Islam’s View on War and Terrorism: A Survey of the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions

Perhaps no issue in contemporary politics is the source of greater misunderstanding and caricature than Islam’s view on war and terrorism. The indiscriminate bloodshed wrought on September 11th, the London and Madrid bombings, and the nearly daily suicide bombings that emanate from Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, have impressed upon the Western psyche a terrifying image of the Islamic faith that is perpetuated with remarkable facility by Islam’s modern antagonists. The Arabic noun jihad, whose lexical meaning is “struggle,” has today entered the Western vernacular with an irredeemably pejorative connotation; to a believing Muslim, however, jihad has long been associated with chivalry, courage, and a military honor that represents a legacy of moral and ethical excellence. As Professor T.J. Winter of Cambridge University observed, “terrorism is to jihad what adultery is to marriage.” As prescribed by the United Nations Charter, Fourth Geneva Convention, and the consensus of modern nation-states, Islam has a rich and comprehensive marital tradition that provides for a theory of just war. Despite an overwhelming Qur’anic emphasis on peace, diplomacy, and clemency, the Islamic tradition, recognizing man’s propensity for material exploitation and self-aggrandizement, does not subscribe to a strictly pacifist worldview. Rather, it provides believing Muslims with a detailed set of ethical principles of military engagement that, as will be shown, mirror modern international law in significant ways. This view of just war is universally espoused not merely by modern nation states, but also finds considerable anchorage in the Christian intellectual tradition. The Catholic Church boasts a highly sophisticated martial law whose origins can be traced to the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, and Hugo Grotius. Indeed, the military component of jihad can be usefully analogized to the Catholic doctrine of just war, which found its most eloquent expression in the writings of Aquinas in the thirteenth century.

Relying on Islam’s primary sources of law and doctrine, the Holy Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (Arabic: “hadith”), classical Muslim jurists extrapolated an organized body rules that may be termed the “laws of war.” The cumulative literature on this subject is vast and highlights the rich diversity of voices that characterized Islam’s internal debate on war and peace. In spite of frequent disagreement among Muslim jurists on the precise contours of the rules of engagement, particularly the circumstances under which war could be entered into (jus ad bellum), basic foundational principles were shared by virtually all medieval scholastics, the most important of which was Islam’s clear and categorical prohibition against the taking, indeed harming, of innocent civilian life (jus in bello). As the Qur’an famously states, “Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as though he had killed all of mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” (Qur’an 5:32).

Modern manifestations of terrorism and suicide bombings are invariably the product of aberrant interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith that developed in the post-colonial era. Recognizing the tragic decline of Muslim empires throughout the world, today’s asymmetrical methods of warfare constitute a furtive admission that contemporary Muslim armies are without power to engage their adversaries in a manner that comports with traditional Islamic doctrine and contemporary international law. To justify departures from Islam’s pre-modern stance on the laws of war, vigilante groups have been forced to engage in ahistorical, decontextualized readings of the Qur’an and prophetic traditions to create a pretense of legality for what is emphatically illegal from the standpoint of Islamic law. This is certainly understandable at a rational level, and replicates the “machiavellian” actions undertaken by non-Muslim terrorist groups and state governments that have been equally callous in their disregard for innocent human life. Although Muslims in many parts of the world find themselves the victims of gross depredations and human rights abuses, often at the hands of Western powers, Islam’s legal tradition simply does not lend credence to the subhuman methods employed by Al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, and other vigilante entities. Indeed, this wholesale rejection of indiscriminate violence is not a question of apologetics, but rather an objective reality rooted in centuries of Islamic law whose fashioners insisted upon an unforgiving attitude towards terrorism.

Before undertaking an examination of Qur’anic verses that pertain to armed conflict, it will be useful to provide the ethical framework to which a Muslim solider must adhere in the context of battle, which has been most clearly articulated in the hadith traditions. The Prophet Muhammad provided succeeding generations of Muslims with clear prohibitions and constraints in their use of force, which are all the more remarkable considering the social milieu in which they were revealed. The quotes that follow are taken from the most authoritative hadith collections of Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunnan Abu Dawud, Sunnan Al-Tirmidhi, the Musnad of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, and the celebrated Al-Muwatta of Malik ibn Anas. As noted above, reliable hadith reports, which must undergo a rigorous process of authentication, are second most important source of Islamic law and doctrine; the explicit character of these traditions highlight the unambiguous position espoused by the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) on a matter of the gravest moral import. Before engaging in battle, the Prophet Muhammad instructed his soldiers:

“Do not kill any child, any woman, or any elder or sick person.” (Sunan Abu Dawud)

“Do not practice treachery or mutilation. Do not uproot or burn palms or cut down fruitful trees. Do not slaughter a sheep or a cow or a camel, except for food.” (Al-Muwatta)

“If one fights his brother, [he must] avoid striking the face, for God created him in the image of Adam.” (Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim)

“Do not kill the monks in monasteries, and do not kill those sitting in places of worship. (Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal)

“Do not destroy the villages and towns, do not spoil the cultivated fields and gardens, and do not slaughter the cattle.” (Sahih Bukhari; Sunan Abu Dawud)

“Do not wish for an encounter with the enemy; pray to God to grant you security; but when you [are forced to] encounter them, exercise patience.” (Sahih Muslim)

“No one may punish with fire except the Lord of Fire.” (Sunan Abu Dawud).

“Accustom yourselves to do good if people do good, and to not do wrong even if they commit evil.” (Al-Tirmidhi)

The foregoing prophetic traditions reveal a rather striking irony: by indiscriminately targeting women and children, mutilating human bodies through the use of fire and explosives, hurling corrosive acid in the faces of unsuspecting bystanders, and bombing civilian complexes and places of worship, extremists elements in the Muslim world have effectively contravened every command of the Prophet Muhammad. Should it be argued that the traditions invoked do not represent Islam’s pre-modern position on war and terrorism, or that important traditions have been omitted or sanitized, it will be useful to consider the view of an impartial authority. In his book, “Islam: The Religion and the People, Bernard Lewis, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and among the most influential Western scholar on Islam in the past half-century writes:

“At no time did the (Muslim) jurist approve of terrorism. Nor indeed is there any evidence of the use of terrorism (in Islamic tradition). Muslims are commanded not to kill women, children, or the aged, not to torture or otherwise ill-treat prisoners, to give fair warning of the opening of hostilities, and to honor agreements…The emergence of the now widespread terrorism practice of suicide bombing is a development of the 20th century. It has no antecedents in Islamic history, and no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition. It is a pity that those who practice this form of terrorism are not better acquainted with their own religion, and with the culture that grew up under the auspices of that religion.” (emphasis added)

Furthermore, writing in the Wall Street Journal shortly after September 11th, Lewis states:

“[T]he laws of Jihad categorically preclude wanton and indiscriminate slaughter. The warriors in the holy war are urged not to harm non-combatants, women and children, “unless they attack you first.”….A point on which they insist is the need for a clear declaration of war before beginning hostilities, and for proper warning before resuming hostilities after a truce. What the classical jurists of Islam never remotely considered is the kind of unprovoked, unannounced mass slaughter of uninvolved civil populations that we saw in New York…For this there is no precedent and no authority in Islam. Indeed it is difficult to find precedents even in the rich annals of human wickedness.”

Although Lewis is a widely acknowledged and decided opponent of vigilante terrorism, and even served as a policy advisor to the Bush administration to lend support to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, his understanding of the classical Islamic view on the rules of engagement constitutes an elegant summary of the hadith cited above. As Lewis writes, without equivocation or qualification, “at no time did the [Muslim] jurist approve of terrorism,” for which there is “no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition.” Indeed, classical Muslims jurists adopted an unforgiving attitude towards pre-modern terrorism, which often manifested itself in the form of poisoning water sources, abductions, brigandry, rape, and subterfuge. Khaled Abou El Fadl, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Islamic law notes that, without regard for whether the perpetrator (or victim) was Muslim or non-Muslim, Islamic jurists had no reservations in imposing the severest sentences on terrorists, including the punishment of death. Commenting on the supreme rule of the law, one medieval jurist famously remarked, “if political expediency becomes the law, nothing will remain of this religion.”

Turning to the Qu’ran, a Muslim embarking upon a reading of scripture is instructed to interpret Qur’anic injunctions in a comprehensive manner; that is, he must not only condition his reading of a Qur’anic verse in light of other verses, but must also carefully consider the entire body of hadith literature, the contrasting interpretations of early Muslim exegetes, the specific circumstances to which the verse speaks, extenuating circumstances that would justify a departure from a prima facie reading, and evaluate the authenticity of prophetic traditions in light of systemic principles adduced by hadith experts. If a verse is severed from this interpretive context, it will frequently result in absurd readings that undercut the essential meaning of the language under consideration. Modern militant groups have relied on precisely this kind of decontextualized reading to justify their criminality; despite emphatic protestations to the contrary, their justification for terrorism finds no objective basis in Islam’s intellectual and moral tradition. Echoing Bernard Lewis, Professor Fadl writes, “The [classical] Islamic juristic tradition, which is similar to the Jewish rabbinical tradition, has exhibited unmitigated hostility toward terror as a means of political resistancesome Islamists today argue that the only effective way of resisting oppression or occupation is through terrorism and, therefore, it has become a necessary evil. But this type of unprincipled and opportunistic logic is not supported by the rigorous classical heritage.”

Before considering the verse found in Chapter 9 verse 5 of the Qur’an, which is relied on almost exclusively by vigilante terrorist groups to justify suicide bombings and other forms of asymmetrical violence, it will be useful to consider several Qur’anic verses that address questions of war and peace. The verses that follow do not represent an anomalous voice, but speak to the very essence of the Qur’anic message and are repeated, again and again, in varying language:

“Take not life, which God hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law: this He has commanded you that you may understand.” (Qur’an 6:151)

“Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause. And if anyone is slain wrongfully, we have given his heir authority (to demand justice or to forgive): but let [the heir] not exceed bounds in the matter of taking life; for he is helped (by the Law).” (Qur’an 17:33)

“Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors.” (Qur’an 2:190)

“There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in God hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break.” (Qur’an 2:56).

