From Critical Muslim 2: The Idea of Islam (Hurst, London, 2012)
So what is your idea of Islam? To what extent and in what way is there or should there be a choice? Do you agree with Mohammad Sidique Khan or with Tariq Jahan? On the one hand, Khan, leader of the 7 July 2005 London bombers, sought ‘martyrdom’. In his suicide video, he told the world that it was legitimate to kill innocent people indiscriminately for ‘what we believe’. On the other hand, Jahan lost his youngest son in the Birmingham riots of August 2011. Twenty-year-old Haroon Jahan was killed along with two of his friends when they were deliberately run down by a car driven by youths. Haroon died protecting his community during the month of Ramadan. As far as his father was concerned, he was a shaheed, a martyr. In an atmosphere of rising tensions, with the police fearing revenge attacks and killings, Jahan diffused the situation with a few unscripted words of immense dignity: ‘Why do we have to kill one another? Why are we doing this? I have lost my son. Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home – please’. Revenge, said Jahan, was not part of his faith. But his faith gave him the strength and composure, as Bryan Appleyard noted in The Sunday Times, ‘to make one of the great speeches of the twenty-first century’. ‘I’m a Muslim’, Jahan said, ‘I believe in divine fate and destiny, and it was his destiny and his fate, and now he’s gone’. In less than 500 words, he calmed a convulsed nation and presented an idea of Islam that could not be further removed from that of Sidique Khan.
Perhaps you have imbibed the common Western idea of Islam as all sex and violence, the domain of unfathomable mysteries, cruel and barbaric scenes. This is Islam as the darker side of Europe: depraved and licentious, ignorant and stupid, unclean and inferior, monstrous and ugly, fanatic and hell-bent on revenge. Or, maybe you subscribe to the idea of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the thirteenth-century poet, philosopher and theologian who saw Islam as love and Muslims as a ‘community of spirit’: ‘join it, and feel the delight of walking in the noisy streets, and being the noise’, he wrote.
Rumi is undoubtedly one of the foremost mystics of Islam. He founded the Mevlevi Order of the Dancing Dervishes. He explained and explored his idea of Islam as pure love in his lyrical poetry, epigrams and short stories. The Masnavi, a compendium of his teachings, is a vast collection of his poetry, fables and meditations in 27,000 couplets. In the poem entitled ‘A Community of Spirit’, Rumi sees Muslims trapped in ‘passion and disgrace’: ‘Quit acting like a wolf’, he tells them, ‘and feel the shepherd’s love filling you’. ‘Close your mouth against food. Taste the lover’s mouth in yours’. Muslims, Rumi asserts, are trapped in a prison. But ‘why do you stay in a prison when the door is so wide open?’ he asks.
The idea of Islam, I suggest, is incarcerated not in one but several prisons. There is the prison of the Shariah, or Islamic law. Almost any injustice on God’s bountiful earth can be, and at one time or another is or has been justified in the name of the Shariah: apostasy, blasphemy, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia. Even paedophilia can be justified as ‘God’s law’, according to Sheikh Salih bin Fawzan, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Fataawa, the highest religious body in the Kingdom. In a fatwa that appeared in Saudi newspapers on 13 July, 2011, Fawzan declared that ‘uninformed interference with Shariah rulings by the press and journalists is on the increase, posing dire consequences for society, including their interference with the question of marriage to small girls who have not reached maturity, and their demand that a minimum age be set for girls to marry’. There is no minimum age, Fawzan said. The religious scholars – the ulama – ‘have agreed that it is permissible for fathers to marry off their small daughters, even if they are in the cradle’. As is usual in such edicts, Fawzan quotes from the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet to justify his ruling. And he warns: ‘It behoves those who call for setting a minimum age for marriage to fear Allah and not contradict his Shariah, or try to legislate things Allah did not permit. For laws are Allah’s province; and legislation is his exclusive right, to be shared by none other. And among these are the rules governing marriage’. Allah has also legislated, according to an earlier fatwa by Fawzan, that slavery is an integral part of Islam; and the Sheikh wants it re-introduced in Muslim societies. Rumi would have been horrified by the association of such blatant evil with the idea of Islam – just as we are.
