Fareena Alam

Five Principles for Islam's Future

Islam can move beyond its association with oppression and violence by being true to itself and its past, says Fareena Alam. In her article, she argues for a promotion of spirituality and morality, and for the separation of state and church

photo: private
The rhetoric of Islamists may be appear to be religious, but it is thoroughly expedient and secular, says Fareena Alam

​​"Islam means peace", they exclaim. "Islam condemns terrorism", they insist. "The vast majority of Muslims reject violence", they wail. Even before 11 September 2001, Muslim leaderships in Britain and elsewhere went to great pains to demarcate the line between mainstream Islam and militant interpretations of the faith. After it, their protestations became even more emphatic.

They are right, insofar as the routine association between Islam and terrorism is often expressed in simplistic and loaded terms. But the tired mantra of denial also evades a real problem within Muslim communities, one that has sharpened and deepened since 9/11: the way that an increasing number of Muslims are turning to the rhetoric and religious justification of literalist, jihadi scholars.

The reasons for this shift are evident enough: the continued occupation of "Muslim lands" like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, the presence of authoritarian regimes propped up by the west, and the feeling that modernity has left Muslims behind. The "war on terror" is indeed being fought on a new, complex battleground, the hearts and minds of the world's Muslims.

But our response should be not a retreat to dogma, far less an intellectual flirtation with violence, but an acceptance of this dangerous new territory as a challenge to articulate afresh the real message and relevance of our faith.

History through the lens of victimhood

Dyab Abou Jahjah approaches the "war on terror" from another direction, by emphasising the litany of oppressions, past and present, the Arab (mostly Muslim) world has endured. In the process, he seeks to force the reader to view history through the lens of victimhood.

He sees this multitude of oppressions – economic, political, and social – fuelling the anger of the increasingly young Arab (and Muslim) street, anger that affects countries with vibrant, expressive Muslim minorities as well as majority Muslim nations.

The trouble is that Abou Jahjah (and other commentators of his ilk) adopts a decidedly postmodern moral relativism. He says he is against terrorist killing of civilians, but won't criticise those under imperial attack who choose such means. "Preserving the moral ground", Abou Jahjah suggests, "is the least of their concerns in a dirty war." Fight fire with fire then, and let the flames go where the wind takes them.

This is a mistake.

No doubt, Abou Jahjah's arguments make sense on an emotive level. After all, the passionate empathy for fellow Muslims – the umma – runs high amongst an increasingly globalised Muslim youth. We must understand what makes a young man from Bradford feel so passionately about Gaza. Individual identities are shaped by global realities.

But this kind of rhetoric is also dangerous. The more we move away from moral and ethical benchmarks of behaviour, the more we open ourselves up to violent militancy and terrorism. Our approach to terrorism and oppression must be based on an accurate reading of the mood on the street and reassertion of the fundamental theological and moral principles of Islam that have been part of its religious expression since the time of the Prophet.

So what can we offer Muslim youth, those under occupation and those feeling increasingly angry and frustrated by what they see as a global war on Islam? Here are five principles of action.

1. Be open to discussion

The classical Islamic sciences and ethical discourse must be revived. The development of Islamic jurisprudence, theology, law and spirituality is characterised by a spirit of moderation and the need to find the "middle way". Without a reassertion of religious values that stress discourse over violence, and civility over zeal, there will be nothing to moderate the passions running high on the Arab street.

As Fuad Nahdi points out, contemporary political Islam offers a religion to die for; classical Islam offers a religion to live for. Without the latter the great achievements of Muslim civilisation (so celebrated and extolled by Islamists) would not have been possible.

The earliest known pictures of the sacred mosque in Mecca show four mihrabs (prayer niches), pointing towards the Ka'aba. These represent the four major schools of Sunni legal thought all of which were respected and taught in the shade of Islam's holiest shrine. For the most part, a peaceful pluralism underscored by scholarship and discourse existed in Mecca, which was one of the centres of debate. This spirit is now almost entirely missing from popular Muslim discourse.

We now have a "protestant" Islam that is almost entirely divorced from our rich interpretive past. Traditional Islam, first whittled away at by the colonial powers and later so-called reformers, has now been outbid by Wahhabi Islam that takes as its starting-point a literal, static interpretation of the sacred texts. It is a movement that tore down the four mihrabs (prayer niches) in Mecca. During the last four decades, funded by petrodollars and mass-produced literature, it has hijacked much of the popular theological debates within Islam, particularly in the west and the Arab world.

Civil society has always been a strong element of Muslim societies and there has always existed a place for bitter argument and a multitude of contested views. These were not threatening to the umma unless they became a source of violence, injustice and social anarchy.

2. Promote spirituality

Revive a sense of morality. The whole problem with Bin Ladenism and its related perversions is that while they use the language of Islam and appeal to community, they neglect its moral and ethical tenets. Emotion and outrage is no basis for a solution to the current malaise.

We need to reassess the man who is at the heart of Muslim belief. Political Islam has made the Prophet Muhammad out to be a warrior-statesman. He was this, but he was more. His mission was to uplift the character of people through teaching worship, good conduct and humility before God.

