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Books and Documents ( 22 Sept 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islam and the Future of Tolerance

By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam

23 September 2016

Islam and the Future of Tolerance—A Dialogue

Authors: Sam Harris & Maajid Nawaz

Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA) & London

Year: 2015

Pp: 138

Sam Harris is a well-known American atheist ideologue, while Maajid Nawaz is a former Islamist activist who experienced a major change of heart and mind and is now part of a circle of Muslim reformers committed to combating Islamism, deradicalising Muslims and promoting reformist Islamic discourses.

This slim book is a record of a dialogue between the two about issues of immense contemporary concern related to Islam and Muslims. Harris raises thought-provoking questions—such as about terror in the name of Islam and widespread Muslim attitudes towards people of other faiths—while Nawaz, in responding to these issues, acknowledges the immensity of the challenges, points to the possibilities of using Islamic arguments to counter extremism in the name of Islam and reflects on the need to promote secularism, democracy and human rights in Muslim contexts.

The friendly interchange between the two reveals that although their understanding and appreciation of religion may differ markedly on many points, an atheist and a religious reformer can find sufficient common ground to have an engaging and meaningful dialogue—a common commitment to peace, democracy, secularism (understood as separation of religion and state) and justice.

Today, issues related to Islam, peace and violence are hotly-debated, given the horrific terror that continues to be committed in the name of Islam in large parts of the world. The conversation between Harris and Nawaz focuses mainly on this subject.

Harris argues that contrary to what Muslim reformists claim, Islam is not a religion of peace. Instead, he contends, Muslim extremists “are seeking to implement what is arguably the most honest reading of the faith’s actual doctrine”. Nawaz politely responds to Harris’ allegations about the nature of Islam. Pointing out that the “polarization of this debate between those who insist that Islam is a religion of war and proceed to engage in war for it and those who insist that Islam is a religion of war and proceed to engage in war against it” would lead to an intractable situation, Nawaz helpfully says that religion and religious texts do not speak for themselves—they need to be interpreted.

 The Quran, like any other text (religious as well as other) can be interpreted in diverse, often mutually-contradictory, ways. If radical Islamists champion a violence-driven, politics-centric interpretation of their faith, many Muslim reformists articulate diametrically different interpretations of Islam, which are rooted in a quest for peace. What people read into a text depends heavily on their cultural and ideological baggage.

There will, Nawaz explains, thus always be multiple interpretations of any scripture (or any other text for that matter). Hence, he says, “all variant readings of a holy book would become a matter of differing human perspectives”. This is a point that challenges the Islamists’ claim to be in possession of Absolute Truth as well as indicating the possibilities for articulating alternate understandings of Islam that champion peace, compassion and friendly relations between Muslims and people of other faiths.

“The best way to undermine extremists’ insistence that truth is on their side”, Nawaz tells us, “is to argue that theirs is merely one way of looking at things.” “When you open up like that”, he points out, “you’re definitely saying there is no right answer. And in the absence of a right answer, pluralism is the only option. And pluralism will lead to secularism, and to democracy, and to human rights.” Striking an optimistic note, he adds, “I genuinely believe that if we focus on the pluralistic nature of interpretation and on democracy, human rights, and secularism […] we’ll get to a time of peace and stability in Muslim-majority countries.”

Along with popularizing awareness of the multiple interpretations of scripture, Nawaz also urges a transformation in the way people relate with religion —a moving away from viewing religion as a set of injunctions, a matter of strict legal rules, to seeing it as “a spiritual, mystical relationship with God, a journey”. For this, he sees considerable scope in the Sufi tradition.

Acknowledging the immensity of the challenge posed by radical Islamists today, Nawaz stresses the urgent need for Muslim reformists to articulate and popularize among Muslims alternate interpretations of Islam, interpretations that are committed to peace, democracy, secularism and human rights and that challenge Islamist interpretations of the faith. These alternate understandings of Islam, he suggests, are also necessary in order to counter human rights abuses in the name of Islam even among Muslims who may not support radical Islamists—on issues such as apostasy, women’s rights and relations with people of other faiths, for instance.

In contrast what both radical Islamists as well as critics of Islam would claim, Nawaz highlights the fact that there are ample theological resources available within the Muslim religious tradition for promoting democracy, pluralism and human rights values among Muslims using specifically Islamic arguments. One example that he cites concerns the term kafir, often translated into English as ‘infidel’.

While many Muslims use it in a contemptuous way to refer to anyone who isn’t a Muslim, or even anyone who isn’t their sort of Muslim, Nawaz refers to some early Islamic scholars who were of the view that “only those who—like Satan—recognise Islam as true and then knowingly reject it out of arrogance can be described as Kuffar, or infidels.” These scholars, he tells us, “referred to the literal Arabic meaning of the word kafir, ‘one who conceals’, to argue that concealing the truth is a deliberate act and cannot be ascribed to anyone who doesn’t recognize it as truth in the first instance.” Accordingly, Nawaz says, the view “that only malicious, arrogant rejection was deserving of the label kafir”, practically do[es] away with the concept of infidel, to be honest.”

Nawaz also highlights the need to counter what he calls “Muslim tribalism”, a narrow communalism that lends itself to “a generally hostile approach to ‘the other’”. He calls for a “complete overhaul of cultural identity patterns”, based on “humanity as a founding principle, and human rights as a basis.” “The Islamic concept of Ummah, or people, must be reappraised here”, he says. For this purpose, too, he sees rich possibilities within the Islamic religious tradition itself. Most Muslims today, he explains, would view the Ummah as comprising of solely other Muslims. And this, he points out, can promote Muslim “tribalism”.

But by adopting “a more adaptive look at texts”, he suggests, “one can find that the Prophet was reported to have included non-Muslims in his definition of Ummah upon authoring a document—known as the Covenant of Medina—that regulated the rights and duties of those residing under his authority.” Understanding what the Ummah is about in this way, then, can help overcome the pronounced Muslim “tribalism”, enabling Muslims to expand their circle of concern beyond their community, narrowly defined, to include other people, too. This, Nawaz seems to suggest, would be in conformity with normative Islamic practice, rather than a deviation from it.

An immense treasure-trove of wise insights packed into a few dozen pages, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the many issues of global importance that it discusses.


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