Ontrary to the impression created in the secularist media, Prof. Eaton has not even begun to refute Sita Ram Goel's thesis. He manages to leave all the arguments for Goel's main thesis of an Islamic theology of iconoclasm undiscussed. Of Goel's basic data in the fabled list of mosques standing on the ruins of temples, only a single one is mentioned: "an inscription dated 1455, found over the doorway of a tomb-shrine in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh" which mentions "the destruction of a Hindu temple by one Abdullah Shah Changal during the reign of Raja Bhoja, a renowned Paramara king who had ruled over the region from 1010 to 1053."
In the main text, Eaton seems to be saying that Goel is an uncritical amateur who "accepts the inscription's reference to temple destruction more or less at face value, as though it were a contemporary newspaper account reporting an objective fact". But in footnote, he has to admit that Goel is entirely aware of the chronological problems surrounding old inscriptions: "Goel does, however, consider it more likely that the event took place during the reign of Raja Bhoja II in the late thirteenth century rather than during that of Raja Bhoja I in the eleventh century."
Either way, the inscription is considerably younger than the events recorded in it. In history, it is of course very common that strictly contemporary records of an event are missing, yet the event is known through secondary younger records. These have to be treated with caution (just like the strictly contemporary sources, written from a more lively knowledge of the event, but also often in a more distortive partisan involvement in it), yet they cannot be ignored, Eaton makes the most of this time distance, arguing that the inscription is "hardly contemporary" and "presents a richly textured legend elaborated over many generations of oral transmission until 1455". Therefore, "we cannot know with certainty" whether the described temple destruction ever took place.
So, at the time of my writing it has been twelve years since Goel published his list, and exactly one scholar has come forward to challenge one item in the list; who, instead of proving it wrong, settles for the ever-safe suggestion that it could do with some extra research. Given the eagerness of a large and well-funded crowd of academics and intellectuals to prove Goel wrong, I would say that that meager result amounts to a mighty vindication. And the fact remains that the one inscription that we do have on the early history of the Islamic shrine under discussion, does posit a temple destruction. So far, the balance of evidence is on the side of the temple is on the side of the temple destruction scenario, and if evidence for the non-demolition scenario is simply non-existent.
For argument's sake, we may imagine that Eaton is right, and that the inscription merely invented the temple destruction. That would only mean Eaton is right on this point of detail, but also that the very same inscription proves his main thesis wrong. For, suppose no temple was destroyed, yet the Islamic inscription claims the opposite. In Eaton's own words: "Central to the story are themes of conversion, martyrdom, redemption and the patronage of sacred sites by Indo-Muslim royalty, as well as, of course, the destruction of a temple." Temple destruction is thus deemed central to Indo-Muslim identity, even to the point where local histories free of real temple destruction would be supplied with imaginary temple destructions, - so as to fit the pattern deemed genuinely Islamic. This would illustrate how the Muslims themselves believed in (and were consequently susceptible to further motivation by) "an essentialized 'theology of iconoclasm' felt to be intrinsic to the Islamic religion" what Eaton dismisses elsewhere as a "wrong" explanation.
For the rest, all that Eaton has done to show against Goel's thesis is that it is based on "selective translations of pre-modern Persian chronicles, together with a selective use of epigraphic data". However, the larger a body of evidence, the harder it becomes to credibly dismiss it as "selective". Goel's hundreds of convergent testimonies cannot be expelled from the discussion so lightly. But improvement is always possible, and we are ready to learn from scholars with higher standards, drawing their conclusions from a wider and less "selective" body of evidence. Unfortunately, Prof. Eaton has failed to cite us any paper or book on Indo-Muslim iconoclasm which is less "selective". His own studies silence on each one of the testimonies cited by Goel amounts to a selective favoritism towards the data seemingly supporting the secularist theory.
It is of course true that there are cases (and Eaton delights the secularists by citing some new ones) where Muslim rulers allowed Hindu temples to function, to be repaired, even to be built anew. This was never disputed by Goel, for these cases of tolerance firstly do not nullify the cases of iconoclasm, and secondly they do not nullify the link between iconoclasm and Islamic theology. Muslim rulers were human beings, and all manner of circumstances determined to what extent they implemented Islamic injunctions. Many were rulers first and Muslims second. Often they had to find a modus vivendi with the Hindu majority in order to keep fellow Muslim sectarian or dynastic rivals off their own backs, and in order to avoid Hindu rebellion. But that is no merit of Islam itself, merely a testimony to the strength which Hindu society retained even at its lowest ebb. To the extent that Muslim rulers took their Islam seriously, a world free of Paganism and idol-temples remained their stated Quranic ideal, but political and military power equations often kept them from actively pursuing it.
Richard Eaton's paper is the best attempt so far to defend the secularist alternative to the properly historical explanation of Islamic iconoclasm as being based on Islamic doctrine. Yet, he fails to offer any data which are incompatible with the latter explanation. There is no reason to doubt his good faith, but like many people with strong convictions, he somehow slips into a selective use of data, contrived interpretations and special pleading, all converging on a single aim: exculpating Islam itself from its own record of iconoclasm.
According to the cover text on his book, Eaton is professor of History at the University of Arizona and "a leading historian of Islam". Had he defended the thesis that iconoclasm is rooted in Islam itself, he would have done justice to the evidence from Islamic sources, yet he would have found it very hard to get published by Oxford University Press or reach the status of leading Islam scholar that he now enjoys. One can easily become an acclaimed scholar of Hinduism by lambasting and vilifying that religion, but Islam is somehow more demanding of respect.