Sunday, June 18, 2017

Islam: It's Not What You Think

Truly Modern Muslims
Fresco depicting Abbas I, the Safavid Shah of Persia, early seventeenth century © The Art Archive/SuperStock;
Shahab Ahmed begins What is Islam? with an intriguing anecdote. At a Princeton banquet, a Cambridge logician turns to a distinguished Muslim academic seated at the same table and asks him whether he considers himself a Muslim. “Yes”, the Muslim replies. 

This is puzzling, so the don, operating under the customary misunderstanding that Islam is, in essence, a fiercely puritanical religion as hell-bent against wine-bibbers as it is against music-makers, homosexuals and the veneration of icons, motions to the Muslim’s glass and asks further, “Then why are you drinking wine?” The answer he receives provides the book with its starting point: “My family have been Muslims for a thousand years,” the Muslim says, “during which time we have always been drinking wine. You see,” he goes on, smiling at the don’s bewildered look, “we are Muslim wine-drinkers.”

The rest of the book attempts to make sense of what it means to be a Muslim wine-drinker, along with several other perplexing contradictions at the heart of the Islamic tradition: textual literalism and rational philosophy à la Avicenna; strict legalism and antinomian mysticism; dogmatic monotheism and Sufi monism; sexual puritanism and homoerotic love poetry; or the contradiction most perplexing to thinking people today, between Islam as the “religion of peace” and Islam as the self-professed religion of militant jihadists – a paradox demonstrated most recently in Manchester, where twenty-two people enjoying themselves at a pop concert were cruelly murdered by Salman Abedi, a Muslim suicide bomber; and in London Bridge, where a trio of knife-wielding jihadists killed seven more.

Ahmed addresses all these contradictions and more in what is a fascinating, often difficult, but ultimately rewarding study. Embracing and indeed celebrating what is most creative and explorative in Islam, Ahmed is sick of people reducing the religion to nothing more than a mess of prohibitions and restrictions. And it’s hard to deny that when non-Muslims think of Islam, when they’re not imagining jihadist terrorists, they picture laws and punishments imposed by a testy God extracting his pound of flesh from a brow-beaten people. Muslims, too, imagine much the same, only they give it a positive gloss: God isn’t testy, he’s merciful, so his laws are for our good; but when it comes down to it, yes, he is essentially interested in whether or not you’re eating pork, whether or not your daughter is covering her head, whether or not he’s secured your assent to a fixed set of dogmas.
Ahmed challenges both forms of reductionism. A rising star among his generation of young Islamicists before dying from cancer tragically aged only forty-eight, he drew on every mode and genre of Islamic literature in every major Islamic language, classical as well as colloquial – from the Qur’an itself to medieval Persian ghazals, from Sufi-inflected folk songs to Ottoman legal treatises. This gives the book uncommon breadth. It displays uncommon depth too, born from Ahmed’s instinctive sympathy for the Islamic tradition at its most aristocratic, confident and comprehensive. Or as he would put it, at its most mature. By “mature Islam”, he means the largely Persianate tradition of “the Balkans-to-Bengal complex”, which reached a sort of consummation in the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires, the historically most dominant “highly-articulated shared paradigm of life and thought in the history of Muslims”.

As polemic, then, the book is clearly levelled against those who valorize a different paradigm of Islam, the “back to beginnings” paradigm focusing on the more Arabian, more apparently egalitarian cultural matrix out of which so-called early Islam emerged between the seventh and ninth centuries. In Ahmed’s view, too many academics not only privilege early Islam, but put greatest emphasis on its textual, legal dimension. This is also the prevailing paradigm of extremists like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as moderate Salafists like the Muslim Brotherhood, all of them in their own ways anxious to drag Islam kicking and screaming through its own version of the Reformation – something Ahmed is keen to counter.

