Introduction by Jay Cantor

Edited by Jerome Neu

Original transcription by
Mathew E. Simpson

During the 1980s, Norman O. Brown gave a series of prophetic, inventive and wide-ranging lectures on Islam called The Challenge of Islam: The Prophetic Tradition. The lectures speak to (among other things) Islam’s relation to, and revision of, the Christian tradition, the literary innovation of the Qu’ran, the nature of revolutionary and political Islam, the vision of a world civilization. The reader will find in the lectures an education on the Sunni/Shi‘te split as well as a crucial alternative to the divisive “clash of civilizations” view of the relation between Muslims and the West. Brown’s world-historical perspective shows how Islam is part of “our” (the West’s) tradition, how it corresponds to unifying strands of early Judeo-Christian doctrine, how it offers unifying understandings of prophecy in different religious traditions, and how it exemplifies broad themes concerning the place of art and the imagination in human life.

From Lecture 1: Universal History
with Cosmopolitan Intent

. . . coming to recognize the reality of Islam for me — and I submit it to you — is to recognize that Islam has just as much right to claim to be the synthesis of Hebraism and Hellenism as western civilization, or whatever it is we are, has the right to do. That is to say, Islam is not another cultural tradition. It is not, specifically, of course, another oriental cultural tradition, with that implied traditional distinction between West and East. It is not another oriental tradition: it is an alternative, a rival interpretation of our tradition.

And if you are thinking about history this has, it seems to me, more implications. Our history is not like the confluence, the flowing together of two rivers, two streams — Hebraism, Hellenism — with that majestic inevitability that goes with rivers and other things in the natural order. History is more human than that, and more hazardous. Islam — and I hope to develop this — Islam is a wager that Christianity has gone wrong.

The stakes are high. . . .

So that starting with concern with the relation of present events to past traditions, the study of Islam is moving my mind into a more ample and a more generous notion of the space in which history takes place; and liberating me from the prison house, the mental prison house, of western civilization. Not only getting out of the spatial framework of western civilization. I think another thing that has happened or is happening to me — or I want to see what you think of it — the study of Islam is getting me out of the traditional chronological framework on which every good classics professor hangs his world history. I mean the well-known conventional framework Ancient — Medieval — Modern. That particular chronological backbone, or linear line, the conventional baggage of any classics professor teaching general education courses on western civ. And that’s what I want to re-examine or undermine, in my mind, in yours, now. The unit of our history is not western civilization, but civilization. World history with cosmopolitan intent.

From Lecture 2: Islam and Judaism

The study of Islam . . . to understand the prophetic tradition, to understand Judaism and Christianity better. To see, perhaps, Islam as the first Protestant Reformation. The first Protestant Reformation. Now if you were to see Islam as the first Protestant Reformation, what would it mean? It would mean, I think, to pass the judgment that something had gone wrong. That something else had to be tried. Something had gone wrong as early as the seventh century AD, the seventh century of the Christian era. Actually there should be no great difficulty for a Protestant, or one of a Protestant background like me, to say that. After all, most Protestantism, or rigorous Protestantism, is involved precisely in questioning the legitimacy of the historical development of the Christian church. Especially in that formative period, between the first and fifth centuries, that formative period when it was making its historical compromise with Caesarism and the Roman Empire. Drawing out the consequences, perhaps you can say, of that text in the New Testament: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” . . . “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” — that concession which I think Islam withdrew by its regression to a totally uncompromising Mosaic theocratic interpretation of the social implications of the prophetic tradition. Those centuries in which on the one hand Christianity was drawing out the implications of its compromise with Caesarism, and on the other hand was working out the fundamental structure of its orthodoxy in that series of councils which determined the structure of Christianity. And which, some aspects of which, Islam felt had to be challenged.

Norman O. Brown (1913–2002) was an American intellectual with interests ranging widely between the classics, Marxist politics, Freudian psychoanalysis, and religion. He was Professor of Humanities at University of California Santa Cruz, where friends and colleagues knew him as “Nobby,” a sign of his great popularity and familiarity with his peers. The New York Times called Brown “a master of philosophical speculation, mixing Marx, Freud, Jesus and much else to raise and answer immense questions.”

Jerome Neu (editor) is currently Professor of Humanities at University of California Santa Cruz, where he has at various times been Chair of the programs in Philosophy, Legal Studies, and History of Consciousness. He is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Freud and author of Emotion, Thought, and Therapy, A Tear Is an Intellectual Thing: The Meanings of Emotion, and Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults (the last two both published by Oxford University Press).

Jay Cantor (author of the introduction) teaches at Tufts University. He is the author of three novels, The Death of Che Guevara, Krazy Kat, and Great Neck (all published by Knopf), as well as two books of essays, The Space Between: Literature and Politics and On Giving Birth to One’s Own Mother. A MacArthur Prize Fellow, he did his graduate work in the History of Consciousness program with Norman O. Brown.

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