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Janice Tsang reviews a new book from the emerging force that is Biteback Publishing, discussing  representations of Islam today.

Ziauddin Sardar, Islam Beyond the Violent Jihadis (Biteback Publishing, 2016) 166pp.

The still-recent Orlando shootings sparked worldwide outrage, shock and grief. The venue of the attack, Pulse, was a gay club. The gunman was a Muslim. Very soon ISIS “claimed responsibility” even though there was little evidence that the gunman’s actions were coordinated by the group. Hate speech flooded social media. Everyone clamoured to be heard: the Muslim community, Islam, they shouted, they’re responsible for this atrocity. High-minded literati and low-minded nationalist socialists shared the platform.  In the vortex of virtual screams misconceptions and misunderstandings proliferated.

But there may be hope. In this atmosphere of ISIS related terrorist attacks and its counterpart: Islamophobia, a new book arrives with a much needed balm: here is a very different, ordinary, lived Islam, far from the media headlines and political fundamentalisms. Sardar’s book does not support a divisive hatred and ignorance. Instead, he shows us the value of knowledge and understanding of the ordinary, lived, Muslim life. Meanwhile, on the digital airwaves, the far-right continues to grow in volume and sophistication across Europe and the US, infecting us with messages of fear and hostility of this Muslim ‘other’.

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The book has three parts. It begins with the author’s visit to a Muslim majority girls’ high school. Sardar invited the girls to participate in discussions on the nature of Islam. Out of sight of the media, he discovered very ordinary girls willing to ask intelligent and critical questions about their faith, something that may not have been possible in the past. Their questions are probing and critical of some of the narrow dogmas in their faith. The author is impressed.

Sardar places the root cause of fanaticism and violent  jihadism in the historical movement of Wahhabism. For him “dogmatic thugs hate rational and free thinking Muslims more than they hate non-Muslims or the West”. He says this as a non-dogmatic and non-fundamentalist practicing Muslim. He offers a counter-narrative; one that he hopes will help us find a way out of the prison of fundamentalism, literalism and extremism.  In order to do this he provides an overview of the history of the faith, especially of its humanist traditions – with its roots in Greek philosophy and its spirituality – or Sufism, reminding the reader of the traditions that were fundamental to early Islamic history.

Sardar’s history of Islam is largely a material Islam: a history of a humanitarianism and an anti-authoritarianism. There is no priestly caste or hierarchy to mediate relations to God. Centuries after the death of the Prophet, Islamic thinkers were encouraged to exercise their God-given ‘aql, their intellect, to rationally challenge authority and argue, for example, that Islamic theology should be based on reason and rational thought. Islam, in its own way formed itself out of the same intellectual culture from the same rivers that informed Dante – something James Joyce characterised as the ‘jewgreek’.  According to Sardar, Mu’tazilite thinkers encouraged “liberating humanity from all variety of misery and authoritarianism, including, one must add, the authority of free thought based on instrumental reason itself.”

Sardar discusses Sufism and the enviable record of promoting tolerance and pluralism, as well as a powerful tradition of poetry, literature and art. They believed that ‘the will of God’ should be understood as the love of God and fellow humans through politeness, geniality and compassion. Rumi, one of the greatest poets of Islam, wrote that ‘good manners’ were a necessary requirement for the spiritual life.

Sardar gives accounts of a number of feminist intellectuals, as well as female scholars and artists who worked and walked freely without the burden of the hijab. The pluralistic, multicultural and multi-religious interaction was especially active during the so-called al-Andalusian period, the Golden Age of Islam, the time of the “La Convivencia”. Islam, Sardar shows, was a long way from fundamentalism.

So, how did Islam became, as many of its detractors claim, a bitter and violent religion?  Sardar suggests that an important part of this came about through the emphasis of Firstness or Oneness. This concept dates back to the dispute of legitimacy of succession after the death of the Prophet. The dispute arose because the Prophet did not designate a successor. The Sunnis claimed that the successor should be elected among his closest companions whilst the Shias claimed that only members of the family had the right to succession. Both elective or bloodline legitimacies were based on different premises of priority and purity.