If Shariah is supposed to be Divine, and integral to Islam, then misogyny too is intrinsic to Islam. It is certainly, as Samia Rahman shows, integral to the thinking of traditional scholars – all the way from the celebrated thirteenth century theologian and philosopher al-Ghazali to Maulana Mawdudi, the worshipful founder of Jamat-e-Islami of Pakistan. ‘Sure they all say that men and women are equal in the sight of God’, writes Rahman, ‘but when it came to the crunch women were always dangerous, not to be trusted, not very intelligent, and under no circumstances to be allowed away from the watchful eyes of a male “guardian”’. ‘Look at the Muslim world’, Rahman says and ‘see how badly women are treated. In Saudi Arabia, they have to wear a black (the worst possible colour for that climate) abaya, often stick to the four walls of the home, always have a male “guardian” when they have to go out, and are seldom allowed to be seen in public. Driving is a crime punishable by flogging. In Pakistan, rape victims are often accused of adultery and punished barbarically. In Afghanistan, the Taliban regularly ransack girls’ schools. A woman suffering serious illness cannot see a male doctor; and there aren’t all that many female doctors as they are not allowed to educate themselves. In India, women can be divorced at almost any excuse simply with the husband uttering “I divorce thee” three times; or he can send a text message if he can’t be bothered to utter the words. In the Sudan, women are frequently flogged under Islamic law. In many Muslim societies, women are deemed inferior to men. Their testimony in court is worth half that of a man. Husbands who beat their wives, and there are plenty in our societies, are cheered. The list of horrendous abuse and denial of basic rights to Muslim women seems endless’.
As far as the Shariah is concerned, the believers have to accept its injunctions, and the idea of Islam it supposedly perpetuates, without question. No ifs, ands, or buts – it’s all a priori given. The believers have nothing to do but obey and follow. No effort is required on the part of the individual, there is absolutely no place for individual conscience or intellectual engagement. ‘The way that Islam was presented to me by many Muslims’, writes Soha Al-Jurf, ‘it seemed that belief didn’t come from a personal path of inquiry and revelation, but by accepting what others believed without challenging them — by simply offering one’s mind as an empty receptacle for another person’s views. It seemed that every time I questioned or expressed doubt towards the views of others on Islam, my views were typically perceived as blasphemous, and they were immediately dismissed. Or, rather, I was immediately dismissed’.
By equating the Shariah, a fallible human construct made in history, with Divine mandate, religious scholars have basically outlawed free will. To be a Muslim, one must submit to the Shariah, or rather the interpretation of well-meaning religious scholars long dead and their cynical, manipulating and power hungry contemporary counterparts – comprised as they are of a spectrum that runs all the way from those educated at prestigious institutions such as Al-Azhar University of Cairo, to the alumni of the fanatical and fundamentalist universities of Riyadh, Medina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia, to the myopic scholars of the Deoband seminary in India, and right down to the semi-literate Mullah in the mosque.
Rumi captures the essence of how free will has been manipulated and appropriated by Shariah-obsessed religious fanatics in a charming story.
A thief climbed a tree in an orchard and started to eat its fruit. He was spotted by the owner.
‘Hey, you scoundrel!’ shouted the owner. ‘Aren’t you ashamed before God? Why are you stealing my fruit?’
‘If’, the thief retorted, ‘the servant of God eats from the orchard of God the dates God has given him, why do you blame him? Why do you behave so miserly at the table of so rich a Master?’
The owner asked his servant to bring a rope and a stick. ‘I’ll give a proper answer to you, my friend’.
He tied the thief with the rope, and set about him with the stick, beating him on the back and legs.
‘Have some shame before God!’ cried the thief. ‘You are beating an innocent
‘With the stick of God’, the owner replied, ‘this servant of God is thrashing the back of another servant of God. The stick is God’s, the back and sides are God’s. I am the servant and instrument of His command’.
