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Maxime Rodinson, author of “Muhammad”, has died

I’ve just seen a couple of obits for the French scholar Maxime Rodinson. I read Rodinson’s 1961 biography Muhammad when I was an undergrad (thanks to John Bousfield, who also died last week), and found it an excellent introduction to the man and his milieu; Edward Said, writing in The Nation in 2000 described it as “a bracing combination of anti-clerical irony and enormous erudition”.

The Egyptian government was rather less appreciative, as the Guardian reports:

Indeed, in 1999 Mohammed was withdrawn from the curriculum of the American University in Cairo after it was attacked by a newspaper columnist, and banned by the Egyptian minister for higher education amid charges that it “denigrated the Islamic faith”.

In a sympathetic review of Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim, Rodinson made this point regarding the excesses of Islamic fundamentalism (regrettably the article appears to have been quite poorly translated):

one must not reject the criticisms of Ibn Warraq a priori under the pretext that the individuals who are his targets have been or are still in great part the object of unjustified contempt. A crime is a crime even if the one who commits the crime is the target of another criminal. Likewise, an error. One is ashamed to express oneself with such obviousness. But it must be done and much more than once. For this is largely unknown. Fashionable intellectuals are besides the most relentless in their failure to recognize it.

The Beirut Daily Star notes that Rodinson and Edward Said fell out badly when Rodinson criticised Orientalism. The article accuses Said of “slander”, although it quotes him as having previously praised Rodinson for making “a constant attempt to keep (his) work responsive to the material (he was studying) and not to a doctrinal preconception.”

Rodinson, whose parents were killed in the Holocaust, was also a critic of Zionism and a supporter of Palestinian statehood.

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