“Unlike many Muslims of today,” he writes, “the Muslims of the Balkans-to-Bengal complex did not feel the need to articulate or legitimate their Muslim-ness . . . by mimesis of a pristine time of the earliest generations of the community.” As adherents of mature Islam, these Muslims didn’t dispense with sharia, but they didn’t overlook the importance of poetry and music either, or denounce their tradition’s philosophical and psychological adventurousness, not to mention its ethics and statecraft. Nor did they put those aspects of Islam under the secularizing umbrella of “culture” or see them as only incidental to “religion”. They considered such apparent contradictions to be absolutely integral to Islam, and were quite comfortable with paradox, fully aware that it arises naturally in a religion like theirs, one based on the idea of God’s revelation but without a single authority empowered to define what that precisely means.

Who is God exactly? How can we know him? Where does his revelation begin and end? Muslims have never agreed on how to answer those questions, and so each is forced to pitch his or her tent in a different epistemological camp – one with the Sufis, another with the clerics, still others with the artists, the poets, the philosophers, or most often with a chaotic combination of them all. Is our knowledge of God limited to what the Qur’an says about him? Literalists, legalists and most theologians have usually answered, yes. Or is the universe itself a revelation of God? Absolutely, say the artists, philosophers and Sufis. Or even more radically, in order to understand God and his ways, are scripture and sacred law entirely dispensable, at least to an elect few? That’s what Avicenna believed, that at its highest the human mind is naturally conformable to reason, a divine principle permeating everything and making the universe innately intelligible.

The sum of all these answers – and the practices, doctrines, and laws based on them – are taken up by each generation of Muslims, who meditate on them, add to them, and then pass them on to the next generation. For Ahmed, all this religious and cultural diversity is part of the general deposit of revelation; to delineate their faith, believers can draw from this diversity as freely as they draw from sacred scripture, law, and every other form of divine self-expression, from God’s unseen creative and sustaining activity, up to and including the divine being itself. These three dimensions of revelation – God and his unseen activity, his visible self-expression including but not limited to the Qur’an, and all the diversity arising from meditation on them – Ahmed respectively calls “the Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text of Revelation”.

This part of the book, on which Ahmed’s whole argument hinges, is immensely frustrating. In addition to all those Islamic languages, he was equally fluent in the tortuous idiolect of post-structuralism that still infects the humanities, so getting to grips with his argument is no mean feat. Fighting your way through the jargon and the neologisms is worth it, however, for though many academics employ that kind of convoluted language to mystify the reader, hoping to deflect attention away from the fact that there’s nothing really there, in Ahmed’s case, he really does have something to say. Which is that revelation is much, much bigger than just the Qur’an, the Hadith and the sharia – but because Muslims lack clear, easy answers about where revelation begins and ends, they are forced to undertake what Ahmed calls “hermeneutical engagement” with revelation in all three dimensions.

This is what “being Islamic” is, constantly struggling to define and understand revelation, endlessly wrestling with all its possible meanings, some by writing legal treatises, others by painting exquisite miniatures, still others by drinking wine and reciting love poetry. So “being Islamic” is not so much a matter of doing or not doing certain things, thinking or not thinking certain things. It is, rather, a way of doing and thinking whatever it is you’re doing or thinking, a way of not doing and not thinking them. 

Muslims, when they don’t drink, are “not drinking” in an Islamic way; equally, when they do drink, they do so as Muslims, in the same Islamic way, accom­modating each thought, activity, or desire to their own interpretation of revelation in all its forms. Certainly, the resulting spectrum of doctrines and practices includes contradictions, but these contradictions aren’t incoherent; their coherence lies in the fact that they result from a single activity, “being Islamic”, which Ahmed also calls “meaning-making for the self”, a rather elliptical expression indi­cating something like “communal self-exploration”. He’s insistent on this point, that at heart, Islam is primarily focused on providing Muslims with tools for plumbing the depths and scaling the heights of inner experience, and even more than that, that Islam actually is “the reality of inner experience itself”.