‘I repent’, the thief cried. ‘I’m no longer an advocate of predestination. Free-will it is, free-will, free-will’.
The thieves of free will – the religious scholars – have become a class of their own. Despite the fact that Islam, at least the Sunni version, does not recognise a clergy, its religious scholars now mediate between God and the believers. And in the process they have acquired god like powers by appropriating both spiritual and political powers into their own hands. Muslims are thus imprisoned in another penitentiary: the ‘Islamic state’. In postrevolutionary Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini developed a system of governance where only those familiar and versed in the Shariah were deemed capable of creating and ruling a Muslim society. On top of an all-seeing and all-knowing Guardian of Jurists sits the infallible Supreme Leader. No one can stand for election, say anything or do anything, without the explicit consent of the Mullahs. In Saudi Arabia, the religious scholars, in cahoots with the royal family, enforce the Shariah with a stick. The obnoxious, semi autonomous religious police whose formal title is the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, function as an instrument of state repression. They ensure that believers stick to the narrow, unquestioning Wahhabi idea of Islam.
In these ideal Islamic states, freedom of expression is unknown, justice is arbitrary and politically expedient, and women are treated as dirt. In both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which Shariah-demanding fanatics in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Sudan wish to emulate, the prisons are full of dissidents, torture is routine, and criticism of government is seen as blasphemy. The notion of an ‘Islamic state’, as Parvez Manzoor states so forcefully, is an abomination. It ‘conflates norm and history in an eternal now’, conceives ‘the state as an attribute of faith’ and ‘seeks a new locus of authority’. The state becomes ‘an idealised polity’ where politics ‘deals not with the existential concerns of the faith-community but with the authoritative interpretation of the foundational text of the Law, albeit through the mediation of the supreme jurist, or a collective corps of selfacclaimed jurists’. The state ‘also dons the theocratic mantle, going beyond the acts of governance to the mandate of guidance, identifying itself as the channel of salvation’. What could be more totalitarian?
The religious scholars, ‘the jurists’ in Manzoor’s parlance, are not just the guardians of the prisons of Shariah and the Islamic state, they are also protectors of tradition. And tradition itself is yet another prison. In essence, Muslim tradition is little more than medieval Arab tribal customs that have been enshrined in Islamic law and morality. In his The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Muhammad Iqbal, the great visionary poet of the Indian subcontinent, called it ‘Arabian imperialism of the earlier centuries of Islam’. It is best exemplified in the widely believed dictum that ‘religious scholars (the ulama) have solved all our problems’. There is nothing more to do. We have to follow not only the interpretations, however absurd or out-of-date, of classical authors, but also their mode of thinking, which they have kindly perfected for future generations for all eternity. In technical language this way of thinking is referred to as fiqhi thought, and it requires that all readings of Islam must conform to the understanding and follow the methods of classical jurists, those who initially formulated and canonised the law (Shariah) and jurisprudence (Fiqh). For most ordinary believers this dangerously obsolete mode of thought has now become a medieval torture chamber; for the traditionalist it provides ready-made solutions to everything without recourse to the mind, or to unnecessary concerns about justice, equality or even education. And when all else fails, violence can be used to enforce the traditionalist viewpoint.
Consider the actions of traditionalists in Pakistan during just one week in September 2011. A group of masked men from a local madrasa entered a girls’ school in Rawalpindi and proceeded to rough house teachers and students. They left after issuing a warning: dress modestly and wear the hijab or we will be back. A panic ensued and schools were closed for several days. Meanwhile, a girl attending school in a remote village was accused of blasphemy for wrongly spelling the name of the Prophet. In Lahore, traditionalists distributed a leaflet calling for the film Bol (released in 2011 and exploring the plight of women in Pakistan, the title translates as ‘Speak’) to be banned and its director and lead actor to be sentenced to death for blasphemy. In the city of Quetta, traditionalist Sunnis stopped buses carrying Shias and executed 40 people in cold blood – simply for being Shia.
