Islamic Reform: Holy Grail or Poisoned Chalice? (Part I)
by Mary Jackson (Feb. 2009)
“Are you a PLP?”
”Nah nah. You’re not a proper living person then.”
“No, no, I am a PLP – I am too.”
“Nah nah – you’re a Public Leaning Post.”
So runs the playground taunt. Is this how Muslims feel when they are asked about reforming Islam? “You serious about reform? Human rights, equality, that kind of thing? In that case you’re not a proper Muslim.” “But I am a proper Muslim, and I’m serious about reform.” “Come off it - you’re practising taqiyya.” Muslim reformers, it seems, cannot win.
I have been as dismissive as anybody about the prospect of a reformation in Islam, describing it in Pajamas Media as:
“a triumph of hope over experience. The experience is fourteen hundred years of violent conquest, killing of unbelievers, subjugation of women, slavery, and stagnation. The hope? Right now it’s a British think tank called the Muslim Institute.”
A think tank here, a spiky-haired lesbian there, and hundreds of broken promises everywhere - it is no wonder non-Muslims have grown cynical.
This short article, the first of two, cannot, and does not, aim to give a comprehensive account of attempts to reform Islam. Nor do I claim to be impartial; I acknowledge freely that I would prefer Muslims to give up Islam altogether. I hope instead to distinguish between reform efforts that should be dismissed as unworkable, and those that may be in with a chance.
Calligraphy and Iznik tiles aside, Islam is ugly. Imagine a fifty-year-old man “consummating” his “marriage” with a nine-year-old girl. Imagine an old woman being torn limb from limb by two camels for insulting the man in question. Imagine a rape victim being stoned to death for her “crime” – you don’t need to imagine very far back, as this happened in Somalia only a few weeks ago. Islam is ugly, too, in what it forbids: sculpture, music, portraits, wine.
A strand of wishful thinking states that centuries of ugliness can be wiped away by a pretty face. Look at Queen Rania of Jordan – she’s fetching and doesn’t wear a veil, so can Islam be all bad? And the pretty face can be a man’s – Tariq Ramadan’s, for example, or Ed Husain’s:
Young, handsome and plausible, best-selling author Ed Husain is the British Government’s official Voice of Moderate Islam. Former member of Hizb ut Tahrir, a party dedicated to the establishment of a worldwide Islamic caliphate, Ed (short for Mohammed) Husain saw the error of his ways and now preaches moderate Islam. One fatted calf was not enough for this Prodigal Son; instead he receives, according to The Times, £85,000 a year from the Quilliam foundation, an “anti-extremist think tank” with plush offices in central London and, this year alone, £1 million of public money. In the December 2007 edition of New English Review, I expressed doubt as to whether Ed Husain was the answer to the problems associated with Islam in Britain:
Why should we pay heed to the writings of Ed Husain, rather than those of Ibn Warraq, Hugh Fitzgerald or William St. Clair Tisdall? Does the voice of youth have any particular insights to offer?
My concerns were twofold. First, in his best-selling book The Islamist, Husain treats in detail the shortcomings and dangers of Hizb ut Tahrir and other Islamic – or, as he would have it “Islamist” – sects. However, he does not explain how those “extreme” beliefs differ from those of mainstream Islam:
He has not confronted those tenets of Islam that have wreaked havoc on this earth for the past fourteen hundred years. If he genuinely believes that it is wrong to hate and kill Infidels, why continue to hold to Islam?
Husain ducks out of this question by means of the term “Islamism”, which he claims is an aggressive, political version of Islam, distinct from Islam itself. But can that one suffix, that –ism, do so much work?
Husain almost certainly believes that it is wrong for men to hit their wives, or to kill those who leave Islam. But worryingly, he believes – or says he believes – that Islam does not prescribe both. It does, and Husain has no real comfort to offer the victims of Muslims who put Koran 4:34 or Bukari into practice.
