National Catholic Register

Commentary

Among the Muslim Believers, 1998

After a long intellectual sleep, a more outward-looking stream of Islamic thought may be on the move again

BY Gabriel Meyer

August 16-22, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/16/98 at 1:00 PM

 

In a time when the nation's attention is focused on a resurgence of terrorism at U.S. embassies abroad — and a renegade ex-Saudi financier with ties to militant Islamic groups tops Washington's current list of suspects — it may seem bad timing to be writing an article on moderates and reformers in the Islamic world.

Several hitherto unknown Islamic groups have so far taken “credit” for the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania earlier this month which claimed hundreds of lives, and threatened further actions against U.S. interests in Africa and elsewhere. In each case, they've mentioned the teaching of Saudi dissident and construction tycoon Osama bin Laden, a super-wealthy Islamic radical living under Taliban protection in Afghanistan who is widely considered a major conduit of funds for militant Islamic terrorist activities abroad.

But with the focus, once again, on Islam and terror, it's perhaps even more useful than in more peaceful times to underline a contemporaneous development in the Muslim world — that of the sometimes embattled efforts of Islamic reformers — especially those reform efforts motivated not only by the influence of western ideas, but out of currents of renewal within Islamic religious thought itself.

Political vs. Moral Identity

Take, for example, the work of Dr. Abdul Rahman Wahid, an influential leader of Indonesia's reformist movement, Nahdlatul Ulama (“Renaissance of the Religious Scholars”).

Son of the founder of the pesantren effort — a movement to build religious (Islamic) boarding schools across the country — Wahid has steered his 30 million adherents clear of “political” or revolutionary Islam toward a Muslim identity based on “Islam as a moral force which works through ethics and morality.”

Wahid proved as good as his word in the recent student demonstrations in Jakarta which resulted in the resignation of Indonesia's long-time president. Many commentators credited leaders like Wahid with helping to steady that political impulse and keep it relatively free of the volatile faith and revolution mix that have savaged countries like Algeria in recent years.

That, by the way, is a helpful piece of analysis for aspects of so-called radical or “political” Islam. The sort of “Islam” that blows up buildings and seeks to overthrow governments is a neo-orthodox Islam, a reinvented Islam, a creature, not of tradition, but of modernity — a grab-bag of discredited revolutionary rhetoric mixed with religious ideology. What's really going on is old-fashioned violent revolution with a utopian goal. Marx and Lenin were once the inspiration — now some Islamic preacher is. But the phenomenon, and, indeed, much of the constituency, is the same.

Naipaul on Islam

All this was brought to mind, not only by the recent bombings, but, more provocatively, by reading British author V. S. Naipaul's new book, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Random House).

After all these years, V. S. Naipaul is far more than one of our greatest living writers — he is a whole sensibility. The novelist, essayist, and world traveler, born in 1932 of Indian migrants living in the Caribbean, is part and parcel of the universe he has so brilliantly evoked in his 22 books: the world of his native West Indies, Argentina, Africa, India, the non-Arab Islamic countries — “half-made Third World societies,” full of postcolonial entrepreneurs, corrupt elites, professional revolutionaries, and dreamers.

Naipaul has made his home in England since the 1950s and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990.

Far from posing as the outside “expert,” Naipaul prefers the wisdom of the innocent eye and a traveler's luck. He describes his method succinctly in Finding the Centre (1984): “To arrive at a place without knowing anyone there, and sometimes without an introduction; to learn how to move among strangers for the short time one could afford to be with them; to hold oneself in constant readiness for adventure or revelation.”

It is, preeminently, a novelist's method, and, more often than not, it has served Naipaul well, enabling him, through precise observation and masterful story-telling, to evoke something of the human “atmosphere” of whole countries — particularly at their “edges,” where the darker, seamier paradoxes are most visible.

Beyond Belief is written as a kind of sequel to Naipaul's earlier Islamic essay, Among the Believers, a hugely influential account of a seven-month journey to four non-Arab Islamic countries: Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, in the immediate aftermath of Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.

Among the Believers was particularly important for its then-rare look inside post-revolutionary Iran, and for its implacably tragic picture of the effects of “political” or militant Islam.

In Beyond Belief,Naipaul retraces his earlier route to see what's happened to the people and places he encountered nearly 20 years before.

There are brilliant passages in Beyond Belief. The author's evocation of sunset on a hillside from his hotel window in North Teheran which he only slowly comes to realize is the grounds of the notorious Evin Prison where executions are carried out is chilling. Likewise, the sardonically comic profile of Imaduddin, an Indonesian Islamic radical the author met on his way to prison 17 years earlier, who is now an Armani-suited official in then-Vice President Habibie's Foundation for the Development and Management of Human Resources, an organization whose prized project is a midrange commuter jet.

