Muslims of the West

Print edition : October 21, 2005

THESE books are of immense relevance to Muslims of India. The manner in which Muslims of the West shape their lives in a non-Muslim environment, in perfect harmony with devotion to the faith and commitment to their country is most impressive.

One writes "of" advisedly to emphasise the fact that they belong to their country. Neither the suicide bomber nor the bigot who spews hate from the pulpit should deflect our attention from a most promising venture in intellectual creativity which is, sadly, absent in South Asia; most strikingly in India.

One of the foremost authorities on political Islam, Olivier Roy, points out that the real aim of Muslim terrorists is destruction of political integration: "The uprootedness of young Muslims" in the West is exploited by bigoted imams to alienate them not only from the country in which they reside, but also "from the influence of the cultural and traditional Islam of their parents and countries of origin" (Le Monde'Diplomatique, August 2005).

In contrast, the creative venture in the West, of which little is heard in India, seeks to retail that religious and cultural tradition of Islam and helps Muslims to avail themselves of the freedoms the West offers - and which are denied to them in the countries of their origin and thus contribute - to society and state as responsible citizens.

Muslims of India have an obvious advantage. They are not immigrants; except in the eyes of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). India's soil has shaped their outlook over the centuries and imparted to their beliefs and practices its own colour. In the past, Muslims were either rulers or ruled. Those who thought that partnership in a secular society would inspire creative reflection were proved wrong. For, partnership was denied to them except in a formal, legal sense. The aftermath of Partition and the rise of the RSS are not the only factors that blighted the hope. The culpability of their leadership has been criminal. Muslims were torn apart by bigoted communalists - witness their opposition to reform of Muslim personal law to make it conform to Sharia (Islamic law) - and by the Sarkari Musalmans. The latter comprise not only politicians but some noted influentials as well; academics included.

Muslims of India were confronted with an acute dilemma when British rule was established. In 1871 Sir William Hunter wrote his classic study The Indian Musalmans in reply to Lord Mayo's question: "Are the Indian Musalmans bound by their Religion to rebel against the Queen?" Hunter answered it in the negative, citing fatwas, of which, as ever, there was no dearth on both sides of the issue. But he cited also British policies which contributed to the alienation.

The revivalism of old persists still in the minds of some Muslims in India and abroad, with all its perversions. Some things have not changed. Hunter records the savageries perpetrated by Wahhabis in Arabia after their capture of Mecca in 1803 and Medina in 1804: "The highest temple of the Musalman faith was not only pillaged, but grossly polluted by armed schismatics; the Prophet's own tomb was mutilated; and the path of pilgrimage, the Musalman's avenue to salvation, was closed. From the marble pile of Saint Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul, today), to the plastered way side mosque on the frontier of China, every Muhammadan home of prayer was filled with lamentation and weeping" (page 51).

Now, read what Yvonne Ridley reported in The Milli Gazette of September 16, 2005: "The Toronto-based broadcaster and activist Tarek Fatah warned in January 2002 that `the Saudis are now planning to destroy the very house of Prophet Muhammed'." A Saudi architect Sami Angami reckons that we are witnessing the "last days of Mecca and Medina". He mentions the destruction already wrought and concludes that what remains could be bulldozed at any time. "This is the end of history in Mecca and Medina and the end of their future". Yvonne Ridley adds: "Saudi critics says that the driving force behind this vandalism is Wahhabism" - as in 1803-4. Except that one hears little lament or protest. The silence is dampening, deafening. What is the worth of that Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC)?

A Muslim man at the Mosque and Islamic Centre of Brent, London. In the wake of the London bombings of July 7, the Muslim community faced charges that it had not properly integrated into Britain and thus left young Muslims trapped between two cultures.-

Ridley's article is entitled "Profit before the Prophet". The reformist movement in India, led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, came to a grinding halt early in the 20th century. Even the great poet-philosopher Iqbal had to face the wrath of fanatical mullahs. Muslim thinkers in the West face them boldly and serve as models for us.