“We ordained therein for [the Children of Israel]: ‘Life for life, eye for eye, nose or nose, ear for ear, tooth for tooth, and wounds equal for equal.’ But if any one remits the retaliation by way of charity, it is an act of atonement for himself.” (Qur’an 5:45)

“If [non-Muslims] withdraw from you and do not war against you and offer you peace, God alloweth you no way to [to war] against them.” (Quran 4:90)

“O you who have believed, do not consume one another’s wealth unjustly but only [in lawful] business by mutual consent. And do not kill yourselves [or one another]. Indeed, God is to you ever Merciful.” (Qur’an 4:29)

“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) the rich or poor: for God is the Best Patron of both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that ye do.” (Qur’an 4:135)

Without undertaking an exhaustive interpretation of each verse, the foregoing Qur’anic injunctions emphasize the following: the right to due process before the law, the wrongfulness of extinguishing innocent human life (including one’s own), the command to bear witness to truth and justice even against oneself or one’s kin, the requirement of honoring peace agreements, the prohibition against continuing hostilities once an armistice has been established, and the fact that religion may not be imposed upon an individual by force. Recognizing the profound textual difficulties in justifying terrorism in light of these Qur’anic commandments, modern vigilante group such as Al Qaeda have relied almost entirely on a verse found in Chapter 9, verse 5 of the Qu’ran, which is widely considered the main source of “inspiration” for terrorism in modern Islam:

“But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”

What, then, is the context of this solitary verse? The verse in question speaks to the early wars between the Meccan polytheists and newly formed Muslim polity. This Qur’anic commandment was revealed to the Muslim community in response to an irreconcilable political rift that erupted when the Meccans violated the terms of a peace treaty. According to the earliest commentaries, the Muslims offered a four month period of repose during which the Meccans were asked to make amends. It was only after this cease-fire proved to be unfruitful that the believers were permitted to engage in battle and fight and resist those who had committed murder, driven Muslims from their homes, extorted property, and indeed, subjected the Prophet Muhammad and his earlier followers to extreme human rights abuses during the first thirteen years of his ministry. Nevertheless, the verse stresses that if hostilities cease and the Meccans’ repent, “a way has been open for them, for God Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”

But a crucial point must not be forgotten: despite an allowance to “kill and slay” the adversary, a Muslim was not permitted to abandon the ethical principles that guide a soldier’s conduct. That is, the combatant was required to adhere to the many prohibitions Prophet Muhammad imposed on the exercise of force, the most obvious was the illicitness of harming a non-combatant. To insist that this verse gives Muslims carte blanche to engage in indiscriminate violence would be akin invoking an American military general’s instruction to his forces in Afghanistan “to kill the enemy wherever you find him” and wantonly applying it to any and all Afghan civilians. The absurd and gross character of this misinterpretation hardly merits comment. It is bizarre irony that vigilante terrorist groups today have adopted a less enlightened view of war and peace than classical Islamic jurists writing during the medieval period. Furthermore, the few Qur’anic exhortations that call upon the Muslims to confront their adversaries on the battlefield emphasize the fact that, far from having a lust for war and violence, the early Muslims were extremely reluctant to engage the Meccans militarily and required continual reminders that their duty to honor and protect the lives of their community was a divinely revealed commandment. (Qur’an 2:216-18; 4:74-77; 9:39).

Owing to the remarkable absence of sciptural support for terrorism in the Qur’an and hadith, the verse cited above is the primary edifice upon which vigilante groups have constructed their theory of “holy war.” Notably, from a purely textual basis, the Qur’an compares favorably to other sacred scriptures in its circumspect authorization of military engagement. Consider the following three verses found in the Old Testament in which the God of Israel is purportedly speaking in the first person: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (Numbers 17:31); “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:3). “The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.” (Hosea 13:16). Although evangelical elements in the West are quick to point to the “violent” character of the Qur’an, no analogous verse, which explicitly authorizes that the killing of women and children, may be found anywhere in the Qur’an. The purpose in invoking these passages is not to suggest that Jewish or Christian doctrine authorizes indiscriminate violence, but rather to highlight the gross duplicity that often exists among Islam’s modern antagonists who insist upon a jaundiced reading of Islamic scripture. Due to the scarcity of traditions in the New Testament that address the inescapable reality of military conflict, Western scholars have argued that Christian doctrine was heavily influenced by both secular and Muslim thinkers, including Marcus Tullius Cicero and the Spanish polymath, Ibn Rushd. Indeed, Aquinas, undoubtedly the most influential thinker of medieval Christendom, would argue for the “meritorious” character of just war in his Summa Theologica. His position bears a profound resemblance to the view of classical Islamic theorists: “True [Christian] religion looks upon as [just] those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.”

Interpretative difficulties abound even in secular documents that have achieved a nearly sanctified quality in the West. The United States Constitution, a document that represents the culmination of the European Enlightenment and its most formidable intellectual response to centuries of human bondage, religious persecution, and brutal imperial rule, contains a provision in Article 1, Section 2, paragraph 3, that denotes slaves as “three-fifths” of a person. It was only after the passing of the 14th amendment that this provision was abrogated, though it remains in the original text of the document. Once again, to read Qur’an 9:5 outside its context would be the intellectual equivalent of reading this solitary provision without reference to its subsequent amendment. Although no doubt a strikingly banal observation, to impose self-serving interpretations on a text by severing language from its context constitutes a betrayal of the most elementary standards of intellectual integrity. Ironically, it is a habit common to vigilante terrorists and prominent right-wing personalities in the West who have unwittingly entered into an adulterous union.

In sum, the notion that Islam, the Qur’an, or the Prophet Muhammad countenanced terrorism is not only a calumny against a world religion professed by one in five people in the world, but perpetuates a dangerous myth makes honest introspection and political reconciliation all but impossible. In a forthcoming an essay, an effort will be made to understand the underlying motivations for terrorism in the Muslim world and why Islamic doctrine is frequently invoked by vigilante terrorists to define their respective political struggles.

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An Introduction to Islamic Doctrine: A Young Muslim’s Perspective

Preface: What follows is the first segment to a multi-part “Introduction to Islam” in which I hope to discuss issues of general interest to a non-Muslim audience: Islamic doctrine, sacred law, women’s rights, the laws of war, Islam’s view of terrorism, faith and science, the American Muslim experience, and related issues. My decision to take on this project was the result of long and arduous deliberation. I have always resented evangelical religion of any variety, be it of Islamic or Christian character, and thus I emphatically hope that I will not be lumped together with those bent upon “converting” others to their respective faiths.

Like other sacred traditions, Islam grants all human beings an absolute and unalienable right to freedom of conscience by which one has the right to choose to believe (or disbelieve) any faith they desire. Rather, as stated in my “About” section, I hope to play a modest role in fostering interfaith dialogue and political reconciliation, particularly between the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities in the West. I believe that understanding Islam, which is often a source of considerable misunderstanding and even demonization, is an indispensable first-step towards that end. I hope that my professed commitment to interfaith harmony will be see as an honest one.

An Introduction to Islamic Doctrine: A Young Muslim’s Perspective

Islam represents one of the largest and most ethnically diverse sacred traditions in human history. The foundational teaching of Islam is most elegantly expressed in the Islamic declaration of faith known as the Shahada. One enters the fold of Islam by declaring that, “There is no deity worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is His [last and final] messenger.” Islam teaches that if this belief is sincerely held by a human being, salvation in the afterlife “is a promise from God in truth” (Qur’an 4:122). In addition to belief in Muhammad’s Prophethood, Islam requires belief in all of the Prophets of the Jewish and Christian tradition, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, Issac, Jacob, Solomon, David, and Jesus. Islam teaches that these Prophets brought one universal message of pure monotheism, that is, a belief in One God, not complicated by intermediaries, sons, daughters, or indeed any conduit that would impede direct worship between a servant and His Maker. In this vein, Jews and Muslims adhere to a remarkably similar conception of the Divine. Islam insists upon a direct and personal relationship with God without an ecclesiastical hierarchy or any form of intercession; as such, it is uncompromisingly “monotheistic” and strongly discourages excessive theological speculation about Divine nature that, Muslims believe, caused prior religions communities to blur the distinction between God and Man, mostly notably through the apotheosis of Christ. In requiring belief in One God, Muslims believe that Islam subscribes to a highly rational theology that is capable of being understood by all human beings. Islam teaches that the exercise of one’s ratiocinative faculties and innate intelligence can enable one to come to a realization of the Divine (Qur’an 38:29); that said, the Qur’an insists that belief in the “Unseen” is an inescapable component of the Islamic faith and that a full understanding of the nature of the universe rests with God alone (Qur’an 2: 1-3; 72:26).

In much the same way that Islam rejects the deification of Christ, a Muslim is categorically prohibited from worshiping the Prophet Muhammad and forbidden from elevating his status above any of his prophetic predecessors. (Quran 2:136). Indeed, it is noteworthy that most sacred traditions are often named after their purported founders or points of geographic origin: Christianity (Christ), Buddhism (Buddha), Judaism (tribe of Judah), Hinduism (descendents of the “Sindhu” River), Confucianism (Confucius). By contrast, Islam is not named after the Prophet Muhammad or pre-modern Arabia, but rather encompasses a broad and universal meaning that transcends all individual and geographic demarcations. The word “Islam” translates as “submission to the Will of God,” whose etymology traces to the word “salaam,” meaning peace. In addition, although a common source of misunderstanding, the word “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God, much like “Dieu” denotes God in French, or “Elohim” in Hebrew. Indeed, the name  for God in the language purportedly spoken by Christ in the New Testament, Aramaic, is “Alaha,” which is nearly phonetically identical to its Arabic counterpart. In short, “Allah” is used by both Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims to refer to the One Monotheistic God worshiped by the Prophet Abraham.

Muslims believe that the Qur’an represents the final revelation sent to humankind. That said, the Qur’an confers the reverent title of “People of the Scripture” upon Jews and Christians, which speaks to the fact that the both religious communities were recipients of Divine Revelation. Islam commands a Muslim to believe in previously-revealed holy scriptures, including the Torah, Psalms, and the Gospel of Christ, known as the “Injeel” in Arabic and “Evangelion” in Greek. Notwithstanding this commandment, the Islamic tradition teaches that prior revelations were subjected to interpolation and alternation through succeeding centuries and thus calls upon Muslims to judge altered religious texts by the standard of the Qur’an, which is sometimes referred to as the “Final Revelation” or “The Criterion” (Arabic: Al-Furqan). Given the common Abrahamic lineage between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, one will find that much of what exists in the present-day Old and New Testaments fully comports with the Qur’anic ethos, a fact perhaps best reflected by the famous Sermon of the Mount reported in the Gospel of Matthew. Indeed, insofar as “Christian” translates as “follower of Christ,” a Muslim steadfastly regards himself as a follower of Jesus and his message of pure monotheism found in the New Testament (Luke 18:19).

Similarly, both Islam and Christianity subscribe to a conception of God whose paramount attribute is Divine Mercy and Grace. Nevertheless, from a believing Muslim’s perspective, Islam’s view of salvation and forgiveness departs from the Christian tradition in important ways. In contrast to the Christian doctrine of “Vicarious Sacrifice,” Islam maintains that each individual is responsible for his own sins (Qur’an 6:164) and that it is not through the shedding of blood, but rather non-conditional Divine Mercy, that God forgives sin. While honoring the Christian tradition, Islam does not subscribe to the notion that God demands a quid pro quo to forgive sin. Rather, Islamic tradition teaches that God has stated “My Mercy is greater than My Justice,” and thus, recognizing man’s frailty and propensity for sin, forgives without demanding recompense of any sort. It is important to emphasize that despite these theological differences, a Muslim is strictly forbidden from disparaging any faith (Qur’an: 6: 108) and must honor and respect religious diversity; moreover, the Qur’an is emphatic that freedom of conscience and the right to choose one’s faith, or no faith at all, is a divine right that may not be stripped of any human being (Qur’an 2:256 & 109:6).