There is a reason why traditionalist fiqhi thought has degenerated into a morbid pathology. It is totally devoid of ethics or conscience. As Manzoor notes, ‘it has evolved into a formalistic system of law that is morally timid but politically expedient, a system that renders Islamic reason indistinguishable from reason of state’. Indeed, Manzoor argues, ‘the fiqhi tradition, which succeeded in establishing itself as the normative mode par excellence of Muslim civilisation, was actually instrumental in devouring morality and ethics and stifling spirituality’. It ‘has become self-authenticating and selfreferential’; ‘its self-imposed internment estranges us from history and the wider currents of moral reasoning’, and it has cut Muslims ‘off from the great currents of moral reasoning that have their origins elsewhere but which relate to us in every other way.’ ‘It is high time’, Manzoor asserts, ‘for Muslim ethical thought to free itself from this legalistic shell and rediscover its vocation as the delineation of a universal moral vision’.
This is precisely what Rumi was trying to do in his Masnavi some seven hundred years ago. In one story he captures the absurdity of religious scholars and their obsession with Arabic, fiqh and the rest.
A religious scholar, an expert in Arabic grammar, embarks on a boat. After cross examining the boatman on the dogmas of faith, the rules of Shariah and the intricacies of fiqh, he finds him somewhat deficient. ‘Have you ever studied Arabic grammar?’, he asks the boatman with a self-satisfied air.
‘No’, replied the boatman.
‘Then you have wasted half of your life’, said the religious scholar.
The boatman felt very depressed. But he kept quiet.
The wind tossed the boat into a whirlpool.
The boatman shouted to the religious scholar: ‘Do you know how to
‘No,’ the religious scholar replied, ‘my well-spoken handsome fellow’.
‘In that case’, the boatman remarked, ‘the whole of your life has gone to waste, for the boat is sinking in these whirlpools’.
The problem is that traditionalists are hell-bent on drowning all believers in the whirlpools of their fatal fantasies. To question the traditionalist interpretation of Islam, as Carool Kersten notes, is to invite the charge of heresy. The advocates of ‘autonomous reflection’, from Ibn al-Rawandi, the ninth-century sceptic, to Ibn Hazm, the eleventh-century Andalusian philosopher, all the way to Egyptian Qur’an scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Indonesian intellectual Nurcholish Madjid, and countless reformers in between, have been castigated as heretics. But as Kersten argues, it is time for heresy to take centre stage: dissent from orthodoxy, both Sunni and Shia, and independent critical thinking are the only way to break out of the prison of traditionalism.
The vast majority of Muslims, conservative by nature and traditionalist by education, follow the teachings and fatwas of orthodox, conservative scholars blindly. A whole generation has grown up on the literature of the ‘Islamic movement’ – best exemplified by Maulana Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, and his disciple Maryam Jameelah, the New Yorker who converted to Islam. As Ehsan Masood shows in his elegant account of growing up reading Jameelah, the seeds of self-destruction in her extremism and xenophobia were always there. ‘For Maryam Jameelah no such thing as change or compromise ever existed. And even when she was patently wrong, in her mind she was definitely right’, Masood writes. There is no direct connection between reading Jameelah’s polemics and extremist behaviour, he concludes. The fact that Jamaat-e-Islami has degenerated into a semi-fascist organisation, defending the Taliban and glorifying the murder of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, suggests that both Maryam and the Maulana have a few questions to answer.
Questioning, of course, is not part of the traditionalist purview. Traditionalist education relies exclusively on rote learning and incessant quoting of the opinions of classical scholars. Reverence is the order of the day in a black and white universe where the emphasis, as al-Jurf notes, is on ‘very specific opinions about what Islam is and is not, what it requires of its believers and does not require, and what it exemplifies and does not exemplify’. At the end of the process, Islam is ‘reduced to a set of rigid, contradictory concepts that seemed to have nothing to do with anything holy at all’. The flock of the faithful is kept on the straight and narrow by constant reference to hell and damnation. Most of the ummah is reduced to the status of Rumi’s parrot:
The parrot looking in the mirror sees
Itself, but not its teacher hid behind,
And learns the speech of Man, the while it thinks
A bird of its own sort is talking to it.
