Islam: A PrimerROY MOTTAHEDEH
In January 2002 a group of journalists gathered at the Pier House in Key West, Florida, at the invitation of the Ethics and Public Policy Center for a two-day seminar. Its purpose was to enhance journalistic understanding of current religious and cultural issues. The session from which this "Conversation" is drawn featured Harvard historian Roy Mottahedeh, with a response by journalist Jay Tolson.
By and large, Muslims view Islam not as a human religion but as the most perfect revelation of God that has come to mankind. All human society needed revelation, and therefore the very first human being, Adam, had to be a prophet because he couldnt live without the guidance of revelation.
The word "Muslims" in the Koran often means, simply, "believers." In some cases "Muslims" includes other "people of the Book" — Christians and Jews — as well as followers of the Koran, and sometimes it seems to mean simply followers of the Koran. Most Muslims do not believe in natural law (although the Shiites, who make up maybe 15 per cent of the Muslim population, do). But Muslims do believe that human beings have an inner nature that is religious, and because of this, Muslims through the ages have believed that there is salvation outside of Islam (though some would say this is rare). They believe that human beings can discover some of the moral law by examining this inner human nature.
Muslims see themselves as following the ultimate monotheism. Of course, both Islam and Christianity are, in a way, derivatives of Judaism, and they are both ways of universalizing monotheism. But Muslims believe that their monotheism is the more perfect, the ultimate monotheism.
Now, the next thing to understand about Islam is that Muhammad is not Christ. The self-revelation of God in Jesus is a concept that Muslims do not accept. And the Koran is not the Bible; maybe it corresponds to the Torah, but it is definitely not the Bible. Muslims believe that the entirety of the Koran is a perfect, unerring revelation of God. And just as the New Testament relates the things that Jesus said and did, theres a great deal in Islam about the sayings and doings of Muhammad. These are the famous Hadith. It is a huge body of material — some tens of thousands of sayings are considered somewhat more authentic than 500,000 other sayings. It allows you to construct almost any kind of Islam you want. And it is somewhat like the New Testament in that it shows the perfect exemplar of the religion.
Another basic fact is that there is no sacramental function in Islam. Ulama are the learned people, the religious authorities; they are not priests. Every Muslim can do everything necessary for personal salvation by himself or herself. This is important to understand, because people keep saying, "Why don't the Muslim clergy speak out for this or that?" Well, they speak out for everything! One mans clergyman is simply another mans kosher butcher. To understand Islam one has to set aside the perception of religion that is based on Christianity and look to a different model. Of course, there are some Muslim systems that are slightly more hierarchical than others. One is the system of the "Twelver" Shiites, the kind of clergy the Iranians have. But even they are absolutely incapable of keeping order among and within the clergy. There is great debate over who has the right to determine the meaning of scripture.
The Arabs make up only a minority of Muslims — 200 million out of more than a billion. And, of course, a significant number of Arabs are Christians. But although Arabs constitute less than 20 percent of Muslims, people often claim to be talking about the Muslim world when what they are really describing is the Arab world. That error will hamper any ability to conceptualize what is happening among the Muslims.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam honors Abraham as a patriarch of the faith; he is considered an ancestor of the Prophet. There are some questions common to all the Abrahamic faiths. First, does anyone have more authority than anyone else to interpret revelation? Second, are Gods commandments for the construction of the physical and moral world necessary? That is, was God in a sense constrained by logic? Or are these arrangements arbitrary? As logicians would say, is logic inherently logical, or is it in fact something that has been constructed to describe things? I think this is a fundamental difficulty of all human thought. And it turns out to be a central theological problem for Islam.
A third problem area is: How much, if at all, has God ceded to humans the responsibility to figure out his moral intentions for the world? Cardinal Ratzinger made this point in saying (and I may not be quoting exactly here): "It is quite within Gods power to concede no control of the moral world to mankind; it is within Gods power to instruct mankind for every action; but we accept that there is a sphere in which he has ceded to man the power to solve problems and puzzles by himself." Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all wonder where that sphere is. A corollary is that both Judaism and Islam have a certain amount of law in their scripture — there are certainly more commandments in the Old Testament and in the Koran than in the New Testament — but this does not mean that Jews and Muslims believe all actions in this life are religiously determined. Its simply a matter of looking at scripture to find out how to behave.