Like many other world religions Islam provides believers with a sacred law that contains a general prohibition against pork, alcohol, gambling, etc. However, the essence of the Islamic ethos is not adherence to divine law, but rather faith and belief in God, His Signs, His Prophets, His Revelations and striving to live a life characterized by humility, selflessness, love, and always caring for the weakest members of society. Like previous Abrahamic prophets. Muslims believe these virtues were most beautifully exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad during his twenty-three year ministry, which was a period marked by immense political turmoil and persecution. The Prophet Muhammad’s example of moral uprightness in the midst of a highly patriarchal and primitive seventh-century Arabian society reinforces a Muslim’s belief that his is a noble example most worthy of emulation. The diversity and richness of the Prophet Muhammad’s life in his role as a father, a son, an orphan, a husband, a statesman, and a religious figure, provides succeeding generations of Muslims with a model of moral excellence to follow in all realms of human endeavor. Similar to the Christian adage, “What would Jesus do?” a Muslim is taught to ask, “What would God’s prophets do?,” which includes not just Muhammad, but Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jesus, and others.

Islamic doctrine is clear that it is not by one’s good works, but God’s Mercy that one achieves salvation. As the Prophet Muhammad famously said, “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately, and rejoice, for no one’s good deeds will put him in Paradise. His Companions asked: ‘Not even you, Oh Messenger of God?’ He replied: “Not even me, unless God bestowed His Grace and Mercy upon me.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8, No. 474). Although Islam discourages vice, many Muslims, both today and even during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, continually fell into a state of “sinfulness,” which included the consumption of alcohol, fornication, and the like. Muslims are encouraged to do their level best to live a life of God-consciousness and conform one’s actions to sacred law, but a Muslim is taught not to despair if he finds himself struggling in his adherence to legal injunctions (Qur’an 2:222). Islam teaches that faith is to be a source of spiritual nourishment and beauty, not a suffocating tradition that robs life of all its zest. Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad himself strongly encouraged entertainment and lightheartedness, particularly on festive occasions such as weddings and religious celebrations. In so doing, he explicitly rejected the extreme forms of asceticism that caused man to cut himself off from the blessings of the material world. Islam seeks to strike a practical balance between excessive materialism and monastic life. In this vein, western scholars often noted that Islam was a beautiful manifestation of Aristotle’s “Golden Mean.”

Mankind, We created you from a male and female, and made you into distinct nations and tribes so that you might come to know each other. The noblest among you in God’s sight is the one who is best in conduct.” (Qur’an 49:13)

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Were Imam Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah So Different, After All?

One of the most well-known Islamic websites in the West is operated by a gentleman by the name of Masud Ahmed Khan ( Khan’s site provides a rich repository of insightful articles by English-speaking Muslim intellectuals such as T.J. Winter and Nuh Keller. I have great reverence for Winter and Keller as both have played an instrumental role in enabling young Muslims to rediscover the power, beauty, and sublimity of Islam; indeed the title of my website was inspired by Winter’s invocation of Shakespeare’s famous adage, “Blood is No Argument.” I regard Professor Winter as among the most important and influential thinkers in modern Islam. Keller himself is the translator of an oustanding compendium of Islamic law, entitled, “Reliance of the Traveller,” from which I have derived considerable benefit.

Without wanting to revive the rather tiresome controversy regarding “Salafi” and “madhabi” Islam, I would like to say a few words about an issue of the highest practical significance insofar as it pertains to questions of Islamic tolerance and unity. The controversy between Salafi and madhabi Islam is arguably the most divisive internal conflict within Western Islam; thankfully it remains a largley intellectual (i.e. non-violent) conflict, but nonetheless engenders profound feelings of enmity between the two camps. Among both Salafi and madhabi Muslims there exist very devout and committed Muslims who, in my mind, embody the highest moral principles of modern Islam. Thus, what I wish to say applies exclusively to what I will term “partisan Salafis” and “partisan madhabis.” In spite of the wealth of valuable information Khan’s website provides, the articles contained therein are frequently employed as intellectual weapons by partisan madhabis who are fond of branding Ibn Taymiyyah, his students, and essentially all Salafi Muslims as misguided. Unfortunately, many of Keller’s essays, along with other writers on Khan’s site, include explicit negative references about Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, and their “Salafi” successors, which has a very divisive effect among Muslims today. My intention here is to present a balanced picture, to show that both sides must be circumspect in condemning their detractors in such categorical language; even more, neither partisan Salafis nor madhabis should disparage the great scholars of pre-modern Islam, of which Imam Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah are undoubtedly two. Bear in mind that I make no attempt here to address any particulars of Islamic theology and doctrine, which are highly complex issues that have been the source of controversy going back to medieval Islam, and beyond. They are outside the compass of my understanding.

I have made my strong opposition to partisan Salafi Islam known in several public posts (see “False Conservatism and the Case for Moderation“) and thus my loyalties are emphatically not partial to any one side. Nevertheless, it seems to me that on ritual matters of Islamic jurisprudence the positions of Salafi Muslims, who draw from all four schools of Islamic law, are often better supported by textual evidence and legal reasoning than their madhabi counterparts who insist upon adhering to a single school of jurisprudence–the rational basis for rigid adherence to one school has never made sense to me. In my mind, the main criticism that may be made against partisan Salafism is that it insists that its positions on Islamic law and doctrine are the only correct ones and consequently tends to be highly intolerant of views that depart from its framework, particularly on issues such as understanding God’s Attributes and Islamic fiqh. Moreover, partisan Salafis appear to have a rather antiquated understanding of the Islamic penal code (i.e. death penalty, blasphemy laws, punishment for theft, etc.), not recognizing that practices that had a normative character in the pre-modern world make little sense to apply in the modern context, even from the vantage point of conservative Islamic law. Although these are major defects in my mind, Salafis often have noble and endearing traits. Perhaps if Salafism exhibited a greater degree of tolerance and employed a more flexible jurisprudence, it would stand as a formidable intellectual force within modern Islam. It remain on the fringes of contemporary Islamic thought largely on account of self-inflicted wounds, it seems to me. But what of their madhabi counterparts? My strong belief is that partisan madhabis manifest characteristics that are altogether identical to the partisan Salafis they denounce.

Not satisfied with the hysterical denunciations of Nuh Keller on several prominent Salafi websites, I spent many long hours in the university library as an undergraduate researching Ibn Taymiyyah, Imam Ghazali, Asha’rite theology, and related issues. What I discovered was rather astonishing: I learned that the views of respected Western scholars on Islam were literally the mirror opposite of those espoused by Keller and other contributors to Khan’s site (see below for documentation). In short, these scholars argued that Imam Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah were essentially mirror reflections of one another and that neither subscribed to Asha’rite theology; this near-wholesale rejection of Asha’rite thought was thought to represent the proper position of classical Islam in the minds of Western scholars. Indeed, I presented my findings to Keller by way of Masud Ahmed Khan in an e-mail several years ago, but did not receive a response. My genuine love and esteem for Keller notwithstanding, it is undeniable that partisan madhabis, many of whom attend Zaytuna Institute seminars and cite the authority of Keller, Winter, Hamza Yusuf, Imam Ghazali, Imam Nawawi and others, insist that madhabi Islam and Ashar’ite thought represents “traditional Islam as practiced by every Muslim scholar going back to the Prophet (sws),” or some variation thereof. Moreover, they are quick to brand any and all Salafi Muslims as misguided, heterodox, and even “modernist” in their approach to Islam.

Unfortunately, most of these partisans have not undertaken anything approximating an impartial survey of Islamic history and theology; rather, they uncritically recite what Keller, God bless him, and others have written, in a manner altogether similar to partisan Salafis who champion the incendiary essays found on Salafi websites. In short, partisan madhabis maintain that Ibn Taymiyyah’s scholarship was rejected by the consensus of the classical Muslim scholars and that Ash’arite (and to a lesser extent Muturdi) theology represent the orthodox formulation of Islamic doctrine. In so doing, partisan madhabis have adopted a “my scholar is better than yours attitude” vis-a-vis Imam Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah, thereby perpetuating the rather shameful habit of treating Muslim scholars like football teams. It is important to note that Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir have consistently come to Ibn Taymiyyah’s public defense and, so far as one can tell, have never uttered an unkind word about him. Hamza Yusuf has consistently shown himself to be a man of the highest moral courage, someone committed to Muslim unity in the most profound sense of the term; a sample of his views of Ibn Taymiyyah may be found in this video lecture. Furthermore, consider the following quote by his dear friend and colleague at Zaytuna College, Zaid Shakir. In his essay, “The Changing Face of Secularism and the Islamic Response,” Shakir writes:

In the West, we will have to prevent the emerging “Traditionalist-Salafi” division from becoming a fundamental, irreconcilable split. One way to do this is to define Ahli al-Sunnah w’al-Jama’ah as broadly and as inclusively as possible, instead of the narrow, exclusive definitions, which dominate current discourse. One such definition is provided by Tahir al-Bagdadi (d. 429 AH) in his book, al-Farq bayn al-Firaq(The Difference Between the Sects). He mentions Ahl al-Sunnah w’al-Jama’ah as being comprised of eight basic groups. These groups accommodate all of the orientations, which serve as the basis for the thought of informed Traditionalists and Salafis.

In light of the foregoing, it is clear that Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir have explicitly distanced themselves from a narrow conception of madhabi Islam. Where, then, is the evidence that the views of partisan madhabis do not align with objective Islamic scholarship and history? Below I’ve provided a small sample of my research. Note that the quotes that follow issue from the most authoritative sources on Islam: George Makdisi, William Montgomery Watt, Henry Laoust, Donald Little, and Ignaz Goldziher. Only the latter may be construed as having anything approximating an anti-Islamic bias–I believe this was Edward Said’s position who seemed to dismiss virtually every Western scholar on Islam and the Arab people as one given to the “Orientalist” enterprise. Notwithstanding Said’s cynicism, I regard these scholars as fair and impartial authorities–far more impartial than partisan Salafis and madhabis who have strong incentive to ignore evidence that upset their respective positions.

Consider first Keller’s position in juxtaposition to Makdisi and Donald Little. Keller writes:

“By the standards of all previous Ahl al-Sunna scholars, it is clear that despite voluminous and influential written legacy, ibn Taymiya cannot be considered an authority on tenents of faith (‘aqida), a field in which he made mistakes profoundly incompatible with the beliefs of Islam, as also with a number of his legal views that violated the scholarly consensus (ijma) of Sunni Muslims.”