An instrument from which traditionalists derive immense power is ritual. It is difficult to walk into a mosque, almost anywhere in the Muslim world, without someone chiding you for not performing the ablution correctly, or praying in the wrong way or not on time, or not having a beard, or not being pious enough. Traditionalists also have a knack of silencing argument or dissent by quoting alleged hadith. Indeed, herds of traditionalists roam the streets checking people’s faith (iman) and beliefs (aqidah), ensuring that they are performing their rituals according to their dictates, and are dressed properly with the correct facial furniture. No wonder Michael Muhammad Knight feels so fed up with people who treat faith as a ‘zero sum game’. ‘Being Muslim isn’t always about what I believe’, he declares. Knight has already been labelled a ‘heretic’. His essay contains strong language and stronger heresies; and many (regardless of belief) will find some of his statements unpalatable. But it is worth remembering that some of the beliefs that Knight is talking about were firmly held by Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) before he performed the Hajj. The ideas in Knight’s essay are held by the ‘Five Percenters’, who broke away from the Nation of Islam. Indeed they are still in vogue in some circles, particularly the emerging cohort of new Muslims in the US. It is an idea of Islam that the orthodox will have to struggle with. No doubt, it speaks to many young Muslims alienated by the demands of orthodoxy.
Rituals, Knight says, ‘bind me to my community’. But more often the cordon of rituals becomes a prison where self-reflection and critical thinking are forbidden. Once again Rumi illustrates the folly of this position with a wonderful story.
A mouse and frog meet every morning on the river bank. They sit and talk at their favourite place. They are the best of friends sharing secrets and telling stories. They laugh at stories they haven’t thought of in five years, and the telling might take five years. Then one day the mouse complains. ‘There are times when I want your company’, he says to the frog, ‘and you are out in water, jumping around where you can’t hear me. We meet at appointed times, but the text says, Lovers pray constantly. Five times a day, once on Friday is not enough. Fish like us constantly need the ocean around us. Do camel bells say, Let’s meet back here Tuesday night? Ridiculous. They jingle together continuously, talking while the camel walks’. ‘Do you’, adds Rumi, ‘pay regular visits to yourself?’ Ritual, the great sage seems to be saying, has become a barrier that prevents traditionalists from visiting themselves, and a mechanism that is used to keep Muslims from self-reflection.
Self-reflection demands that Muslims ask certain key questions about their faith. Does God speak to twenty-first-century people? Does He address them directly or through classical scholars and their contemporary disciples? What is revelation? Should hadith be a source of Islamic law? What did the Prophet really want? Are Muslims doomed to follow the tabiun, the generation born after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, forever? What exactly is this thing called Islam: a static, monolithic presentation or a dynamic vision? Such questions are often excluded from critical examination and constitute what the late Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian French scholar, called ‘the Unthought’ of Islam. In his Rethinking Islam, Arkoun raises a series of similar questions; and unless we critically engage with such questions Islam can be nothing more than a fundamentalist fantasy.
Many of these questions concern the fundamental sources of Islam. Regarding the Qur’an, for example, we need to ask: is every injunction in the Sacred Text universal? What in the Qur’an is contextual and thus merely historical? Is it a text to be consumed or interrogated? What are we to do with the ‘difficult’ verses – the one, for example, that allegedly allows men to beat their wives? Does all morality and knowledge converge towards the Qur’an or diverge from it? Is classical exegesis, which knew nothing of modern linguistic, interpretative theory and hermeneutics, eternal? Why can’t we undertake a philosophical critique of the Qur’an, which has been applied to the Bible and the Old Testament without affecting their integrity? And what’s wrong with ordinary Muslims interpreting the Qur’an for themselves?
