does not personally know me. But such, as I have said, are the wonders of science; and no less wondrous for being impertinent to the business in hand, which—one had made bold to suppose—was to give an account not of myself, but of my book.

Mr. Geertz also treats your readers to a display of taxonomical penetration. My book, it seems, falls into the class of those which display “grain-of-truth arguments.” Your reviewer would, of course, have been unable to show such supernal discernment had he not been himself possessed of the truth whole and entire, minute grains of which, I am honoured to say, he has espied in my writings. He has, further, been so kind as to seal with his approval my “tireless and ingenious” researches into the official archives. The value of this endorsement clearly rests on Mr. Geertz’s unmatched knowledge of these archives, whichenables him to discriminate between mere superficial forays and really solid work. If this had not been so, your reviewer would have been—Heavens forbid—guilty of presumption.

I now turn to the actual contents of the book, to which Mr. Geertz has been so good as to devote a whole paragraph. Here too, readers will be in his debt, for this paragraph demonstrates Mr. Geertz’s quite wonderful and original style of reviewing. Instead of embarking on a tiresome account of what the book actually contains, your reviewer seizes, in what seems—but surely only seems—haphazard fashion, on a word here, a phrase or a sentence there, and by the absurdly simple expedient of enclosing them in quotation marks, distils for your readers the very essence of what the author mistakenly thought required 324 pages to convey. Not only distills the essence, but also simultaneously exposes the whole work, with a magisterial authority from which no appeal is conceivable, as a monstrous example of tactlessness, intolerance and recklessness, to peruse which had been his painful, but inescapable duty—an experience highly distasteful to his delicate and fastidious mind. But readers unaware of the power of quotation marks, which Mr. Geertz handles with such consummate art, might—mistakenly—labour under the impression that these so categorical verdicts are the fruit of ignorance, albeit charmingly simple and innocently unselfconscious.

Whether your contributor’s observations in the same article about the six other works, on the merits of which he has also taken it upon himself weightily to pronounce, exhibit the same rare and exhilarating amalgam of ignorance, impertinence and presumption, I myself will not even dream of presuming to say.

Kedourie E.

London School of Economics, England

Clifford Geertz replies:

Professor Kedourie’s letter, like his earlier challenge to a kind of literary affaire d’honneur—sarcasms at thirty paces—is a fair sample of the temper of his mind and the style of his book. Those who find it attractive or clarifying may well find Islam in the Modern World more worthwhile than I did. Aside from disliking me for disliking his book, an understandable response, if a bit fulsomely expressed, Professor Kedourie seems to think a 324-page book ought to have a 324-page review. That is not possible. Neither is establishing one’s arguments by raging against the unconvinced.

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