Citing the Hanafi scholar Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari, Keller again writes:

“Whoever thinks that all the scholars of his time joined in a single conspiracy against him from personal envy should rather impugn their own intelligence and understanding, after studying the repugnance of his deviations in beliefs and works, for which he was asked to repent time after time and moved from prison to prison until he passed on to what he’d sent ahead.”

Now contrast Keller’s stance with Professor Donald Little’s view on the attitude of classical Muslim historians toward Ibn Taymiyyah (emphasis added):

Without exception, all of the historians, no matter what their position, training, and specialization show a distinctly favorable attitude toward Ibn Taymiyyah’s words and deeds. So far as has been determined, only al-Dhahabi, Ibn Rajab, and Ibn Hajar record anything at all which might be construed as an uncomplimentary interpretation of Ibn Taymiyyah’s character and activities, and the instances of this are rare even with these three authors. Al-Dhahabi, in fact, speaks of him as farid al-‘asr’, ‘the like of whom he had not seen.”

“For example, Al-Dhahabi claims that the Shaykh (Ibn Taymiyyah) had partisans from ‘the Ulama and virtuous persons among the army and the amirs, the merchants and notables (kumara), and that all the common people loved him because he stood up for their welfare, night and day, by his tongue and his pen…..Who were these enemies? In this particular instance, they were obviously other Syrian Ulama who were jealous of Ibn Taymiyyah’s prestige with the ranking Mamluk office of Syria…As for other groups or classes of enemies, Ibn Kathir specifies the fuqaha, who, he says, were jealous both of Ibn Taymiyyah’s prestige and his piety…Nor is it difficult to understand the envy and jealously attributed to his Ulama colleagues. Not only did he move in powerful company and influence the leaders of the state, his opinions were widely sought and forcefully expressed.”

On the question of Islamic doctrine, Keller states the following regarding Ashar’ite thought:

The Ash‘ari school and Maturidi schools have represented the ‘aqida or “tenets of belief” of the majority of Sunni Muslims for more than a thousand years.”

However, George Makdisi, “acknowledged on a world-wide scale as one of the greatest Arabists and Islamicists of his generation” presents a view altogether different. Consider several excerpts (emphasis added):

In this paper I hope to show also that from Shafi’i and Ibn Hanbal to Ghazzali and Ibn Taimiya, a traditionalist religious movement, fundamentally Islamic, fought for the catholicity of Islam against the elitist exclusivism of kalam, first in its Mu’tazilite, then in its Ash’arite versions.

How then did we arrive at the notion that Ghazzali was an Ash’arite theologian? The notion was conceived in the nineteenth-century studies, especially in that of von Mehren, based on the Tabyin of the Ash’arite propagandists Ibn ‘Asakir.”

I am aware that this conception of Ghazzali as a Shafi’ite without being an Ash’arite will come as a surprise to many. However, we are brought to it not only by Ghazzali’s own words, which should be sufficient, but also by the attitude of Subki as well as that of Ibn Taimiya.

To sum up: the place of Ash’arism in the historical development of Muslim theology has been allotted an exaggerated importance. Whenever this happens in the writing of history, something else is sure to suffer in the process. And the loss, in the final analysis, is our own. The place of traditionalism in the history of Muslim religious thought has been minimized, and its importance overlooked.

Consider W.M. Watt’s position (emphasis mine):

It was only with the growth of interest in Hanbalism stimulated by Henri Laoust that this identification [of the dominance of Asharitie thought] was seen to be inadequate. Under the inspiration of Laoust, George Makdisi published an article in 1962 entitled ‘Ashari and the Asharites in Islamic Religious History’. In this he called attention to the fact that Western Islamists had relied almost exclusively on Asharite sources. This began with the publication in London in two volumes (1842, 1846) of ash-Shahrastani’s work on sects and religion, Kitab al-milal wa-n-nihal, followed by its translation into German in 1850/I. This was a balanced scholarly work and rightly had an immense influence on Western thinking about Islam, but it was not without some bias in favour of Asharism…[thus] the importance of Ash’arites had been exaggerated and the contribution of the ‘traditionalist’ overlooked. This conclusion is in the main to be accepted.”

That is, Little, Makdisi, and Watt present view of Islamic history that directly undercuts Keller’s position. The two viewpoints stand in irreconcilable contradiction. One may argue that these scholars represent voices of an older generation of Orientalists that were bent upon demonstrating that Islam was given to anti-intellectualism. However, the weakness of this argument is four-fold: first, it is a matter of common knowledge that Makdisi is the author of the two most important books on Islam’s contribution to humanism, the university system, and its profound effect on the intellectual development of European thought. See The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West (1990) and earlier The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (1981). Indeed, Keller and others often cite Makdisi’s authority favorably in their published works. Second, W.M. Watt is considered the precursor to John Esposito and others, and regarded even by committed Muslims as among the most balanced Western voices on Islam. One may even say Watt’s books are written with a subtlety and exactitude that leaves the work of his successors appearing rather amateurish. Third, even if it is conceded that these voices were working in pursuit of “culture and imperialism,” as Said was wont to say, it does not follow that their findings are flawed. One must substantively and comprehensively refute their scholarship, which has not been tried, let alone done, to my knowledge. Forth, Makdisi himself states that in advancing his position on Imam Ghazali and his rejection of Ashar’rite theology, he is challenging the conventional view put forth by his Orientalist predecessors. Makdisi is quite emphatic about this point.

I suspect that partisan madhabis will regard my criticism of Khan and others as a show of irreverence. But I hope it is not perceived that way. God is my witness that I love Nuh Keller, but I happen to strongly disagree with his non-conciliatory view of Ibn Taymiyyah and his students, particularly in light of the overwhelming historical evidence that supplants his well-intentioned position. One of the reasons, it seems to me, that many young Muslims have become disabused of religion is because they are taught, either explicitly or implicitly, to keep silent when faced with a genuine dilemma as to what their conscience demands and what they are told by their religious elders. But how can one be asked to abdicate one’s common sense in a false showing of respect and piety? Indeed, the greater show of disrespect, in my mind, would be to remain quiescent while allowing intellectual confusion to pervade within oneself.

Thus the question that must be put to Khan and others is that, if one is so sure that Ibn Taymiyyah was misguided, and that Asharite thought is the proper articulation of traditional Islamic doctrine, why have the most authoritative and impartial sources on Islam said the exact opposite? (See below for more detailed quotes). Do those who dismiss Ibn Taymiyyah and his students as heretical figures have an intellectually robust response to their findings? Perhaps most importantly, will the partisans in the mahabi community cease in their disparagements of Ibn Taymiyyah and those who choose not to follow the precise contours of Asharite theology? Indeed, the absence of tolerance in modern Islam is a two-way street and cannot be laid exclusively at the feet of partisan Salafis; both sides are to blame in equal, or comparable, measure.

My decision to present this research publicly was prompted by a very practical consideration: to quell yet another source of unnecessary internal controversy within contemporary Islam. The present controversy has resulted in a sharp ideological divide among Muslims as evidenced by the abundance of Salafi and madhabi websites devoted to partisan denunciation, and counter-denunciation. Regrettably, it must be said that partisan madhabis suffer from the very attitude of condescension and self-adulation that they rightfully condemn in their Salafi counterparts. Why contemporary Muslims are so bent upon creating infinite sectarian division, I cannot understand. A slight show of tolerance and open-mindedness would have a highly restorative effect upon the world Muslim community.

I end with several additional quotations from the scholars I reference above:

Taken from George Makdisi’s paper, “The Non-Ash’arite Shafi’ism of Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali“:

“In this paper I hope to show also that from Shafi’i and Ibn Hanbal to Ghazzali and Ibn Taimiya, a traditionalist religious movement, fundamentally Islamic, fought for the catholicity of Islam against the the elitist exclusivism of kalam, first in its Mu’tazilite, then in its Ash’arite versions. Shafi’i had inaugurated this anti-kalaam movement and given it its religious manifesto. Ibn Hanbal followed him carrying the message through to victory. Learned advocates among the Muslim intellectuals sustained the movement’s momentum down through the centuries, with Ibn Hazm, Ghazzali, and Ibn Taimiya being perhaps the most famous among them. These jurisconsult-theologians, in spite of their many differences of opinion, have surprisingly many thoughts and traits in common, including their attitude towards kalam-theology, and their profound admirations for the Fathers of Islam (Salaf), especially Shafi’i and Ibn Hanbal.

“To my knowledge, Ghazzali never once refers to himself as an Ash’arite. Indeed, all signs indicate a different direction. It does not help to say that Ghazzali never once denied affiliation with Ash’arism; for it may also be said that he never affirmed such an affiliation. On the contrary, there is a good reason to doubt it.”

“How then did we arrive at the notion that Ghazzali was an Ash’arite theologian? The notion was conceived in the nineteenth-century studies, especially in that of of von Mehren, based on the Tabyin of the Ash’arite propagandists Ibn ‘Asakir.”

“I am aware that this conception of Ghazzali as a Shafi’ite without being an Ash’arite will come as a surprise to many. However, we are brought to it not only by Ghazzali’s own words, which should be sufficient, but also by the attitude of Subki as well as that of Ibn Taimiya. We are convinced by Subki’s less than enthusiastic attitude towards Ghazzali, by his thinly veiled criticism of the Ihya, by the capital fact that he refuses to accord to the Iqtisad the qualification of a work on theology according to the method of the theologians of kalam…It is precisely for this attitude towards kalam that Ghazzali was attacked by the theologians of Ash’arite kalam and it is for this attitude that the Hanbalite Ibn Taimiya defended him against them. Ibn Taimiya must have recognized in Ghazzali a true disciple of Shafi’i for whom he had the greatest respect.”

Referring elsewhre to the Great Madrasa Nizamiya Makdisi writes, “Ash’arism had no place whatever in this institution.” Makdisi continues:

“For Ghazzali, it is disputation among the faithful on questions of theology that must be avoided, not disputation on questions of law. For this reason he avoids kalam-theology and all that tends to favor its development, especially dialectic and disputation. But since disputation is necessary in legal studies, he sets forth in Ihya the principal conditions that should regulate the practice of this art.”

From George Makdisi’s, “Ash’ari and the Ash’arites in Islamic Religious History”:

“To sum up: the place of Ash’arism in the historical development of Muslim theology has been allotted an exaggerated importance. Whenever this happens in the writing of history, something else is sure to suffer in the process. And the loss, in the final analysis, is our own. The place of traditionalism in the history of Muslim religious thought has been minimized, and its importance overlooked. This misjudgment arises from our ignorance concerning the Ash’arite family, as well as the traditionalist family. We saw in the Hanbalites what the Ash’arites wanted us to see: a small group of backwater theologians, pitifully pitted against the much more numerous and more progressive Shafi’ites, whom we believed to be allied to the Ash’arites. What we failed to see that the Ash’arites were opposed by the Shafi’ites themselves. If the Shafi’ites were not as vocal against Ash’arism as the Hanbalites, it was because their peculiar situation: the majority of the Ash’arites whom they opposed theologically were members of their own school of law. If the Hanbalites were more vocal, in fact the most vocal group among the traditionalists, it was because their members were not involved: they were traditionalists through and through, as well as a recognized sunnite school of law. We have taken it for granted that the Shafi’ite school of law formed the shielding armour of Ash’arism; when in reality, the majority of Shafi’ites regarded Ash’arism as a parasite, and were hard at work ridding themselves of it.”