Christianity emphasizes the need for Gods grace in order for human beings to be saved. In Islam, righteousness is counted by intent. A famous saying is, "If you intend to do the right act, and it turns into a wrong act, it counts to your credit in Gods acceptance of your deeds." And there is great individual responsibility to God. At least three times the Koran says, "Let nobody bear the burden of another," meaning that you yourself have responsibility for your actions and for your salvation. There is an interesting word in Arabic that means to do good or to make something beautiful. A typical verse in the Koran on the subject reads, "Vie with one another, hastening to the way which leads to forgiveness from your Lord, and to a garden whose breadth is the heavens and the earth, prepared for the pious, those who spend in charity in times of both ease and adversity and who restrain their anger and pardon other human beings. God loves those who do what is beautiful [or, what is good]."
Now we come to my real discipline, which is not the theology of Islam but its history. A whole series of things had happened within the Islamic world by A.D.1000, the middle of the period in which I have specialized. Muhammad died in 632. By 1000 it is clear that the experiment of a single Muslim ruler — the caliph — has failed. And a class of religious experts — the ulama — has divided itself (though not to everybody's satisfaction) into certain discrete schools of law. In their development of a kind of scholastic learning, the ulama represent the unity of Islam. The high scholastic tradition that existed among the ulama in the Middle Ages was centrifugal; people wrote referencing one another's works. A famous book written refuting philosophy as it developed in the area of Baghdad was called The Collapse of the Philosophers. Then in the next century the Spanish philosopher Averroes, who was a great medieval thinker and quite influential on European scholasticism, wrote an attack on that book, calling his The Collapse of the Collapse. It is a world in which at that high scholastic level there is continuous conversation.
In what way are Muslims a united community otherwise? Mainly in ritual observation. Now, there is some variation in that area as well. But the prayer is fairly uniform, as is the practice of the pilgrimage. However, as for the Koran and what it means for life: nobody is quite sure. And therefore, in a sense, the Muslim world today is only one very specific instance of Koranic observance. Now, I feel that Muslims throughout the ages have a great deal of sympathy for one another and are worried about the plight of fellow Muslims. They recognize the community of people who share the same ritual observation. But beyond that, I don't think the terms "Islamic world" and "Muslim world" are useful units of reference. There are not enough commonalities for that.
Anyway, by the year 1000 the ulama represent the unity of Islam. By the end of that century, around 1095, the theological schools called madrasahs have been established with huge dormitories, enormous pious endowments, great stipends, abundant supplies of ink and paper, and the like. So the scholastic system developed through patronage for its particular kind of learning.
By the year 1000, it had become clear that law was the queen of the sciences, the most important subject. That doesn't mean that students in the madrasahs didn't study algebra, astronomy, and other subjects; but always these subjects were given an Islamic wash. In studying Islamic thinkers, it is extremely difficult to distinguish a kind of Islamic patina from something that goes very deep and is really Islamic. The Koran is the first lengthy piece of Arabic prose we have, and it really establishe's Arabic. There was only poetry before. Aside from letters and little bits of translation of the Gospels, Arabic prose of any length did not exist before the Koran. As a result, the language of the Koran permeates Arabic in a way that I think the language of the King James Version of the Bible permeated English in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But that is an imperfect parallel, and there is nothing recent in English that gives you any sense of the way a foundational document can permeate a language.
Anyway, many things considered "Islamic" have no real connection with Islam. They appear to be Islamic because that is the baseline on which their language and thought exist.
Although law became the queen of sciences, Islamic law is staggeringly unspecific about public matters. The Ayatollah Khamani, the president of Iran, has written a book about the poverty of Islamic political thought. I do not think that he's right about political thought as a whole, because a lot of that discussion was carried on outside the madrasah. But in madrasah circles, it is absolutely true. The lawbooks merely say that the community should have a totally just ruler. They say it in many different ways — the ruler should be kind, he should be merciful, he should be just, he should not be swayed by the people around him. However, they leave out the whole matter of public law.
