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How to Understand Islam

In clearing a path through this highly charged intellectual undergrowth Bonner adopts a thematic approach aimed at uncovering “the inner logic” or “structural” sense underlying the Koranic teachings, even when “they sometimes appear to be in contradiction with one another.” He concludes that “where the Quran treats of war, we usually find a rhetoric of requital and recompense.” God grants the Muslims permission to fight “those against whom war has been made, because they have been wronged.” The law of reciprocity applies to goods as well as to warfare: whatever the faithful spend in the “path of God” will be amply repaid. After the Arab conquests of the Middle East and North Africa shortly after Muhammad’s death in 632, the law of recompense was institutionalized: the fighters received a fixed stipend from a treasury staffed by clerks who inscribed the recipients’ names in a special register.

This expanding “conquest society” was funded by rewarding the fighters with taxes extracted from the defeated, with a “relatively small elite of Arab warriors” becoming recipients of taxes contributed by “an enormous, taxpaying majority.” It was the purse, rather than the sword, that was an incentive to conversion, since Muslims, including converts, paid less tax than the non-Muslim majority. Eventually, from the ninth century on, the Arab fighters lost their privileged position, and the conquest society was replaced by systems under which Muslim rulers recruited specialized military units from non-Arab tribes including Turks, sub-Saharan Africans, Berbers, and Slavs. For example the Fatimids who founded Cairo in 969 depended for their military power on Berber mercenaries and Sudanese slave-soldiers. But the notion of reciprocity remained embedded in Sharia reasoning. The “martyr” who dies on the field of battle is “rewarded” in heaven for his courage. Proper religious motivation is paramount, but since “only God has full knowledge of the fighter’s intention,” the slain in battle are given the benefit of the doubt and treated as martyrs.

Whatever the limitations imposed on the conduct of war by the jurists, jihad became deeply embedded into Islamic discourse. In Bonner’s words, it is “an indissoluble part of the transcendent, transforming Message” that “provides motivation and pride.” Given the expanding frontiers of the formative period when the laws of jihad were developed, it would be wrong to regard the classical jihad as being purely defensive. As Bonner has it:

The historical experience of pre-modern Islamic states, together with the pronouncements of many classical Islamic jurists, would all tend to undermine this modern view of jihad as being preeminently defensive in character.

After an extensive survey of the best scholarly literature available in European languages, Hans Küng arrives at a similar conclusion:

The apologetic argument often advanced by Muslims that armed jihad refers only to wars of defence cannot be maintained. It is contradicted by the testimonies of the Islamic chroniclers, who show that the jihad was of the utmost political and military significance. It is hard to imagine a more effective motivation for a war than the “struggle”…which furthers God’s cause against the unbelievers.

As “an ecumenical theologian committed to fairness to all religions,” Küng sets himself the task of making a “critical reconnaissance” of Islam with a view to assisting in its “renewal.” His volume completes the ambitious threefold project that has already resulted in massive books on Christianity and Judaism. No religion, he says,

can be satisfied with the status quo in this time of upheaval. Everywhere there are amazingly parallel questions about a future renewal. In the face of antisemitism and increasing Islamophobia, what are called for are not uncritical philosemites or Islamophiles…but rather authentic, truthful friends of Judaism and Islam.

By “authentic” one assumes that Küng means “believing.” The believer’s route to an understanding of religious traditions other than his or her own is more risky and demanding than that of the skeptical outsider, for in addition to the intellectual challenges there are formidable emotional issues at stake. Since the god in which a vast amount of emotional energy has been invested appears to have said different things to the various individuals claiming to speak on his behalf, belief in the certainties held by one tradition necessarily excludes the others. This is especially so in the Abrahamic family of Western monotheisms, where confessions are deemed to be exclusive. In the mainstream, orthodox versions of these faiths, one cannot be a Muslim and a Christian, or a Christian and a Jew (although hybrid versions, such as “Jews for Jesus,” undoubtedly exist). In a globalized culture where religions are in daily contact with their competitors, denial of pluralism is a recipe for conflict.

Yet acceptance of pluralism relativizes truth. Once it is allowed that there are different paths to ultimate truth, an individual’s religious allegiance becomes a matter of personal choice, and choice is the enemy of the certainties that religions—especially monotheistic ones—are supposed to uphold. Fundamentalism is one contemporary response to the crisis of faith brought about by awareness of differences. Another—diametrically opposite—response is the global ecumenicism promoted by Küng. In approaching the prospect of dialogue with other religions, Küng is surely right in proposing that participants must abandon the literalist interpretation of their sacred texts, since every tradition must acknowledge its local origins:

A conversation with Jews and Muslims, or with Hindus and Buddhists, Chinese and Japanese, is doomed to failure if the linguistic tradition of a regional culture, whether that of the Greek East or the Latin West, makes absolute claims.

