Muamalat: Islamic Obligations at Home and Abroad
Since 11 September 2001, barely a day has passed without stories about ‘Islam’ - the religion of about one-fifth of humanity, as noted earlier - appearing in the media. The terrorists who hijacked four American airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon near Washington, DC, killing some 3,000 people, not only unleashed a ‘War on Terrorism’ by the United States and its allies, but also led to the removal of two Muslim governments, in Afghanistan and Iraq. They raised the profile of ‘Islam’ throughout the world as a subject for analysis and discussion. The debates, in newspaper columns and broadcasting studios, in cafes, bars and homes, have been heated and passionate. Questions that were previously discussed only in the rarefied atmosphere of academic conferences or graduate seminars have entered the mainstream of public consciousness. What is the ‘Law of Jihad'? How is it that a ‘religion of peace’ subscribed to by millions of ordinary, decent believers can become an ideology of hatred for an angry minority? Why has ‘Islam’ since the fall of communism become so freighted with passionate intensity?
Such questions are no longer ‘academic’, but of vital concern to all the peoples of this planet. That ‘Islam’, or some variation of it - whether distorted, perverted, corrupted or hijacked by extremists - has become a force to be reckoned with, or at least a label attached to a phenomenon with menacing potentialities, is undeniable. Numerous atrocities have been attributed to and claimed by extremists, both before and since 9/11, causing mayhem and carnage in many of the world’s cities and tourist destinations: Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Mombasa, Riyadh, Casablanca, Bali, Moscow, Tunisia, Jakarta, Mumbai, Istanbul, London, Madrid: the list grows longer, and the casualties mount. The responses of governments and the consequences of these responses for international peace and security should be enough to convince anyone that extremist manifestations of Islam are setting the agenda for discourse and action in the twenty-first century.
Muslims living in the West, and in the growing areas of the Muslim world that come within the West’s electronic footprint, understandably resent the negative exposure that comes with the increasing concerns of outsiders. Islam, it is said, is a pacific religion of peace: the word Islam, an Arabic verbal noun meaning submission (to God) is etymologically related to the word salam, meaning peace. Westerners who have accused Islam of being a violent religion, it is said, misunderstand its pacific nature. Attaching the label ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islamic’ to acts of terrorism is a gross distortion: when Timothy McVeigh blew up the US Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, the worst atrocity committed on American soil before 9/11, he was not described as being ‘Christian’ despite his links to a fundamentalist, white supremacist church. In the view of many of Islam’s adherents, ‘Westerners’ who have abandoned their own faith, or are blinkered by religious prejudice, do not ‘understand’ Islam, their views are distorted by a hostile media, their attitudes are prejudiced by Islamophobia - the equivalent of anti-Semitism being applied to Muslims rather than Jews.
All four of the books under review are seeking to address the negative images of Islam and Muslims since 9/11, and to balance news reports of terrorist atrocities by citing or advocating positive examples of Muslim creativity, adaptability and commitment to social change. In his broadranging survey of Islam in Europe, Jack Goody argued that, while Islam is often regarded as ‘other’, it is in fact intrinsic to the religious tradition of Western monotheism found in both Judaism and Christianity. Instead of regarding Islam as an alien socio-cultural tradition, Europeans should recognise it as an integral part of their past. Long before Muslims from Turkey, Pakistan and North Africa became indispensable to the labour forces of Germany, Britain and France, they were transforming the agriculture of Sicily and Andalusia, introducing commodities, such as paper, to Europe, and transmitting many of the ideas of philosophy, mathematics and the sciences that made possible the rise of modern Europe. While many of the examples cited by Goody are well known, at a time when American neo-conservatives are attempting to impose their own questionable version of ‘democracy’ on the Middle East by the use of military force, it is good to be reminded that the idea of Islam as ‘other’ once contained a positive charge: when Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu and Voltaire looked to the East in order to burnish their critiques of absolutism at home. Sir Adolphus Slade, who served in the Ottoman navy during the 1820s, marvelled that the Ottoman subject, from the lowliest of origins ‘might aspire without presumption to the rank of pasha’, and concluded that ‘the Osmanley has enjoyed by custom some of the dearest privileges of free men, for which Christian nations have so long struggled’.
