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Islam beyond the Jihadis—an Optimistic Muslim Speaks

By Yusuf Khan, New Age Islam

18 March 2017

Islam beyond the Jihadis—An Optimistic Muslim Speaks

Author: Ziauddin Sardar

Published by: Biteback Publishing Ltd., London

Year: 2016

Pages: 166

ISBN: 978-1-84954-949-3


Violence in the name of Islam is today a major global challenge. In this slim but immensely absorbing book, noted British writer Ziauddin Sardar traces the ideological roots of this violence to particular Muslim religious discourses while pointing to the possibilities of interpreting Islam in alternate, humane ways.

Sardar lays out what he calls two entirely different ‘versions’ of Islam. One, he says, is based on ‘an old tradition of love and tolerance, perhaps drawing some inspiration from Sufism’. The other is what he terms ‘a more recent sectarian version that has no room for humanity and ethics’. The latter, Sardar explains, is rooted in one particular interpretation of Islam—Wahhabism, which is also the ideology of the state of Saudi Arabia. Over the years, the ‘totalitarian creed’ of Wahhabism has succeeded in rapidly expanding, so much so that, according to Sardar, it ‘now occupies the central position in Islamic orthodoxy’ for many Muslims. This has been made possible by Wahhabism’s outright suppression of the great tradition of critical thinking and free thought in Islam. Because of this, what is considered as ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ has, as Sardar puts it, ‘become more and more dogmatic, narrow, authoritarian and inhuman’. Muslim clerics who subscribe to this version of ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ have, he explains, ‘banned criticism’ and ‘stolen free will’, turning their followers ‘into empty vessels who have nothing more to do than gratefully receive and follow their hateful ideology’. It is this ‘orthodox dogma’, Sardar explains, that has ?led to terrorism in Islam's name.?

Wahhabism, Sardar explains, is a fear-based ideology. It replaces love of God with fear of God. ‘But it is not just God’ that it wants its followers to fear, Sardar adds, ‘but everyone and everything’, including women, Muslims who understand Islam differently, and non-Muslims. Wahhabism ‘drains Islam of all ethical contents’, because of which its followers are led to think a host of barbarisms to be supposedly an expression of God’s will, including intolerance, misogyny, floggings, beheading, xenophobia and violence. Hate forms the core of this ideology, Sardar contends, adding that Wahhabi-inspired groups distort the Quranic notion of jihad to seek to legitimize horrific violence in its name.

Sardar believes that a great deal of the blame for the present violence in the name of Islam can be laid at the doorstep of sections of ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ that have fused with Wahhabism. Their forbidding of questioning and criticism, their claim that they alone represent truth and that all others are false and their insistence on Taqlid or blind following lead to an extreme intolerance of others. So, too, does their belief that what they call the Shariah, a body of laws, is divine and hence which they think must be imposed on Muslims, something that inevitably leads to conflict.

The ‘orthodox’ Muslim belief that what is called the Shariah is mandated by God, Sardar explains, is actually false. ‘There is nothing divine about the Shariah’, he says. ‘The only thing that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Qur’an. The Shariah is a human construction, an attempt to understand the will of God in a particular context.’ What is considered by the ‘orthodox’ to be the Shariah ‘incorporated the logic of Muslim imperialism’, Sardar says, and also adopted ‘obnoxious Arab customs’ and so has become ‘dangerously obsolete’. Efforts to impose this legal code (in the name of establishing ‘Islamic governance’) thus inevitably lead to horrific oppression and violence?.?

?Such oppression also draws sustenance from fabricated reports or Hadith falsely attributed to the Prophet, which number in their thousands, Sardar adds. ‘The elevation of the Shariah and manufactured hadith to the divine level has had a catastrophic effect on Muslims’, he notes. It has denied them agency, and has led them to believe that all they need to do is blindly obey the clerics, ‘no matter how barbaric or absurd the injunctions’ they insist on. ‘The vast majority of Muslims, including highly educated ones’, Sardar contends, ‘have become passive receivers of obscurantist dogma […] rather than active seekers after truth.’ ‘And if they are educated in madrasas, or have a mindless degree in science, engineering or medicine’, he adds, ‘they become empty vessels into which anything, however toxic, can be poured’. ‘Thus, Islamic orthodoxy itself is now the biggest problem facing Muslims’, Sardar says. ‘It does not offer […] a humane alternative’.

Sardar persuasively asserts that:

‘Both the Sunni and Shia orthodoxies have been covered with layer upon layer of manufactured dogma that is as absurd as it is dangerously obsolete. Of course the vast majority of orthodox Muslims […] are moderates and are truly horrified at what is being said and done in the name of Islam. But they have to realise that their cherished dogma, accepted so unquestioningly, has reduced them to dysfunctional societies and nations, and contains the seeds of strife and the horror they see all around their communities. The excesses of the extremists […] are derived from the very dogma the moderates themselves believe to be true. Enough is enough. It is time to rethink what Islam means in the twenty-first century.’

If, as Sardar says, the problem of ‘dehumanised, perverted interpretations’ of Islam, that have given rise to terrible barbarisms, including but not only violent jihadism, stems from ‘a particular ossified Islamic tradition that has become dominant’, the solution to the problem can, he says, also be found in the Islamic tradition. This is what he calls the ‘great critical and humanist tradition of Islam’. ‘Islamic history is full of critical voices and freethinkers who provide us with a totally different take on Islam’, Sardar writes, a history that goes back to Islam’s formative phase and that derives its inspiration from the Quran and the actions and sayings of the Prophet. Sardar reflects on the importance that these two sources of Islam place on learning, reflection and critical thought and on how the Quran regards reason as a means to get closer to God.

What he calls the ‘critical and freethinking tradition of Islam’, which he appeals to Muslims to recover and celebrate, began, Sardar says, just over a century after the Prophet’s demise. He celebrates in particular the legacy of the Mutazilites, Muslim scholars who were rationalists and also humanistic. They also advocated a contextual understanding of the Quran, which they regarded as created and not eternal. Hence, for them, ‘not everything in the Quran had universal validity’. They believed that some of its content ‘was very specific and directed towards the historic community it was guiding during the life of the Prophet’, a position that Sardar seems to enthusiastically endorse.

Sardar also sees hope in the rich tradition of Sufism in offering contemporary Muslims an alternative to the stultifying, suffocating ‘Islamic orthodoxy’, hailing the Sufis’ love of God and their critique of organized religiosity and ritualism.

Pained at the horrific conditions of many Muslim societies today, that are characterized by patriarchy, intolerance, violence and oppression, Sardar insists that the root cause for their malaise is what has come to be seen as ‘Islamic orthodoxy’ (in its Sunni as well as Shia versions). Hence, the only solution lies in replacing this with an alternate understanding of Islam, one drawing on the tradition of Muslims like the Mutazilites, who placed a premium on reason in their understanding of Islam, and the Sufis, for whom love was the pivot.

This little book is big on wisdom, and is definitely one of the best on the many subjects of global importance that it discusses.


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