Outside the ranks of a small intellectual elite, the theological obstacles to dialogue are indeed formidable. In the ninth century the caliph al-Ma’mun and his immediate successors tried, and eventually failed, to impose as orthodoxy the belief that the Koran had been created in time (with the implication that its teachings might be contingent and time-specific). In reaction to this policy the majority Sunni tradition espoused an antirationalist theology that holds the Koran to be “uncreated” or co-eternal with God. In consequence the extraordinary veneration of the Koran has dominated Muslim religious thought and popular culture for more than a millennium.

Whereas historical criticism of the Bible has been accepted by most Protestants (except for fundamentalist die-hards) as well as by Reform Judaism and, belatedly, by the Catholic Church (following the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965), “higher criticism” of the Koran has yet to take root despite the impressive achievements of individual scholars such as the late Fazlur Rahman, Mohammed Arkoun, and Farid Esack (all of whom work, or have worked, in Western universities). For Küng,

It can only help Islamic faith if Islamic scholars begin to tackle the historical problems. This can still be dangerous for a Muslim today, just as a heterodox view was for a Catholic at the height of the Inquisition or for a liberal Protestant in Calvin’s Geneva.

What is needed, he concludes, elaborating on the term made popular by Thomas Kuhn, is a “paradigm shift” toward modernization comparable to those that occurred in the Christian and Jewish traditions.

Küng’s paradigm theory, which he illustrates with a complicated series of charts, makes structural comparisons between different stages in the evolution of the three monotheistic religions. The results, like some of the discursive threads in his monumental book, are at times confusing. Despite the apparent rigor, the detail is somewhat daunting, with the shape of the vast forest he sets out to map obscured by the density of trees. His case could have been made more clearly in a shorter, leaner book.

But the direction of his argument is sound. Like other religious systems, Islam has no option but to enter the waters of post-Enlightenment modern society, a universal milieu where

religion is no longer, as it was in the Middle Ages and the Reformation, an institution set over the social system to guarantee its unity, but merely a factor, a sphere, a one part-system among several.

There are precedents for this necessary paradigm shift—for example in the expansion from the Arab empire with its limited cultural horizons to the world religion Islam eventually became, incorporating the non-Arab peoples who now make up the vast majority of Muslims.

The intellectual groundwork for change has been laid in the works of modernist reformers who have been revisiting the sources of Islam for more than a century. They include Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817–1898) and Syed Ameer Ali (1848–1928) in India and Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), the influential chief jurist of Egypt. The problems do not lie in the realm of theology, where Muslim intellectuals have charted retreats from the received certainties of the medieval paradigm that are just as ingenious and (for true believers) just as plausible as the efforts of Western theologians. The obstacle lies rather in the absence, in the majority traditions, of structures of leadership through which reformist ideas can be effected at the popular level.


The size of the mountain that must be scaled before many Muslim societies can undergo Küng’s “paradigm shift” may be gauged from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s remarkable memoir Infidel. Born in Somalia in 1969, Hirsi Ali became a celebrity in Europe when her collaborator, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, was murdered in an Amsterdam street in broad daylight two months after the airing of a television film they had made depicting the plight of Muslim women. A note pinned to van Gogh’s body warned Hirsi Ali that she would be next. The ten-minute film, Submission, Part 1, showed the opening verses of the Koran—a universal prayer for Muslims of all persuasions—displayed over a woman’s body. “My message,” she states,

was that the Quran is an act of man, not of God. We should be free to interpret it; we should be permitted to apply it to the modern era in a different way, instead of performing painful contortions to try to recreate the circumstances of a horrible distant past. My intention was to liberate Muslim minds so that Muslim women—and Muslim men, too—might be freer. Men, too, are forced to obey inhumane laws.

In the ensuing fracas Hirsi Ali—who had recently been elected to the Dutch parliament—was forced into protective custody and, like Salman Rushdie, has now emigrated to the safer and more congenial haven of America, where Muslim immigrants tend to be less isolated, better educated, more prosperous, and less hostile to Western values than their coreligionists in Europe. Critics have labeled Hirsi Ali an “enlightenment fundamentalist.” This interesting charge places her in the distinguished company, among others, of the late Ernest Gellner, the philosopher-anthropologist and one of the most sophisticated yet sympathetic observers of modern Islam.