From Revolution to Riches

But if the Islamic world Naipaul drew for Western readers two decades ago, in thrall to Khomeini's revolution, was a civilization at odds with the modern world, fueled only by an implacable determination to believe, in his newest book, Naipaul sees only fiery Islamic revolutionaries become nouveau-riche bureaucrats, and Islamic revolutions which have run out of steam.

When the author interviews the single reformer he meets in his travels — Indonesia's Wahid — he appears stumped. The thoughtful Muslim intellectual doesn't fit into Naipaul's narrative scheme. And, as one commentator noted, the exasperation shows.

Of Wahid, he writes, “I wanted to get a picture, some conversation, a story. It wasn't easy.” As commentator Fuad Ajami recently wrote in,The New Republic, Naipaul “has put his faith” not in knowledge of the region or of its religions, but “in his own inclinations,” and in the case of his analysis of Islam, his impressions fail him.

“It is easy to be taken in by people and places we don't really know,” writes Ajami.

Fortunately, there is something more going on in contemporary Islam than tends to appear in the reports of most western commentators, however perceptive.

There's a saying in Islam that the “gates of innovation” closed centuries ago. According to this view, the Muslim's duty is to obey the dictates of faith, not dialogue with the non-Muslim world. But after a long intellectual sleep, a more outward-looking stream of Islamic thought may be on the move again.

In Jordan, for example, professors at a new Islamic university debate the human rights implications of traditional Islamic law's treatment of women and non-Muslims. In Turkey, Islamic parties like Refah have begun to explore democratic values on the basis of schools of Islamic thought that forbid coercion. Reform-minded Egyptian scholars regard the use of the word jihad (“struggle”) in a military or revolutionary sense (“holy war”) as an anachronism, preferring to emphasize the term's equally traditional meaning as the inner struggle against the passions.

“We are interested in how the tradition can be a motivation for progress,” philosopher Hassan Hanafi, leader of the so-called Islamic enlightenment in Egypt, said in a Wall Street Journal interview several years ago.

Three things tend to characterize the would-be reformers. They are urban, western-educated professionals — lawyers, teachers, engineers — not Muslim clerics. They oppose the view held, for example, by the leading scholars of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, that all Islamic law is of divine origin and, hence, unchangeable. Much of it, they claim, was historically conditioned. And, most importantly, they agree that the goal is the modernization of Islam on the basis of genuine Islamic values.

An Islamic ‘Vatican II’?

In language reminiscent of the aggiornamento, or “updating,” of Pope John XXIII, which launched the Second Vatican Council, Cairo-based Islamic lawyer Khalil Abdel Karim said in a 1995 interview that “we must renew the spirit of Islam by applying it to the conditions of the day. “

The reformers face powerful obstacles in the form of traditional Islamic sheikhs, or scholars, who insist that Islam ceased developing when the corpus of Muslim law was set down in the 10th century, and in the form of anti-modernist Islamic militants who hearken back to a “golden age” when only God and his caliph ruled.

By contrast, the reformers point to the tradition of ijtihad, or “independent reasoning,” a lively process of debate based on Islamic sources that prevailed among scholars until the early Middle Ages — a process not unlike the Talmudic debates of rabbinic Judaism, or the scholastic method associated with Anselm of Canterbury and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Not surprisingly, some reformers have been treated to death threats and a few, Tunisia's Rashid Ghannouchi and Sudan's Abdullahi Ahmed anNa'im, live in exile in the West.

What is helping the reformers, however, is the spread of literacy and communication technology throughout the Muslim world. Whereas religious (and often political) formation was widely controlled by local preachers in the recent past, today, with university enrollments up dramatically in most Near Eastern countries, there is a growing critical mass of educated people who are capable of independent thought and can enter the ongoing debate about the shape of the modern Islamic world.

Malaysia's Mohammed Mahathir put it best in a recent interview in the Wilson Quarterly. The real crisis in Islam, he said, is not between Islamic fundamentalists and western civilization. It is between utopian extremists, not unlike the West's own fascists and communists of the recent past, and the true face of Islam, a tradition which includes within it a commitment to tolerance and civility.

As Dale Eickelman, author of the 1996 study Muslim Politics, has written: “The Koran itself (5:48) appears to give a final answer concerning the role of the Muslim community in a multi-community world: ‘To each among you, we have prescribed a law and a way for acting. If God had so willed, he might have made you a single community, but [he has not done so] that he may test you in what he has given you; so, compete in goodness.’”

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.