Misunderstanding Islam

In a February 25, 2016 interview for FrontPage Magazine, notable Islamic reformer Tawfik Hamid listed several ways to combat Islamic terrorism, which he regards as founded on a “literal understanding of the Islamic texts” (italics mine) and on “Islam as it is currently taught and practiced in the vast majority of Muslim communities.” A winning strategy against violent jihad, he continues, would therefore entail the use of “negative deterrents”; support for “theological reforms within Islam that encourage peaceful co-existence”; encouragement of “education reforms” to counter standard Islamic teachings; effective use of the Internet; rendering radical organizations accountable; and putting an end to political correctness, which “prevents serious discussion, or criticism of Islam.” These recommendations are fully elaborated in his 2015 volume Inside Jihad, one of the most eloquent defenses of a redeemable Islam to be published in recent memory.

Regrettably, many of his suggestions tend to beg the question and are devoid of practical application. How do we go about abolishing political correctness, which is so deeply embedded within Western culture that it may never be defeated, or certainly not within a foreseeable future? No sensible person could oppose making Islamic institutions—mosques, social networks, political organizations—accountable for promoting extremist policies and dogmas, but the effort has gone for naught, and the leaders we continue to elect have moved neither to counter nor delegitimize them.

Most importantly, why is the “literal understanding of Islamic texts” wrong or misguided, when the Koran, its bulwark of ancillary documents, and the five schools of jurisprudence (usul-al-fiqh) say exactly what they mean? Where is the warrant for revisionary intrusion into a canon that has been firmly established by millennial authority and ulemic scholarship, that is hedged around by militant conviction, and whose innumerable texts and scriptures are so intricately interconnected that meaningful change is virtually impossible?

In Inside Jihad, Hamid argues against “fundamentalist Islam,” as if there were any other kind. He honorably insists that we must “face the unavoidable reality that [violent] teachings do exist, and they remain unchallenged in the mainstream Islamic books.” He fails to see that the purgation of such doctrines means that Islam would effectively cease to exist. Hamid inveighs against the tactic of taqiyyah—religiously sanctioned lying—deployed by the jihadists, as if taqiyyah did not enjoy theological validation as a general principle—Koran 3:28, 3:54, 9:3, 16.106, as well as the Hadith (Bukhari 84:64-65) among other instances. He is surely right in remarking that “a central obstacle in the battle with jihadism is the West’s tendency to engage in moral relativism,” but he does not pause to consider that the “battle with jihadism” is only a subset of a much larger conflict that is constantly being shirked.

In other words, the issue that should engage us is not only jihad but Islam in its holistic and testamentary totality. It is disheartening to observe a presidential hopeful like Marco Rubio, to take one conspicuous instance, declaim that our issue is not with Islam but with radical jihadis. Rubio goes so far as to assert that jihadism threatens not only America but is an “ideology that threatens Islam,” betraying an ignorance so profound (or a political correctness so slick) as to call his potential stewardship into question.

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.

Placing the blame, as Hamid does, for religious-inspired violence on a radical movement called “Islamism,” which we are meant to understand as something other than genuine Islam, or condemning punitive and archaic Salafist doctrine as uniquely responsible for Islamic mayhem, or even denouncing Sharia as a draconian “human rights disaster”—all this only serves to befuddle and to sidetrack us from considering Islam as a whole, of which “Islamism,” Salafism and Sharia are supposedly parts and aspects that can be reformed or defanged.

The problem we are facing is not this or that component of Islam, but Islam as a vast communion and ordinance founded on a millennial history of conquest and domination and rooted in a divinely transmitted document resistant to change. Islam, as Director of the Center for the Study of Political Islam Bill Warner points out, is constituted by “the words of Allah in the Koran, and the words and actions of Mohammed, the Sunna”; that is, the “Trilogy Texts” of Koran, Hadith and Sira are absolutely definitive. It is hard to see how the very pith and marrow of the faith can be so easily waived. The Canadian Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, for example, opposes bigotry “in the name of Islam”; the bigotry, however, does not appear to reside exclusively “in the name.” The group cites the famous “no compulsion in religion” sura (Koran 2:256) as its guiding principle, but it neglects to inform us that this passage is authoritatively mansukh, i.e., abrogated or cancelled, by the later “verse of the sword” (Koran 9:5), which reads “slay the idolaters wherever you find them…lie in ambush everywhere for them”—unless, of course, they repent, convert or pay the poll-tax. How different is such deceptiveness from the blatantly mendacious pronouncements concerning Islam of Barack Obama, e.g.: “Here in America, Islam has been woven into the fabric of our country since its founding”?

The truth is otherwise. We need to remember that Islam may be recessive at times, active at others, but its essence cannot be changed. It is like a volcano that never goes extinct and we are wrong to regard its dormant phases as final. It is always ready to erupt. You cannot reform or re-interpret a volcano, and unless you keep a distance you always risk being buried in the lava of its natal ferocity.

In effect, the reformers succeed only in turning the credulous and ignorant among us into sitting ducks utterly unprepared for the invasive potential of a world-historical, theo-political system that has set its sights upon the increasingly vulnerable West. Admittedly, the reformers wish to do good; unfortunately they manage only to do harm. Many, if not all, are decent men and women whose reluctance to surrender the faith that has become an integral part of their spiritual and cultural lives has led them into the practice of inadvertent disingenuousness. Indeed, I suspect that the reformers are preoccupied not so much with saving the West as with preserving a form of Islam for themselves. After all, how can they recite the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, and not cleave to the beating heart of Islam?

In a further irony, these revisionists have come under attack by hardline Muslims like Wardah Khalid as blasphemers purveying an “anti-Islam” agenda. Khalid does not realize that they are her unwitting allies, creating a “safe space” for Islam in the midst of the culture, eventually helping to turn it into something like a contemporary university campus—that center of “higher indoctrination” and self-righteous subversion.

In the last analysis, the hermeneutic claims and sanitizing efforts of the reformers serve only to scaffold a political faith whose foremost objective, to quote former Muslim Ali Sina in Understanding Muhammad and Muslims, “is to ‘reclaim’ the earth and establish Allah’s law on it.” At the same time, they prompt us to drop our guard against a determined and insidious adversary. Caveat emptor.