It might be more appropriate, however, to describe Ali as a “born-again” believer in Enlightenment values. Infidel has the hallmarks of a spiritual autobiography in which she progresses through various stages of illumination, from childhood trauma in Somalia (entailing genital mutilation inflicted by her own grandmother), through an adolescence in Saudi Arabia and Kenya, where a brief espousal of the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood empowers her to question her family’s tribal values within the frame of the movement’s stultifying, still patriarchal religiosity, toward eventual enlightenment and emancipation in Holland, aided by encounters with Dutch fellow students and readings from Spinoza, Voltaire, Darwin, Durkheim, and Freud. This remarkable spiritual journey is interlaced with a classic story of personal courage in the face of a parochial and misogynistic social system that systematically brutalizes women in the name of God, and in which women routinely submit to neglect and violence. Told with a rare combination of passion and detachment, it is a Seven Storey Mountain in reverse: a pilgrimage from belief to skepticism.

Yet for all Hirsi Ali’s questioning, there is a spiritual quality about her rebellion. The final break with her family occurs when senior members of her clan arrive in Holland to persuade her to rejoin the husband chosen by her father, in order to save the family’s honor. Her refusal seems divinely mandated. “I paused for a moment, and then the words just came out of my mouth. ‘It is the will of the soul,’ I said. ‘The soul cannot be coerced.’” The clan leaders, and her husband, accept the verdict. The soul cannot lie.

Ali’s political trajectory takes her from Labor to the Liberals, and then out of Dutch politics altogether, and beyond the soft boundaries of Islam. She now works for the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. In Küng’s terminology, she has negotiated a double paradigm shift, from the aristocratic clan-based identity into which she was born, through the new-style “disembedded” religiosity promulgated by the Muslim Brotherhood, toward the individualism of the Occident whose values she espouses in full. Her residual feelings for her religion evaporated after September 11, when she saw television images of ordinary Dutch Muslim children celebrating in the streets:

It was not a lunatic fringe who felt this way about America and the West. I knew that a vast mass of Muslims would see the attacks as justified retaliation against the infidel enemies of Islam…. True Islam, as a rigid belief system and moral framework, leads to cruelty. The inhuman act of those nineteen hijackers was the logical outcome of this detailed system for regulating human behavior.

There are none of the ethical nuances here that one finds in the discourse of Sharia reasoning. Indeed she is infuriated by the claims of “stupid analysts—especially people who called themselves Arabists”—that Islam is “a religion of peace and tolerance.” Such statements she regards as being no more than “fairy tales.” Her understanding of Islamic discourse is exclusively based on experience. Even though she acknowledges that female circumcision is not exclusive to Islam and is rarely practiced outside of Africa, she shows little awareness of the diversity of Muslim practices outside her own Somali culture. Her angry musings about the Koran are muddled:

I found myself thinking that the Quran is not a holy document. It is a historical record, written by humans. It is one version of events, as perceived by the men who wrote it 150 years after the Prophet Muhammad died. And it is a very tribal and Arab version of events. It spreads a culture that is brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war.

Seemingly unaware of the basics of Islamic scholarship, she confuses the holy text with the Prophet’s biography. But, disarmingly, she acknowledges her limitations:

Most Muslims never delve into theology, and we rarely read the Quran; we are taught it in Arabic, which most Muslims can’t speak. As a result, most people think that Islam is about peace. It is from these people, honest and kind, that the fallacy has arisen that Islam is peaceful and tolerant.

As a Dutch MP, Hirsi Ali mounted a successful campaign to expose the honor killings of young women in Muslim families for alleged sexual misdemeanors, and the scandal of circumcisions performed on little girls on Dutch kitchen tables. Finding the Labor Party less sympathetic to her agenda, she switched her allegiance to the Liberals before being forced, in effect, to emigrate to America. It is far from clear that she wants to influence the debate about gender and Islam now taking place throughout the Islamic world. Unlike Muslim feminists such as Fatima Mernissi or Leila Ahmed who challenge the misogynistic and patriarchal interpretation of the holy texts, she confronts, and rejects, the canon in toto. This is not a position from which she is likely to have much impact on Muslims with a deeper knowledge of their own religious traditions.

In Holland, as in Britain, multiculturalism or even “cultural sensitivity” can provide a cover for the abuse of women and children, not to mention neofascist tendencies, such as Holocaust denial and the rampant anti-Semitism prevailing in some Muslim circles (a subject on which Hirsi Ali has been courageously eloquent).

