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Khomeini’s Mind

In response to:

Conjuring with Islam from the May 27, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

I ought, I suppose, to be flattered that Clifford Geertz has devoted more space to my commentary on Imam Khomeini’s writings than to the writings themselves in his review of Islam and Revolution [NYR, May 27]. His comments on the commentary are, however, perplexing, not to say weird. According to Geertz, the commentary is “apologetic” and “a sort of Muslim catechism.” The word “apologetic” has been traditionally applied in Orientalist usage to writings on Islam by Muslims who do not obscure their commitment to it (in fact, precisely to those who do not “apologize,” even implicitly); the intention behind the usage is to devalue, and its meaning, almost entirely non-existent. I was surprised to see Geertz—clearly someone rarely at a loss for words—unable to do better than adhere to Orientalist convention. And if my commentary—a series of clarifications of context and reference—is indeed “a sort of Muslim catechism,” then either the content of the Islamic creed has changed radically, or Clifford Geertz does not know what Muslims believe.

Supposedly my commentary portrays Imam Khomeini’s “cast of mind” in “a less headlong and thus in some ways less idiosyncratic form”—in other words, it has a distorting effect. Of course, if it had been written in the same “headlong” and “idiosyncratic” tone Geertz perceives in the Imam’s writings, the accusation would have been one of partisanship and bias.

Actually, Geertz himself is guilty of distortion in one fairly important connection. He suggests that I “downplay Sunni-Shi’i tensions to the point of barely mentioning them” (why should I, since they are of no relevance to the book?), whereas “Khomeini himself is less reticent.” If Geertz had chanced on p. 302 of the book while flipping through it before writing his review, he would have noticed the Imam’s insistent emphasis on Sunni-Shi’i unity, an emphasis now increasingly echoed throughout the Islamic world, even if the news has not reached Chicago.

Finally, even a conjurer with Islam like Geertz might care to know that the Surat alFatiha is not “the first verse of the Koran” but its opening chapter.

Hamid Algar

University of California, Berkeley

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