My second concern is that Husain fails the Israel test. No matter how liberal, how committed to “interfaith dialogue” a modern Muslim seems, mention Israel and he will bristle: Israel is on land once conquered by Muslims, and belongs to Muslims for ever – a Jewish state is intolerable. In a Guardian article in June 2007, Husain equated Zionism and “Islamism”:
Zionism and Islamism are both political perversions of ancient Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Islam…. Disregard for the sanctity of human life is a hallmark of both Zionism and Islamism…Just as Israel is an expansionist state which remains in occupation of the Golan Heights, Islamists plan for a state that would have an occupying army to support ever-expanding borders.
The Golan Heights, even if it were not Israel’s by right, as territory won in a defensive war, hardly equates to the world domination mandated by Islam. Islam, that is, not “Islamism”.
Recently a richer and emboldened Husain showed his true colours on Israel. Writing in The Guardian about the recent conflict with Gaza, he wrote of “Israel’s massacre of innocent Palestinians,” and, even more tellingly, questioned Israel’s right to exist:
I've spoken out in support of Israel's right to exist, beside a strong Palestinian state, in gatherings and places where it has brought me significant harm. But Israel's cold, politically timed killing of more than 300 Palestinians makes me, and millions more, rethink our attitude towards Israel.
Last year I summed Husain up thus:
Husain is by no means alone in his ignorance about Israel and his reflexive blaming of Israel and Western critics for Islam's ills. Nor is he alone in his failure to confront Islam's failings and to subject the Koran, Hadith and Sira to critical scrutiny. Sadly, his opinions are all too commonplace, no worse than those of many non-Muslims. But if he is nothing special, why should we listen to him and praise him? Why should we believe that he can do for Islam what so many have failed to do? He has been on a journey, from Islam-lite to Islam and back. He no longer associates with those who advocate violence. So what? Must we be grateful?
Adulation from The Guardian, misplaced confidence from our Government, and £85,000 have not changed him for the better, and one year on, my opinion is more firmly entrenched.
I have dwelt at some length on Ed Husain, not because he is a significant thinker, but because he represents what is wrong with many purported reformers of Islam. Whether he is sincere or not is immaterial; perhaps he deceives himself as he deceives others. As a reformer he is flawed, because he does not confront Islam, but glosses over what is wrong with it. Someone who confronted Islam might be able to reconsider his position on Israel, but Husain and others like him, including past masters of taqiyya like Tariq Ramadan, will never do this.
Robert Spencer has observed that Husain actually hinders genuine reform of Islam by attacking those who call attention to “the deep scriptural, theological and legal foundations of Islamic violence and supremacism, rather than acknowledging those foundations and calling for reform and reinterpretation of those aspects of Islam”. I agree, so it would be inconsistent, not to say churlish of me to dismiss out of hand a reformer who does call attention to what is wrong with Islam.
The Trouble With Islam is a promising title for a book by a Muslim reformer. That is the UK title. In the US, the book is called, rather less promisingly, The Trouble With Islam Today – as if there has not always been trouble. Still, Irshad Manji’s opening and repeated assertion that in Islam literalism is mainstream shows a willingness to confront problems rather than hide them:
As I view it, the trouble with Islam is that lives are small and lies are big. Totalitarian impulses lurk in mainstream Islam.
“Islam”, shorn of its -ism, is pronounced totalitarian. So far so good. To her credit, Manji is prepared to criticise the Koran. In Chapter Two Seventy Virgins, she writes:
The Koran’s perfection is, ultimately suspect…. What if entire phrases have been misconceived? Now, more than ever, we need to bring back the doubts.
Manji touches, briefly but approvingly, on the work of Christoph Luxenberg, the pseudonymous German scholar of Semitic languages and author of The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, of whom more in Part II of this article. Luxenberg’s work directly challenges Islamic belief on the divine origin – even the Arabic origin – of the Koran, and Manji is right to acknowledge it.