Much later in its history came a neo-puritanical movement: Wahhabism, a movement that saw itself as bringing Muslims back to a “pure Islam”. This movement started in Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth-century by theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It saw all innovation in culture – such as art, music, dance, theatre – as a deviation and corruption of purity, something to be avoided. It was a neo-asceticism, demanding its followers adhere to a very strict and literal interpretation of the Qur’an and ‘examples’ (hadith) of the Prophet. The Wahhabi followers, in order to further distinguish themselves from other claimants of orthodox Sunnism, called themselves Salafis. They modelled themselves on the earliest companions of the Prophet, al-salaf al-salih, ‘the pious forefathers’. This strict insistence of purity allowed no new thought or interpretation, no concept of human progress – as they believed history had come to an end after the revelation of the Last Prophet Muhammad. They also lacked a concept of secular ethics – all was dependent on acts of the divine will. Imitation was all that a Muslim could do. The love of God expressed by the Sufis was replaced by  fear and obedience. This closing of the intellectual mind was reinforced by traditionalist religious education: the Madrassas. Islamic orthodoxy saw doubt and criticism as a sign of unbelief, and questioning akin to rebellion and apostasy. Young students were no longer taught critical reasoning and were seldom encouraged to ask searching questions. Teachers demanded students to be dogmatic, unquestioning and ‘literal’. Memorisation was stressed instead of understanding, questioning and engaging with what they read. The Shariah was elevated to the level of the divine with the consequent removal of the ethical responsible agent. But in actual fact, the only thing that could be legitimately described as divine in Islam was the Qur’an. The Shariah was a human construction, and the hadith from which it derived its significance, was also a human compilation from varied sources.

Sardar criticises Wahhabism and the unquestioning acceptance of a dogma. He sees it as dangerous, the rigid insistence on formalities and symbolism responsible for draining Islam of its ethical and humane dimensions. The emphasis on Oneness made the religion increasingly dogmatic and less tolerant of plurality and difference. The disappearance of passion for knowledge as well as liberal humanism gradually drained Muslim civilisation of its rich culture. For Sardar, there is an urgent need to return Islam to its rich cultural roots.

Apart from the need to: (a) dethrone the edifice of Islamic orthodoxy, (b) to ditch its ‘manufactured’ dangerously obsolete dogma, (c) to reinvent tradition as a critical enterprise, (d) to reformulate the Shariah, (e) to reconsider its relationship with politics today, and (f) to introduce rational thought and questioning back into religious education, Sardar also criticises the hypocritical foreign policies of the West that contribute to the atmosphere of Islamophobia and hostility toward the Muslim community:

When it comes to killing, there is not much distinction between ‘terrorists’ and ‘civilians’. The lies and euphemisms used to justify our foreign policy and its consequences only add insult to injury.”

It may have become just too easy to view things only in geopolitical terms – to resolve everything by bombing using remote control drones, to think that only ‘our security’ matters rather than the security of others, to see the suffering of others as irrelevant (viewed from a safe distance on television and social media). The response to this spiral of seemingly never-ending violence is not more violence. Perhaps, the only viable way out is to create a global environment and culture where ordinary life can flourish and where people are free of despotism and oppression.

As the an-Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufayl once remarked: the experience of the divine cannot be fully captured and described in words. It is a spiritual journey that individuals take for themselves. Words do not suffice. Teachers cannot help. We are on our own.

Perhaps the reason why Sardar found his visit to the girls’ school meaningful was that those young students were genuinely critical and open-minded. They thought for themselves – without fear and hostility, and just like the Mu’tazilites, used their “active reasoning” to allow themselves to come to their own “autonomous reflection[s].” Knowledge and imagination is power and power is never given – but always, seized. I think this is the task for us all, believers or not, to transcend hatred and violence.


Janice Tsang recently finished her postgraduate study in Postcolonialism and World Literatures at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Born in Hong Kong, she is interested in languages, religion, radical politics, and poetics. She is involved in various social movements.

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