Khamani, who was a mullah [religious teacher] himself, blames his predecessors for the weakness of Islamic public law. There is no question that they did it by design. They were very clever people. But why? Because they decided it was too hot to handle. By the year 1000 the caliphate had disappeared, and nobody had really decided what Islamic government is. I said earlier that there are specific commands and prohibitions in the Koran. But there are at most five hundred verses of lawmaking — much less than in, for example, Leviticus.
Also by 1000, Sufism had developed. This is a kind of mystical Islam that emphasizes individual spiritual development. Rumi, the best-selling Islamic poet in the United States, is an example of the Sufi tradition. Sufism is an extremely appealing interpretation of Islam, and it became the most important way of spreading the religion throughout Central Asia, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere.
By the year 1000, people had come to realize that they were being ruled by governments that had come to power simply by deposing other regimes. The word sultan means "power," and by the year 1000 "Mr. Power" was beginning to be the name of the ruler. These rulers had imposed themselves on states. The ulama tended to say, "Okay, as long as the rulers prevent anarchy, they are acceptable." Theres a famous line of al-Ghazali, a great scholastic and a great Sufi, who died in 1111: "Better sixty years of oppression than one day of disorder." So a lot of the ulama were incredibly quietistic. But they demanded certain things from the government — mainly patronage for themselves, which they got, and the defense of Islamic society against outside attacks.
In Egypt, the Mamluk dynasty ruled from 1250 to 1517. They were of slave origin; in fact, the whole dynasty was a group of slaves, succeeding one another as sultan. What did they do? Well, they kicked out the last Crusaders, and they defended the Muslims against the invading Mongols. They patronized learned Muslims; for example, they built madrasahs. As long as they allowed Muslims to do what they needed to do for their own salvation, such as praying and fasting, their regimes were considered more or less acceptable. There was a kind of understanding that the ulama would not endorse any specific regimes, but neither would they fight a regime as long as it allowed Muslims to do the things necessary for their own salvation.
Correspondingly, the Muslim learned tradition is concerned with orthopraxis — that is, behaving as a Muslim — as a standard for who is a Muslim. Theres a verse in the Koran that is translated, "Do not say to anyone who offers you peace, You are not a believer." Muslims do not call one another "unbelievers." Only in the direst circumstances would you charge anybody with failing to be a Muslim.
So there was a de facto secular sphere. People think that in Islam, religion and government are one. Yes, on a hypothetical level; people dreamed that it should be that way. But in reality it wasnt. Almost from the beginning it was not that way.
Now I will try to sketch the ideological genealogy of Osama Bin Laden. In the seventh century, a law school was founded by someone named Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, whose followers are known as the Hanbalis. The founder was very much a literalist in his interpretations of scripture. He wanted to restore Islam to the purity of the faith as it was elucidated during the time of the Prophet and the Prophets Companions, those who were close to him during his lifetime. Hanbals followers were much more ready than anybody else to call people "unbeliever." The Hanbalis and their law school, which is still the smallest law school in Islam, started to develop a kind of rigorist Islam that, in the hands of some of its interpreters, rejected, interestingly, even logic.
The middle of the thirteenth century brought the Mongol invasion, and the last caliph, who was only a shadowy figure, was killed. People speak about the Crusades as the great offense of the West, but the Mongols were much worse. They were pagans who conquered at least half of the Muslims around the world in their time. They had strange habits such as not washing because they believed that water was sacred and shouldnt be put on the human body. This was deeply offensive to Muslims, for whom washing is ritually important. They were altogether terrifying, strange, pagan, anti-Muslim people who suddenly ruled over half of the Muslims.
In the seventeenth century the Ottoman Empire was doing pretty well. But in the eighteenth century it became glaringly obvious that European power and prosperity were far surpassing theirs. Muslim states, though not yet subjected to direct colonialism, knew that they were lagging behind the European states. Two things happened: (1) Muslims developed a longing to discover the secret of European power, and (2) movements that were excessively concerned with purity arose.
