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Islam Confronts Its Demons

The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb, translated from the French by Pierre Joris and Ann Reid
Basic, 241 pp., $24.00


And once again wars of religions are ready to devastate Europe. Boheman, leader and agent of a new sect of “purified” Christianity, has just been arrested in Sweden, and the most disastrous plans were found among his papers. The sect to which he belonged is said to want nothing less than to render itself master of all the potentates of Europe and their subjects. In Arabia new sectarians are emerging and want to purify the religion of Mahomet. In China even worse troubles, still and always motivated by religion, are tearing apart the inside of that vast empire. As always it is gods that are the cause of all ills.”

—Diary of the Marquis de Sade, quoted by Abdelwahab Meddeb in The Malady of Islam

Why has Islam, unlike its close cousins Christianity and Judaism, not undergone a reformation? The question may sound reasonable. Yet often as not, those who pose it forget that in the Christian case, at least, reformation was a painfully long procedure. They tend to neglect the gory episodes, and the intricate debates about doctrine, and think instead of the end result that Westerners live with today, something that the Moroccan philosopher Abdou Filali-Ansary aptly calls a state of “disenchantment” with pure religious dogma in favor of the ethical principles that underlie it, such that “faith becomes a matter of individual choice and commitment, not an obligation imposed on the community.”1 And that, of course, is as much a product of the Enlightenment as of the Reformation.

Those who know Islamic history have even better reason to find the question puzzling. The fact is that since its inception fourteen centuries ago, Islam has undergone bursts of reformation. Like other religions, it has splintered into myriad sects and sub-sects, each claiming to be the properly “reformed” variant of the faith. The biggest division is that between Sunnis and Shias, which, although its origins lie in the conflict over succession to the Prophet Muhammad’s rule, soon took on doctrinal dimensions that grew increasingly hard to resolve. But while Shiism continued up until the nineteenth century to sprout esoteric offshoots (such as the Alawites in Syria or the Bahai in Iran), the much larger Sunni branch has maintained a surface unity, even as vying factions within it have periodically laid claim to being truer believers than their rivals.

Within Sunni Islam, reformers have always chosen one of two paths. Followers of the first trend might be described as literalists, meaning they have sought a return to the letter of Islam’s founding texts, namely, the Koran, the hadiths, or recorded sayings of the Prophet, and the sunna, or recorded doings of the Prophet. The other trend could be called proto-humanist, meaning that they have sought to break free of the texts, reinterpreting them or filtering them in search of a presumed essence that may be more appropriate to temporal or spiritual needs.

Such attempts at reform through more flexible interpretation have often proved shallow and short-lived. A good example is the Mu’tazelite movement of eighth- and ninth-century Iraq, whose ideas of free will, rationalism, and the need to understand the Koran within its historical context were ultimately rejected by the Muslim mainstream as too dangerous a departure. Their analytical methods remained influential, however, as did those of other Greek-inspired Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes, whose liberalizing notions were, in the end, similarly dismissed by more powerful orthodox schools. Sufism, with its emphasis on spiritual content rather than ritual form, was an early but enduring application of such efforts to exalt individual appreciation of the faith over legalistic norms.

Appealing more to elites than to the masses, and lacking a defined program or coherent leadership, such reformist currents never captured the political initiative that would have enabled them to sustain themselves. Subtly, however, their skepticism has periodically challenged the rigidity of institutional Islam. That influence could be seen, for example, in the enlightened manners of Muslim Spain, in the relative tolerance shown to non-Muslim subjects by the Ottoman Turks, or in the playful, ribald subversiveness that characterizes much of medieval Islamic literature. The more relaxed and eclectic variants of the faith practiced today in places such as Indonesia, West Africa, and the major cities of the Middle East also bear the stamp of a more outward-looking take on the faith.

More often than not, though, “reform” in Islam has pushed in the other direction, toward the reassertion of the primacy of founding texts and early theologians over later accretions or interpretations. Such atavistic literalism derives particular power from the fact that the Koran itself is generally understood by Muslims to be the unaltered word of God. Charging others with having strayed from God’s evident commands is thus a potent political instrument. At the same time, reversion to the historical model of early Islam necessitates a recasting of the faith as an aggressive, expansionary force that must struggle for survival amid a sea of enemies, whether these be infidels or Muslim “hypocrites.” At times when the faith has seemed to be in peril, such as during the terrible Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, this worldview was adopted as a matter of instinct.

Puritan reformers have repeatedly used this double-barreled power—the sword and the book, so to speak—to launch jihad-minded movements, such as the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties that swept across Morocco and Spain from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, or the dynasty founded by Saladin, which not only defeated the Christian Crusaders but also effectively stamped out Shia influence in Egypt and the Levant. Other examples include the Wahhabists, who rose in central Arabia in the late eighteenth century and still exercise power in Saudi Arabia today, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Although such movements have been geographically disparate, periodic purges by them have had the cumulative effect of reducing the accepted Sunni canon to a narrow range of sources and interpretations. As an Arabic phrase puts it, they have “closed the door of ijtihad,” or speculative reasoning, enabling traditionalist scholars to posit a utopian vision of Islam as a closed system that only awaits firm application by a just ruler. In other words, this type of “reform” has repeatedly marched the faith into a philosophical cul-de-sac.