Now, if you’re thinking that the pious Muslims you’ve met don’t seem to be doing that, then you’re in good company. Ahmed’s continual refrain is an almost tetchy insistence that very few Muslims consciously understand what being Islamic truly means – especially Salafists and their wealthy backers in the Arabian Gulf. Non-Muslims also don’t get it, especially those disenchanted academics. In fact, despite his radically postmodern writing style, what Ahmed is advocating is basically conservative, if not reactionary. Since secularist and fundamentalist readings both reduce revelation to just the text, flattening out what should be a vertically stratified, multi-spectrum reality, Ahmed opposes both. Keen to defend tradition from vulgar, reformist agitation, he considers egalitarianism and mass literacy (which liberals and puritans alike idolize) existential threats to mature Islam, based as it is on intellectual initiation and spiritual hierarchy: as you move higher up this hierarchy, your proficiency in “being Islamic” rises. And in the Balkans-to-Bengal complex, this spiritual hierarchy was reflected, however obscurely, in the social hierarchy. At the top, the sultan presided over all, allowing everyone else to practise “being Islamic” to the best of their abilities. Sufi orders, legal schools and study circles were everywhere, and everyone was attached to them in one way or another. The wisdom attained by the few, codified in metaphysical treatises and disseminated via mystical folk poems and songs, eventually trickled down to the many.

Of course, this hierarchical, aristocratic form of Islam was wedded to what all hierarchical, aristocratic cultures fetishize: namely, war. A more romantic, chivalric form of war, perhaps, than the form waged in the trenches of the Somme or above the skies of Hiroshima, but war nonetheless. And if being Islamic is hermeneutical engagement with the whole gamut of Islamic revelation and tradition, then one particularly problematic form of “being Islamic” at the present moment is young men interpreting jihad in such a way as to compel them to slaughter innocent civilians. The other Islamic epistemological camps can denounce such attacks as blasphemous atrocities until they are blue in the face, but for the global jihadist camp, such slaughter is perfectly, religiously, inspired.

And sadly, on the question of jihad, Ahmed is disappointingly silent. He raises the issue only once, swiftly sliding past the main question, pivoting instead to an Ottoman joke, that the real “Greater Jihad” is to make love to your wife. To be fair to him, merciless interpretations of sacralized violence have always prowled round the outer edges of Islam, threatening to overwhelm the centre, and Ahmed’s aristocratic vision of “mature Islam” at least makes room for all the other voices, the Sufis pointing towards peace, the mujtahids outlining strict and largely irenic rules of warfare, the sultans keeping the extremist fringe firmly in its place. Harm­onious hierarchy, spiritual and secular, along with wisdom, poetry and love: for Ahmed, these are the fruits of being truly Islamic, and it is his fervent belief that only by reacquiring mature Islam will the Muslim world be able to save itself from its demons.

Ahmed would have therefore deplored Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment. It is true, Bellaigue’s riposte to people’s obsession with early Islam echoes Ahmed’s defence of mature Islam: “There had been no dome, no Sanskrit wisdom, no rose bower in the Prophet’s Arabia, and mature Islamic civilisation made room for them all”. But for a 400-page history of the Muslim world’s experience of modernization, remarkably little time is spent elucidating Islam. You get the impression that Bellaigue has barely tried to get to grips with it. For his purposes, it’s enough to cast Islam in the role of the religious bogeyman, opposed to all progress – the way religions are always characterized in Whig histories like this one. The only religion Bellaigue treats even more breezily than Islam is Christianity, “a heinous nullity” in his estimation. Islam is bad, but it isn’t that bad. Especially not during the Middle Ages, when unlike bad old Christendom, the Muslim world was at least engaged in the one thing needful, expanding the frontiers of science and technological know-how – that is, until it went the way of all spirituality, succumbing at last to obscurantism, superstition and horrible, horrible sexism.

This isn’t to deny that Bellaigue knows how to spin a yarn. The book is a great read, its story is far too little known, and he’s certainly done his research, for the “Enlightenment” half of the title at least. Starting with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 – which right off the mark he describes as a clash between a “modern” society and a “backward” one – Bellaigue throws up all sorts of fascinating historical facts and anecdotes, bringing to vivid life the long, transformative nineteenth century as experienced by Egyptians, Turks and Iranians. This is followed, in his telling, by the short, disappointing twentieth century, when the modernizers were outmanoeuvred by the region’s lurch back to religion.