In the mid-eighteenth century, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab founded a rigorous, anti-Sufi system that came to be called Wahhabism. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was ready to apply the term "unbeliever" to anybody who was not a true monotheist according to his very narrow definition. Most later followers of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab were not so ready to reject other Muslims. But from the rigorist thinkers of the eighteenth century, there was a succession of people leading up to Osama Bin Laden, who expanded the idea that people could be called non-Muslim and said that entire existing governments in Islamic countries could be declared non-Muslim.
Part of this trend had to do with the creation of an educated secular elite that, while intensely religious, doesn't believe that the ulama, the traditional scholastics, are the real interpreters of scripture. They say, "To hell with them — we can go to scripture and derive its meaning ourselves. We don't care about fourteen centuries of exegesis." Some of them, like the militant Takfir wal Hijra movement, believe in migration to the edge of sinful society, where you purify yourself. They are very similar to the Zealots, and remember what happened to the Zealots after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 71: they disappeared completely.
Part of my conclusion is, in fact, that this Islamic militancy is a self-defeating movement. It has already lost national boundaries. Its first aim had been to overthrow national governments. For instance, earlier pronouncements by Osama Bin Laden were all about overthrowing the Saudi Arabian government, but later ones rambled all over the world and talked about Hiroshima and the Palestinian situation. In a national context the militants are almost always defeated; in fact, in certain countries, like Egypt, public sentiment has already turned against them. The massacre at the Tomb of Queen Hatshapsut in Luxor in 1997 was a kind of crest of the Islamic wave. Fifty-eight foreign tourists and four Egyptians were brutally slain, and Egyptians were horrified. The Islamic militant wave had crested, and so these Muslim militants went off to the wildest, least controlled country in the world: Afghanistan.
Conclusions: First, the future belongs to the moderates. They do not have their voice now, partly because many of them are stifled by autocratic governments. But they are in the majority. In the long term, at least for the next twenty years, the moderates will be by and large followers of the reformist thinkers of Islam, of whom a significant number are in the Islamic diaspora. Remember how many Muslims are living in nations that are not majority Muslim.
A second conclusion: U.S. action against Iraq or Iran would be really ill advised. I think it would drive many Muslims for whom the Islamic militant wave has crested back into sympathy with the militants. There is a saying to the effect that the liberator — the freedom fighter — moves through the people as the fish swims through the ocean. One of our most important aims is to dry it up that ocean. It had begun to dry up before September 11. We will not help that process by attacking Muslim-majority nations.
My third conclusion is this: I would like to see
a Fulbright plan to provide a better and more rounded education in these countries.
A lot of young Muslims go through engineering school but don't learn about how
you argue about history, about subjects that by their very nature are uncertain,
like the social sciences. We should sponsor and help schools, not the American
University in Cairo or Beirut but schools in the vernacular languages — Arabic,
Pushtu, Urdu, whatever. This would not only create the human capital that is essential
for the development of these countries, but would also indigenize a certain way
of conducting debate. It would give these people more understanding of their interlocutors
in the West. Such a plan would also make the civil society — particularly
the NGOs that exist in these countries — more powerful, in that the people
who lead them would not seem to be all Western-educated people like Saadeedin
Ibrahim, who after coming back from the University of Indiana had a long, distinguished
career as a sociologist in Egypt. Then he was thrown in prison. The Egyptian intellectuals
are not so sympathetic to somebody who is completely financed and educated by
Jay Tolson, a former editor of The Wilson Quarterly and a biographer of Walker Percy, is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report. He has written several stories on Islam and has read widely in the literature. Jay will give a brief response to Roy Mottahedehs remarks before we get into a general discussion.
