Friday, 6 November 2015

Reforming Islam (06/06/15)

Image result for reforming islam

The Sunday Times published this essay by Tom Holland on the struggle within Islam over the Koran and whether the Muslim holy book should be regarded as symbolic, as opposed to the literal word of God.

Now the self-same debate was raging over the Old Testament of the Bible not so long ago and featured in a famous court case, the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a Tennessee school teacher was prosecuted for teaching his students about evolution. 

So we can only hope, as Tom Holland says, that Islam will face up to the need for change as well.

In search of the true prophet

The West is wary even of talking about Muhammad, but the way to defeat the jihadists who use his story to justify their atrocities is to ‘deradicalise’ him. The historian Tom Holland says both atheist critics and Isis militants misinterpret the prophet’s life

By Tom Holland - The Sunday Times
Isis fighters: the wellsprings for reclaiming Muhammad from the jihadists need to come from within Islam

Christopher Hitchens was asked once by a Muslim why the title of his most famous book, God Is Not Great, made sacrilegious play with the Arabic formula “Allahu akbar”.

Hitchens, who was nothing if not an enthusiast for free speech, did not pull his punches. “The most toxic form that religion takes”, he answered, “is the Islamic form.”

Even though he was quick to add that other religions, in other periods of history, had been equally pernicious, it is rare for a public intellectual to make quite so blunt a statement.

The proposition that Islam is especially intolerant, especially prone to violence, is one that has come to possess for liberals as well as Muslims the authentic quality of blasphemy. The possibility that sanction might exist within the Koran for the brutal crimes committed by al-Qaeda or Isis is an upsetting one for all decent and generous-hearted people — non-Muslim as well as Muslim — to countenance.

Which is why, no doubt, whenever there is some jihadist atrocity, western leaders can be relied on to pose as experts on Islam and insist the perpetrators are either distorting the religion or else do not rank as Muslims at all.

Typical was the US secretary of state John Kerry last year when he declared flatly that the “hateful ideology” of Isis “has nothing to do with Islam”.

Militants believe 'insults' to the prophet, such as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, must be avenged (Dan Kitwood/Getty)

Much the same presumption underlies our own government’s policies on deradicalisation. The phrase is telling. “Deradicalisation” implies both that there is a normative, authentic Islam compatible with the standards of a liberal, secular Britain, and that there are mis­interpretations of it — distortions that are not really Islamic at all. There are, though, immense problems with this strategy. When western governments deny the title of “Muslim” to Isis, they play the same lethal game as the jihadists who condemn their Muslim opponents as heretics or apostates, the better to justify their elimination.

It is not for a prime minister or a home secretary to play at being a theologian. Politicians who take it on themselves to define what is and is not “authentic Islam” are buying into the notion that such a thing actually exists. Unless one is a fundamentalist believer, it does not.

A religion, like any other manifestation of human culture, is a porous and variable thing, forever mutating, a continually evolving dialogue between the present and the past, made up of multitudes of voices. Rather than a single radio station, it is a series of points on a bandwidth. Naturally, then, the definition of an extremist will depend where on that bandwidth one is.

Which is why, of course, jihadists do not tend to think of themselves as extremists at all. Rather, they see themselves as paragons of righteous behaviour: doing God’s will as expressed in the Koran and obedient to the example of Muhammad.

“In the messenger of God you have a beautiful model of behaviour.” So proclaims the Koran. It matters then to jihadists, no less than to Muslims who would never in a million years contemplate smashing up antique sculptures, taking sex slaves or killing those who mock the prophet, that sanction for what they do is indeed to be found in biographies of Muhammad.

James Foley: a victim of what miltants believe to be 'righteous behaviour' To close our eyes to this, and to imagine that what western governments characterise as “Islamic extremism” owes nothing to the example of the prophet, is wilful blindness. When beheading an infidel seems to have been enshrined as the one deed to which every jihadist aspires, it is surely not irrelevant that Muhammad is said to have owned a sword whose name can be translated as “Cleaver of Vertebrae”.

WHY try to “deradicalise” jihadists without also attempting to “deradicalise” the prophet who — as the “beautiful model of behaviour” set before them by God — is bound to serve them as their surest inspiration and role model?

It would be disingenuous of me, of course, to pretend I do not know the answer to this question. If there is one thing every non-Muslim has learnt about Islam over the past 25 years it is that questioning the moral perfection of Muhammad is akin to poking a hornet’s nest with a stick.