His enormous cast of characters is colourful and varied, each a hero in the struggle to usher in a truly modern Muslim world. There’s Muhammad Ali, the Albanian (or more probably Kurdish) mercenary who, seizing and then modernizing Egypt, was willing to sacrifice any number of Egyptians in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with Europeans; Ibrahim Sinasi, the Ottoman journalist whose writings transformed the Turkish language from “the status of a joke”, “lumbering”, “long-winded” and “artificial”, into something decent like French; the Iranian woman Qurrat al-Ayn, “both feminist icon and medieval saint”, whose revolutionary removal of the veil led to imprisonment and martyrdom; and many, many more.

As history, then, Bellaigue’s tale is an epic tug-of-war between a few impassioned pioneers championing or imposing a Western way of doing things, and a mass of stubborn traditionalists determined to defend the age-old underpinnings of their civilization. As polemic, however, the book is less convincing. Bellaigue employs analytical terms sloppily, using words like modern, enlightened, democratic and liberal as if they meant the same thing. Absurdly, he says “the Enlightenment denotes the ascendancy of democratic principles” – if so, nobody told Frederick the Great, or most other European leaders before, say, the First World War – a war, incidentally, that Bellaigue calls “a watershed in the history of the Islamic Enlightenment” because until then “the region had been moving toward modernity and the adoption of liberal, secular values”, as if the same wasn’t broadly true of Europe. To the “new, modern institutions” set up by “coercive modernizers” like Muhammad Ali, Bellaigue gives a big thumbs up; but because these modern institutions, above all the state itself, were stiflingly bureaucratic and dictatorial, he adds a bizarre reservation, noting that “the ethos inside them was not always modern”. What does that make the ethos of Bismarckian Germany, or the Soviet Union, or, for that matter, Donald Trump? Medieval?

It’s not that Bellaigue overlooks the crimes of European colonialism, or less dramatically, the everyday disorientations of rapid modernization. He’s sensitive to the “tension, dislocation, and agitation” modernity inspires. And he’s not wrong: the twentieth century truly was disappointing to Muslim liberals and secularists. Just look at photos or film reels from the 60s and 70s of Tehran, Cairo and even Riyadh. All the signs are there that Westernization was thoroughly under way: ladies modelling themselves on Jackie Kennedy, fathers with engineering degrees flashing beaming smiles beside shiny new Cadillacs, Middle Easterners by the thousands returning from university abroad. It all betokened the triumph of liberalism over the backwardness of religion.

Except that it didn’t. One of Bellaigue’s most important characters in the last part of the book is the infamous Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, who, on returning from graduate studies in America, became one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most influential ideologues. Though he was eventually executed by Nasser’s regime, Qutb’s anti-Western polemic, linked to a thoroughgoing neo-Salafist fundamentalism, lived on, becoming the foundation of both revolutionary Islamism and global jihadism. Not only did he inspire the millenarian radicals who violently took over the Mecca Mosque in 1979, forcing the Saudi government to expel them by force, violating the sanctuary’s sanctity; but he was a major influence on Ayatollah Khomeini, who translated Qutb’s books into Persian and incorporated his ideas into his revolutionary programme, culminating later that same year in Khomeini’s election as Supreme Leader of Iran.

Both events, the Mecca siege and the Iranian Revolution, reverberated throughout the Muslim world, especially Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud felt particularly threatened by Khomeini’s Islamist rhetoric; pulling the brakes on incipient liberalization, they granted the Wahhabi ulema expanded powers, especially over the largely Brotherhood-influenced education system, who began competing with Iran for Muslim hearts and minds everywhere, coun­tering the mullahs’ revolutionary Islamism with their own brand of Salafi Islamism. We know the rest of the story: America goaded the Soviets into invading Afghanistan, rallying the mujahideen; the Ayatollah provoked Saddam Hussein into invading Iran, rallying Saddam’s creditors; this spurred him into invading Kuwait, drawing US troops to the Arabian Peninsula, prompting Osama bin Laden into founding al-Qaeda, recruiting the 9/11 suicide bombers, pushing America into the war on terror, giving neoconservatives an excuse to launch the Iraq War, and so on and so forth. Iraq fell apart and the Arab Spring backfired, incubating a newer, deadlier form of global jihadism, and finally, closer to home, Manchester and London Bridge.

