Monday, July 2, 2007

Readings in Islam: "Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition"

In First Things June / July 2003, Fr. Richard Neuhaus remarked on the possibility of Islamic renewal:
Yet more troubling is the message that Islam, in order to become less of a threat to the world, must relativize its claim to possess the truth. That plays directly into the hands of Muslim rigorists who pose as the defenders of the uncompromised and uncompromisible truth and who call for death to the infidels. If Islam is to become tolerant and respectful of other religions, it must be as the result of a development that comes from within the truth of Islam, not as a result of relativizing or abandoning that truth. Is Islam capable of such a religious development? Nobody knows. But, if the choice is between compromising Islamic truth or a war of civilizations, it is almost certain that the winner among Muslims will be the hard-core Islamism that [Bernard] Lewis rightly views as such a great threat.

Christianity is more, not less, vibrantly Christian as a result of coming to understand more fully the mysterious and loving ways of God in His dealings also with non-Christians. Although the story of this development is complex, the important truth is that tolerance and mutual respect are religious, not secular, achievements. I will say it again: the reason we do not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God is that we believe it is against the will of God to kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God. Christians have come to believe that. We must hope that more and more Muslims will come to believe that. That will not happen, however, if they are told that coming to believe that will make them less faithful Muslims.

The authentic face of Islam?
That particular comment by Fr. Neuhaus' has stuck with me for some time. For instance, I'm wary of both the assertion that the terrorism of Al Qaeda and Bin Ladin represents "the true face of Islam" (the implication is that the more complacent forms such as the Muslim faith as practiced by citizens in the U.S. are but mere shams) and the suggestion that the only way Islam can possibly save itself is by dilution, relativization and secularization. The proposal that the only way Muslims can cooperate with the West and live in peace is by becoming ever less religious ("the only good Muslim is a non-Muslim"?) will do little to win the hearts and minds of Muslims the world over . . . not to mention some 3,700 currently enlisted in our armed forces and fighting the terrorist threat.

Fr. Samir Khalil, SJ has remarked along similar lines (Islamism, a disease of the Muslim world AsiaNews.it April 13, 2007):

Islam does not identify itself with radical islamism. But radical islamism is not foreign or separate to Islam: it is one of the possible readings of Islam (that is the Koran and the Sunnah); in short the worst possible reading.

This is why it is not only essential that Islam and islamism are not confused, but that Muslims are encouraged to reject islamism as an unnatural alteration of authentic Islam, and to combat this invasive tendency.

Perhaps it is because so many experts on the Islamic menace abound, with so many books and blogs on the jihadi menace (to the effect that when you hear the word "Muslim" your mental image is inevitably this guy) that I'm motivated to look at what other Muslims are saying and how they are responding to the extremists in their ranks.

It is refreshing, then, to discover a book like Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Traditional Muslim Writers, ed. by Joseph E.B. Lumbard (foreward by Seyyed Hossain Nasr) -- a collection of essays by scholars who are both well-acquainted with Western higher learning AND 'devout, practicing Muslims.'

Given the heated exchanges in response to Pope Benedict, Islam and the Prospect of Reform (Against the Grain April 23, 2007), I think a number of readers might take an interest in those chapters on the Islamic understanding of jihad. In "The Myth of Militant Islam," David Dakake notes the disappointing state of popular and/or contemporary studies of this issue:

In the present crisis, the pronouncements of many self-styled Middle East "experts" and Muslim "authorities" who have dealt with the subject of jihad have generally been of two kinds. There have been those who have thought, in a sense, to brush aside the whole issue and history of military jihad in Islam in favor of a purely spiritualized notion of "striving" in the way of God; and there have been those, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who have provided literal or surface-readings of Qur'anic verses related to jihad and fighting (qital) in an attempt to reduce all of Islam to military jihad. The first view reprepresents an apologetic attitude that attempts to satisfy Western notions of non-violence and political-correctedness but, in so doing, provides an "understanding" that lacks any real relationship to the thought of the majority of Muslim peoples throughout Islamic history. The second view, which would make Islam synonymous with "warfare," is the result of sheer ignorance or of political agendas that are served by the perpetuation of animosity between peoples. This second position ignores entirely the commentary and analysis of the Islamic intellectual tradition that has served for over one thousand years as a key for Muslims to understand Qu'ranic pronouncements relating to jihad.
Dakake engages in a critical examination of the more controversial passages in the Qu'ran that pertain to jihad, indicating how they were traditionally interpreted -- "[avoiding] both the etherialization of jihad by Muslim apologists, and the distortion of the tradition at the hands of 'fundamentalists.'" Comparing the interpretations of the "fundamentalists" to the traditional understanding of jihad as found in early Qu'ranic commentaries of al-Tabari and their historical context, he argues that proponents of the modern ideology of "jihadism" behave in a most un-Islamic manner ("so systematic is their disregard of the facts of earl Islamic history and the revelations of the Qu'ran that one is left wondering what of Islam, other than a name, would they claim to save?").