From The Satanic Verses to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, there has been no surer way of provoking pain and anger among Muslims than to suggest his career might not have been an unmitigatedly estimable one. Indeed, it can sometimes seem that many are readier to protest against an insult to their prophet than one to their God.

Even though, obviously, the strictures of Islam’s traditional schools of jurisprudence — which mandate execution for any unbeliever who insults the prophet, “unless at that juncture he accepts Islam” — do not apply in Britain, a nervous sense now exists among many non-Muslims that talking about Muhammad is off-limits to them.

Like it or not, an unspoken blasphemy taboo has been imposed upon the West. As a result, the inspiration that jihadists draw from Muhammad’s example remains largely unexplored.

The consequences of this are pernicious in the extreme. Claims trumpeted by Isis propagandists go unexamined: that when they bulldoze Assyrian antiquities, for instance, they are inspired by Muhammad’s destruction of idols in Mecca, or that when they take Yazidi girls as sex slaves, they are emulating the prophet’s relations with Mariya, his Christian concubine.

Simultaneously, the field is left free for those determined to put the most hostile spin on Muhammad’s life. The image of him as a violent warlord, ever-ready to murder Jews and order the assassination of his critics, is not exclusive to jihadists. It lies at the heart of polemics against Islam as well.

As a result, between those who claim the sanction of Muhammad’s example for their violence, and those who claim that violence and Islam are synonymous, there exists an unholy alliance. From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, each has the same presumptions: that the truth about Muhammad’s life can be known and they alone have arrived at the truth.

In fact, though, there are — and always have been — as many versions of Muhammad as there are varieties of Islam. What is the split between Sunnis and Shi’ites, after all, if not a disagreement over his intentions? His biography has never been something stable. It has always been evolving.

The battle to save Islam from the horrors that are currently cannibalising it is also a battle to define the prophet. Jihadists cannot possibly be “deradicalised” unless Muhammad is “deradicalised” as well. Non-Muslims, whose stake in the project is far from merely academic, have a perfect right to contribute to it; but the wellsprings for reclaiming Muhammad from the jihadists must ultimately be located within Islam and the traditions of Islamic scholarship. Otherwise, in the long run, they cannot possibly be effective.

Millions of Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca each year

THE challenge that faces Muslims in the West is as simple to state as it can seem difficult to resolve: what to do with the traditions about Muhammad that are incompatible with the mainstream values of a liberal, secular democracy?

The issue has been rendered particularly pressing by the sheer pace of moral and ethical change that has taken place over the past few decades. As recently as the 1970s, for instance, biographers of Muhammad seem not to have been unduly perturbed by the proposition that an older man might sleep with a young girl.

In 1970 John Glubb, erstwhile chief of staff to the king of Jordan, published a book called The Life and Times of Muhammad. In it he detailed the marriage of the prophet to Aisha, a girl almost 50 years younger than him. This information derived from Aisha herself, “who narrated that the prophet married her when she was a girl of six and he consummated the marriage when she was a girl of nine”.

Glubb, far from raising an eyebrow at this, seems to have found it all rather sweet. “When she was married,” he wrote fondly, “she brought her toys with her to her room in the Apostle’s house.” Glubb was heir to a long tradition. No one before him, reaching right the way back through the Middle Ages, seems to have had any problem at all with Muhammad taking a nine-year-old to bed.

Since Glubb’s book was published, of course, there has been a profound change in attitudes towards what has come to be defined as underage sex. Online, where hostility to Islam is often expressed in venomous forms, the charge that Muhammad was a paedophile has become a staple of anti-Muslim polemic.

The discrepancy in age between him and Aisha has become a difficult and painful topic for many Muslims to handle. What previously, even four decades ago, was barely seen as a problem at all has come to rank as an almost existential one for Islam. How is the prophet’s status as a model for humanity to be squared with his marriage to a six-year-old?

Various answers have been suggested. In the “caliphate” declared by Isis, the question is disdainfully brushed aside: what was good enough for Muhammad, its ideologues argue, is good enough for all those devout Muslims who may wish to sleep with a nine-year-old girl. Outside the living hell of Raqqa and Mosul, though, responses have been more considered and anguished.

One solution has been to relativise the marriage: to argue that it reflected the cultural assumptions of the time. This, while perfectly true, naturally renders problematic any notion that the prophet is a model blindly to be copied in 21st-century Britain.

A second strategy, which questions the reliability of our sources for Aisha’s marriage, raises similar questions for any Muslim wedded to a literalist understanding of Muhammad’s biography. The account of her marriage attributed to Aisha was recorded some two centuries after the supposed event, and few historians today would credit its reliability as an authentic record of what actually happened. It is intriguing and potentially momentous, though, that Muslim scholars are now prepared to do the same.

