The kind of reformation that Islam needs is one that frees it from the medieval traditions and muddled histories that plague it.
Last Friday, in these pages, Waleed Aly excoriated both Tony Abbott and that embarrassing buffoon running rogue in the US Republican primaries, Donald Trump. He deplored their ignorance about Islam and the muddle entailed in the conservative Catholic Abbott calling for a reformation and revolution within Islam. But then he added “this isn’t really a conversation about Islam”; it’s about a dubious brand of “self-described conservative” populist politics.
Very well, then. Let’s actually have the conversation about Islam that we have to have. Let’s begin with Aly’s striking observation that “Islam’s own version of the Reformation already occurred in the 18th century”, giving birth to Wahhabism, the religious culture of the nation state of Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda and Islamic State. We have common ground here, since I have argued elsewhere at length that this is the case.
Tony Abbott calls for ‘revolution inside Islam’
The former Prime Minister tells Sky News host Paul Murray how he believes Western countries should respond to the Islamic State.
Where we differ is with regard to the claim Aly then makes: that the current “affliction” of Islam stems from the “utter destruction of the main institutions of religious learning” within the Islamic world “in the colonial era”, so that Muslims are now “a people thoroughly disconnected from their own tradition”. The clear implication is that had there been no “reformation” within Islam and no colonial era, everything would have been just fine and dandy.
Now Aly likes to cock a snook at “self-described conservatives”, but here his posture is surely as romantically arch conservative as one could reasonably be. It reminds me of the claims of old-fashioned Catholics who would claim in the 20th century that everything started going wrong in the West with the Reformation and had been going downhill ever since.
The much-maligned B. A. Santamaria wrote 30 years or so ago that the West was in a sorry state “compared with the bright promise of Christianity a thousand years ago”. Rather curiously, Aly seems to hold a similar position. Had he elaborated a little, we might have had him stating that a thousand years ago the civilisation of the umma, from Cordoba to Cairo and on to Baghdad, was admirable in many ways and more advanced than the 10th-century Latin West, if not more than Song China.
But he felt it was more important to fire a broadside at the follies of Trump than to spell out what he sees as the attractions of pre-colonial Islamic religious institutions. He might, had he spelled things out, have conceded that the divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims long antedate the colonial era. He might have conceded that it was Berber fundamentalists from Morocco who sacked Cordoba a thousand years ago, not Christian re-conquerors.
He might have conceded that Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols in 1258 and its schools and libraries destroyed, centuries before the colonial era. He might have added that the umma ran a slave trade every bit as substantial in east Africa and the Indian Ocean for many centuries as the Atlantic slave trade. And he might have added that at many points before the colonial era, heretics and infidels, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian or other, were persecuted by traditional Islam.
He might, not least, have admitted that Islam was spread, from Medina onward, by the sword across the Mediterranean world and central Asia, not by missionaries with books and not by open-minded philosophers. And he might, finally, have asked himself and his readers why, since the Wahhabists and other Islamic “reformers” have been so reactionary and brutal, they have not been roundly rejected right across the Muslim world, starting with the most religious Muslims.[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]We should, certainly, have an intelligent conversation about Islam, but it cannot be a pious one in which it is pretended that there is some pristine form of the religion that is beyond reproach and which would have been, and remained, peaceful and compassionate if only the colonial powers had not interfered with it.[/quote] We should, certainly, have an intelligent conversation about Islam, but it cannot be a pious one in which it is pretended that there is some pristine form of the religion that is beyond reproach and which would have been, and remained, peaceful and compassionate if only the colonial powers had not interfered with it. In implying something like this, without going so far as to explicitly claim it, Aly is making things too easy for himself and actually stoking the fires of historical confusion and sectarian animosity that he professes to want to put out.
It is possible to admire elements of historic Islam and there were, in its heyday, certain thinkers and poets within the umma whose work remains as impressive as that of the best thinkers from the pre-modern Western world. Not least among such figures is the celebrated 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, whose poem The Far Mosque begins with the observation: “The place that Solomon made to worship in, called the Far Mosque, is not built of earth and water and stone, but of intention and wisdom and mystical conversation and compassionate action.”
Whether we are Muslims, Christians, Jews or atheists, we could agree with the outlook of Rumi here and find in it a basis for civilised co-existence and a set of principles that elevate integrity and compassion above dogma and obscurantism. In the meantime, however, we have a serious problem with the Islamic “reformation”, because it is tearing the Muslim world apart and assailing the West in a barbarous manner. It would be a relief to see Aly agree that if this is the “reformation”, then what is called for is neither its “austere scripturalism” (his expression) nor an Islamic “counter-reformation”, but the emancipation of the umma from the medieval traditions and tangled histories that weigh upon it like a nightmare.
This is the conversation about Islam that we need to have – just as we have been having it about Christianity and Judaism for centuries. If Aly and his co-religionists are keen to have such a conversation, no obstacle stands in their way. But if, whatever their take on the Islamic past, they have a vision of Islam becoming the religion of the world at large and of some form of sharia law becoming ascendant over secular civil law; or if they remain ambivalent about the barbarities of their “reformers”, then we all have a serious problem.
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