Explaining the faith

Published : Apr 09, 2010 00:00 IST

Entrenched Monarchy Thwarts Aspirations for Modernity, proclaims the Dubai Memo of the online edition of The New York Times on January 21, 2010; At Yemen College, Scholarship and Jihadist Ideas, sc reams the Middle East page of the same paper three days earlier. Readers of The New York Times can be forgiven for assuming just by reading these banner headlines that all that the world of Islam encompasses is pre-modern and entrenched monarchies and that scholarship, if not going together with jehadist ideas, will at least produce a causal connection to that effect, sooner or later.

Never mind the fact that the first news item refers to the postmodern playground of the worlds rich and wealthy, whose wealth has led to the construction of New York-style skyscrapers and which has loyally subsidised Western oil needs for at least two centuries. Or that the second news item refers to an ancient, Biblical land whose embattled, if undemocratic, leader is a much-valued ally of the West in the so-called War on Terror. This is Islam as instant news, and news too, as the Times proclaims, which is fit to print.

Then the leaders of the two Arab countries, namely Sheikh Maktoum and Ali Abdullah Saleh, are the new men who control the success or failure of the United States War on Terror against Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. These images are similar to ones that used to be broadcast in the 1970s in the heyday of the Wests profitable, if skewed, relationship with men who controlled Americas oil lifeline.

Ziauddin Sardar and Zafar Abbas Malik bring a restrained and, I feel, at times almost apologetic approach to their book, Introducing Islam. The reason should be clear straightaway in the timing of the publication of the work: the book was first published in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, an event occurring not on Muslim soil but in the heart of the worlds premier imperialist power and which acutely shaped subsequent relations between Islam and the West, in that the U.S. occupied two important Muslim countries soon after the attacks. As such the emphasis of the book is more on explaining Islam, a sort of beginners guide, with the aim clearly to (re)educate a Western audience, to reassure them that Islam is not the religion of sword and flame as promised to the West by Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis but a peaceful religion whose humble origins and considerable achievements deserve to be remembered and celebrated. The details of the origins and basic tenets of the religion might seem repetitive to readers like this reviewer who have been well-schooled in the standard history.

However, readers should bear in mind that as befits a primer on Islam, it does not include the eye-opening debates surrounding the origins of Islam and the centrality of Mecca to the original faith, initiated by Patricia Crone in the U.S. and John Wansbrough in the United Kingdom, important contributions to the understanding of Islamic history. Nor should one look in it for a biography of Prophet Muhammad as had been promised to the readers in the rather misleading title of the earlier edition of the book (which was titled Introducing Muhammad).

However, readers will be pleased to note that in these pages one gets an opportunity to refresh ones memory about the golden achievements of Muslim civilisation in the sciences, arts, music, industry, agriculture and social sciences, which are seldom discussed by Orientalist fundamentalists in the West and their Islamist counterparts in the East. Here was a civilisation which was seemingly uninhibited by the puritan military ethos that tempered the conquests of Muhammad as he went on to establish the worlds first and some say the only Islamic state with the earliest Constitution in written history. Muslim civilisation flourished further by learning from its predecessors, the Greeks and Romans.

An early disappointment is the authors rather shabby treatment of the most sceptical of the Muslim schools of philosophy the Mutaazila in one paragraph (page 89). This school, influenced by the materialist arguments of the Greeks, pushed belief in rationalism to the point where it declared the Quran to be a created (man-made) book. Rather remarkably, this sect gained state power and patronage during the reigns of caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his sons Mamun and Amin, and had it not lost favour after the latters death, it might well have ended up challenging the very existence of God.

Another significant omission by the authors is the epic revolt in the 10th century by the slaves known as the Zanj, who worked on salt mines and rebelled against the Abbasid caliph Muwafaq in the southern marshes of Iraq for 11 years. Had it not been crushed brutally, it might well have been the first successful slave uprising in world history. The sceptical tradition, which bore fruit in the 8th century in Abbasid Baghdad and 11th century Ummayad Cordova, elevated Islam over other world religions as one that encouraged free thinking; the sceptics included philosophers such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Rawandi and Ibn Haytham, as well as poets like al-Maari and Abu Nuwas, the first Muslim homosexual poet. The latter makes frequent appearances in the Arab classic The Arabian Nights, as one who delighted in composing bawdy poetry and odes to wine and nubile boys (apparently not to the authors liking).

There are some minor errors and factual inaccuracies in the book, such as the attribution of the famous subversive sexual text The Perfumed Garden by Shaikh Nafzawi to a Shaikh Masumi (page 125) as well as the attribution of aggression in Bosnia-Herzegovina solely to the Serbs (page 61) when the Bosnian Muslims were clearly fed by a fundamentalist pan-Islamist vision espoused by their leader Alijah Izzetbegovic.

So what happened to a civilisation that had conquered virtually every land since the death of the Prophet and succeeded in expanding the horizons of knowledge in the most multicultural society in Europe while the rest of the continent slumbered in darkness? The jury is still out on it; some like the Egyptian scholar Gamal al-Banna trace the roots of the malaise to the decision of the Prophet to elevate his Meccan fellow-exiles in Medina rather than the capable Ansar, indigenous to the city, who helped the former, which led to an ugly succession battle won largely by the Meccans. Perhaps a last-ditch attempt was made to save a more democratic Islamic tradition in the conflict between Abu Dharr and caliph Usman, resulting in the exile of the former.

