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How to Understand Islam


by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press, 353 pp., $26.00

Secularism Confronts Islam

by Olivier Roy, translated from the French by George Holoch
Columbia University Press, 128 pp., $24.50


In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington, where he told his audience, “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith…. The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” In Britain his sentiments were echoed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat: “There is nothing in Islam which excuses such an all-encompassing massacre of innocent people, nor is there anything in the teachings of Islam that allows the killing of civilians, of women and children, of those who are not engaged in war or fighting.”

However reflective such views may be of the “moderate” Muslim majority, they are not uncontested. As John Kelsay shows in his new book Arguing the Just War in Islam, debates about the ethics of conflict have been going on since the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The scholars who interpreted the Prophet’s teachings addressed issues such as the permissibility of using “hurling machines,” or mangonels, where noncombatants including women and children, and Muslim captives or merchants, might be endangered. In the “realm of war” outside the borders of Islam a certain military realism prevailed: for example the eighth-century jurist al-Shaybani (who died in 805) stated that if such methods were not permitted the Muslims would be unable to fight at all.

There may be a vast distance in time and technology separating al-Shaybani’s authorization of mangonels and the attacks on New York and Washington, but the boundaries of legal discussion remain remarkably consistent. In their 1998 Declaration Concerning Armed Struggle Against Jews and Crusaders following the deployment of US troops in the Arabian Peninsula, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their cosigners belonging to the “World Islamic Front” cited rulings by thirteenth-century scholars including the celebrated jurist Ibn Taymiyya in order to justify their ruling that “to fight the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual obligation for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible.” In a recent video bin Laden invites Americans to embrace Islam, a requirement the classical authorities insist on before a non-Muslim enemy may legitimately be attacked. The critiques of bin Laden’s statements coming from religious authorities focus on the means by which the ultimate objective of a “restored” Islamic polity under Sharia law may be achieved, rather than the objective itself.

For example, in a recent open letter to “Brother Osama,” the prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh Salman al-Oadah makes a scathing attack on bin Laden for the excessive violence and damage to Islam inflicted by his campaign—including the “destruction of entire nations” and the “nightmare of civil war” in Afghanistan and Iraq, with their impact on the surrounding countries. But the sheikh’s quarrel with bin Laden is essentially about means rather than ends. The burden of his attack is that al-Qaeda’s methods—and the political fallout they engender—are counter-productive. Even if the radicals take power somewhere in the world, the sheikh writes, they will not have the experience or competence to govern in accordance with Islamic law.

None of these arguments are really new. The debate has been raging since before September 11. Will the militant actions taken in the service of justice yield more harm than good? Should a distinction be made between actions against “near enemies” occupying Muslim lands in Palestine or Chechnya and the “far enemy” in Washington? As Kelsay explains, “statements by al-Qa’ida are best understood as attempts to legitimate or justify a course of action in the terms associated with Islamic jurisprudence.” He usefully terms this discourse “Shari’a reasoning.”

The word sharia, usually translated as “law,” refers to the “path” or “way” governing the modes of behavior by which Muslims are enjoined to seek salvation. The way may be known to God, but for human beings it is not predetermined. A famous hadith (tradition) of Muhammad states that differences of opinion between the learned is a blessing. Sharia reasoning is therefore “an open practice.” In Islam’s classical era, up until the tenth century, scholars exercised ijtihad—independent reasoning—in order to reach an understanding of the divine law. Ijtihad shares the same Arabic root as the more familiar jihad, meaning “effort” or “struggle,” the word that is sometimes translated as “holy war.” Ijtihad is in effect the intellectual struggle to discover what the law ought to be. As Kelsay remarks, the legal scholars trained in its sources and methodologies will seek to achieve a balance between the rulings of their predecessors and independent judgments reflecting the idea that “changing circumstances require fresh wisdom.” The Sharia is not so much a body of law but a field of discourse or platform for legal reasoning. Recently, it has become an arena for intellectual combat.

It is therefore open to question whether the hijackers and the terrorists automatically put themselves beyond the bounds of Islam by killing innocents, as statements by Bush, Blair, and dozens of Muslim leaders and scholars suggest. With no churches or formally constituted religious authorities to police the boundaries of Islam, the only universally accepted orthodoxy is the Sharia itself. But the Sharia is more of an ideal than a formally constituted body of law. While interpreting the law was once the province of the trained clerical class of ulama, any consensus governing its correct interpretation has broken down under pressure of regional conflicts and the influence of religious autodidacts whose vision of Islam was formed outside the received scholarly tradition.