A further good sign is that Manji passes the Israel test - just. Must Muslims pass this test? Yes, because in doing so they challenge Islam’s claim to world domination and its proclaimed superiority over other faiths. In Chapter Four, Gates and Girdles, she recounts her visit to Israel and the “Palestinian territories”. She is full of praise for Israel’s democracy and free press, and critical of the Palestinian Authority’s corruption and the UN’s role in perpetuating the so-called refugee crisis:
Today it considers 3.5 million Palestinians to be refugees, but it applies a definition that’s given to no other displaced people. That definition includes not only the original refugees, who numbered about 700,000, but also their children and grandchildren…Hundreds of thousands of Jews found themselves kicked out of Arab lands by the 1950s, yet they didn’t languish in refugee holding tanks because Israel absorbed and integrated the vast majority of them.
Manji has much to say in praise of Israel and critical of the Arab world, in particular Muslim complicity in the Holocaust. Unfortunately, she does not reconcile her views with the Hadith which reads:
The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time [of judgment] will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! (Sahih Muslim book 41, no. 6985)
Failure to do so is not necessarily taqiyya, but it is a serious omission. It is not enough to suggest that some of Mohammed’s words are wrongly reported. What if they are correctly reported and still bloodthirsty and vile? Indeed Manji’s failure to criticise the actions and words of Mohammed, as recounted in the Hadith and the Sira, is her most serious limitation. Some of her best friends are Jews, perhaps even Israelis. So what? Manji’s liking for Jews and Israel is surprising in a Muslim and may make her a “good person”. But should we be grateful for this? Goodness, as Mae West once said, has nothing to do with it.
Manji is a positive voice, and I have no reason to question her sincerity, but should a Great Hope be quite so hopeful? Should not the hope be tempered with experience? She sets much store by a revival of the concept of itjihad, or independent interpretation of Islamic sources. The Trouble With Islam that she does not acknowledge here is those Islamic sources – the sow’s ear that hope alone cannot fashion into a silk purse. Philosophy writer Jens Thomas Andfindsen is less sanguine:
Manji is correct that ijtihad is an established principle in traditional Islamic theology, and it is also correct that the emphasis on and freedom to exercise ijtihad among Islamic jurists has varied throughout the ages. Especially during phases when Islam expanded and conquered other highly developed societies, the need for ijtihad, re-thinking of traditional views, to solve legal problems that the Koran and the hadith didn't prescribe unambiguous solutions to, increased. However, there are strict rules for the use of ijtihad, and even a superficial knowledge of what it is about will reveal that ijtihad cannot possibly be what Manji claims it to be. If Manji were right, any Muslim could rationalize almost anything and then present the result as Islamic jurisprudence. Simple logic indicates that this cannot be true
That Manji’s book has more hope than experience may be attributable to her relative youth – she was in her early thirties when it was published in 2002. The intervening years have not modified her views; there is no evidence that she has considered the contradictions in her position. Essentially, she has continued to promote her book and discuss the ideas in it. Her official website is full of comments from readers whose lives it has changed. Yet Manji herself remains unchanged.
She even looks the same, much younger than her forty or forty-one years, with the same spiky hair:
Does it matter that one of the most famous voices of Muslim reform is a spiky-haired lesbian? It matters in one who courts publicity. The lesbianism matters partly as a distraction, and partly because Manji gives no convincing reconciliation of her lifestyle and the Islamic prohibition against homosexuality. And the spiky hair? Yes, in that the image gives false reassurance to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Look, it says: I’m a Muslim and I’m harmless. We don’t all wear beards or veils - look at me. And people look at her, and her videos and her blog – and nothing changes. Above all, Manji’s image is unserious, and the business of Islamic reform is serious work – dirty work, as I will argue in Part II.
So far it seems that Muslim reformers cannot win: when not deceiving others, they deceive themselves. Is it a hopeless business? Perhaps. In Part II I consider where, if anywhere, there is hope. As must be clear, it is not in a handsome face, or a colourful website, or comforting words.
To comment on this article, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish provocative articles such as this one, please click here.
If you have enjoyed this article, and would like to read other articles by Mary Jackson, click here.
Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.