“Furthermore, we have been misled by the Ash’arite sources into thinking that the enemies of Ash’arism were, on the one hand, Mu’tazilism, the ultrarationalists who divested God of His attributes; and on the other hand, Hanbalism, the ultraconservatives, who were plagued by crass anthropomorphism. This picture was calculated to convince its viewers that Ash’arism was the middleroad orxthodoxy. And so we dutifully became convinced not only of this, but of more, by force of implication. We became convinced that these enemies of Ash’arism were also the enemies of the Shafi’ite school of law. This took us a long way from seeing that the great upheaval between Ash’arism and traditionalism was taking place within the Shafi’ite school itself. The majority of Shaf’ites, who were not Ash’arites, harbored no hatred for Hanbalism. On the contrary, it was with Hanbalites, not with Ash’arites, that the Shafi’ites were in alliance, together with all the other traditionalists, against their common enemy: Ash’arism. The alliance was not a new one; it had been in existence since the days of Mu’tazilism.”

“The great struggle which began in the 11th century was not between Ash’arites and Mu’tazilites, nor even Ash’arites and Hanbalites; it was a struggle of rationalist Ash’arism against the overwhelming traditionalist forces of all sunnite schools of law. That is why, first in Baghdad, and later in Damascus, that stronghold of traditionalism which was the Shafi’ite school of law, proved for the Ash’arites a very hard nut to crack.”

“A theological system, in order to be sanctioned as legitimate, to propagate its doctrine, to provide for its perpetuation, had to be adopted by a legal system. Like all theological systems, Ash’arite theology was in need of such adoption. For there were no endowed theological colleges; hence, no recruiting centers for theological systems; hence, also, the “infiltration” of the schools of law by the schools of theology. This need was clearly understood by all three major theological systems of the period. Traditionalism was safely and solidly entrenched in every one of the schools of law, with the Hanbalite school acting as spearhead of the movement. From this strong position, traditionalism pitted itself against the other two movements: first, Mu’tazilism, in its efforts to infiltrate the Hanafite school of law; then Ash’arism, the object of our present concern, in its efforts to infiltrate the Shafi’ite school.”

“If Ash’arism had triumphed in the middle ages, Ibn ‘Asakir would have had no need to appeal to the Shafi’ite traditionalists in the 12th century; nor would Subki have needed to renew the appeal in the 14 century; nor would traditionalism have kept on the flourishing after it had defeated Ash’arism in Baghdad in the 11th.”

“The very existence of such propaganda as Ibn ‘Asakir’s and Subki’s is a clear indication that the Ash’arites were still struggling for recognition. For these propagandists were not representing orthodoxy interested in attracting stray sheep to the fold; they were representing a group considered to be outside the limits of orthodoxy and desperately trying to get in. Ash’arites in theology, Ibn ‘Asakir and Subki were also two representatives of the important Shafi’ite school of law in their respective periods. These two Shafi’ites were fervent believers in Ash’arism which lacked nothing but legitimacy. The bid for legitimacy in Baghdad had already failed in the eleventh century, and traditionalism had won the day. The struggle for legitimacy was then transferred to Damascus. In order to succeed, our two Damascenes, Ibn ‘Asakir and Subki, had the task of convincing the orthodoxy of their day, an orthodoxy ever clinging tenaciously to the traditionalism of the Ancestors (Salaf), that Ash’arism bore the Ancestor’s stamp of approval. Muslim orthodoxy remained unconvinced. And after the “elucidations” of Ibn ‘Asakir and Subki, two central problems remained as perplexing as ever; namely, the origins of Ash’arism and its early development.”

Taken from Ignaz Goldziher’s, “Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law,” translated by Andras and Ruth Hamori. Goldziher writes:

“Thus at the outset of his creed al-Ashari proclaims himself a Hanbalite. That does not augur a conciliatory position. Indeed, when it comes to speak of the anthropomorphist question, he heaps all his scorn on the rationalists who seek figurative explanations for the concrete terms of the holy scriptures. Not satisfied with the rigor of the orthodox theologian, he also shows himself a grammarian. God himself says, after all, that He revealed the Qur’an in “clear Arabic”; it follows that the Qur’an can only be understood in light of the correct Arabic usage. But when in the world had any Arab ever used the word “hand” to mean “benevolence,” and so on? What Arab has ever employed all those tricks of language that rationalists interpreters want to read into the text in order to despoil the idea of God of all content?

“Abu Hasan Ali b. Ismail al-Ashari says: We seek right guidance from God, in Him is our sufficiency, and there is not might and no power except in God and He is the one upon whom we call for assistance. Now then: When we are asked: ‘Do you say that God has a face?’ we answer: ‘That is what we say, in contradiction of the heretics, for it is written: the face of your Lord endures, in glory and honor (55:27).’ When we are asked ‘Do you say that God has hands?’ we answer ‘That is what we say, for it is written His hand is above their hands (48:10), and also what I created with my two hands (38:75). Moreover it is related that the Prophet of God said: God passed His hand over Adam’s back and extracted his progeny from it, and that he said Allah created him with His hand and created the garden of Eden with His hand, and planted the tree Tuba’ in it with His hand, and wrote the Torah with His hand. And it is written His two hands are stretched form (5:64); and it says in the hadith both His hands are right hands. Literally so, and not otherwise.'”

Goldziher continues:

“To escape crass anthropomorphism, he does, to be sure, insert into his creed the clause that by face, hand, foot, and so on, we are not to understand members of a human body, that all this is to be understood bila kayfa, without asking how (Sec. 6 above). But to add this class is not to mediate; for traditional orthodoxy had held the same view. This was no mediation between Ibn Hanbal and the Mu’tazila; this was–as we could see from al-Ashari’s prefatory declaration–the Mu’tazilite renegade’s unconditional surrender to the standpoint of the traditionalists’ inflexible imam and his followers.”

Upon quoting an Asharite exegete who goes to great lengths to avoid non-metaphorical  interpretation, Goldziher writes:

“Thus it was not excessive on my part to call the efforts brought to bear on this short saying a sampler of exegetical violence. The theologians who made these efforts were not Mu’tazilites, however, but Ash’arites of the purest water. One can imagine the philological wrath the founder himself would have poured out on the heads of his followers.”

Speaking about early Islam’s general aversion to kalam-speculation, Karen Armstrong writes in her book, Islam: A Short History:

“The Qur’an has a negative view of theological speculation, which it calls zannah, self-indulgent whimsy about ineffabe matters that nobody can acertain one way or the other.”

Taken from W. Montgomery Watt ‘s “Islamic Philosophy and Theology“:

“Before giving an account of some of the leading figures in the Ash`arite school it will be helpful to say something about the difficulty of seeing the Ash`arites in an adequate perspective. For long Western scholars tended to identify Ash-arism with theological orthodoxy. It was only with the growth of interest in Hanbalism stimulated by Henri Laoust that this identification was seen to be inadequate. Under the inspiration of Laoust, George Makdisi published an article in 1962 entitled ‘Ashari and the Asharites in Islamic Religious History’. In this he called attention to the fact that Western Islamists had relied almost exclusively on Asharite sources. This began with the publication in London in two volumes (1842, 1846) of ash-Shahrastani’s work on sects and religion, Kitab al-milal wa-n-nihal, followed by its translation into German in 1850/I. This was a balanced scholarly work and rightly had an immense influence on Western thinking about Islam, but it was not without some bias in favour of Asharism.”

He continues:

“Towards the end of the century two other works, both Ash’arite, came to be used for the later history of the school. These were the biographies of Asharite theologians by Ibn Asakir (d.1175) and the biographies of Shafite jurists by as-Subki (d.1370). Makdisi pointed out that both of these, despite an appearance of objectivity, are skilled apologetic works whose aim was to get Asharism acknowledged as having a right to exist within the Shafite legal school. In all legal schools there were ‘traditionalists’ majorities bitterly opposed to kalam or rational theology. The article concluded that the importance of Ash’arites had been exaggerated and the contribution of the ‘traditionalist’ overlooked.This conclusion is in the main to be accepted, and an attempt will be made here to preserve a balance between the various groups of theologians.”

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Uncritical Reliance on Authority

A final word on Rushdie–what follows is a response I received from a mentor who served as a former professor of political philosophy at several prominent American universities and holds a PhD from Princeton. Despite being a committed atheist in the tradition of many leftist intellectuals, he appreciates the subjective character of my argument; his endorsement was important to me. Nevertheless, the professor includes one very useful caveat, namely that one should not place uncritical reliance on a particular ‘authority’ before arriving at a merit-based conclusion. I see considerable virtue in that view, particularly given the remarkable absence of contemporary religious scholars who exhibit true intellectual and moral consistency. My late father also had strong disdain for the doctrine of “taqlid,” which roughly translates to “blind adherence” (generally in legal matters). Taqlid seems to me a highly obsolete doctrine in light of the increased heterogeneity and literacy in many parts of the Islamic world. It has never made much sense to me. I hope to write about it in the near future. That said, a lack of moral consistency is not unique to contemporary religious clergy and is practiced by secular journalists, news commentators, public intellectuals and politicians in equal, if not greater, measure. Senators Eric Cantor and Harry Reid, polar opposites on the political spectrum, are excellent examples of men who suffer from moral dissonance. The sorry examples of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, etc. are too obvious to mention.

It’s true one must understand something before summarily rejecting it. Islamic scholars such Ghazzali and Ibn Taymiyyah were known to put forth the arguments of their detractors in a highly lucid, organized, and systematic manner. Ghazzali’s writings on Greek philosophy were thought to be so lucid that his denouncers would reply upon his treatises to understand the very views they were promoting. Ibn Taymiyyah’s “Refutation of the Greek Logicians” similarly shows an extremely impressive command of Aristotelian logic and its philosophical underpinnings. Taymiyyah’s fourteenth-century contributions to logic influenced contemporary computer scientist John Sowa in developing complex algorithms and computer models. Moreover, the back-and-forth intellectual controversy between the various schools of Islamic theology (Asharite vs. Mu’tazilite) showcased an impressive ability to consider arguments from the numberless vantage points. In short, the classical Muslim scholastics did not “put the cart before the horse” and endeavored to understand precisely what they were refuting before embarking upon a point-by-point dismemberment. It’s an indication, it seems to me, that they were very secure in their respective faiths and did not fear engaging challenging ideas honestly and transparently. This is a tradition that needs to be revived.