Id like to start with another persons story. An anthropologist named Dale Eikelman, who has spent a lot of time in Islamic places such as Morocco and Oman, tells about going to a small oasis town in Oman. This was more than twenty years ago — lets say 1980. At that time the town was in transition. It was getting schools. It was starting to have a more developed hydroelectric system, which allowed it to expand its agricultural areas. Government buildings were spreading beyond the old perimeter marked by watchtowers. But it was still very much a traditional town defined by religious practices: the five daily prayers and the mens weekly prayer gathering at the mosque. When Dale Eikelman didnt get up in the morning for the first prayer, one of the village leaders came in and poked him with a gun because it was considered impolite to touch somebody directly. "Are you coming to prayers?" he asked. "No, I cant," said Eikelman. "I don't pray that way." People in the village had almost no idea of what a Christian was.
About ten years later Dale Eikelman came back to the same town. More kids in the village were educated. The people had television and other forms of contact with the wider world. The nephew of the village sheik came up to Eikelman and said, "The people of the village are ignorant of Islam, and they behave like animals. Sure, they pray and fast, but they cant understand why Muslims must explain their beliefs." Eikelman was astonished by this comment. He started looking around and seeing other changes in the village. People used to get most of their information about the wider world from the sheik, who would get the gossip and have weekly gatherings with the village elders to tell them what was going on. Now people were getting their information directly from television and other news sources. They were starting to see TV reports of events in Israel and other parts of the world.
Eikelman saw this as part of a wider phenomenon within the Islamic world that he has called a "reformation." Admittedly its a tricky term, he said, because it suggests parallels with the sixteenth-century Christian Reformation, and there might be more differences than similarities between the two. But what is similar about these two reformations is the driving material fact of a revolution in communications and an increase in literacy. In Oman in 1975-76, twenty-two students graduated from high school. In 1987-88, well over thirteen thousand students graduated from high school, and by 1995-96, there were sixty thousand secondary-school graduates in the country. Thirty-five hundred were attending universities that had opened in Oman in 1986. This was a tremendous jump in education. That increase and the new sources of communication with the outside world were breaking down the old lines of authority, including religious authority, and enabling young Muslims to start learning about Islam on their own.
Now, I think Dale Eikelman joins Roy Mottahedeh in his optimism about what this will ultimately mean. Eikelman points to a number of quite influential writers, thinkers, and public figures. One example is Syrias Muhammad Shahrur, whose The Book and the Koran: A Contemporary Reading appeared in the 1990s and sold tens of thousands of copies, not just in Syria but throughout the Middle East. He points to people like Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, another liberal who has debated conservative clerics. Some of them are in their home countries; others have had to leave. I think they represent the hopeful side of this possible reformation.
The other side, the dangerous side, is that this reformation enables more and more readers to pick up scary little books with titles like The Terror of the Grave or What Follows Death. These Islamic books give lurid descriptions of the kind of end that awaits you if you don't follow a very rigid religious discipline. This presentation of an extremely puritanical Islam, either through literature or through videocassettes — and Bin Laden is an acknowledged genius of the cassette medium who has produced some amazing pieces that play throughout the Middle East — is circulating widely. Why? It is because of huge amounts of financial backing from Saudi Arabia, the biggest sponsor of this form of puritanical Islam.
What is going on in Saudi Arabia is a complicated story, but roughly speaking, its a kind of deal. The royal family, which from its conception has been tied up with Wahhabism, essentially buys off an aggressive, virulent religious community that sponsors things like the Muslim World League. The League is a highly influential Islamic equivalent of the United States Information Agency that tries to influence publishing houses and broadcasters throughout the Middle East.
Ten years ago I commissioned an article about influences for diversity within Islam. In a response to that piece, Martin Kramer, an Israeli scholar of Islam, said something like this: "Yes, all that is wonderful. Yes, you can point to Indonesia and to the Pakistanis and to these other varieties of Islam. But they are on the decline." As was pointed out earlier, only about two hundred million of the billion or more members of the Islamic world are Arabs. But the Arab Muslims, and particularly the Wahhabi Muslims, have the microphone, and they are projecting their vision of Islam on more and more of the Islamic world. So more than ever before there is an ideal of homogeneity of Islamic practice and belief throughout the Islamic world, an ideal that has reached into the United States and Western Europe. This is a remarkably well-orchestrated, well-funded campaign. Now, I hope that you are right to be optimistic, Professor Mottahedeh, but it does seem to me that the wealthiest and best orchestrated element of radical, militant Islam is still in the ascendancy. I don't think the elimination of Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda would spell the end of that development. This is a much broader movement than Bin Laden himself.