When it comes to hadith, questions multiply rapidly. If hadith are the actual words of the Prophet, why do Sunnis, Shias and the Khariji use three different sets of compilations, which are frequently contradictory? Does that not suggest that hadith served as a political instrument? Was the methodology of hadith collection (involving scrutiny of the chain of narrators, their character and circumstances) really so perfect that it cannot be questioned? The compilers of hadith did indeed perform a Herculean task, and we are told numerous stories about how meticulous they were in their work. There is the story of Imam Bukhari, for example, who travelled for miles to collect a hadith from a man. When he arrived at his house, he saw that the man was enticing his donkey with a bundle of hay. He returned without talking to the man, saying that a man who tricks his donkey is not a reliable witness. Correct. But what if he had arrived a few minutes earlier, or a few minutes later? It is said that he collected over 600,000 hadith, talking to over a thousand men, but only included 7,275 in his collection of authentic hadith, al-Jami as-Sahih. What happened to the rest? Did they remain in circulation? And what can one say of the men who fed him all those inauthentic hadith? Given the fact that hadith compilation was a human effort, was it not susceptible to human error?
Moreover, if Sahih Bukhari does indeed contain ‘authentic’ hadith – that is words actually spoken by the Prophet himself – then what are we to make of a string of dubious hadith and their contradictions. For example: ‘The sun rises between the two antlers of Satan’ (Bukhari 2:134); ‘Seeing a black woman in a dream is the sign of an oncoming epidemic’ (Kitabul Ta’abir); and ‘Do you ever see an animal born with deformed organs?’ (Bukhari 1:525). Could the beloved Prophet have uttered such words? And what is this obsession with sex that we find in Bukhari? ‘The (Exalted) Messenger used to visit all nine of his wives every night.’ (Book of Nikah 3:52). How could any man, no matter how close to the Prophet, have known this? And how could any man, particularly when we are told elsewhere in the same collection that he used to pray all night, so much so that his feet swelled, do this? And would Aisha, his youngest wife, utter these words: ‘Aisha relates, the Prophet used to have intercourse with us and kissed us while he was fasting. Then she shied away smiling’ (Bukhari 2:691); and ‘Aisha said to the Prophet, “Ah! My head is bursting”. He said, I wish it would. Aisha responded: “You want me to die so that you can spend the next night with another wife”’ (Book of Medicine, vol.3).
Clearly, these hadith reflect the obsessions, concerns and misogyny of the time. The question arises: if the meticulous methodology of hadith compilation could allow hadith of such dubious nature (and there are many even worse), what can we say about the authenticity of others? Are Bukhari’s and other similar collections really sahih? And should we be using hadith as a source of Islamic law – allegedly Divine and eternal? And how much of the Shariah, from punishments for apostasy and adultery right down to dietary rules, is based on the Bible?
There is an urgent need for Muslims to interrogate their basic sources and tackle such questions. Now we have intellectual resources that our ancestors lacked. We have nothing to fear from such critical engagements. But if we fail, we will have to agree with Rumi: there are no Muslims in the world; and if there are, these Muslims are really non-existent.
Fortunately, there are critical Muslims; and critical Islam open to change. Arkoun himself, as well as a host of scholars mentioned by Kersten, confirm that alternative ideas of Islam are not just ‘out there’ but are gaining momentum. Reform is not only possible, it is being implemented. Take the new Islamic personal law in Morocco, known as the Moudawana. It treats the Shariah not as Divine but as a human construction, and introduces some revolutionary transformations with the explicit aim of establishing true gender equality. It throws out the centuries-old notion that the husband is the head of the family and the wife a mere underling in need of guidance and protection. Rather it suggests that the Qur’anic notion of equality means that women are equal partners in marriage and family life. Moreover, the Moudawana regards women as independent, thinking beings and allows them to contract a marriage without the legal approval of a guardian. It also raises the minimum age for women’s marriage from 15 to 18, the same as for men. It consigns ‘triple talaq’ – where a man can divorce his wife by simply saying ‘I divorce you’ three times – to the dustbin of history. Outlawing verbal divorce, the Moudawana requires men to have prior authorisation from a court, and gives women equal rights to divorce – no questions asked. Moreover, under the Moudawana women can claim alimony and can be granted custody of their children even if they remarry. Husbands and wives must share property acquired during the marriage. The old custom of favouring male heirs in the sharing of inherited land has also been dropped, making it possible for grandchildren on the daughter’s side to inherit from their grandfather, just like grandchildren on the son’s side. While it apparently permits polygamy, in reality it all but abolishes it. The ambiguity here is a reflection of the ambiguity of the Qur’anic verse which gives permission to marry ‘two, three or four’ but ‘if you fear that you cannot be equitable to them, then marry only one’ (4:3). The Moudawana allows a man to take a second wife only with the full consent of the first wife and only if he can prove, in a court of law, that he can treat them both with absolute justice – an impossible condition. All these reforms, introduced in February 2004, are justified with verses from the Qur’an and examples from traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. And every change required and obtained the consent of the religious scholars who, it must be noted, also included women. It is not surprising that even Islamist political organisations welcomed the change.