[Unfortunately Dakake's article is not online; however, a precursor article on "Some Misappropriations of Quranic Verses" [.pdf format] is available at this time through archive.org].

In "Recollecting the Spirit of Jihad" [an abbreviated version of which is available online via Second Spring], Rezah Sha-Kazemi flesh out Dakake's argument with examples from the past, "historically recorded cases where the spirit of authentic jihad is vividly enacted" and contrasted with "the pretensions of self-styled warriors of Islam."

As might be expected, he opens with one of the example of Saladin, widely extolled for his chivalry and mercy towards his enemies during the Crusades, particularly the granting of amnesty toward Christian captives in the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem (contrasted against the earlier sacking and subsequent slaughter of its inhabitants by Christian crusaders).

Another example offered by Reza is the curious account of the Christian monk Odo of Deuil of a mass-conversion to Islam by the remnants of Louis VII's army:

After being defeated by the Turks in Phyrgia in 543/1147, the remnants of Louis VII's army, together with a few thousand pilgrims, reached the port of Attalia. The sick, the wounded and the pilgrims had to be left behind by Louis, who gave his Greek allies 500 marks to take care of these people until reinforcements arrived. The Greeks stole away with the money, abandoning the pilgrims and the wounded to the ravages of starvation and disease, and fully expecting those who survived to be finished off by the Turks. However, when the Turks arrived and saw the plight of the defenceless pilgrims, they took pity on them, fed and watered them, and tended to their needs. This act of compassion resulted in the wholesale conversion of the pilgrims to Islam.
Rezah goes on to cite other examples from Islamic history: Mohammad's own mercy in granting an amnesty to the Quraysh following the conquest of Meccah, and the Emir Abd al-Qadir -- the 19th century Sufi military leader who, during the Algerian war, forbade the abuse of prisoners at a time when the French were pursuing a "scorched earth" policy. (When he was defeated and brought to France, he received hundreds of admirers, among them French offers who thanked him for the treatment they received under his hands).

A contemporary example is that of Ahmed Sha Massoud, the Afghani warrior who fought the Soviet invasion and later the Taliban, before his assassination at the hands of Al Qaeda:

One of the truly great mujahidin in the war against Soviety invaders in Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Massoud fell victim to a treacherous attack by two fellow Muslims, in what was evidently the first stage of an operation that destroyed the World Trade Center. It was a strategic imperative for the planners to rid the land of its most charismatic leader . . . the reason why Massoud was so popular was precisely for his fidelity to the values of noble warfare in Islam, and it was this very fidelity to that tradition that made him a dangerous enemy of the terrorists. To present the indiscriminate murder of Western civilians as "jihad," the values of true jihad needed to be dead and buried.
Some might protest Rezah's selection of historical examples -- one can point to grievious acts by Muslims and Christians during the Crusades, and even Saladin, following the Battle of Hattin, ordered the execution of prisoners and beheaded those who refused to convert. Furthermore, authors like Bat Ye'Or have written about the experience of Jews and Christians as Dhimmis. Nonetheless, I appreciate the chief focus and intent of the author: to draw our attention to manifestations of chivalry and mercy within the history of Islam, the inspiration for which is rooted in (and not extraneous to) the Muslim faith. It is these examples which serve in our time as a rebuttal both to the militant extremists and their critics, who in their own way reduce Islam to a "violent political ideology" and give credence to the platform of Bin Ladin.

According to Reza:

The episodes recounted here as illustrations of authentic jihad should be seen not as representing some unattainably sublime ideal, but as expressive of the sacred norm in the Islamic tradition of warfare; this norm may not always have been applied in practice -- one can always find deviations and transgressions -- but it was continuously upheld in principle and more often than not gave rise to the kind of chivalry, heroism, and nobility of which we have offered a few of the more striking and famous examples.

This sacred norm stood out clearly for all to see, butressed by values and institutions of traditional Muslim society. For those who look hard enough it can still be discerned through the clouds of passion and ideology. The Emir bewailed the paucity of "champions of truth" in his time; in our own time, we are confronted with an even more grotesque spectacle: the champions of authentic jihad being blown to pieces by suicide-bombers claiming to be martyrs for the faith.