According to the teachings of the Prophet, we must pursue the moral high-ground even in the face of an aggressor who is not moral. He is declared in the Qur'an to be a "mercy to all the worlds" and rahmah (mercy) is his emblematic quality. He was motivated by a profound and intimate love for God, humanity and his community. He was a peacemaker and a diplomat – generous and compassionate.

For the Prophet, the ends never justified the means. But, you won't hear much mercy these days from Islamists. Their call to action may have Islamic language attached to it, but it is thoroughly expedient and secular. If we allow this trend to continue, we make a mockery of religion and ultimately make Islam temporal. Lacking universality and relegated to emotive language devoid of a moral and ethical system, Islam loses its place as a genuine guiding force in people's lives.

Islamic spirituality, or Sufism, has always been an integral part of Muslim religious life. Sufi saints, shaykhs and orders provided a methodological approach to knowing God based on the recitation of litanies, the instruction to develop piety and righteous character, to humble the ego and to devote service to society. Even today Sufism, with its expression of shared Islamic values and focusing of the individual's attention on a higher purpose, could be a dramatic counterforce to militant political Islam.

This is not an attempt to neuter Islam. To the contrary, Sufis were, for example, at the forefront of many anti-colonial struggles (Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi in Algeria, Omar Mukhtar in Libya, Shamil al-Daghestani in the Caucasus). But their approach placed principle and restraint ahead of political or military gain.

A revival of spiritual practice and organisation will in turn revive an internal moral debate on how to resist occupation.

3. Resist the wrong kind of "support"

Do not hand the future of Islam and Muslims over to the likes of the Rand Corporation. The influential United States think-tank's 2003 report, Civil Democratic Islam, suggested a way to secularise Islamic discourse by pitting "fundamentalists", "traditionalists", "modernists" and "secularists" against each other.

This kind of simplification ignores the complexity of the global Muslim experience and makes matters worse. Such western interference and "support" has exacerbated, and in some cases created, the current crises in the Muslim world.

For years, the United States either ignored or indulged her Arab allies as they pumped money into organisations that chipped away at the edifice of classical Islamic heritage and encouraged a uniform, literalist interpretation of Islam. It is the spawn of this interpretation that now calls for "holy war". The combination has ruined the fabric of Muslim civil society and made the world unsafe.

4. Divorce state and religion

Remove the ulama from state control. Majority Muslim states must stop meddling with religion. Islamic tradition calls for a healthy tension between religious scholars and the state, so that they can keep one another in check. Muslim societies must have the ulama as a dynamic vibrant force within civil society. The state needs to avoid interfering with religion and co-opting it for its own political ends.

Classical Islamic discourse cautioned the scholars of religion from getting too close to political authority, and many famous and celebrated scholars fled from service in the Sultan's court in order to preserve their integrity and independence. This is not to suggest that all ulama in such a position today are to be censured. Many scholars with formal positions within state structures are in fact remarkable voices of reason and balance, like Mufti Ali Jumu'a of Egypt.

The desire for an "Islamic state", whatever that means, must in any case be predicated by an Islamic state of heart and mind that is more concerned with mercy, justice and the development of good character, than with utopias and the mirage of a city on the hill.

5. Take pride in culture

Encourage the development of a cultural agenda for young Muslims. For years, the literalists have downplayed the importance of music, art and literature (particularly in the west where debates over whether these things are permissible or not is a favourite pastime of the religious classes).

Islamic civilisations gave birth to some of the most sophisticated cultural and artistic expressions ever. Celebrations like the mawlid – the birth of the Prophet – are essential elements of the cultural calendar of most Muslim societies and were the catalysts for repeated cultural evolution and revival.

We need to revive those musical and artistic traditions that have begun to vanish. A people without a cultural agenda, that particularises and localises religious expression, present no hope for their young people. Today there is a Chinese Islam distinct from an Anatolian Islam. Neither loses its link to the universal Islamic principles, but both have a unique cultural expression. The erosion of this kind of Islam must end.

Dyab Abou Jahjah uses the term "by any means necessary" to exclaim the right of the oppressed to retaliate. It is a statement popularised by Malcolm X, one of the great leaders of America's civil rights movement and a Muslim, who was assassinated forty years ago.

Malcolm X himself went through a profound transformation, from an advocate of black self-determination to an orthodox Sunni Muslim who connected the global struggle against colonial occupation in Africa and Southeast Asia, to the desire of black people to gain their human rights in America.

After having spent much of his life rejecting co-operation with American whites, he devoted his last days to building alliances with an incredible variety of people – Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Whites, Asians, Blacks, socialists, communists, capitalists – because he believed that Islam called on humanity to work together collectively to solve its problems. Malcolm X moved to the middle way. He was going to build alliances and act strategically to end racism, by any means necessary. Today we need those kinds of alliances more than ever.

Terrorism must be beaten, but it cannot be defeated with its own weapons – bombs, bullets, and the denial of human rights. We must not be afraid to follow the middle way, away from the extremes of literalism and, as Malcolm X would say, "house negroism". Muslims, and all the world's people, deserve better.

© Fareena Alam 2005

This article previously appeared on openDemocracy.

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