Misunderstanding Islam

Unfortunately, whether among a vast swath of ordinary people or the majority of their presumptive leaders, there seems to be little knowledge of and less resistance against the prescripts of the Koran; the Sunna, which consists of the Hadith (stories and traditions of Muhammad) and the Sira (the exemplary life of Muhammad); the schools of jurisprudence (Sunni and Shia); the classical Shafi’i Reliance of the Traveler (which emeritus professor William Kilpatrick of Boston College in his compendious Christianity, Islam and Atheism defines as “one of the definitive manuals of Islamic law and as close to an official summation of traditional Muslim practice as one can find”); Isnad (chain of reports and narratives); and the enormous archive of political and philosophical literature dating from the 9th century to the present.

When one takes all this into consideration, Hamid’s suggestions and observations, though in themselves morally laudable or unexceptionable, are plainly unworkable, if not delusional. The rejection of a “literal understanding of the Islamic texts” in question presumes that another, metaphorical or anagogic, understanding exists. Every “reformer” I’ve met and/or read—Salim Mansur, Tarek Fatah, Irshad Manji, Raheel Raza, Zuhdi Jasser, and others—presumes the same. (Non-Muslim temporizers like Karen Armstrong, whom Hamid properly trashes, and John Esposito, are no less delinquent—or corrupt.) Wanting desperately to maintain their faith, the reformers simply cannot or stubbornly refuse to see that the historical record deposes that Muhammad was a ruthless warlord who is nevertheless considered the “perfect man” (the name is obviously the most popular one in all of Islam), that the canonical literature, as we’ve noted, is too vast, complex and interwoven to be substantially altered, and that there is no realistic way the harshly authoritative Medinan portion of the Koran can be re-interpreted to cancel its indelible message.

You cannot feasibly launder the maculate texts and scriptures that provoke and justify perennial violence—it has never been done up to now, not even among the “peaceful” Sufis and the Ismailis, and the chances of this ever happening in the future are approximately zero. Interestingly, Hasan as-Sahbah, aka the “old man of the mountains,” the eleventh century founder of the sect of the Assassins, was reportedly a Sufi, and the Aga Khans of the Nizari Ismailis, the second largest branch of Shia Islam, are reputed to be descended from Hasan, as Idries Shah explains in The Way of the Sufi. Steven Runciman in A History of the Crusades asserts that Hasan was a convert to Ismailism. Despite its internal struggles and schismatic differences, its rigorously austere and presumably genial versions, Islam is still Islam.

Islam is summed up in the dictates of Sharia law, a combination of Koranic verses and passages from the Sunna, which historian F.W. Burleigh in his massive and punctiliously researched biography It’s All About Muhammad obliquely refers to as a “fear marathon.” The Arabic word for “path,” Sharia condones infant marriage, polygamy, wife beating, male unilateral divorce, diminishment of women’s inheritance rights and court testimony, honor killings, rape, slavery, looting and taxing of non-believers, amputation for theft, and punishment by death for apostasy, denial of any part of the Koran, criticism of Muhammad, or rejection of Allah. With respect to veiling, many have argued that it is merely an element of culture, without theological ducat, but Koran 33:59 proves otherwise. Though Sharia is subject to some degree of interpretation, its basic precepts, of which the above is merely a selection, are theologically ordained and cannot be annulled.

In the long run—apart from their reasonable recommendation to crush the terrorists—the reformers tend to distract us from the intractable nature of Islam and so actually end up making us more susceptible to its depredations. This is the ultimate irony. The reformers deceive not only themselves but those among their Western sympathizers who are led to believe that Islam is essentially benign or sufficiently multifaceted to weaken its core message; that violent jihad is an aberration; that pivotal texts in the canon can be re-interpreted or even bowdlerized; and that extremists are a fringe minority, a school of barbarians or a sect of puritanical zealots who have misunderstood or violated the tenets of their faith—when in fact they are true believers, authentic Muslims, who abide by the manifold scriptures.