Malise Ruthven: How to Understand Islam

A review of a number of recent works on Islam in the NY Review of Books here. Ruthven is covering a bunch of highly complex works, that could be stand alone reviews, so the job is tricky. I think the analysis is uneven in spots–although with the amount covered it couldn’t be otherwise. Still very enlightening.

The review (the first one) of Arguing the Just War in Islam by John Kelsey is to my mind the best.

Key passage:

The word sharia, usually translated as “law,” refers to the “path” or “way” governing the modes of behavior by which Muslims are enjoined to seek salvation. The way may be known to God, but for human beings it is not predetermined. A famous hadith (tradition) of Muhammad states that differences of opinion between the learned is a blessing. Sharia reasoning is therefore “an open practice.” In Islam’s classical era, up until the tenth century, scholars exercised ijtihad—independent reasoning—in order to reach an understanding of the divine law. Ijtihad shares the same Arabic root as the more familiar jihad, meaning “effort” or “struggle,” the word that is sometimes translated as “holy war.” Ijtihad is in effect the intellectual struggle to discover what the law ought to be. As Kelsay remarks, the legal scholars trained in its sources and methodologies will seek to achieve a balance between the rulings of their predecessors and independent judgments reflecting the idea that “changing circumstances require fresh wisdom.” The Sharia is not so much a body of law but a field of discourse or platform for legal reasoning. Recently, it has become an arena for intellectual combat.

It is therefore open to question whether the hijackers and the terrorists automatically put themselves beyond the bounds of Islam by killing innocents, as statements by Bush, Blair, and dozens of Muslim leaders and scholars suggest. With no churches or formally constituted religious authorities to police the boundaries of Islam, the only universally accepted orthodoxy is the Sharia itself. But the Sharia is more of an ideal than a formally constituted body of law. While interpreting the law was once the province of the trained clerical class of ulama, any consensus governing its correct interpretation has broken down under pressure of regional conflicts and the influence of religious autodidacts whose vision of Islam was formed outside the received scholarly tradition.

None of the three most influential theorists behind Sunni militancy, Abu’l Ala Maududi (1903–1979), Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949), and Sayyid Qutb, (1906–1966), received a traditional religious training. Yet both they and the authors of the landmark texts examined by Kelsay in his admirably lucid book (including the Charter of Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel, and bin Laden’s 1998 Declaration) claim the mantle of the Sharia, as did the terrorists responsible for the atrocities in New York, Madrid, and London.

In other words during the Islamic Reformation which we are living through, the power of clerics is being eroded even destroyed. The destruction of the monolithic (or mono-socially and intellectually controlled) voice of the ulema (clerical class) is the single most important item on the table for Islam. This “creative destruction” is enabled by the global informational technological platform, communications networks, and travel industry.

What all of the writers hold in common is the belief that democratic practices, ballots, etc can be used only so long as they promote an Islamic order. (Read medieval theocratic order).

Ruthven shows later that the ideas of a “Reformed” Islam (or transformed Islam as I would prefer/modern Islam) are already in existence and have been for 200 years at least. The problem is that there are no institutional structures, seminaries, and the like to relay this message to the plebs, particularly of the Arab and Western European worlds.

Ruthven, via Olivier Roy (the sharpest commentator on Islam probably in the world), points that there is a difference between secularization (which is integral to modernization) and laicite, an ideology of state-control and state-exclusion of religion. Particularly seen in France since the left-wing Jacobin turn of the Revolutionary Government. But also in Germany and Scandanavia. This laicism is destructive to the possibility of Islam to reform/adapt to European civil society. The US is light years out ahead of Europe in this regard, and the US Muslim-American community has by and large responded accordingly.

This Islamic Reformation will, like the Christian one, lead to great amounts of blood being shed (already has and much more to come). It will not be over within a generation. The West has to learn how to insert itself where necessary, extricate itself at other points and let the combatants fight it out amongst themselves, and overall be nimble and flexible. The West is inexorably drawn into the conflict/intra-religious war, but it is not the primary actor and needs to remember that fact.

It will not be “over” (mostly over) until within Islam itself, the great transformation to modern Islam takes place, gains social legitimacy, theologically dominant. Even then there will always be reactionary, rejectionist forces that will have to be dealt with appropriately. The end of the violence will not come from US occupation of the Middle East. That reality only brings more anger towards the US and temporarily halts (in certain cases) the necessary violence/creative destruction from within, creating the conditions, that will existentially force this civilizational block to a qualitative leap upward.

Published in: on October 23, 2007 at 10:37 am  Leave a Comment  
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