In the end, Muslims who champion Rushdie’s writings constitute a very small fraction of modern Islam; engaging them, at least on this issue, seems to me a lost cause. Nevertheless, getting my thoughts out was a very rewarding and even therapeutic experience. I’ve spoken my peace, as they say. A final quote from the professor:

I just read your reply, and liked it. The irony is that yours is not a very radical position. It conforms to basic civil libertarian opinion except on one point, but still a crucial one. You say that those who object, or should object, to Rushdie ought to boycott his book. Fair enough. Those who object to a “controversial” speaker often urge others to boycott the talk. So far as I know, no one has ever said the advocacy of such boycotts is illiberal. Speaking against the blacklist, Pete Seeger used to say that if you don’t like a program on television, just change the station. But here’s the objection. How do you know whether something is objectionable unless you first read it on your own? Admittedly, this isn’t always possible, as in the case you cite of illiterates who must rely on respected authority. But if you have the ability and time to investigate on your own — to use your own mind — I cannot see the value let alone virtue of letting someone else do your thinking for you. There’s an inherent tension between the political utility of a boycott and the moral statement it makes versus wanting to think for yourself. Between the two, and notwithstanding the fact that I am fundamentally a political being, I value my independent judgment too much to defer to someone else’s, however respected and revered.

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Rushdie Revisited and False Liberalism

My reluctance to publicly engage ‘controversial’ issues has never been on account of a fear of being judged or challenged, but rather a fear of being misunderstood. I would like to clarify a few points regarding my recent essay, “Salman Rushdie: A Question of Literary Genius or Family Loyalty?,” and offer brief remarks about one of the foremost sources of contrived controversy in the modern Islam, as I see it, and which I denote as “false liberalism.” This brand of ‘Islam’ stands in obvious contrast to authentic liberal Islam, for which I have very high regard. While wanting to maintain a sense of fairness and intellectual modesty, I must stand by my initial position on Salman Rushdie without apology.

It should be first noted that my appeal for a collective boycott of Rushdie’s writing was aimed at a narrow and specific demographic, namely committed Muslims who subscribe to a traditional understanding of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Although I put forth a “deductive” argument, its conclusion could only be shared by one who subjectively believed that the “The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves.” Second, it is axiomatic that a work of fiction literature cannot be dismissed as “blasphemous” without an honest and searching appraisal of its contents. How may a committed Muslim come to an evaluation of its substance? The obvious approach, particularly for independent thinkers who are mistrusting of religious authority, would be to read the work for oneself. The second, as I see it, is to rely upon the informed judgment of trustworthy institutions and scholars in the Islamic world. Reliance would necessarily be the more common method given the pervasiveness of illiteracy in the Muslim world. The pertinent question, however, is, how does one respond to a writer’s literary contributions once a negative appraisal as been arrived at? Third, a Muslim’s call for a collective boycott is not indirect admission that the book that is the subject of controversy poses a metaphysical treat to Islam’s essential truths. On the contrary, fiction literature is arguably the least effective way of advancing a theological challenge to a faith, insofar as it represents the diametric opposite of a careful philosophical deconstruction of a body of information. Indeed, the Qur’an encourages debate and intellectual controversy with non-Muslims in its famous adage, “Invite to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful admonition; and reason with them in ways that are best and most gracious.” (Qu’ran 16:125) That is, to heap scorn upon one who wishes to engage in rational debate is quintessentially un-Islamic.

Finally, a collective and sustained boycott of Rushdie would, in my mind, have been the most powerful moral response to Satanic Verses. Not only would it have rendered impotent the accusation that free speech was being subverted by religious extremism, but it would have also paid homage to the example of clemency shown by the Prophet Muhammad to the pagan Meccans who abused and disparaged him for a period of thirteen years. Commenting on my overall thesis, a professor with a PhD from Princeton who identifies himself as a devout atheist, acknowledged the logical consistency of my formulation. He writes, “The heart of your essay is the analogy with blasphemizing one’s mother and the consequences that ensue from it.  The analogy and the quote from the Cambridge professor were very compelling.  I don’t have an answer.”

There are Muslims, a small minority to be sure, who remain convinced that Satanic Verses does not contain offensive statements about Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and other symbols of Islamic piety, including Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him. One must be willing to allow for differences in interpretation of any text, be it secular or sacred; however this seems to me an extremely difficult claim to sustain in light of the nearly unanimous opinion of the world’s leading Muslim authorities. The most authoritative denunciation emanated from the oldest institution of higher learning in the Islamic world, Al-azhar, whose chief scholar called upon British Muslim organizations to initiate legal action to prevent publication of the book (while explicitly rejecting the Khomeini fatwa). Islamic organizations in the United States, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) adopted a similar stance. To my knowledge, no prominent Muslim scholar in the West departed from this general view.

It must be emphasized that Muslims were not alone in recognizing the profane and incendiary character of Satanic Verses. In response to its publication, Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, explicitly called upon Britain to expand the UK’s Blasphemy Act to include Islam, recognizing the book’s extraordinary tastelessness. Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, went so far as to oppose the book’s publishing. The Indian novelist, Khushwant Singh, proposed a similar ban. Nobel Peace Laureate and former President Jimmy Carter called upon western figures to shun Rushdie, stating, “we have tended to promote [Rushdie] and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.” British writer Roald Dahl denounced Rushdie in uncompromising language calling him a “dangerous opportunist.” The English painter and art critic, John Berger, echoed Dahl’s views. Writing in 1989, Berger’s comments concerning Rushdie’s contribution to religious incitement are almost chillingly prophetic: “I suspect that Salman Rushdie, if he is not caught in a chain of events of which he has completely lost control, might, by now, be ready to consider asking his world publishers to stop producing more or new editions of ‘The Satanic Verses…Otherwise a unique 20th-century holy war, with its terrifying righteousness on both sides, may be on the point of breaking out sporadically but repeatedly – in airports, shopping streets, suburbs, city centers, wherever the unprotected live.” John le Carre, lauded by Time Magazine as among the most gifted authors of the second-half of the 20th century, expressed astonishment that Rushdie did not call for a revocation of the book’s publication when it was clear that “human lives were being wasted.” Some have speculated that Rushdie’s repudiation by such a distinguished class of Western intellectuals precipitated Christopher Hitchen’s “eureka” moment and subsequent intellectual and moral decay.

The question of intentionality and assuming responsibility for “the actual and foreseeable consequences of one’s actions” is also instructive to consider. Dahl wrote, “[Rushdie] must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise.” Carter likewise stated, “[Rushdie], a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs, must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world.” In short, the notion that Satanic Verses is objectively free from blasphemy, or that Rushdie was unaware its dissemination would sow such rancor and vituperation in hearts of tens of millions of believing Muslims, is rather indefensible, it seems to me.

Several prominent Western intellectuals, including the late Edward Said, who was a close personal friend of Rushdie, insisted that the writer expressed contrition for Satanic Verses and that his views about Islam evolved considerably since its publication. Assuming the many apologies Rushdie has issued were sincerely expressed, it would necessarily imply that Rushdie acknowledged his moral wrongdoing, thereby undercutting the position of Muslim apologists who insist that his book is not profane. Nevertheless, in light of Rushdie’s repeated vacillation between apology and audacity, it is quite impossible to know what this self-obsessed man is thinking at any given moment. But one point  is rather certain: Rushdie’s repeated inconsistencies and prevarications render him an untrustworthy source as to ascertaining his true intentions; Dahl and Carter are more authoritative in this regard, as far as I’m concerned.

What, then, accounts for starkly different attitudes Muslims have towards Rushdie? With rare exception, I found that Muslims who resented my thesis did not share the spiritual premise upon which my argument was base. That is, after engaging in back-and-forth correspondence, it was mutually determined that our respective interpretations of Islam were radically different, particularly our view of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his proper place in the heart of a believing Muslim. In such a case, it is obvious and inescapable that disagreement would ensue. As I stated quite unequivocally, were I not a believing Muslim, my perception of Rushdie would likely be altogether different. I would not, and cannot, expect a non-Muslim (or secular Muslim?) to agree with my position on Rushdie. This point must be underlined and italicized many times over.

This brings me to the issue of contrived controversy in modern Islam. There are Muslims, their names and numbers I cannot say, who reflexively reject any legal or moral conclusion that is at variance with a secular-humanist worldview. Such Muslims have adopted a “result-oriented” approach to Islam rather than one defined by an honest, impartial, and searching assessment of its textual and moral traditions; in other words it represents the counterpart to “false conservatism,” which I have discussed elsewhere. The methodological approach of false liberalism, if it may be called that, is to come to a pre-formulated position on an important social or moral issue and work retrospectively to find justification in the Islamic tradition. In other words, it amounts to “shopping around” for a self-serving legal result, not a careful exegetical, historical, and linguistic analysis that any intellectual tradition demands. Such an approach is entirely bereft of all intellectual honesty and quite impossible to engage in a meaningful manner. The celebrated Hungarian Orientalist, Ignaz Goldziher, characterized this form of religious interpretation as “exegetical rape.” That is, forcing a contrived interpretation that has no basis in scripture or tradition, even under the most liberal jurisprudence.

It seems to me that if Muslims, regardless of ideological leaning, wish to enter into an honest dialectic with co-religionists, they must make the ‘epistemological’ basis for their understanding of Islam known, assuming Islam is one of those bases. If basic elementary understandings are not it shared (i.e. the Qur’an is a divinely-revealed book) it will necessarily result in irreconcilable conflict and disagreement, as the Rushdie controversy suggests. The key, it seems to me, is to make one’s positions known openly and unapologetically in order that points of disagreement are understood in advance, and common understandings can be arrived at.

I must acknowledge that my attitude towards Muslims who promote Rushdie, for better or worse, has always been one of almost uncontrollable disgust. Starting at 10 pm and writing past 3 am, I composed my original write-up with a sense of bitterness, a fact evidenced by a tone that oscillates between equanimity and emotionalism. I find it rather shameful that one must devise elaborate analogies, resort to comparisons of Martin Heidegger and Nazism, and cite the authority of non-Muslim intellectuals simply to enable Muslims to come to a common understanding that boycotting Rushdie is a question of basic moral principle. In invoking the Jewish-Heidegger analogy, I reasoned that, perhaps if an opinion emanates from the pen a ‘civilized’ westerner, it will be regarded as more worthy of acceptance. But I question the entire utility of writing an essay of this sort. Have I persuaded a single Rushdie-reading Muslim to join in a collective boycott? I very much doubt it; indeed I may have only increased them in their stridency.