So yes, liberalism didn’t happen, peace and prosperity didn’t materialize. But because Bellaigue’s value system is backwards binary – modernity equals good, bad equals not modernity – he’s ultimately unable to make coherent sense of the history he’s telling. Secret police, genocides, one-party states, revolutionary utopianism, consumerism, radical terrorism, rentier economies, huge sovereign debts: all these dispiriting twentieth-century phenomena are fruits of modernity. Indeed, they happened because of, not despite, the Enlightenment, reaching their modern forms, so repugnant to any truly enlightened sensibility, thanks not to religious “bigots” and “stick-in-the-muds”, but to the modern cast of mind Bellaigue champions so uncritically: literate and ideological, obsessed with science and technology, and fixated on the future, never on the past, on new and final solutions, never on traditional wisdom.
A much more illuminating analysis of “what went wrong” in the Middle East would focus on the two traditions of modern statecraft that were most influential there, namely Napol­eonic France and Wilhelmine Prussia. Even better, it would take Islam much more seriously, especially mature Islam, which always taught that the first line of defence against tyranny and corruption was the universal supremacy of law – the first principle jettisoned or at least marginalized by the truly robust mod­ernizers. These Europe-obsessed leaders also closed mystical brotherhoods and abolished traditional religious tuition, fundamentally undermining the “philosophical-Sufi amalgam”, as Ahmed describes it, the loss of which is much more germane to the rise of militant fundamentalism and dictators-for-life than any vague antipathy Islam may feel for progress as such.

This brings us to Tariq Ramadan’s latest book, Islam: The essentials. Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, Ramadan is a well-known advocate for “reformist Islam” in the West. His grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood, and his father was expelled from Egypt by Nasser along with thousands of other Brotherhood members, making Ramadan a proper scion of the religion’s modernist, politicizing wing. He himself grew up in Switzerland, eventually making his way to Lyon, where he got his start as a community organizer working among the children of North African immigrants. This background makes him adept at translating Islam into a language Westerners can understand.

That language is the polar opposite of Ahmed’s: moving from his book to Ramadan’s induces whiplash. Ahmed, twisting the English language into something that will express his vision of mature Islam, defending hierarchy, paradox, cumulative tradition; Ramadan, twisting Islam into something that will suit the language of progressive politics, egalitarian, morally consistent, accommodating the demands of our therapeutic age. That will not be to everyone’s taste; it reminds me of the sort of wishy-washy sermons you hear from liberal Christian preachers, where everything that might offend the sensibilities of a twenty-first-century progressive has been bleached out.

This is particularly clear in the way Ramadan translates some common Muslim terms. Islam literally means “submission”, with everything that implies – the individual believer’s submission to the demands of the spirit, the Muslim community’s submission to divine rule, the non-Muslim community’s submission to Muslim rule, the whole universe’s submission to the creative act that sustains it in being – a cascading hierarchy placing everyone and everything in a relationship of right submission to the divine, similar to how St Paul describes the marriage hierarchy, children submitting to parents, wives to husbands, husbands to Christ, Christ to God. Now, for understandable reasons, people keen to play down Islam’s martial dimension these days tend to draw attention away from the literal meaning of the word Islam, focusing instead on what is also perfectly true: that it comes from a root word meaning “peace”. Ramadan takes it in an even more inoffensive direction, translating it as “making a gift of oneself”, and further as “the act of faith by which the human being sets out on a quest for peace”.

Similarly twee, he invariably calls zakat, the tithe required of all Muslims and one of the five pillars of the faith, “the social purifying tax”. Taqwa, a term most easily translated as piety and from a root denoting protection from danger and, by extension, the fear of God, he also glosses as “awareness and reverential love of God”.

None of these heavily interpretive renderings is strictly speaking a mistranslation, but they strike me as too expressive of how Ramadan wishes Islam to be understood, and not faithful enough to what Islam has actually been. Almost embarrassed by how most Muslims throughout time have understood and practised their religion, Ramadan wants you to know, despite what you may have heard, that there is nothing in Islam to offend the sensibilities of right-thinking people in Notting Hill and Islington – with one interesting exception, homosexuality. Ramadan affirms the traditional teaching here, that though no person has the right to excommunicate a homosexual, homosexuality in itself is categorically sinful, and all attempts to rehabilitate it for modern sensibilities have failed. I wonder if a Pelican volume entitled “Christianity: The essentials” would be allowed to include that verdict.