As an anthropologist, Goody takes his readers into areas often ignored by writers schooled in the discourse of ‘Islam versus the West’. Rather than simply condemning the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban as the typically barbaric act of Islamic fundamentalist fanatics, he contextualises this egregious act of vandalism within the broader traditions of iconoclasm to be found in the West Asian monotheisms as well as in Buddhism itself during its earliest phase. ‘Doing away with the image ... resolves or avoids the whole problem of the material manifestation of the spiritual, and more specifically of humans creating gods rather than gods creating humans.’ Goody suggests that, while trade, intermarriage and the processes of cultural exchange have been sources of innovation and creativity, religion as such has often been balefully divisive: there was more harmony between Europeans and Arabs than between Christians and Muslims. During the Spanish Reconquista, ‘poets on either side were largely spared. We hear of the killing of Arabs learned in religious law, but not of those who were more learned in secular accomplishments’. Goody’s is a wide-ranging and somewhat eclectic overview, containing flashes of insight into unfamiliar corners of history. A surprising omission is that, in examining Islamic and European societies, he avoids discussing the crucial area of kinship, the subject he addressed so revealingly in his indispensable 1983 essay, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe.
Writing in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, when Islamophobia was rife in university campuses and state legislatures, Carl Ernst confronts the negative stereotyping of Islam much more directly:
No respectable authorities defend anti-Semitism anymore, and there is a widespread consensus that insulting statements and stereotypes about Jews are both factually incorrect and morally reprehensible, whether in reference to physical appearance or behavior. Yet at the same time, it is commonly accepted among educated people that Islam is a religion that by definition oppresses women and encourages violence.
While sharing Goody’s view that negative views of Islam are partly the result of a spin-off from the Arab-Israeli conflict, Ernst attributes the entrenched pro-Israeli attitudes of most Americans as much to Protestantism as to the lobbying activities of American Jews. Israeli authorities have found it expedient to encourage Christian fundamentalists who believe in biblical prophesies predicting the destruction of Muslim monuments in Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah, ‘despite the demise of Judaism envisioned in these apocalyptic scenarios’. In the face of media treatment of conflicts which suggest that violence is in some way inherent in the Muslim faith, Ernst points out, ‘we do not hear any similar accusations about intrinsic violence in Christianity or European culture’ or what it was about Christianity that motivated the world conquests of the nineteenth century, or such recent atrocities as the massacre of 6,000 Bosnian Muslims by Orthodox Serbs. Like the late Edward Said, Ernst sees the media, with its addiction to sound-bites and adversarial confrontations, as being largely to blame for such distortions: ‘When a religious extremist tells a television reporter that Islam requires holy war against the infidel West, this prescriptive minority view ... suddenly acquires an authority from the media that it could never attain within its own social context.’ According to Ernst, the exclusivist zeal of the Islamist radicals is abetted by the Protestant filter through which most Americans view the Islamic world: the self-taught Salafiyya reformists who abjure traditional scholarship are the mirror images of the fire-breathing missionaries and fundamentalists who dominate many Protestant denominations, driving the world towards the ‘clash of civilisations’ embarked on by the neoconservatives in Iraq.
In seeking to restore a sense of proportion and balance to the image of Islam for his Western readers, Ernst gives proper weight to the layers of mystical humanism, philosophical speculation and hermeneutical flexibility that are no less a part of the Islamic tradition than the legacies of conquest and militancy. He also points out that intolerance and bigotry are far from being the exclusive prerogative of the Western media. An example of Islamic bigotry he cites at some length would be comical, were not its implications so pernicious. The Ahmadiyya sect, a wholly peaceful movement dedicated to the proseletysing of Islam, is active in many countries. The sect is persecuted in Pakistan because of government rulings denying the Ahmadis the right to call themselves Muslims. If they do so they are liable to criminal charges, including imprisonment. On most matters of ritual and belief, the Ahmadis are orthodox. They differ from other Muslims - or are alleged to differ, because the claims and counter-claims in this area are ambiguous and contested - over the question of the ‘finality’ of Muhammad’s prophethood, believing that their founder Murza Ghulam Ahmed (d. 1908) might have had prophetic powers, or a prophetic status, on a par with that of Muhammad. On the basis of such claims, the Pakistani courts have legally deprived the Ahmadis of the right to call themselves Muslims on the grounds that certain religious terms (such as ‘mosque’, the
‘call to prayer’ and the ‘profession of faith’) are peculiar to ‘Islam’ as defined by legislation enacted with the specific purpose of excluding the Ahmadis. In its 1993 majority ruling, the Supreme Court of Pakistan made a curious analogy with the law on trademarks and copyrights. For the Pakistani judges, ‘Islam’ is in effect a product, like Coca-Cola. Since Islam is the state religion of Pakistan, the courts have the right - the duty even - to protect its ‘logo’ (as well as its spiritual recipes) from being pirated by ‘imposters’. As Ernst observes:
The implications of this decision are breathtaking. Not only is a religion being defined as a commodity or piece of property, which the judge actually compared to Coca-Cola, but also the courts - not the religious communities - are entitled to decide what is essential to any religion. Moreover in this decision the limits of Islam are being defined in relation to a modern sectarian group.