My strong sympathizes have always lied with members of the liberal Muslim community who too often find themselves derided by their more outwardly religious counterparts. Islam is a wonderfully accommodative tradition that is incapable of being monopolized by any brand of religiosity; liberal Muslims ought to never be made to feel that their place in Islam is not secure. They must be inspired and uplifted, not shunned and demoralized. Muslims who have a penchant for drink, philandering, and every other vice known only to God, have a claim to Islam as real and authentic as any conservative Muslim. I regard liberal Muslims as the true ‘underdogs’ of modern Islam and believe that it is my moral duty to put whatever little knowledge I have in service of their defense. In a famous tradition reported in the authentic collections of Imam Bukhari, the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were prepared to reprimand a man who suffered from a craving for liquor; however the Prophet categorically prohibited his followers from harming him stating, “let this man be, for he has love for God and His Messenger in heart.” Islamic exegetes interpreted this tradition to mean that one can be involved in a blameworthy act and remain a deeply committed Muslim; and that is improper to judge another on account of his sins, mistakes, and lapses. Some of the sincerest, most introspective, and indeed intelligent Muslims in modern Islam are those engaged in the ever-elusive balancing of vice and virtue. Even the most ‘pious’ will never come close to achieving the Prophetic Ideal. Judging moral character purely by outward conformity to divine law is a non-starter, it seems to me.

However, there is a violent contrast between a sincere advocacy of a liberal Islam and an earnest struggle to conform one’s actions to God’s will, and what amounts to a co-option of sacred tradition in service of one’s egotistical ends. As to the latter, perhaps false conservatives and false liberals have much in common in their narcissistic approach to religion. As to the former, the genuine struggle to reconcile one’s moral conscience with scared tradition is quite beautifully expressed by a liberal Muslim friend:

“I am unwilling to give up the name Muslim or to give up my claim to Islam.  It’s not simply because of my parents’ attachment to it or out of a sense of obligation and duty to them.  I have an earnest, undeniable connection to it and I don’t want to surrender it.  It is my culture and a big part of my identity…it is my heritage and my inheritance.  I’m not going to walk away from it.  I won’t be forced out.  I am willing at this point to live with the intellectual discord it creates.”

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Salman Rushdie: A Question of Literary Genius or Family Loyalty?

Victor Klemperer served as a celebrated professor of literature at the Dresden University of Technology in the early part of the twentieth century. A Jew who was forced to flee Nazi Germany, Klemperer composed a diary during his time in captivity in which he expressed his unreserved revulsion for the German intelligentsia that lent intellectual support to the Nazi regime. Martin Heidegger, uncontroversially one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, was one such intellectual. About them Klemperer wrote, “I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lamp posts for as long as was compatible with hygiene.” In short, Klemperer regarded their support for Nazism, and rightfully so, as an act of unforgivable treachery. It was a betrayal of their responsiblity as public intellectuals.

Consider other examples of gifted men who were condemned by their contemporaries for putting their intellectual, oratorical, and literary gifts to sinister purpose: the Arab orators of the 7th century, whose poetic verse could move grown men to “tears and ecstasy,” were condemned by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) for sowing dissension and enmity within the Arabian polity. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus (pbuh) warned against the “false prophets” whose sophistry caused listeners to believe that black was white, noting, “they come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matthew 7:15). In ancient Greece, Socrates repeatedly condemned the sophists and rhetoricians for using their oratorical gifts for mendacious ends, which culminated in his wrongful execution. Scientists in the 20th century put their brilliance and ingenuity to use by developing weapons of mass destruction, including a brand of napalm that was resistant to the cooling-effect of water. Let us not allow the Vietnamese peasants to feel a moment’s respite by jumping in water, let them die in proper agony, so they thought. That is, artistic and intellectual talent, standing alone, has never been sufficient-cause to endorse another’s contributions to humanity. Pragmatic and moral considerations are inseverable from one’s appraisal of any work of “genius,” no matter how unquestioned its intellectual character may be.

With these introductory notes in mind, I want to consider the literary contributions of contemporary author, Salman Rushdie, his place in the modern Muslim consciousness, and what I regard as false and unfaithful behavior by “liberal” Muslims who insist that he is a great novelist. I place “liberal” in quotations because I emphatically believe that a sincere liberal Muslim has a place in Islam, no matter his shortcomings, as much as any other Muslim. I have written several essays in which I have made my unqualified opposition to the following human rights abuses known publicly: the blasphemy law, the contemporary application of capital punishment, the suppression of freedom of conscience and expression, terrorism, the abuse of women, the persecution of religious minorities, and indeed religious extremism of every variety; thus it goes without saying that I regard the “fatwa” against Rushdie to be categorically wrong and immoral. Furthermore, I wish to note that I have no misgivings whatsoever about non-Muslims who read Rushdie’s works and, were I not a Muslim, it is quite possible that I would have developed an appreciation for Rushdie as well.

Although Salman Rushdie is almost universally reviled in the Muslim word for his bizarre and tasteless depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in his now infamous Satanic Verses, some Muslims, particularly of the more liberal and secular bent, often express profound admiration for his literary gifts and regard him as one of the greatest writers of our lifetime. With respect to Satanic Verses, they insist that Rushdie’s depictions of Prophet were expressed in the context of fiction writing, “magical realism” to be more precise, and that it would be wrong and intolerant for Muslims to ignore his important literary contributions. “This is about art, literature, and freedom of expression”; ”Midnight’s Children is a work of genius”; “only a zealot could fail to appreciate Rushdie’s artistry,” we are told. Speaking from personal experience, “liberal” Muslims who support Rushdie are generally rather emphatic, almost belligerent, about proclaiming their admiration for the writer. It is as though they are anticipating intolerant criticism from conservative Muslims and thus feel compelled to issue a pre-emptive endorsement that leaves no question about their veneration for the novelist. “Another conservative Muslim who cannot separate art and religion, I’m going to shut this fellow up,” so goes their thinking.

To ensure that my argument is not mischaracterized, I wish to make several concessions before formulating my position. Let us assume that Rushdie is indeed one of the most gifted fiction writers of all time; let us assume that, even if one insists Satanic Verses contains offensive statements about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Rushdie’s prior and subsequent writings are expressed with a grace, sublimity, and power that no other contemporary writer possesses; let us also assume that the collective opinion of Western literary critics is that Rushdie’s place among the pantheon of great writers is secure for posterity; furthermore, let us even concede that Rushdie’s decision to write Satanic Verses was not the product of an opportunistic impulse, as many Muslims insist, but rather a genuine artistic expression intended to inspire, humanize, and enrich the world in which we live, as art is intended to do. All of these assumptions are, of course, open to very serious scrutiny; however, in an effort to keep the discussion focused and organized, I will make these allowances. I have read Satanic Verses, or at least most of it, but to those who have not, a Wikipedia search will suffice to gain a basic understanding of its plot and major themes.

First, under any reasonable interpretation of the term, “blasphemy” need not be expressed in the first person to constitute an offensive utterance; in many ways, an indirect disparagement in the context of art and literature may be construed as even more blameworthy, since the author is effectively distancing himself from the utterance under the guise of artistic license. No matter how sinister one’s motives, such camouflaging makes it virtually impossible to prove them as such. Nevertheless, even if one imputes benign motives to Rushdie, it was clearly foreseeable that publication of Satanic Verses would cause profound offensive to Muslims throughout the world and incite a firestorm of controversy. As the great moral philosopher, Noam Chomsky, famously said, “One is responsible for the actual and foreseeable consequences of one’s actions.” Regardless of how forceful “liberal” Muslims are in asserting that Rushdie did not commit blasphemy, any sincere and practicing Muslim, even while allowing for great artistic liberty, would regard the depictions of Muhammad (pbuh) in Satanic Verses as utterly offensive and profane.

Consider the following analogy; if there are meaningful distinctions between the example that follows, and a sincere Muslim’s perception of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), please point them out:

Imagine your aging mother is a public personality who you regard as a woman of unquestioned virtue and moral uprightness. Imagine that she has devoted her life to a moral cause calling upon her people to feed the poor, to protect the weak, to stop the oppressor, to help the oppressed. Imagine she is possessed of such soft-heartedness that your mere presence, as her child, moves her to tears.

Imagine, then, that a highly gifted writer authors a book in which your mother’s good name is repeatedly disparaged, invoked in a profane context, and that the sincerity of all her life’s efforts are thrown into question. Imagine your mother, her relatives, and all of her friends subjectively perceive the writer’s depictions as extremely offensive. Finally, consider that the book goes onto become an international best seller that generates a multi-million dollar windfall for the author.

It must be asked, based on moral principle, and family loyalty, would one cite the writer’s authority on any subject, purchase his books, or fall over oneself proclaiming his literary greatness? Could one, in good conscience, support his literary contributions, even those works whose brilliance is unquestioned and speak nothing about one’s mother? Would one lend intellectual and moral support to the man who reviled the person they loved most in this world? Would one insist that he is an “oustanding and prolific” writer, no matter how objectively true, as was the case with the Arab poets and Greek sophists? Would one look down upon their younger brother who insisted that he would not read, or support, or publicly endorse the writer because he had hurt his, and one’s, mother?

In commenting on my essay, What Blasphemy Means to Muslims, Cambridge professor and Muslim intellectual, T.J. Winter, noted that my commentary did not adequately capture the degree of offense that blasphemy engenders in the heart of a believing Muslim. In other words, in his learned opinion, I did not go far enough. I have secured his permission to quote from our correspondence:

“Blasphemy is offensive [even] at a deeper level, because it threatens the human connection to the Real, and thence to one’s entire structuring of reality. To deploy not only criticism but scorn at one’s metaphysical anchorage is necessarily an act of violence. Although Western secularity restricts freedom of speech in important ways (libel, slander, treason, etc) it has found it hard to identify blasphemy as equivalently offensive; despite the fact that believers experience it as more offensive still. ‘The Prophet is closer to the believers than their own selves.’ To tell Western legists that Muslims would rather be tortured than hear the Prophet scorned makes no sense to them, because they lack any equivalent to that inward warmth.”

That is, to a sincere and believing Muslim, blasphemy subjectively constitutes an act of metaphysical violence. Were the Prophet Muhammad to learn that his “followers” were lavishing praise upon a man who invoked his sacred name, peace be upon him, in a book replete with grotesque and unsavory imagery, would it not break his heart? Could a sincere Muslim, in good faith, face the Prophet and say “Ya Rasulullah, I reject what was written about you in Satanic Verses, but your disparager’s writings are of such high-minded genius that I must proclaim his greatness”? Could the Companions be found saying, “Ya Rasulullah, we love you, but the Arab poets that disparaged your name are possessed of such moving eloquence, we must make their poetry known to all of Arabia”? I cannot help but feel profound disgust for contriving such an indecent hypothetical, but it serves to highlight the ignobility and faithlessness into which “liberal” Muslims have descended. Have such Muslims dispossessed themselves of all sense of decency and family loyalty?