Over time, kingship consolidated itself over the Muslim lands. In the realm of thought, the sceptics were quickly dismissed and overwhelmed by the conformist vision of al-Ghazzali, which took hold after the 15th century, forbidding all experimentations and rational thought and the subjection of reason and intellect to divine judgement.

Even ijtihad, for which provision had been made in orthodox Islam, was now forbidden, though not in the Shia sect. The mosque, instead of being separated from the state as it was during the Reformation and Renaissance in the West, welded itself more strongly to it. The fall of the Muslims resulted in their overwhelming by European colonialism, which took the rich resources of Muslim lands from South Asia, East Indies, West Asia and Africa to build their own universities and fuel the Industrial Revolution.

Muslim responses to European colonialism ranged from the puritan fanaticism of Abdul Wahhab, who went on to invest his teachings by setting up a state in Arabia, to the anti-imperialism of Jamaluddin Afghani. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan became an apologist of the British for the Muslims of India by encouraging them to lean on the colonial power as helpers, but succeeded in setting up the Aligarh University, which trained the future leaders of the movement for Pakistan. In West Asia, colonialism also resulted in the establishment of both secular and fundamentalist trends inspired by communism and fascism.

The authors of the book tell us about Abul Ala Maududi and Sayyid Qutb, the founders of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both distinguished themselves by collaborating against the largely secular nationalist movements of Pakistan and Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood going as far as to collaborate with the British in bombing campaigns. After independence, both collaborated with dictators and the U.S. for a jehad against the Left in both countries. A fascination with fascism led to the birth of Baathism, which espoused Arab unity and is still in power in Syria.

The communist current swept the Muslim world from Afghanistan and Indonesia (it had the third largest Communist party outside the communist world) to Yemen (the only Arab Marxist-Leninist republic), Iraq (it had the largest Arab Communist party), Iran and Turkey. The authors do not deal with the history of communism and Baathism in the Muslim world, the legacy of which is a powerful one and shaped the post-colonial discourse in virtually every Muslim country, including India.

In countries like Pakistan and Iraq, the social democratic Left and the Baath stole the Lefts slogans to build a base for themselves. The Iranian Revolution, as Edward Said also recognised, was a seminal event in the Muslim world in which Muslims of all shades participated to overthrow the Shah. However, the religious clergy succeeded in making themselves the ruling class, which resulted in tragedy and annihilation of the secular and Leftist forces. Islamic fundamentalism is now the biggest challenge facing Muslim societies as well as the West, especially after September 11, 2001.

Two of the causes of the rise in Islamic fundamentalism have been conveniently missed by the authors: one is the deliberate cultivation of Islamist fundamentalist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami (Pakistan), Sarekat Islam (Indonesia), Islamic Mujahideen (Afghanistan) and the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt) as well as secular dictators (Baath Party in Iraq; the Shah in Iran; later Hosni Mubarak in Egypt) by the U.S. during the Cold War rather than undermining Islamic oppositions, as charged by the authors (page 158), leading to the destruction of secular and leftist forces which had both the socio-political programmes and ideas to lead the Muslim world forward.

The void created by this tragedy was quickly filled by Islamic fundamentalism. Second this could easily also apply to Christian fundamentalism and Hindu revivalist movements is the emergence of globalisation, which is a push towards a common language, a common way of dressing, rampant neoliberalism and a consumerist, material monoculture, which is playing havoc with more traditional Muslim societies, thus giving ample ammunition to these fundamentalists who draw on recruits promising them a return to the pristine, unspoiled past of 1,400 years.

So what is the way out for Muslim societies crushed between the hammer of dictatorship and the anvil of fundamentalism? The authors offer a three-pronged approach which would liberate Islam from fossilised history, formulate a new fiqh and reopen the gates of ijtihad (page 164).

However, one of the problems that has consistently dogged Islam from its origins is the refusal to separate church and state, the absence of which although did produce a remarkable revolution in science and thought in the 15th century. It has become imperative now. There are other courageous, dissident scholars in the Muslim world whose voices have been suppressed and whom the authors do not mention: while Shariati has been unjustly marginalised as a Shia scholar, others such as Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd, Abderrahman Meddeb, Mohamed Arkoun, Harun Nasution, Gamal al-Banna and the late Anwar Sheikh continue to take on the orthodoxy. Their ideas need to be widely known.

Only when the Muslim world is free from the shackles over ideas will it be able to emerge from the stupor in which it finds itself now; then it will not only be able to challenge the crude Orientalist stereotyping which is ahistorical, reductive and which only serves to perpetuate a myth of confrontation between Islam and the West, but also successfully challenge imperialism, the root of all racist endeavours.

In this case, the recent decision by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to allow Tariq Ramadan the great grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood to come to the U.S. to teach is a welcome one. For whatever we may think of Ramadans views, at least an intellectual exchange between Ramadan and the West should serve to erase and clarify long-standing stereotypes about Muslims as terrorists and fanatics supporting archaic, pre-modern notions like monarchies and jehad.

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