The notion of politics in Islam, attacked so vigorously by Parvez Manzoor, is also being reformed. Listen to Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the An Nahda Party of Tunisia. After winning the election of October 2011, he declared: ‘we will continue the revolution to realise its aim of a Tunisia that is free, independent, developing and prosperous, in which the rights of God, the Prophet, women, men, the religious and the non-religious are assured because Tunisia is for everyone’. The sentiment could not be further from the notion of an exclusivist, misogynist ‘Islamic state’, ruled by the Shariah, and led by obscurantist clerics.
Ghannouchi received some valuable advice, in a personal letter, from Ebrahim Yazdi, former Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Yazdi, leader of the banned Freedom Movement of Iran, played a major part in the 1979 revolution and before that served in the interim government of Mehdi Bazargan, but resigned in November 1979 in protest at the Iranian hostage crisis. He had seen revolutionary fanatics devour his comrades who fought so bravely against the Shah. Yazdi pointed out to Ghannouchi that, in his experience, overthrowing dictators was not the same thing as overthrowing dictatorship. ‘Despotism is not just a political structure. It has its corresponding social and cultural dimensions which enable it to persist and which become ingrained in individuals and lead to whole societies being afflicted by despotism for a long time. The result is that we Muslims overthrow despots only to see a new despot take the place of the old one. This
is what has indeed befallen us in Iran. We deposed the Shah, but neglected to address the “shah” personality within our own selves. Thus the vicious circle continues’.
To break the cycle, Yazdi argued, Muslims need to relearn and embrace three basic concepts central to Islam. ‘The first concept is the recognition and celebration of the diversity of human society and pluralism’. The Qur’an reminds us of this repeatedly and commands us to tolerate each other. Far from judging each other, and measuring the faith and beliefs of others, Muslims should acknowledge that it is for God to judge us all. However, where there is immense diversity and all variety of contradictory opinions, there is always a danger of ‘confrontation and the re-emergence of tyranny’. As such, we need a second concept: tolerance, which has to be established as a social institution. But tolerance itself is not enough, says Yazdi. We also need a third concept: compromise. ‘Tunisia’s social and economic development will require the compromise and cooperation of all of your citizens, regardless of their ideological, racial and religious affiliations. Compromise does not imply neglect of one’s beliefs and agenda. Rather, it is the recognition that cooperating with each other is essential for the cause of national salvation’.
No doubt, Ghannouchi also learned a great deal from Indonesia. It was there, writes Carool Kersten, that thanks to the efforts of reformers such as Nurcholish Madjid and Harun Nasution, who, as rector of Jakarta’s Islamic State University, ‘was able to push through a radically progressive, inclusivist and open-minded curriculum that encouraged students to think critically’, the whole idea of ‘Islamic politics’ was redefined during the 1990s. Delinking it from the notion of the ‘Islamic state’, the Indonesian intellectuals argued that politics in Islam was all about creating a civic society, holding politicians to account, promoting ethics and responsible behaviour and encouraging the citizenry to participate in decision making. The open, pluralistic and democratic nature of Indonesia owes a great deal to this idea of Islam.
