The Colephate

Juan Cole’s penchant for specious analogies misleads his readers once again, this time in regard to the caliphate. Here is Cole:

There are different conceptions of the caliphate, sort of a Sunni papacy. At some points in history the caliph was both a temporal and a spiritual leader. But over time there was a separation of religion and state of sorts in medieval Islam, and civil rulers such as the Buyids or Seljuks exercised material rule, reducing the caliphs of the tenth through thirteenth centuries to largely a spiritual function.

Note that the link for this authoritative analysis is to the Wikipedia entry for “Caliph,” written by… well, God only knows.

So let’s quote instead from the entry “Caliph” in a genuine encyclopedia, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World an entry expertly written by Glenn E. Perry. It seems to contradict Cole head-on:

The caliph is not the Muslim equivalent of the pope, that is, the head of a Muslim Church, for Islam has no such institution that may be differentiated from the state. It is misleading to think of the caliphate as a spiritual office; it is a religious office mainly in the sense that the purpose of the state itself is religious in Islam.

Of course, Cole manages not only to mislead his readers, but to contradict another specious analogy he made a year and a half ago: “Sunni Islam most resembles, it seems to me, Protestant Christianity in its authority structures…. As in Protestantism, there is no over-arching authority.” Now wait a minute: if Sunni Islam resembles Protestant Christianity in its authority structures, what’s it doing with “sort of a papacy”? (And what does the Shiite authority structure look like? Elsewhere Cole has explained that “you can choose, in Shiite Islam, which ayatollah to follow.” That sounds sort of Protestant, too.)

Or maybe the whole business of analogies with Christian denominations is pointless? Here’s a real expert, Bernard Lewis:

Some, in trying to explain the difference between Sunnis and Shi’a to Western audiences, have described them as the equivalents of Protestants and Catholics…. The absurdity of the comparison is shown by a very simple test. If the Shi’a and Sunnis are Protestants and Catholics, then which are the Protestants and which are the Catholics? The impossibility of answering this question will at once demonstrate the falsity of the comparison.

Juan Cole is a virtual storehouse of misleading, absurd, and false “juanalogies,” which cut against more than a century of scholarly efforts to explain Islam in its own terms. It’s thanks to those efforts that no one calls Islam Mohammedanism anymore. When Cole draws analogies between Saudi Arabia and Amish country (“Saudi Arabia is an extremely conservative society; going to Saudi Arabia is kind of like going to Amish country in the United States”), or between Al-Qaeda and David Koresh, he functions as an anti-expert, obscuring the very complexities whose elucidation we expect from someone who’s spent years studying Islam. Cole’s only possible excuse is that he’s talking down to his fans, because they’re not smart enough to grasp the intricacies. Well, maybe they aren’t: after all, they’re his fans.