Only traditional Islam can change Islam

By Phillip Blond and Adrian Pabst,IHT

The attempted bombings in London and the attack on Glasgow Airport last week underscore the continued and long-term Islamic terror threat that Britain and the world is facing. To date, all of those detained are highly educated foreign-born medical staff.

Far from being affronted by this incursion, young British Muslims are increasingly likely to support domestic jihad. The radicalization of British Muslim youth proceeds apace. According to a recent poll by Populus, growing numbers of Muslims aged 16-30 subscribe to extreme versions of Islam, and almost 40 percent want to live under Shariah law. Britain faces the prospect of a whole new generation of young people embracing extremism and religious fanaticism.

So far, the government has refrained from introducing more Draconian legislation. Instead, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his ministerial colleagues have promised to reinforce the government’s campaign “to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim community.”

However, like Tony Blair’s sterile appeal to moderate, mainstream Islam, this strategy is bound to fail because of two fatal assumptions.

    First, that every culture and every religion wants to become like the secular West.

    Second, resistance to Western secularization is fueled by false grievances and as such can be legitimately ignored.

In practice, this sort of approach marginalizes traditional Islam in favor of an ersatz “progressive” version that robs it of all its distinctive character and vision. The litmus test for integration is whether Muslims are willing to be like “us.” Unsurprisingly, many young Muslims are increasingly alienated by an aggressively secular culture that enforces liberal transgression of moral norms and taboos.

Crucially, current policies are not working because they fail to address the real cause of radicalization and fanaticism. Contemporary Islamic violence is religious in nature. Its origin lies in Islamic scripture and the destruction of the traditional medieval schools that dictated its interpretation.

The Koran contains clear and lethal injunctions against apostates, idolaters and those who challenge Muslim territorial ascendancy. While the sacred texts do sanctify violence – they also codify it, limiting its range and application.

Thus, there is no legitimation in classical Islam for suicide bombing or the wanton slaughter of innocents. [I am sure this opinion is far from universal.]That said, warfare and a consequent defense and extension of Islam was both a religious duty and a scriptural requirement, albeit one framed by chivalry and relative restraint.

Moreover, unlike the claims of contemporary fundamentalists, there never really was a unified political/religious authority in Islam. On the contrary, the role of religious scholars (the ulama) was to limit the power of the caliphs.

And since there were four traditional schools of religious interpretation, which themselves varied according to time and location, what constituted a proper Islamic practice varied according to local norms and customs. As such traditional Islam prohibits the very totalitarian state Al Qaeda seeks to impose.

For example, if Islam recovers the traditional practice of ijtihad, a process of textual reinterpretation that replaces the scriptural literalism of the fundamentalists with a more medieval allegorical reading of the Koran, this would enable the Muslim faithful to distinguish between immutable God-given laws and mutable human interpretations.

It is worth stating all of this because the only force that can challenge Islamic terrorism is not liberal progressivism but Islam itself. Those who have abandoned terrorism did so not as a result of secular injunctions or indeed horror at what they were doing. Rather, it was the realization that the variant of Islam they were killing for was itself Western, modern and secular.

The great innovators of Islamic fundamentalism – Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi – were deeply influenced by pagan Nazi literature and its supremacist critiques of modern life and culture. Demonstration of the essentially blasphemous nature of contemporary fundamentalism is crucial for the deprogramming of its adherents.

However, the mere rebirth of classical Islam is not enough. Islam in both its Sunni and Shiite derivations suffers from an absolutist unmediated relation to God. Since faith is separated from reason and nature it becomes a self-authenticating phenomenon that invalidates all other perspectives.

What is really required is the revival of Sufism – a practice previously common to all forms of the faith and one that stresses the mystical unknowable nature of God and His transcendence of all forms of human knowledge.

Such a recognition deprives Islamic fundamentalism of its primary motivating principle – that it knows the will of God and is therefore justified in enforcing it upon the earth.

A renewal of Sufism could help Islam to broaden its understanding of authority beyond rulers and the ulama to include civil society. This would also restore the consensus of the community (ijma). And thereby empower Muslim society to challenge the fundamentalist assertions of its heretical preachers with reasoned belief.

Given that we are losing the battle of hearts and minds, we would be well advised to chart a different path. By encouraging an Islamic renaissance and reviving traditions that the fundamentalists have so violently suppressed, Muslim youth might be diverted from their present course.

Phillip Blond is a senior lecturer in philosophy and religion at the University of Cumbria, Adrian Pabst is a lecturer in theology at the University of Nottingham.

July 7, 2007 | 7 Comments »

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