Discarding a previously canonical detail of Muhammad’s biography is akin to tugging on the thread of a carpet. If Aisha’s marriage age can be rejected as unreliable because it scandalises contemporary moral standards, why not sayings attributed to Muhammad that mandate the death penalty for apostasy and homosexuality, or divine approval for violence? Why not, in short, finesse away anything in the prophet’s biography that offends against contemporary standards?

Isis takes the hammer to Assyrian artefacts at Mosul museum

To do this need not necessarily be seen as surrendering to western dictates. Just the opposite, in fact. When Muslims today read Muhammad’s biography as a record of historical fact, they are being truer to the traditions of 19th-century Victorian biography than to those of their own faith.

In the Middle Ages the historical facts of the prophet’s life concerned most Muslims less than his cosmic role in the divine scheme of things, his status as the beloved of God, his spiritual beauty as “a ruby among stones”.

Since the colonial era, when European authors began to subject Muhammad’s life to their own methods of inquiry, the influence of western biographical presumptions has profoundly transformed the way that Muslims relate to their prophet.

Indeed, there is a sense in which biographies of Muhammad today remain the last redoubt of the “great man” school of history: one that thrived in the era of Thomas Carlyle, but has otherwise gone terminally out of fashion.

All of which urgently needs to be appreciated when attempting to make sense of the role that the prophet has traditionally played in Islam. That Aisha is reported to have been a virgin when she married, for instance, tells us nothing about the sexual tastes of the historical Muhammad. Rather, it signifies the potency of her status as “the mother of believers”, a woman so wedded to the cause of Islam that her entire adult life was consecrated to the service of the prophet.

Two hundred, even a hundred, years ago most Muslims would instinctively have understood this. Since then, though, Islam has been weathered and transformed by the same forces that have served to desacralise the western world. “Texts written symbolically”, as the scholar Kecia Ali has succinctly put it, “came to be read literally.” The religion, as a result, is in the midst of a process of transformation as significant and destabilising as any in its history — what might almost, perhaps, be described as a “reformation”.

Certainly, in Islam today, as in Christianity during the 16th and 17th centuries, the spectrum of those who practise the faith is widening to convulsive effect. In the battle for its soul, the figure of Muhammad has a central — perhaps the central role — to play. The brutal literalism of the jihadists is critically dependent on their conviction that they have pulled down the great scaffolding of tradition and commentary, and penetrated to the supposedly luminous truth of the example that the prophet provides.

HOW, then, is this conceit to be contested? The central role must clearly be played by the traditions of Islam itself. For too long the great heritage of its medieval civilisation has been a critically underutilised resource. Returning to an appreciation of Muhammad’s role that is mystical rather than legalistic, and cosmic rather than earthbound, should do much to facilitate the emergence of an Islam that is both true to its own traditions and compatible with western norms.

Simultaneously, there are trends in non-Muslim scholarship that can help with the battle against jihadism as well. Over the past 40 years these have revolutionised the academic understanding of the origins of Islam.

It is piquant that the jihadist impulse to tread down the weeds and briars of tradition, and return to an understanding of Islam’s beginnings that does not depend upon subsequent accretions and distortions to the historical record, has had a close parallel in the departments of western universities. Where jihadists locate the radiant light of certainty, though, non-Muslim scholars of early Islam have tended to find the opposite.

The life of Muhammad, dependent as it is on sources written centuries after he lived, has increasingly come to seem a thing very difficult to define as fact. The consensus among scholars now would probably be that we know less about the historical Muhammad than we do about the historical Jesus.

In time, this understanding is bound to have an impact upon the literalism with which many Muslims today are tempted to interpret their scriptures. When the evidence for what the historical Muhammad said and did is so patchy and tendentious, it becomes increasingly difficult to insist that the inheritance of writings about him is not thoroughly contingent.

At the moment, the notion that Muslim beliefs are as historically conditioned as any other ideology inherited from the past is seen by most Muslims as highly threatening — but in the long run this will surely change. Recognising that the stories told about Muhammad are largely fictions bred of a particular context and period should facilitate the emergence, over the course of the next century, of a clearly western form of Islam.

It is one, I hope and trust, that Hitchens would no longer find quite so toxic.

This is a longer version of Tom Holland’s inaugural Christopher Hitchens memorial lecture, given at the Hay festival last week