Twenty-five years into Islam’s fifteenth century, the faith is again in a state of unusual ferment. Its many would-be reformers are again pushing in opposite directions. Across the extremely broad Islamic spectrum, the same essential split can be found between humanists and literalists, or, to frame the rivalry in a more modern way, between what the Dutch historian Rudolph Peters has categorized as those who would subordinate Islam to “progress” and those who would subordinate progress to “Islam.”2

Quotation marks are appropriate, because the very breadth of the Islamic spectrum renders difficult the adoption of a common vocabulary. In the wake of an imperialist age that saw nine in ten Muslims fall under non-Muslim rule, old meanings have strayed onto new territory, and new realities have subtly altered understandings of what many Muslims (and all too many Western scholars) still take to be fixed concepts. In particular, the frequent imposition of Western political ideas—of “democracy” and “republic,” for example—onto self-consciously Islamic terminology has created a species of verbiage that lends itself to easy distortion.

At the same time, the political setting of this Muslim century has lent itself to a certain overheating of the debate. To put the problem simply, the world looks rather threatening as seen from the Muslim perspective. It is not merely a question of the legacy of colonialism, or of the fighting taking place on what Samuel Huntington describes as the present “bloody borders” of Islam—what most Muslims view as liberation conflicts in places such as Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, Palestine, and now, some would say, Iraq. Like many smaller religious communities that have turned inward, traditional Islam feels itself mortally challenged by a dominant global culture that is ebulliently hedonistic and irreverent.

Fear being a fertile theme for politicians, Muslim politics has grown to be dominated by the language of resistance, whose physical manifestations range from disturbingly romanticized “martyrdom operations” to the defiant wearing of the headscarf. In the words of Muhammad Charfi, a Tunisian liberal, Muslim educational systems now tend to present Islam as “irreducibly opposed to other kinds of self-identification or of social and political organization, and as commanding certain specific attitudes regarding political and social matters.” It has become as much an -ism as a religious faith.

Yet much of the new, exclusivist Islamist discourse rests on tenuous grounds. The notion of an Islamic state, for instance, has become something of a touchstone for movements that promote Islam as central to political identity, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or the Ayatollah Kho-meini’s adherents in Iran. But as Carl Ernst points out in Following Muhammad, his thoughtful and finely balanced primer on contemporary Islam, the simple use of a label does not resolve the question of whether it is Islam that is to define the state or the state that is to define Islam. Judging from the experience of revolutionary Iran, Ernst concludes that in effect, a small, unelected group of conservative scholars determines what is to be “Islamic” about the Iranian state.

Similarly, proponents of a politically powerful Islam commonly assert that the application of Islamic law, or sharia, should be the defining characteristic of an Islamic state. Yet there is disagreement about what sharia actually means. Many Islamists, influenced, perhaps unwittingly, by European models of law, seem to believe that it is a sort of all-embracing rulebook, not unlike France’s Napoleonic code. But sharia was never a comprehensive system. It simply implied a “way,” a path, a striving to apply God’s will, as interpreted by scholars following at least five different major schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

Seeing sharia as a blanket solution to modern problems also involves a dangerous measure of forgetfulness. Even before they were colonized by European powers, Muslim countries such as Tunisia and Egypt freely chose to adopt Western-style statutes, in recognition of the modern world’s essential need for predictability in the application of law. As do most Muslim countries now, they limited the scope of sharia to the few matters covered by specific Koranic injunctions, such as laws regarding inheritance. And then there are those, such as the Egyptian judge Said Ashmawi, who assert that sharia should simply be understood as any law made by Muslims.

Jihad has become a similarly vexed concept. In Professor Ernst’s apt definition, jihad simply means a quest for virtue, and it is certainly in this sense that all but a small minority of Muslims practice it. Terrorism in the name of Islam has, inevitably, made the word fearful to non-Muslims. Yet the idea that jihad should be synonymous with holy war has infected not only Western understanding but also some strains of Muslim thought. Militant Web sites with evocative names such as ‘Azf al Rusas (“The Music of the Bullet”) promote the notion that fighting the infidel is a primal duty of every Muslim, to the exclusion of virtually all else. And leaders such as Osama bin Laden have turned this understanding of jihad into a furious passion play.

  1. 1

    See Abdou Filali-Ansary, “Muslims and Democracy,” in Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, edited by Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg.

  2. 2

    From Jurists’ Law to Statute Law or What Happens When Shari’a Is Codified,” in Shaping the Current Islamic Reformation, edited by B.A. Roberson.

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