Roy Mottahedeh made the point that one of the movements that the Wahhabists are most determined to crush is Sufism. Sufism has been one of the great forces within the world of Islam, particularly in Central Asia, but an amazing number of Western scholars have almost marginalized it. Knowingly or not, they have bought the Wahhabi line that Sufis are not true Muslims, that they are guilty of bidah, of introducing practices and beliefs not present in early and true Islam. The Muslim World League will not hesitate to tell you that Sufis are incorrect believers. In the Koran the Prophet quotes the divine saying that there will be hundreds of versions of the faith, and in the end only God will determine which is true. It is a violation of the law itself for someone to say that you are or are not a correct believer. An incorrect believer is outside the faith. And someone outside the faith is vulnerable to any kind of attack, since a believer is within his rights to kill a non-believer. This is a great advantage if extremist Muslims want to carry out a campaign against other Muslims whom they consider heretics.
don't mean to say that I see nothing but darkness; I tend to think the moderates
will eventually prevail. But I think we have to overcome a certain starry eyed
view about how wonderful all religions are. There are some very evil strains within
religions. This extremist strain in Islam is tremendously powerful. It has had
a major influence on debates about many things in the Middle East, including Israel.
I think we need to think about how extremist Islam has aggravated the tensions
between Palestinians and Israelis. Anti-Israeli passion has been fostered throughout
the Middle East by regimes well aware that this is the only way to siphon off
discontent against their failed regimes. I think we in America are a bit nave
in accepting the explanation that the repression of Palestinians is the primary
cause of those tensions.
Michael Cromartie: Thank you, Jay. Now everyone
else is invited to join the conversation. [All participants will be identified
at the end.]
Roy Mottahedeh: Nostalgia about the Ottomans: yes, its unhistorical. Mark Cohen, a former student of mine who is now a professor at Princeton, wrote a fine book called Judaism Under Crescent and Cross. Jews were much more at home in Muslim-majority lands than in Christian-majority lands in the medieval and early modern periods. In the seventeenth century Sephardic Jews from Spain fled to Istanbul for refuge. But the toleration began breaking down, and in the nineteenth century Western liberalism moved to a point where it accepted Christians and Jews on an equal footing to a degree unmatched in the Islamic world. Still, you have to realize how gradual that was.
think that part of the explanation for the speed with which Islamic ideology has
come to the fore is what Jay was talking about: the education of the masses. Im
sure that in the Algerian war of independence, the average Algerian was fighting
for Islamic territory against occupation by an alien power, a Christian power
— namely, France. But thats not what the leaders felt. As these people became
educated, they entered the political process — and their default identity
was Muslim, not Algerian, say, or Egyptian. That default identity came colossally
to the fore as these people began to enter politics.
I have real problems with that. Second, the idea of jihad. I recall reading about a Muslim country in Africa in which the religious authorities found the government insufficiently Muslim and therefore declared jihad against it. It seems to me that this term means war, whether its internal against your own people or external; it is much more vigorous than some have made it out to be.
My question is this. I was struck by your emphasis
on law as the queen of the sciences. I am not at all optimistic about the possibilities
of a moderate Islam any time soon. It seems to me that a moderate Islam can take
hold only where there is an institution to support it: namely, independent schools
of law, where moderation can become enshrined through deliberation by people who
are respected. It seems to me that none of the legal scholars are respected by
the people, because they are government appointees and as such suspect because
the governments are suspect. Do you think this is a precondition for the development
of any kind of moderate Islam?
Martin Kramer seems to say in his book, Look, when you examine their writings
a lot of these guys are Islamists. Theyre not fundamentally liberal people.
"What does jihad mean in the modern world? Jihad means the
struggle against the distortion of Islam." So it is jihad by word, by proselytizing.