Foremost among them is Tariq Ramadan. Dr. Jocelyne Cesari, who teaches on Islam in America and Global Islam at Harvard, describes him as "the most popular preacher among European Muslims. As the son of Said Remadan and the grandson of Hassan El-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brothers, he enjoys a special cachet among European Muslim youth. The author of numerous publications, he has been the main intellectual figure of the European Muslim world since 1990, particularly among Maghrebi communities. His position as Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland further confirms his status as a model for young Muslims in search of their spirituality... . Tariq Ramadan, for his part, is one of the most listened-to and respected figures in the French-speaking Muslim world, a fact proven by the number of young people his conferences attract. He can also cite the immense support he received from the community when, between November 1995 and May 1996, he was forbidden entry into France, for reasons that were eventually proven baseless.

"His popularity is largely due to his understanding of how to address the hopes and needs of French Muslim youth. His language is strict but enlightened, promoting respect and understanding between the fundamental values of the host country and the values of Islam. `A young Muslim,' he states, `is someone who is both French and Muslim and must find ways in which he can figure out how he is a French and Muslim at the same time. It is a kind of realisation, but one which requires a long process. The true Muslim comes to understand himself in the rigorousness of his conversation with God and in the Muslim community by initiating dialogue with those who think differently from him'."

Time magazine listed Ramadan last year as among the world's top 100 thinkers. Yet, though he was appointed Henry R. Luce Professor of Religions, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, the U.S. Government revoked his visa, without explanation. In an interview to New Perspectives Quarterly (Winter 2005) he advised Muslims who face similar injustices not to become defensive or isolate themselves. They must speak out even at the risk of being misunderstood. "Western Muslims must be explicit if they want to be understood both by their own society and by their fellow Muslims - a tricky situation. To tell the truth, to be an American Muslim critical of American policy in the Middle East, you are treated as if you are not truly loyal to your country. People say you are more Muslim than American. My view is that a true citizen speaks his mind constructively in a free society. At the same time, Western Muslims must spread the message that `we live in democracy, we respect the state of law, we respect open political dialogue and we want this for all Muslims'. We are not betraying our Muslim principles by embracing an open society. We embrace secularism because it enables us all to live together. It is the condition of religious freedom - ours and others'... The very moment you understand that being a Muslim and being American or European are not mutually exclusive, you enrich your society" (emphasis added, throughout).

Ramadan denounces terrorism as well as Islamophobia. He holds that "Muslims should complement the mainstream institutions in other ways with spiritual aspects of their own culture". His book shows how that can be accomplished. It is, in a sense, a sequel to an earlier work To Be a European Muslim: A Study of the Islamic Sources in the Light of the European Context, published in 1999 by the Islamic Foundation at Leicester, United Kingdom. The object of the present work is "to understand the universality of the message of Islam and to highlight the means we are given to help us live in our own time, in the West, with respect for ourselves and for others. The approach I propose is anchored in the Islamic tradition and amplified from within it; in this sense it is both deeply classical and radically new. Beginning with the Qur'an and the Sunna [traditions of the Prophet] and the methodologies set down by the ulama [clergy] throughout the history of the Islamic sciences. I have tried to immerse myself again in reading these sources in the light of our new Western context; even though the methodology I have adopted is classical. I have not hesitated sometimes to question certain definitions and categorisations and to suggest others... My conviction in elaborating on this work is that the movement toward reform, which was once intrinsic to the juridical compass of Islam, can take place effectively only from within, in and through a rigorous faithfulness to the sources and the norms of reading them."

The scholar's approach, aim and credentials are quoted in extenso because any Muslim who charts the course he does invites misunderstanding. A "Muslim personality" has emerged in Europe and North America, faithful to Islam but "dressed in European and American cultures and definitively rooted in Western societies".

He accepts no compromise on the principle that "there is one Islam", nor with the faith: "The absolute oneness of the Creator, the impossibility of their being a representative of Him, and the truth of His word revealed in the Quran."