In France the situation is somewhat different. Debates about multiculturalism occur under the overarching canopy of laïcité, a term that loosely but inadequately translates into English as “secularism.” Olivier Roy, in his short discursive essay Secularism Confronts Islam, exposes the historical roots of laïcité and its implications for France’s Muslim communities. Though underpinned by the 1905 law of separation between church and state, laïcité extends far beyond the setting of institutional boundaries. It is a full-blown statist ideology whose pedigree stretches back to the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution. Laïcité, Roy insists, must not be confused with secularization. With secularization—a universal process integral to modernization—“a society emancipates itself from a sense of the sacred that it does not necessarily deny.” With laïcité the state actively “expels religious life beyond a border that the state itself has defined by law.” Laïcité actually fosters religion by making it a separate category. It reinforces religious identities rather than allowing them to dissolve into more diversified social practices.

Roy’s essay was originally published in France at the height of the debate over multiculturalism that followed the government’s decision to ban the veil and other conspicuous manifestations of religiosity in schools. He objects to the one-sided way in which politicians insisted on regarding the veil as a symbol of female oppression. One of the most astute observers of Islam writing today, Roy believes that strong enforcement of the policy of laïcité distorts the complex evolution toward secularization that is occurring in the Islamic world as in other faith systems. Disembedded from its various regional cultures, Islam is evolving into a distinctive faith system comparable to Christianity and other religions. The counterpart of the intensified religiosity that is found in fundamentalist movements of all traditions is a de facto acknowledgment of secularization that can be observed, for example, in the behavior of Muslim youth. Self-assertiveness among young Muslims should not just be attributed to “Islam.” Roy writes:

Adolescents’ intentions to assert themselves by wearing provocative clothing is a banality in secondary schools, but the affair of the veil has been experienced as the penetration of the school system by Islamism. A girl wearing the veil wants simultaneously to assert herself as an individual, escape from the social constraint of her milieu by adopting a sign that grants her both value and autonomy, make herself noticed, affirm a form of authenticity….

The state should not interfere with this process. Rather than intervening theologically (for example by trying to boost “moderate” or liberal religious leaders against “fundamentalists”), the state should leave religious communities to evolve under their own internal dynamic. According to Roy:

Many very conservative Muslims have adapted very well to secularization and to laïcité by reformulating their faith in terms of values rather than norms, along the lines followed by Christian conservatives. They defend the family, sexual difference, and the criticism of morals; they oppose homosexual marriage and even abortion and divorce (two categories that hardly cause any difficulties in traditional sharia); but they remain within the framework of legality.

Roy’s analysis chimes in well with Küng’s own strictures on laïcité as an “anticlerical secularism” that has outlived its purpose:

Today the French Republic is no longer confronted with an over-powerful ultramontane political Catholicism (the religion which embraces the majority of the French) but with an often marginalized Muslim minority to whom the freedom of the individual brings little.

As indicators for policy guidelines, Küng’s and Roy’s analyses make sense—but within crucial limits. There remains a strong body of evidence that the terrorist atrocity of July 2005 in London, and subsequent unsuccessful attempts, were inspired, at least partly, by radical preachers working out of British mosques. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer and exporter of the fundamentalist Sunni ideology known as Wahhabism, may be actively opposed to jihadism in its present forms. But as Roy previously explained in Globalized Islam, the oil-rich kingdom and neighboring Gulf states have helped to extend Wahhabi or Salafist (fundamentalist) influence “through an intensive outpouring of fatwas and short conferences or lectures, spread through the internet, television stations…or via cheap booklets.” These products, he argued, are

an important part of the curriculum of worldwide Muslim institutions that are subsidized by Gulf money. Through informal networks of disciples and former students, [Wahhabi preachers] reach a lay audience far larger than the madrasas [seminaries] in which they teach.1

A recent survey of jihadists in Europe concluded that “activists invest considerable time and energy in self-study of Wahhabi Islam and subsequently the jihadi strain of Salafism.”2

There are countervailing tendencies, for example in the appeal of Sufi ideas and religious disciplines (to which Wahhabis are adamantly opposed) in some literary and artistic circles, and in related mystical traditions imported from Indo-Pakistan. But so long as there remains a generation of European Muslims who feel alienated from their parents’ traditions yet rejected by the wider society, the style of religiosity supported from Arabia will remain a powerful “ultramontane” force.

  1. 1

    Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 236. Reviewed in these pages by William Dalrymple, December 1, 2005.

  2. 2

    Leadership in Europe’s Jihad Networks,” published by Exclusive Analysis, London.

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