Holocaust Denial undermines Islam

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HAMZA YUSUF 


Why Holocaust Denial 
Undermines Islam 


from Tikknn 


Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that studies 
the nature and basis of knowledge. How do we know things? It also 
studies the veracity of “truth.” How do we know the difference be¬ 
tween belief, knowledge, opinion, fact, reality, and fantasy? The 
Greek philosopher Carneades believed that knowledge of reality, 
of what is true or false, is impossible, that nothing can be known 
with certainty; his philosophy is known as skepticism. It does not 
reject belief altogether; Carneades felt that our belief about any 
given matter should be subjected to intense scrutiny and then, us¬ 
ing a scale of probability, we should accept or reject the likelihood 
of its truth or falsehood. But we must make no absolute claims to it. 
.Another Greek skeptic, Cratylus, however, was more radical in his 
approach and believed that nothing could be known at all, and 
thus no statements could convey anything true or meaningful. He 
finally gave up talking altogether. 

Most of us are neither moderate nor extreme skeptics; we believe 
what our teachers told us. Although some of 11s learned later that 
perhaps a little skepticism was indeed warranted, we survived with 
our grasp of reality reasonably intact. We live in a world where facts 
are meaningful and opinions can be assessed, at least to the degree 
that we deem them sound or unsound. When it comes to religion, 
those of 11s who are raised in traditions often reject such assess¬ 
ments and simply believe what we were taught. For many religious 
people, skepticism is anathema, the work of the devil. However, our 
Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have al- 






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Why Holocaust Denial Undermines Islam 

ways been concerned with and seriously interested in epistemol¬ 
ogy, because each of these faiths have profound truth claims that 
need substantiation or “believability.” 

Islam, at its advent, developed a sophisticated methodology 7 for 
the validation of truth claims. One of the greatest achievements of 
the Islamic scholastic tradition is ‘ilm ar-rijaal, the science of narra¬ 
tors. It is the study of reports of events in the life of the Prophet, es¬ 
pecially of his sayings and deeds. Its formulators established a rigid 
set of criteria to validate the truth claims of those who asserted they 
saw or heard the Prophet do or say such-and-such. Reports were 
grouped into two categories: ahad, or solitary reports, in which 
one or a few people claimed to have heard or seen something, 
and mutawatir, or multiply transmitted reports, narrated in num¬ 
bers large enough to preclude collusive fabrication. The solitary re¬ 
ports must meet many criteria before being accepted as sound 
statements that nonetheless contain, depending upon the degree 
to which the criteria were met, a certain probability 7 of error. On 
the other hand, firmly established multiply transmitted reports, in 
numbers that rule out collusion, are taken as uncontestable fact. 

The Quran, the seventh-century book narrated by Muhammad, 
is considered mutawatir, and thus epistemologically undeniable. 
Whether one believes it is from God or not is another matter, but 
the Quran in its current form is the same Quran the Prophet 
taught to his companions more than fourteen hundred years ago; 
untold numbers in each generation of Muslims have transmitted 
the same recitation, making it infallible in its historicity and accu¬ 
racy. Islamic scholars accepted muldply transmitted reports from 
Muslims and people of other faiths. Upon this epistemological 
foundation rests the Muslim faith. Creedal matters are deemed 
valid only if they are buttressed by multiply transmitted traditions 
that can be traced back to the Prophet. Although Islamic jurispru¬ 
dence is largely based upon solitary evidence (hence the differ¬ 
ences of opinion in the various schools), the Quran and the creed 
of Islam are both founded upon multiple narratives that achieve 
an undeniable status. Early Muslim scholars would certainly con¬ 
sider much of our current knowledge of history to have achieved 
such status. For instance, there is consensus among historians that 
the Normans invaded England in 1066; too many accounts of this 
momentous event exist and have been recounted in each genera¬ 
tion through multiple sources. In the case of any solitary original 






2 1 8 


HAMZA YUSUF 


source, healthy skepticism is warranted. When Lee Harvey Oswald 
claimed to be a patsy, it led to an entire field of conspiracy studies 
among Kennedy assassination buffs. Did he act alone or didn’t he? 
That aspect of the event is debatable. But was John F. Kennedy shot 
on November 22, 1963, in a motorcade at Dealey Plaza in Dallas? 
Far too many accounts of that tragic event exist; to deny it is simply 
to deny reality and have one’s sanity questioned. 