However, it is to Turkey that most reformists are now looking. Like the An Nahda Party of Tunisia, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party has roots in the Islamist movement. But Turkey has totally redefined what it means to be a Muslim in the twenty-first century. As Bruce Lawrence notes, it is now ‘the model for progressive, modern and – yes – cosmopolitan Islam’. On first sight, ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘Islam’ seem like antonyms. But the glories of Islam are intrinsically linked with the cosmopolitan idea of Islam. Think of Umayyad Damascus, Abbasid Baghdad, Mughal Delhi, the Cairo of Salahuddin Ayyubi (‘Saladin’) and Samarkand and Bukhara and Timbuktu. Istanbul is fast emerging as a modern counterpart. What distinguishes Istanbul ‘as an emerging model for Muslim cosmopolitanism’, Lawrence asserts, are its ‘multiple public moments to celebrate, a calendar of performances or events that monopolise the everyday gaze and suggest the huge importance of this one city as a perpetual resource of social capital. Celebration is also linked to restoration: buildings must be maintained but also renewed, just as heroes must be recalled, their memories expanded, in the public domain’. Its urbane and progressive urban elite are ‘adroit at both recuperating the past and reinforcing its present value’. They have skilfully mobilised heroes and icons from the past and the present, religious and secular, as signposts towards a pluralistic, open, democratic and viable horizon. Lawrence sees something similar happening in Bukhara. Muslim cosmopolitanism, Lawrence asserts, has its ‘competitors, detractors, dead ends, and detours, as well as no-win options’ but it is the best option for Islam and Muslims to ‘advance towards
a global future’. It is an idea whose time has come, or come back. ‘The conclusion remains indisputable: cosmopolitanism not fundamentalism and puritanism inflects the brightest Muslim future for the perilous twenty-first century’.
Muslim cosmopolitanism requires us to go forward with the pluralism and tolerance that Muslims have demonstrated in history, particularly in Andalusia. The historical Islamic conviviencia, as Ben Gidley hints, ‘might be a model for pluralism today’; particularly ‘if Israel could re connect with its Middle Eastern self it could have different relations with its neighbours’. But we must not look at the convivencia, living together, in Moorish Spain in a ‘roseate light’. Convivencia too has its problems. It ‘collapses together 1400 years of Muslim history into a monolithic story’. The narrative ‘only works if it edits out the times and places when Muslim rulers were less than tolerant of their Jewish subjects; as with all historical narratives, it requires a systematic forgetting of some things in order to remember others, even if in this case the forgetting is benign and forgiving’. Here, as in dealing with other aspects of Islamic sources and history, we need honesty and integrity. We ‘need to develop a better sense of the complexity and contradictions involved in our evolving story, to acknowledge both the shadows and the light’, says Gidley. Ameen to that!
So finally back to Rumi. A camel, an ox and a ram were walking along together when they came upon a bunch of grass lying on the road in front of them. ‘If we divide this up’, the ram said, ‘it is certain that not one of us will get his fill of it. But whichever of us has lived the longest has the best right to this fodder; let him eat it. Muhammad has set an example for all to follow, to give priority to one’s elders. Comrades, since such a piece of luck has come our way, let each of us declare his age. The oldest has the best right; the rest keep silent’. After a pause, the Ram said, ‘as for myself, I shared the same posture in those long ago times with the ram that Abraham sacrificed for Ishmael’.
‘I am the most ancient in years’, said the ox. ‘I was paired with the ox with which Adam yoked. I am the yoke-fellow of the very ox with which Adam, the father of all humanity, ploughed the earth in the season of sowing’. The camel listened to the ox and the ram in amazement. He lifted his head, seized the grass, and raised the bunch of green barley in the air. ‘I don’t need to rely on age’, he grunted. ‘Not with such a body and such a high neck’.
It is time to leave the prisons of Shariah, stop worshipping at the shrines of our ancestors, break free from traditionalist thought and bury the notion of the ‘Islamic state’ – surely by now we should have the capability to seize the grass.