It is a man of this conviction who asks Muslims to hearken to the sources and read them intelligently. The Koran is the word of God. But the mind that reads it is not infallible and is a product of its times. The Sharia has been shaped by mortals. Iqbal pleaded for its reform. There are verses in the Koran which are explicit and binding for all time. Authorities point out that many bore on the time they were revealed to Prophet Muhammed. "But the great majority of the verses in the Quran and traditions of the Prophet are not of both a strict and compelling nature. The Quran is authenticated in itself (qati al-thubul, of indisputable origin) but most of the verses containing legal judgments (ayall-ah-ham) are open to analysis, commentary and interpretation (zanni al-dalala), and this is also the case with the ahadith, most of which leave some scope for speculation as much concerning their authenticity (thubut) as concerning their meaning (dalala). This means that the fuqaha (jurists) had, and still have, an important and essential function in the formulation of laws that may be called Islamic." Do you notice the book's relevance to the situation in India?

The erudite author explains: "Keeping in mind both the distinction between the usu (the fundamental elements of the religion) and the furu (the secondary elements), the three levels of maslaha - that is, al-daruriyyat (the indispensable), al-hajiyyat (the necessary, the complementary), and al-tahsiniyyat (the additional enhancing, the perfecting) as well as the areas in which ijtihad (reason) may be applied, Muslims, both ulama and group leaders, should provide Western Muslims with appropriate teachings and regulations that will make it possible for them to protect and to actualise their Muslim identity; not as Arabs, Pakistanis, or Indians but as Westerners."

The author tackles topics such as marriage, divorce, inheritance in the Western context. He propounds three principles: "First, the Islamic sources allow Muslims to live in the West. Second, they are under the authority of an agreement whose terms must be respected as long as they do not force Muslims to act against their conscience. Third, if a clear conflict of terms of reference occurs, which is very rare, a specific study should be carried out by Muslim jurists to determine, by formulating a legal opinion (fatwa), the types of adaptation that may be possible and that might provide the Muslim with a satisfying solution, both as a practising believer and as a resident and/or citizen."

Ramadan's views on reform of Muslim education are particularly helpful in the context of efforts to reform the madrassas. "Western Muslims need to free themselves of their double inferiority complex - in relation to the West (and the domination of its rationality and technology) on the one hand and in relation to the Muslim world (which alone seems to produce the great Arabic-speaking spirits of Islam who quote the texts with such ease) on the other. We shall have to liberate ourselves from these faults by developing a rich, positive and participatory presence in the West that must contribute from within to debates about the universality of values, globalisation, ethics, and the meaning of life in modern times."

In his presidential address to the All India Muslim League on December 29, 1930, Iqbal urged Indian Muslims "to rid" Islam "of the stamp that Arabian imperialism was forced to give it; to mobilise its laws, its education, its culture, and to bring them into closer contact with its [Islam's] own original spirit and with the spirit of modern times."

JOCELYNE Cesari's book, based on extensive surveys and interviews, describes the daily life of Muslim immigrants in the West; 6 million in the U.S. and around 12 million in the countries of the European Union. What does it mean to practise Islam in the West? It widens the area of individual choice. One writer has described four categories of Islamic practice - communal (that is, orthodox) Islam, ethical Islam, cultural Islam and emotional Islam. "In the post-modern West, it is the more personal forms of Islam - emotional, cultural and ethical - that dominate. Indeed, for the often silent majority of Muslims in Europe and America, identification with Islam and Islamic tradition does not necessarily entail a corresponding religious observance. It is common to meet young people of both sexes who perform `Shahada'; they follow dietary prohibitions, pray occasionally, and fast during the month of Ramadan, but refuse to be singled out as Muslims in social relations. This type of practice usually requires a certain knowledge of the Islamic tradition, so that the believer understands exactly what practices and customs exist to choose from. Although this trend is found in Muslims of all social backgrounds, it is most pronounced among people with a higher level of education."

Interestingly, courts in some European countries seek advice from Muslim jurists on aspects of Islamic law. "A new set of Islamic norms is thus being forged in European and American courts of justice. In most cases having to do with family life, negotiation is still the strategy of choice."

Cesari's book describes the set-up in the West, listing in an Appendix major American Muslim organisations. She does not ignore "the ideologues of hate", but is careful to point out that globalisation has promoted fundamentalism in other faiths as well.

Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad's volume is a collection of essays on Muslims in several countries in Europe and America. Their experience and impact on host countries vary. In some, Muslims are well integrated, in others they are isolated and internally fragmented as well. Two essays deserve particular mention. Karen Leonard's on South Asian leadership of American Muslims and Karim H. Karim's on Muslim participation in Canada's public life.

All of which lends force to a powerful plea for dialogue between Muslims and Christians by Prof. Richard W. Bulliet of Columbia University. "The past and future of the West cannot be fully comprehended without appreciation of the twinned relationship it has had with Islam over some fourteen centuries. The same is true of the Islamic world." There are, doubtless, problems to be resolved. He is hopeful, however, that leaders of the stature of Nelson Mandela will come forth to bridge the divide.

They will have to reckon with merchants of hate - The New Crusades is an apt title for a collection of erudite essays on their handiwork. Two of these merchants stand out. One is Bernard Lewis, tutor to U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney and original author of the theme of "clash of civilisations". The other is a man much lauded by some in India, V.S. Naipaul. He once warned of "the Pakistani fundamentalist fanatic Fazel-ur-Rehman, (sic) himself enjoying, bizarrely, academic freedom at the University of Chicago, and sleeping safe and sound every night, protected by laws, and far away from the mischief he was visiting on his country-men at home". In fact, as a contribution to the volume recalls, "Fazlur Rahman, the distinguished Professor of Islamic studies at the University of Chicago, had been forced to flee his native Pakistan when he was attacked by a mob reacting to his reformist ideas. He dedicated much of his life in exile to inter-religious reconciliation and understanding and to educating a generation of scholars in, both, the wide diversity of Islamic thought and in his own reformist understanding of the tradition. By representing as a fundamentalist fanatic a man whose life was dedicated to an inclusive view of religion, Naipaul undermines progressive and encourages the fanaticism that drove Rahman out of Pakistan."

Naipaul repeatedly betrays his utter incompetence to pronounce on the subject, which is reflected no less in his caricature of his former translator and host in Pakistan, the famous journalist Ahmed Rashid. "At the time that Naipaul was polishing his caricature, Rashid was examining the role played by Saudi fundamentalism, U.S. policy blunders, and Pakistani support in the rise of the Taliban. Rashid's 1999 book on the Taliban chillingly exposed the growing ties between Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. The Nobel Committee biography of Naipaul lauded his `critical assessments of Muslim fundamentalism in non-Arab countries such as Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia and Pakistan'. Those reading Rashid rather than Naipaul had clear advance warning of the enormity of the danger posed by the Taliban leadership and the pathological extremism into which they had fallen." Naipaul's ignorance is excelled by his arrogance and legendary boorishness. The Nobel Committee's words reveal more of the committee than of Naipaul.

He is in good company. A former U.S. Vice President, Dan Quayle, once told graduates from the U.S. Naval Academy: "We have been surprised this past century by the rise of communism, the rise of Nazism, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism." The British defence expert Clare Hollingworth said: "Muslim fundamentalism is akin to the menace posed by Nazism and fascism in the 1930s and then by communism in the '50s."

This is a collection of enduring significance. It reveals the obstacles that advocates of reform and reconciliation have to surmount in the West - as in India. The challenge that Muslims face, however, is far greater than that. It is to renew their faith in Islam. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith pointed out in his brilliant work Islam in Modern History: "The Islam that was given by God is not the elaboration of practice and doctrines and forms that outsiders call Islam, but rather the vivid and personal summons to individuals to live their lives always in His presence and to treat their fellow men always under His judgment."

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam by Tariq Ramadan; Oxford University Press; pages 272, $27.95.

When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and in the United States by Jocelyne Cesari; Palgrave, Macmillan; pages 267, $65.

The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization by Richard W. Bulliet; Columbia University Press; pages 187, $24.50.

The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy edited by Emran Qureshi and Michael A. Sells; Oxford University Press, Karachi; pages 416, Rs.495.

Muslim in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad; Oxford University Press; pages 318, $24.95.

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