The majority of the ulama are of that opinion. And where do the common
people stand on that issue? All over the place.
Qutb is quite an amazing character. He was an exchange student to the United States who became an essayist. He wrote a huge commentary on the Koran, an exciting document written with great enthusiasm. One of the things he took from Maududi, who is slightly older, is that in the verses in the Koran that are about judging — it says that anyone who judges unjustly shall have the most awful punishment — the verb in Arabic can mean also "to rule." And so he transferred the meaning of these verses to rulers. When he came back from the United States he joined the Muslim Brothers, who were playing footsie with King Farouk. Then Nasser came to power. As you know, the Muslim Brothers tried to assassinate Nasser, and a lot of them were thrown in prison. Qutb was in prison for ten years and was made to watch other people being brutally tortured by the Egyptian secret police. And he himself was also tortured. He came out determined to form a cell among the Muslim Brothers of people who were going to do harm to the government. He died in 1966.
Maududi in India is a much deeper thinker than Qutb, and he says, Lets face it: Islamic law says there has to be a caliphate, so were going to create a new caliphate. The Muslim people must form a universal Muslim nation. It must have a caliph, and the caliph should be elected. Thats quite an amazing aspect of the whole thing. Maududi is not for armed struggle. Historically, Islam is not as theocratic as people think.
Then, Ayatollah Khomeini. From the
Shiite point of view, no jihad can be declared except by the imam, the spiritual
leader of the community. The Shiites believe that the so-called Hidden Imam occulted
himself in the ninth century and will reappear only at the end of time, like the
return of Jesus. Khomeini just dumps the entire Shiite tradition and says that
the most learned jurist is the stand-in for any ruler until the return of the
One party in Egypt used to say,
"Our constitution is the Koran." Excuse me? What could that possibly mean? Our
scripture is the Koran! Its not a constitution! The constitution is a
way of deciding differences.
lot of the Islamist voices actually act upon the obligation of charity to the
poor, organization, education, and so on. And its no surprise that the guys who
have the books to distribute and the organization to do these things for the people
get the inside track. The big question is, how can you move beyond a very simplistic
idea like "the Koran is our constitution" and bring these people into a process
that includes popular sovereignty?
Iran is a case of a country that went right into its Islamist experience and did so by its own choice.
But the leaders discovered that they didnt have any idea what an Islamist government is. The Iranian constitution is basically the constitution of the Fifth Republic with a lot of passionate Islamic language and various references to the sovereignty belonging either to the people or to God — it contradicts itself about that. It gives certain powers of veto to the clerics, which of course is what all the struggle is about now. But its actually not a bad constitution. It just shows that in the face of reality, when you start establishing your own Islamic society, you realize that there is no Islamic law to cover many basic aspects.
At the beginning, Khomeini had been dead — against the enfranchisement of women. In 1964, when the
Shah enfranchised women, Khomeini was famously against it. But he didnt dare disenfranchise women when he came to power, because, for one thing, women were an important part of his movement. They were an extremely important part of the millions of people who came on the street. And secondly, even some women who are members of his own family wanted to run for parliament!
adopted what is a minority point of view among Sunnis, that Islam was against
birth control, and the population zoomed up much faster than Iranians ever expected.
The minute Khomeini died, the mullahs got together and said, "Oh, we looked at
scripture carefully, and its quite clear that Islam is in favor of birth control."
Similarly, they first said, "Were going to adopt the classical tax system of
the jurists of the ninth century." But within months after the foundation of the
Islamic Republic, they went back to the tax system that existed under the Shah.
The other one was unworkable. This Islamist experiment need not end in a radical,
pre-modern society. I believe that of all the societies in the Middle East, Iran
will be the one where in the long run the overwhelming mass of people believe
Foer: I was wondering if you could talk about Muslim anti-Semitism.
Its striking that in the course of just a hundred years, maybe less, Muslim societies
went from being markedly tolerant toward Jews to being markedly intolerant toward
them. In Christianity, from the start, anti-Semitism was prevalent because the
religion was defined in opposition to Judaism. Did anything similar to that exist
Roy Mottahedeh: Oh yes! Its been documented as such.