A similar outlook of narrow intolerance has been inculcated into students in Saudi Arabia, who were told in lesson after lesson that a good Muslim living among foreigners ‘must feel deeply inside hatred for them, their religion and everything they represent’ (The New York Times, 24 November 2003). The Saudi government, sensitive to the charge that it allowed its religious leaders to foster a climate of anti-Western hatred (as well as hatred of other Muslims, especially Shi‘a, who do not share the tenets of Wahhabism) only recently excised this passage from its 10th grade text books. Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers of 9/11 were Saudi citizens.
The climate of intolerance that generates violence is fully addressed by Tariq Ramadan in his ambitiously titled Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. A grandson of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan has become something of a cult figure among European Muslims, who attend his public lectures in droves. His latest book is nothing less than a comprehensive rethink of the Islamic tradition to accommodate the realities facing European Muslims and, by extension, their counterparts in the North American diaspora. Ramadan’s approach is systematic and uncompromising. Adopting the classical methodology or approach to the sources forged by the religious scholars during the formative era of Islam, he makes a fundamental distinction between the religious duties of Muslims and their social and political obligations. While the former (including prayers, fasting during Ramadan, payments to charity, and the once-in-a- lifetime performance of the pilgrimage to Mecca) are non-negotiable, all other duties derived from the Qur’an and the corpus of Islamic law are contingent on the wider socio-political environment.
Ramadan’s book appears to be addressed to Muslim rather than to nonMuslim readers. His writing is prescriptive rather than analytical. Muslims, he informs us, must avoid things that are forbidden under Islamic law, but permitted under Western legislation, such as alcohol, soft drugs, interest derived from financial dealings, and extramarital sexual relations. In the area of muamalat (social obligations), according to his analysis of the divine text of the Qur’an,
almost never allows itself, alone, to lay down a universal principle. It is the human being that derives both absolute and relative principles, as appropriate, from the Text and from the reality of the context in which it was revealed.
On the basis of his methodology, Ramadan takes his grandfather’s Salafist followers to task for encouraging Muslims living in the West to develop a ghetto mentality; for example, by adopting dress codes that set them apart from their host societies. Instead, they should strive to engage with the majority communities by setting a good example and influencing public policies that reflect Islamic values. While he is stronger on the principles than the details (there is no discussion, for example, about a distinctively Muslim approach to questions that vex other religious communities, such as abortion, homosexuality and the artificial prolongation of human life) he marks out the political territory he sees as appropriate. If Muslims living in Western countries ‘are truly with God their life must bear witness to a permanent engagement and infinite self-giving in the cause of social justice, the well-being of humankind, ecology and solidarity in all its manifestations’. If this sounds rather vague, if not ambiguous, he is more specific when stating that ‘to work for a multinational that plunders the planet, or in an armaments industry that produces death, or for banks that fuel a murderous economic order is not “to say nothing” ’. He concludes that Islam is definitely opposed ideologically to the neo-liberal capitalist policies currently in the ascendant, and that Muslims living in ‘the system’s head’ have a greater responsibility than their co-religionists in the poorer parts of the globe to propose solutions. For Ramadan, a Swiss citizen, toleration of Muslims is no longer in question: their agenda must be to win respect: ‘Western Muslims are at home, and should not only say so but feel so. There is no longer a place of origin from which they are exiled or distanced.’
Ramadan’s prescriptive neo-orthodoxy may raise the hackles of both traditionalists and separatists and militants who share (with their fundamentalist Christian and Jewish counterparts) the apocalyptic dream of ‘restoring’ the good society under the rule of God. For the moderate majority, however, it offers a middle way between radicalism and traditionalism, with a powerful emphasis on social commitment and (within limits) local patriotism. Muslims are commanded, he says, to submit to the laws of their countries of residence ‘in the name of the tacit moral agreement’ that already supports their presence. At the same time, ‘they are not allowed to fight or kill for money, land or power, and they should absolutely avoid being implicated in a colonial or oppressive war’. Fine-tuning the space between these rubrics, evidently written before the current war in Iraq, is left to a reference note, where it is explained that Islamic scholars offered American Muslim citizens contrary opinions about the lawfulness of fighting their co-religionists in Afghanistan. Ramadan concludes, somewhat lamely, that in such a situation of conflicting loyalties, the choice must be left to the individual, an argument that undermines his advocacy of a common Muslim group identity.