None of the three most influential theorists behind Sunni militancy, Abu’l Ala Maududi (1903–1979), Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949), and Sayyid Qutb, (1906–1966), received a traditional religious training. Yet both they and the authors of the landmark texts examined by Kelsay in his admirably lucid book (including the Charter of Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel, and bin Laden’s 1998 Declaration) claim the mantle of the Sharia, as did the terrorists responsible for the atrocities in New York, Madrid, and London.

Like it or not, these terrorist campaigns were inspired by the example of the Prophet’s struggle—his “just war”—against the Quraysh, the pagan tribesmen of Mecca. In the context of the original conflict between the early Muslims and the Meccans, the sources, including the Koran and the narratives of Muhammad’s life, suggest that “fighting is an appropriate means by which Muslims should seek to secure the right to order life according to divine directives.” In militant readings of the Sharia, the historical precedents are not so much interpreted as applied. For ultra-radicals such as bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri there is, as Kelsay observes, “little room for a sustained process of discerning divine guidance” along the lines enjoined by traditional scholars. An even more striking absence is evident in the criticisms of militant readings advanced by official Islamic authorities, including the widely respected Sheikh al-Azhar, head of the mosque-university in Cairo and once the single most important voice in Sunni Islam. While questioning the methods of the militants on grounds of practical ethics—will the “actions taken in the service of justice yield more harm than good?”—their criticisms usually fall short of challenging them on the grounds of political legitimacy. Conservative Muslim critics of militancy

do not in fact dissent from the militant judgment that current political arrangements [in most Muslim majority states] are illegitimate…. In its broad outlines, the militant vision articulated by al-Zawahiri is also the vision of his critics.

The core of this consensus—shared by traditionally trained scholars and more populist leaders such as al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Maududi, his South Asian counterpart, is the belief that the abolition of the caliphate by Kemal Atatürk in Turkey in 1924 must not mean the end of Islamic government. In this vision, which is also shared by Shia jurists such as the late Ayatollah Khomeini, parliaments and elections are only acceptable within the frame of Islamic supremacy. They “cannot compromise on Muslim leadership,” Kelsay writes. Full-blown democracy, where the Muslim voice might simply be one among many, implying a degree of moral equivalence between Islam and other perspectives, would be “dangerous, not only for the standing of the Muslim community, but for the moral life of humankind.”


In the majority Sunni tradition this sense of supremacy was sanctified as much by history as by theology. In the first instance, the truth of Islam was vindicated on the field of battle. As Hans Küng acknowledges in Islam: Past, Present and Future—his 767-page overview of the Islamic faith and history, seen from the perspective of a liberal Christian theologian—Islam is above all a “religion of victory.” Muslims of many persuasions—not just the self-styled jihadists—defend the truth claims of their religion by resorting to what might be called the argument from manifest success.

According to this argument, the Prophet Muhammad overcame the enemies of truth by divinely assisted battles as well as by preaching. Building on his victories and faith in his divine mission, his successors, the early caliphs, conquered most of western Asia and North Africa as well as Spain. In this view the truth of Islam was vindicated by actual events, through Islam’s historical achievement in creating what would become a great world civilization.

The argument from manifest success is consonant with the theological doctrine according to which Islam supersedes the previous revelations of Judaism and Christianity. Jews and Christians are in error because they deviated from the straight path revealed to Abraham, ancestral patriarch of all three faiths. Islam “restores” the true religion of Abraham while superseding Judeo-Christianity as the “final” revelation. The past and the future belong to Islam even if the present makes for difficulties. “In the history of religions,” asks Küng,

did any religion pursue a victorious course as rapid, far-reaching, tenacious and permanent as that of Islam? Scarcely one. So is it any wonder that to the present day Muslim pride is rooted in the experience of the early period…?

This formative experience of victory is what interests Michael Bonner in his scholarly essay Jihad in Islamic History. Viewing what has become an increasingly crowded field, he points out that the word jihad has acquired different resonances for a wide variety of actors, from the Islamist radicals for whom it forms the heart of a militant ideology to mystical quietists who regard the “greater jihad” as the struggle against the “lower self” of baser human impulses. Some observers, notably the political theorist Benjamin Barber in his widely read book of 1995, Jihad vs. McWorld, have stretched the definition to encompass local resistance to globalization. Other definitions mirror that of the militants themselves: the jihad doctrine is cited as proof of Islam’s innate tendency toward violence and its incompatibility with democratic norms. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those scholars such as Abdulaziz Sachedina—a professor at the University of Virginia who studied in Iran—whose reading of the sources convinces them that jihad is purely defensive.

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