Why, of the numberless literary talents God has put on this earth, both past and present, have “liberal” Muslims come to proclaim Rushdie’s greatness? Of the nearly seven billion in this world, is Rushdie such a gift to humanity that he cannot be boycotted on moral principle? Cannot Muslim unite upon the most elementary moral teaching, that is, loving the Prophet unconditionally and defending his honor? Is their “intellectual” lust for Midnight’s Children and The Ground Beneath Her Feet simply too powerful to overcome? Imam Malik’s reverence for the Prophet (pbuh) was such that he refused to mount his horse when he entered the Prophet’s City of Medina. What a long way Muslims have come. Indeed, the moral “progress” of modern Muslims is captured rather well by Bertrand Russell when he writes,  “A process which led from the amoeba to man appeared to the philosophers to be obviously a progress, though whether the amoeba would agree with this opinion is not known.”

No doubt, the “blasphemy” committed by Martin Heidegger is unlike Salman Rushdie’s in important ways; nevertheless, both achieved a common end: to sow rancor and division in a world already hanging in the balance. Today, countless Jews and non-Jews who, while acknowledging Heidegger’s significant contributions to modern philosophy, choose to boycott his writings on moral principle. Heidegger betrayed the Jewish Family, he lent his imprimatur to an ignoble enterprise. I cannot help but respect those who shun his books. What, then, of the Muslim Family? Do Muslims not have an atom of decency and love for the man who was sent as a mercy to their own souls? Are they so bent upon reducing this to a debate about “free speech and tolerance”? Free speech and tolerance are axiomatic principles but, I’m afraid, have little, indeed nothing, to do with the matter at hand.

Had I been of age to express my view on this controversy when it was ripe, I surely would have. Going forward, my belief is that Muslims throughout the world would do well to unite upon a common sense of moral principle and family loyalty, and shun Salman Rushdie with a Gandhi-like resolve. Not kill, not abuse, not threaten, not silence, not even censor–but shun. Such a collective censure, which would ensure Rushdie’s divine rights, but simultaneously expose his moral hollowness, would speak far more loudly than any fatwa.

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Selfless Love: A Young Muslim’s Perspective

Of Human Bondage is widely recognized as William Somerset Maugham’s greatest novel and, indeed, stands as among my favorite works of twentieth-century fiction. It is said to represent a highly autobiographical work in which WSM transposes his real life affliction of stuttering onto his protagonist, Philip Carey, who, in lieu of suffering from a stammer, is born with a club foot that causes him profound feelings of alienation and resentment towards those around him and the world in which he finds himself. The novel explores the many personal tragedies that Carey is forced to endure on account of his deformity, most notably, an obsessive and unrequited love he develops for a rather unremarkable woman who returns his one thousand acts of unselfish kindness with as many cruelties and treacheries. Carey appears to suffer from an emotional affliction WSM described in separate work, entitled A Writer’s Notebook, in which he writes, “The love that lasts the longest is the love that is never returned.” An interesting insight, no doubt, but in my mind WSM’s most profound and didactic quote comes from Of Human Bondage, in which he states, in a mere six words, “I rather love than be loved.” On its face this quote may appear rather trite but, to me, it represents the highest ideal that humans can aspire to in all of their relationships: familial, platonic, and, indeed, even romantic.

The Islamic tradition teaches that God represents the consummate Selfless Lover. It is said that His love for his creation has no adequate analogy in the terrestrial world. In a famous tradition, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, sought to express an analogy about God’s protective love as one comparable to a mother’s innate desire to save her child from a burning fire only to say that it even it would not suffice. In a separate tradition, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) famously said, “Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately, and rejoice, for no one’s good deeds will put him in Paradise. His Companions asked: ‘Not even you, Oh Messenger of God?’ He replied: “Not even me, unless God bestowed His Grace and Mercy upon me.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8, No. 474). Although Islam seeks to achieve a practical balance between observing divine law and maintaining faith in God, this tradition, along with many others, are clear that a believer’s faith in God’s Grace and Mercy, not one’s good works, will enable one to achieve salvation in the celestial world. The Prophet taught his followers that “God’s Mercy transcends His Justice” and that “a servant who comes walking to God will find that God will come running to him.” I want to consider whether this form of selfless love has a place in the terrestrial sphere, among human beings, particularly in the context of romantic love.

In most romantic relationships, there is an expectation of egalitarianism and reciprocity; that is, an equal-parts division of love and loyalty. If one party is not “putting in enough effort,” it is seen as an expression of disinterestedness, which often leads to a dissolution of the relationship. “She didn’t love me as I loved her,” we are told. However, it seems to me that an expectation of this sort will invariably lead to disappointment, since it is premised upon a selfish love.

Consider one variety of romantic interaction common in urban settings; men “wine and dine” women with the expectation that their lavish displays of material affection will eventuate in, either mutual love, or far more often, sexual gratification. Such a dynamic represents the least selfless kind of love, in my mind, as it simply amounts to a self-centered desire to quench one’s emotional and animal urges. Even if such love has a sincere mutual element to it, its essence is defined by a preoccupation with oneself: achieving a certain status, garnering respect, ensuring one’s emotional and financial stability, and attaining a fairy tale romance that will be the object of universal envy. Indeed, always the cynic, WSM wrote in the Razor’s Edge (I believe), “marriage is still the best profession for women.” Although imperfect in its description, I will denote this form of love as “selfish love.”

Many would insist that selfish love is one that is demanded by biology; that man has been fashioned in such a way that mutual love (and sexual gratification) are indispensable components of romantic relationships. Indeed, I see considerable merit in such a view, but would maintain that it does not follow that selfish love is the only form of love that may be expressed in the context of romantic pursuits. No doubt, the ideal of selfless love is most difficult to deploy in the realm of romantic relationships, in which mutuality of feeling is unarguably a necessary pre-condition to any permanent union. But even in this sphere, if one’s starting point is to love without inhibition, rather than expect sexual favor or even emotional commitment, selfless love can play an extremely useful role in enabling individuals to discern their true feelings for one another, and indeed achieve the consummate state of romantic love.

I can only speak authoritatively about the time in which I live and know; as I see it, today’s relationships, especially in the nascent stages of “dating and courtship,” are often characterized by constant game-playing in which both parties are reluctant to unveil their true feelings out of fear that it would unduly empower the object of their affections. One can imagine a man or a woman receiving a “text-message” and immediately confiding in their friends: “how do I respond!?”; “what do I say!?”. Perhaps a starting point would be to respond honestly, from one’s heart, without the need to devise elaborate artifice to confuse and enigmatize an otherwise uncomplicated relationship. In the context of such gamesmanship, great effort is spent presenting oneself as independent, confident, and self-assured, when in fact the trickery employed speaks more to the game-player’s profound insecurities, fear of abandonment, and strong emotional dependency, assuming they are sincere in their desire to achieve a romantic union. Some enjoy game-playing for its own sake, after all.

It is an irony that if one is forthcoming about their feelings, they are thought to be “eager and desperate.” Such a characterization may fairly describe a selfish lover, but a truly selfless lover would express his feelings without fear of rejection because he has removed the “self” from love; that is, he is not demanding emotional commitment or sexual gratification, but rather expressing a feeling that springs unconsciously from his very being, about which Dostoevsky wrote, “love is not a matter that depends upon the will.” A selfless lover who has attained a sufficient degree of self-assuredness may also find that his dignity would remain undisturbed if his (or her) feelings went unanswered, since his end is not to necessarily be loved, but rather to love. The difference is crucial. Certainly if the selfless lover finds that his feelings are returned in kind, his response would be one of ecstatic joy, but the desire for mutuality-of-feeling is not his starting point.

In some instances, selfless love may play a very practical role in enabling one to achieve one’s desired end. The beneficiary of selfless love may be so moved by the lover’s honest display of affection and independence of mind that they may come to regard such unselfish love as an extremely attractive, rare, and endearing trait. Moreover, this form of love stands in obvious contrast to someone who ostensibly presents themselves as “dark and mysterious” for its own sake. Such an individual often feigns detachment and disinterestedness when in fact their very core is riddled with self-doubt and insecurity. Such fakery is not only commonplace but rather transparent as well.

No doubt, many would regard the concept of selfless love as an exceedingly idealistic and naive view of the human condition; however, my belief is that someone possessed of sufficient poise and self-assuredness can indeed achieve this high-minded emotional state, and that it represents a morally superior alternative to selfish love. The first step towards achieving such an ideal is awareness, it seems to me. Various schools of Islamic and Buddhist spirituality subscribe to notions of “fana” and “nirvana” in which losing awareness of oneself is seen as a precursor to true enlightenment. Certainly such concepts should not be taken to literal extremes, but a general cognizance of the virtue in suppressing one’s selfish desires, and simply loving others purely and selflessly, is one that all humans can benefit from, it seems to me.

It goes without saying that romantic relationships are not the only realm in which selfless love can play a vital role. Indeed, selfless love is far less complicated in the context of familial or platonic relationships. It is said that a mother or father’s love for one’s child is the closest form of selfless love that humans can attain and that, in contrast to romantic relationships, such selfless affection flows unconsciously and unconditionally–hence the expression “unconditional love.” That is, there no pre-condition to loving the child as love is given freely and without restraint; in contrast, the essence of romantic relationships is generally an expectation of mutual love. Moreover, even beyond a parent-child relationship, when a person acts with pure benefaction toward another human being and has no expectation of being conferred a reciprocal benefit, such an individual will not feel slighted if their act of kindness goes unanswered. Conversely, when one expects a “quid pro quo” and they find that the like-for-like charity fails to materialize, it often engenders feelings of resentment and a perception of ingratitude. The former constitutes selfless love, and the latter selfish love; it is the second which is a malady, or rather an inadequate expression of love, which one must strive to make whole.

Family relationships, both at the immediate and extended level, are often characterized by in-fighting and politics which can sow deep division even in a relationship that is fused by the unbreakable bond of blood. It is in this context that selfless love can arguably play its most salutary role. If one finds that they have been wronged by a family member, that their acts of kindness have gone unappreciated, or that they have betrayed, a selfless lover will have the emotional discipline to overlook  such moral shortcomings and embrace the transgressor with unconditional love and acceptance. It is natural for humans to become defensive to the point of becoming incapable of recognizing their own faults. But if  one party consciously endeavors to transcend this base impulse, it can often facilitate a love, fidelity, and reconciliation that would be otherwise impossible to achieve.

Selfish love likely represents the norm in human relationships. But a position subscribed to by the mob, standing alone, has never proven an enduring moral truth. A love that is unchecked in selfishness can be self-destructive; if one is continually preoccupied with “finding love” and striving to find a man or woman who will swoon over their beauty, intelligence, riches, or even good character, and such efforts do not bear fruit, it can lead to profound feelings of worthlessness and despair. The consummation of love, it seems to me, is an organic process, one that cannot be forced into submission. Often the more intentional and selfish one’s efforts become in finding love, the more elusive it will prove to be. Perhaps allowing oneself to love unconditionally can serve as an antidote to this unfortunate predicament.

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