In contrast to Ramadan, Bruce Lawrence offers no prescriptions for American Muslims and other Asian immigrants, including Sikhs and Hindus, who come under his scrutiny. His purpose is ethnographic and anthropological: to see how Muslims and others are faring in the American dream, to chart their progress up the ladders that are taking many of them into positions of privilege and success. The South-Asian-born immigrants to the US currently enjoy the highest household incomes of any immigrant group, with almost 50 per cent of breadwinners occupying professional or managerial positions, including 35,000 doctors. The Hart Celler Act, passed in 1965 at the height of the Vietnam War, led to a substantial increase in Asian immigration to the United States, with the Asian origin population amounting to more than 7 million, or 3 per cent of the population, by 1980. In addition to African-American Muslims there are now at least 700,000 Muslims of mainly South Asian origin, a similar number of Buddhists, around 1 million Hindus and 100,000 Sikhs. The figures are not huge, compared with the numbers of what might be called Judao-Christians (a classification that includes some 3 million Mormons and perhaps 30 million Christian evangelicals who pay as much attention to the Old Testament as to the New, plus 6 million Jews), but they add significantly to the country’s religious diversity. In charting a course through this variegated and complex religious landscape, Lawrence superimposes his own sophisticated co-ordinates on the two great maps of American spirituality drawn by de Tocqueville in the 1820s and Will Herberg in the 1950s. Both of these master cartographers recognised that the culture of Protestantism determined the nature of American religious life: de Tocqueville, a Catholic, saw how his New World co-religionists behaved more like Protestants than did Old World Catholics. Herberg, a Jew, saw how America’s Jewish communities had been changed into a triple-identity grid labelled ‘Protestant-Catholic-Jew’. Lawrence notes that American Jews have more in common with Protestants than they have with European Jews. Building on this groundwork he adds the crucially unacknowledged dimension of race. Since the 1950s, he suggests, Herberg’s triple identity has morphed into Progressive Patriotic Protestantism (PPP), a ‘religious reflex’ or ‘civic virtue’ writ large in civil society that is ‘Protestant even when the creed is Catholic or Mormon or Jewish’. Above all, though few observers care to mention this, PPP is ‘white’, a legacy of those nineteenth-century waves of immigrants from Ireland, Italy and other parts of Europe who became identified with previous waves of Protestant settlers, defining themselves as white in order to maintain their social distance from the indigenous Native Americans and the descendants of African slaves. Until 1970, Asian Americans were classified as ‘white’ on US census forms. Since then ‘Asian’ has become a separate category, ‘compelling Asians to think of themselves as distinct from both Anglo and African Americans, while framing in their own minds a new value preference that is at once racially and class based’. Lawrence takes issue with scholars who suggest that Muslims on the path to Americanisation will become assimilated to PPP, losing the ‘sharp Muslim edge’ to their culture, though he cites some evidence that would support this view, such as the fact that only 2 per cent of ‘Irangelinos’ (the 100,000- strong community of Iranians in Los Angeles) are religiously observant. The persistence of the fault-line dividing Asian Muslims from African- American Muslims is likely to prevent such smoothing of boundaries. Bruce concludes his thought-provoking essay with a powerful critique of multicul- turalist approaches that ignore divergences within religious traditions and the competing identities that face their adherents, while concealing the hegemonic hand of PPP. In the aftermath of 9/11 it has become essential
to maintain the space between church (temple/mosque) and state. The frequent invocations of ‘In God We Trust’ or ‘God Bless America’ carry the message that only faith can sustain genuine patriotism; yet the implicit message is that only those with the ‘right’ faith can fight those enemies who have targeted us because of their ‘wrong’ faith. Wrapping religion in the flag not only undermines a polyvalent patriotism, it also makes the God of all humankind and all history into a partisan for one group and its political/strategic objectives.
Published in The Times Literary Supplement, 6 August 2004.
The books reviewed were:_
Carl Ernst (2004) Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Jack Goody (2004) Islam in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Bruce B. Lawrence (2002) New Faiths, Old Fears: Muslims and Other Asian Immigrants in American Religious Life. New York: Columbia University Press.
Tariq Ramadan (2004) Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.