Much of what we know about the world and what we accept as 
truth comes from multiply transmitted accounts. Let’s say I claim 
that Australia doesn’t exist and is merely a figment of our imagina¬ 
tion, that its origins lie in a whimsical cartographer in the Middle 
Ages who decided that such a large ocean needed a landmass. And, 
when confronted with people who claim to be from Australia and 
can prove it, I dismiss them as part of a conspiracy of cartographers 
who wish to perpetuate the myth of their forebear. I would be 
laughed at, or ignored, or deemed “certifiable.” While this exam¬ 
ple seems absurd, many people actually believe things just as fatu¬ 
ous and far-fetched. 

Holocaust denial is one such example. As one who has read 
some Holocaust-denial literature, with the poorly reproduced pic¬ 
tures and claims of the orchestration of these scenes in collusion 
with the U.S. government, I can attest to the tragic gullibility of 
people who take such literature as historical truth. To return to the 
Kennedy assassination, if one reads Mark Lane’s version that a 
rogue element within the CIA killed Kennedy, the “facts” seem 
overwhelming. But if one reads another version that the Mafia 
killed Kennedy because of his failure to return Cuba to the gam¬ 
bling lords of Italian America, the “facts” also seem overwhelming. 
Finally, one can read the version that Mossad killed Kennedy be¬ 
cause he wanted to force nuclear inspections in Israel, and again 
the “facts” seem conclusive. Each of these accounts is presented 
with utter certainty by the “researchers.” In the end, reality is ma¬ 
nipulated to meet the needs of the mvthologist. Indeed, we are all 
entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. And those 
who present alternative versions of “reality” tend to reject every¬ 
thing that does not suit their theory, and cherry-pick and interpret 
everything — facts, innuendoes, or “coincidences”— that does. 

In the case of the Holocaust, the facts are clear and transmitted 
from multiple sources. Tens of thousands of Jewish and other indi¬ 
viduals who survived the death camps and other horrors of Nazi 





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Why Holocaust Denial Undermines Islam 

Germany lived to tell of it. Nazis were brought to trial, evidence was 
presented in court, and they were convicted. Mass graves were 
found, and gas chambers were discovered, which were clearly not 
delousing rooms as some callously claimed. The ovens exist and 
cannot be reduced to an efficient way of preventing cholera out¬ 
breaks or disposing of victims of starvation. I have personally met 
many Holocaust survivors and their children. I have seen tattoos. I 
hav e also heard firsthand accounts of the horrific events. The num¬ 
bers and details of such events may be legitimate areas of research 
and inquiry for scholars, but questioning whether the events took 
place at all undermines the epistemological basis of our collective 
knowledge. Muslims, of all people, should be conscious of this as 
their religion is predicated on the same epistemological premises 
as many major events in history, such as the Holocaust. To deny 
such things is to undermine Islam as an historical event. That a 
“conference” examining the historicity of the Holocaust should 
take place in a Muslim country hosted by a Muslim head of state is 
particularly tragic and, in my estimation, undermines the historic¬ 
ity of the faith of the people of that state. 

In our inherent contradictions as humans, and in order to vali¬ 
date our own pain, we deny the pain of others. But it is in acknowl¬ 
edging the pain of others that we achieve fully our humanity. A 
close friend of mine, a professor of religion in a Muslim country 
for many years, recently told me that his wife, an English teacher 
in that country, had wanted to use Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young 
Girins a text for her Muslim pupils. But the school administrators 
repeatedly denied her request because they deemed it inappro¬ 
priate reading for young Muslims. It is sad that the current politi¬ 
cal morass in the Middle East has led to this intolerable refusal to 
confront a people’s collective suffering. Perhaps in acknowledging 
that immense past of Jewish suffering, in which the Holocaust is 
only the most heinous chapter, Muslims can better help the Jewish 
community to understand the current Muslim pain in Palestine, 
Iraq, and other places. In finding out about others, we encourage 
others to find out about 11s. It would greatly help our Jewish breth¬ 
ren to know the historical facts of Jewish experience in the Muslim 
world, which are often heartening and humanizing and very differ¬ 
ent from their European experience. In our mutual edification, we 
grow together. 








Contributors ’ Notes 


227 


John Updike s books have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book 
Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Recent publications 
include Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism; Terrorist; and Americana and 
Other Poems. 

Christian Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine. His most recent book is 
Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. 

Charles Wright’s many books include Littlefoot: A Poem; Scar Tissue: Poems; 
and Black Zodiac, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1998. 

Hamza Yusuf is a Muslim scholar, lecturer, and author, and the cofounder 
of the Zaytuna Institute in California, which is dedicated to reviving the 
traditions of classical Islamic scholarship. 

Philip Zaleski is the editor of the Best American Spiritual Writing series 
and the author of many books, most recently Prayer: A History (with Carol 
Zaleski).