The last article in the book which I want to mention is The Povery of Fanaticism by T.J. Winter (Abdal-Hakim Murad), which contrasts a Muslim youth's initially enthusiastic, yet ephemeral, attraction to Wahhabi-style activism with signs of a genuine and stable spiritual conversion:
Tawba [repentance], in its traditional form, yields an outlook of joy, contentment, and a deep affection for others. The modern type of tawba, however, born of insecurity, often makes Muslims narrow, intolerant, and exclusivist. Even more noticeably, it produces people whose faith is, despite its apparent intensity, liable to vanish as suddenly as it came. Deprived of real nourishment, the activist's soul can only grow hungry and emaciated, until at last it dies.
Perhaps it is not an entirely accurate comparison, but I thought a parallel might be found in some forms of Christian conversion -- the initial exclusivity and opposition, establishing one's identity over and against the other. (I admit my first thought on reading Winter's description was Thomas Merton's infamous epiphany "on the corner of fourth and walnut" in Louisville, of being
suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another . . . Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of "separation from the world" that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion.
For Merton this was the beginning of a deepening of his contemplative life; not so with others -- Winter describes the recognized phenomenon of "salafi burnout", where the initially exuberant hardline radical activism lapses, and reverts to his condition pre-conversion ("no longer even a minimally observant Muslim, no longer prayed, his ambition in life was to leave Egypt . . . and make money").

The Islamic "science" of analysing the states of the heart and bringing it into a condition of soundness or conformity with God has acquired the name tasawwuf ["Sufism"]. According to Winter, far from having a marginal existence in Islam, "the reality is that the overwhelming majority of scholars were actively involved in Sufism." Unfortunately, it is also the case that Sufism is vigorously opposed by Wahhabism, the movement -- heavily subsidized by Saudi Arabia -- largely responsible for the extremism and terrorism we encounter today (See "The Good & the Bad: Q&A with Stephen Schwartz on Islam and Wahhabism National Review Nov. 18, 2002). Winters continues:

The neo-Kharijite nature of Wahhabism makes it intolerant of all other forms of Islamic expression. However, because it has no coherent fiqh of its own - it rejects the orthodox madhhabs - and has only the most basic and primitively anthropomorphic aqida, it has a fluid, amoebalike tendency to produce divisions and subdivisions among those who profess it. No longer are the Islamic groups essentially united by a consistent madhhab [Islamic school of thought] and the Ash'ari [or Maturidi] aqida. Instead, they are all trying to derive the shari'a and the aqida from the Quran and the Sunna by themselves. The result is the appalling state of division and conflict which disfigures the modern salafi condition.

At this critical moment in our history, the umma has only one realistic hope for survival, and that is to restore the 'middle way', defined by that sophisticated classical consensus which was worked out over painful centuries of debate and scholarship. That consensus alone has the demonstrable ability to provide a basis for unity. But it can only be retrieved when we improve the state of our hearts, and fill them with the Islamic virtues of affection, respect, tolerance and reconciliation. This inner reform, which is the traditional competence of Sufism, is a precondition for the restoration of unity in the Islamic movement. The alternative is likely to be continued, and agonising, failure.

* * *

I'm in the process of reading several other books on this subject: Peter Demant's Islam vs. Islamism: The Dilemma of the Muslim World (Praeger Publishers, 2006); M.J. Akbar's The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the Conflict Between Islam and Christianity (Routledge, 2003) and Reza Azlan's No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (Random House, 2005) [reviews].

Demant's history is a highly informative and comprehensive in scope, as such worthy reading but but slow-going. M.J. Akbar, an Indian journalist, and Reza Azlan, an Iranian-American professor, are both skilled writers and highly engaging. Aslan writes from a modern perspective -- his portrayal of Islam strives to emphasize the tradition's "egalitarian", "inclusive", "progressive" elements, and takes an unconventional stance on some practices (see, for example, Chapter Three: On The Origins of Hijab"). Yet it is his emphasis on the diverse schools of thought and the many instances of internal debate within Islam that makes No God but God so fascinating.

I expect a few of my readers might protest that I have not yet supplemented my Islamic education with the latest from Robert Spencer, The Truth about Mohommad. Not to worry, it is on request from the public library and I'm merely waiting my turn in the queue. Books like Spencer's seem to be in high demand these days, while a collection of essays such as those found in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition bides its time, silently on the shelves.

blog comments powered by Disqus