Of course, Ramadan does not ignore jihad – but I almost wish that he had. Again, it’s all smoke and mirrors, beginning with his claim that it is only in an echo of “the Christian crusades” that Westerners present jihad as “holy war”, which is getting it precisely backwards. By the time of the Crusades, Christendom in both East and West had endured centuries of aggression at the hands of the Caliphate, and Christian knighthood took on a sacralized dimension only in emulation of the ghazis of Islam.

Ramadan does not exactly deny this history, admitting that “Muslims have waged wars of expansion”, which is putting it mildly; yet he then says that these wars were “clearly against the principles and prescriptions of their religion”, which is simply untrue – as Ahmed, for one, is happy to admit.
But then Ramadan defines jihad as an “effort of resistance and reform”, another highly interpretative rendering indicative of Ramadan’s ultimate purpose: political advocacy. Just as the radical Left, beginning in the 1970s, began pursuing the so-called Third Way, shifting its rhetoric away from class warfare and towards social justice, so has Ramadan repackaged political Islam. He vaguely hints at the Muslim Brotherhood’s Marxist-Leninist underpinnings when he compares the Brotherhood’s “political accents” to those that “were later to appear in Latin American liberation theology”. But in place of Islamism’s original aim – organizing Muslims politically (and paramilitarily) in pursuit of a renewed, modern Caliphate – the version of Islamic activism he advocates reflects the full panoply of liberal leftist shibboleths. “In social life and in the struggle for equality,” he writes, “we must undertake jihad for education, for gender equality, for social justice and solidarity. We must persevere in the struggle against poverty, racism of every stripe, oppression, torture and demeaning treatment” – words more suitable to a Labour Party manifesto than to an objective treatment of Islam. Here as elsewhere, Ramadan the preacher, even Ramadan the political advocate, overwhelms the plain truth.

But still, the radical origins of this world view poke through. For example, when discussing Islamist terrorism, Ramadan is forced to equivocate. He rightly condemns attacks on civilians, but draws a distinction between “the violent and extremist action of Daesh in Syria and Iraq” and “armed resistance to colonial occupation, such as in today’s Palestine”, for which “it may be understandable to go so far as to sacrifice one’s life in resisting the oppressor and the colonialists”. This is the classic leftist distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters. Like Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Corbyn and other radicals, Ramadan believes that although the Islamic part of Islamist violence comes from unscrupulous Islamist leaders exploiting Islam injudiciously, the Islamist movement in general is part of the global resistance against “colonialism, international relations, geostrategic and economic interests” – namely against the liberal, capitalist, Atlanticist world order. This is how we should interpret such radicals when they try to pin the blame for jihadism on Western policy: they’re not really against individual policies, they’re against that whole world order, and therefore find it difficult wholeheartedly to condemn any group, however fringe, who share that antipathy. After all, terrorism is everywhere and always a phenomenon of radical politics, and Islamism is quite simply the marriage of radical politics and Islam. I wish people would point to the first half of that equation at least as often as they point to the second half, when seeking to understand violent Islamism.

So Islam: The essentials is by no means essential reading, but as a counterpoint to Ahmed’s book and a companion to Bellaigue’s, it is fascinating. From the book’s pitifully brief historical sketch, Tariq Ramadan’s vision of Islam clearly does not include the Balkans-to-Bengal complex, or any Muslim land or people beyond the medieval Fertile Crescent and the modern, Western diaspora. In this he’s lockstep with Christopher de Bellaigue; they both subscribe to the conventional Orientalist view that, after a brilliant golden age terminating in the rise of the Turks, Islam slipped into a long, undistinguished senescence. They’d disagree over how, but still, both men assume Islam needed rescuing by Western modernity. They are living witnesses, then, to what Shahab Ahmed most deplored, namely the determination of both modern Muslims and secularists to write mature Islam out of history.

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