I wonder if you could add to your primer a brief chapter on the afterlife
and martyrdom and the extent to which those concepts are or are not central. One
thing that made me think about that was the comment made earlier that the swift
U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan was having an impact on public opinion in the
Arab street. I think Im quoting Professor Huntington correctly — he said,
"Nobody wants to get on the bandwagon of a loser." [See
"Religion, Culture, and International Conflict: A Conversation with Samuel P.
Huntington," Center Conversation 14.]
About the afterlife: yes, Muslims believe in the afterlife. The Koran speaks about it. But I think the connection between this and the suicide attacks has been greatly exaggerated. Its true that fighting in jihad is supposed to erase the possibility of being "killed" in any ordinary sense. Unlike any other Muslim, who has to be washed ceremonially before being buried, the soldier is buried in the clothe's he wore when he was killed. The idea is that at the resurrection he stands before God with these clothe's to prove his sacrifice. But thats a different thing from suicide attacks. An interesting thing is that most of the suicide bombers have been concerned almost exclusively with their own political community. There was an interview with would be suicide attackers in which they were asked if they would do this for any cause outside of Palestine, and most of them said, "No."
is forbidden in Islam very strongly, so there has been a dispute among the ulama.
The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia way back in April  said that suicide bombing
is wrong. Nevertheless, Osama Bin Laden develops the theory that we have reached
the stage in which not only are the majority of Muslims not really Muslims, but
true Muslims are in hand-to-hand combat with all of them. The Koran says that
if somebody is assailing you, you have a right to fight back, and Bin Laden said
that this is the condition of every true Muslim today.
The Arabs suffered their first major defeats in A.D. 720-30,
and there began to be an attempt to stabilize the borders and have trade back
and forth. So the lawyers began to codify the idea that, yes, there is the abode
of Islam and the abode of war, but there is also the abode of treaty, because
they wanted treaties with the nations with whom they traded. This idea means something
aggressive for militant Muslims. For liberal Muslims, the abode of Islam means,
at most, the Muslim-majority countries in contrast to non-Muslim-majority countries.
Women play an enormous role in the legislature. There are theorists who have embraced the full feminist argument, though this has not affected the masses.
there is hope for young women in the Islamic world who have heard about feminism
and will demand things. But for a lot of the common people, a breakdown of family
structure is the thing they are most worried about, and they believe that changing
the status of women would cause that. It is unquestionably one of those areas
in which the Muslim world is dragging behind. Change is occurring, but very slowly.
Roy Mottahedeh, Harvard University; Jay Tolson, U.S. News & World Report; Michael Cromartie, Ethics and Public Policy Center; David Brooks, TheWeekly Standard; E. J. Dionne, WashingtonPost; Nina Easton, columnist and author; Franklin Foer, The New Republic; Hillel Fradkin, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker; Duncan Moon, National Public Radio; Dan Morgan, Washington Post; Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times; David Shribman, Boston Globe; Judith Shulevitz, New York Times Book Review; Paul West, Baltimore Sun; and Kenneth Woodward, Newsweek.
Roy Mottahedeh "Islam: A Primer." Ethics and Public Policy Center (January, 2002).
The Ethics and Public Policy Center was established in 1976 to clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues. Its program includes research, writing, publication, and conferences. The Center affirms the political relevance of the great Western ethical imperatives respect for the dignity of every person, individual freedom and responsibility, justice, the rule of law, and limited government. It maintains that moral reasoning is an essential complement to empirical calculation in the shaping of public policy." Center Conversations," edited by senior editor Carol Griffith, are based on conferences and seminars related to various Center projects. They cost $3 per copy (postage included).
This article is reprinted with permission from Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Roy Mottahedeh is Gurney Professor of History at Harvard University. Professor Mottahedeh's major work is on the pre-modern social and intellectual history of the Islamic Middle East. His publications include Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society (1980) and The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (1985). He is the faculty adviser of a new journal, The Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review. He is currently working on the medieval Middle Eastern literature on "marvels."
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