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How Should Non-Muslims Approach Islamic History?



By Stephen Schwartz

March 2, 2005

The present conflict between Islamist extremists and the world order is in many respects a confrontation between interpretations of religious history, and therefore between differing methods of interpreting religious history. Radical Islam, particularly in its Wahhabi form, as the state cult in Saudi Arabia which inspires the terrorists of al-Qaeda and its allies, treats the record of Islamic revelation as an unchanging source of authority, which may neither be interpreted nor questioned. In reality, classical Islam, prior to the emergence of Wahhabism, only 250 years ago, viewed all aspects of Islamic revelation, from the holy scripture of Qur'an to the details of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, as subject to debate.

Some Christian commentators have mirrored the colossal intellectual error of the Islamists, in ignoring controversy within Islam. Non- and anti-Muslim polemicists argue, like Muslim radicals, that Islamic textual and canonical authority is rigid and unchallengeable. These mainly Christian critics then select out of the Islamic past the elements they consider most shocking to Western sensibilities and hold them up as fundamental to the belief of all Muslims anywhere.

How should non-Muslims approach the Islamic past, particularly as it embodies precedents for the behaviour of today's believers in the faith of Muhammad?

A useful example, which applies to the history of Sufism, the form of Islamic spirituality on which I have previously written, as well as to general Islamic history, is that of the 12th century Islamic philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111). Al-Ghazali was a Persian who lived in Baghdad between journeys as a wandering ascetic. He is known as the Proof of Islam, and in Western literature as Algazel. Al-Ghazali authored a massive work, The Revival of the Religious Sciences that was widely read, not only by Christians, but also by Jews, as well as Muslims.

In one of his works, Al-Ghazali wrote harshly on Muslim relations with non-Muslims:

·         "[O]ne must go on jihad (i.e., warlike Razzias or raids) at least once a may use a catapult against them [non-Muslims] when they are in a fortress, even if among them are women and children. One may set fire to them and/or drown them...If a person of the Ahl al-Kitab [People of The Book - primarily Jews and Christians] is enslaved, his marriage is [automatically] revoked...One may cut down their trees...One must destroy their useless books. Jihadists may take as booty whatever they decide...they may steal as much food as they need... [T]he Dhim  [non-Muslim living under Islamic rule] is obliged not to mention Allah  His Apostle...Jews, Christians, and [Zoroastrians] must pay the   [tax on non-Muslims]...on offering up the jizya, the Dhimmi must hang his  head while the official takes hold of his beard and hits [the Dhimmi] on    the protuberant bone beneath his ear [i.e., the mandible]... They are not permitted to ostentatiously display their wine or church bells...their houses may not be higher than the Muslim's, no matter how low that is.  The Dhimmi may not ride an elegant horse or mule; he may ride a donkey only if the saddle [-work] is of wood. He may not walk on the good part of the road. They [the Dhimmis] have to wear [an identifying] patch [on their clothing], even women, and even in the [public] baths...[Dhimmis] must hold   their tongue....

Taken out of context, such a comment, if presented as a representation of all Islamic thought, may inspire fear among non-Muslims. But Al-Ghazali lived 900 years ago, and while social evolution and technological advances have slowed down in the Islamic world, only Islamist extremists believe that no change has occurred or is acceptable in Islamic life. Thus, many Muslims would criticize or otherwise dissent from Al-Ghazali's citation included here.

Still, there is another way to examine the legacy of Al-Ghazali. That is demonstrated by the commentary on him provided by a Jewish scholar, Menahem Mansoor. The latter translated the Arabic original of the Jewish mystical classic, Al-Hidaya ila Fara'id Al-Qulub, or The Book of the Direction of the Duties of the Heart, by the 11th century Spanish Jewish jurist Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paquda, who lived in Zaragoza, in the Iberian territory of Aragon. This volume, translated into Hebrew by French Jews under the abbreviated title Duties of the Heart, is among the greatest Jewish spiritual classics of all time, a true bestseller that has been printed in many languages. Indeed, I was recently informed, by one whose opinion cannot be doubted, that Yiddish-language pocket editions of Duties of the Heart are commonly seen among pious Jews in New York.

Menahem Mansoor, in his introduction to the 1973 English translation from Arabic, describes Bahya's work as follows:

·         "there is no denying the great influence of Sufism on Bahya... his styleand his language, all bear the marks of Sufist influence... The very name of  his book shows Sufist influence, for many Sufi authors used the [Arabic] word 'qulub' (hearts) in the titles of their treatises, and from this one may assume that Bahya adopted as well the distinction they made between  the duties of the limbs [i.e. prayer and other rituals] and the duties of the heart."

Mansoor points out that "there arose in Islam an ascetic literature which regarded the outward expression of piety as less significant than internal devoutness." He indicates the importance of Al-Ghazali's "attack" on Muslim clerics who had insisted on the superiority of formalistic observance and normative debate, and argues that Bahya, a Jewish dayyan or jurist, similarly saw the belief of the heart opposed to the rigid interpretations maintained by the rabbinical elite among the Jews.

Thus we may see in Al-Ghazali a valuable and necessary predecessor of those Muslims who today battle for the "Islam of the heart" against the Saudi-backed Wahhabis and others who insist on an externally observant but narrow interpretation of Islam. Al-Ghazali was a man of his time, and his comments on jihad and the Dhimma may be left to his time; much more important for us today are his spiritual lessons.

Critics who would discredit Sufism for its honours to Al-Ghazali might be tempted to dismiss the Jewish scholar Menahem Mansoor as a contemptible "Dhimmi" who has surrendered to Islamic authority, even though Mansoor lived in the West, teaching at the University of Wisconsin. But if such is the manner in which all who call for a rational understanding of Islam are to be treated, then a great many distinguished Jews will be so condemned. For example, we may read in The New York Times of November 25, 1912, i.e. 93 years ago, of a sermon delivered in Temple Emanu-El, by Rev. Dr. Joseph Silverman, a prominent Jewish religious figure, on the wars then raging in the Balkans. Blood flowed on all sides as the Christian nations of Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and others proclaimed their liberation from the Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Silverman had a distinctly surprising view of the anti-Turkish wars, especially for readers today. He denounced "the unworthy reasons of the powers of Europe for not preventing or stopping" the Balkan fighting, which he enumerated as "First, the general hostility against Turkish advance as a menace to western civilization; second, the secret hope of Russia and Austria to gain an outlet to the sea by getting rid of the Turkish barriers; third, selfish, material interests of Germany and France, and fourth, the silent yet potent religious conflict between Christianity and Mohammedanism."

If we substitute oil interests for those involving access to the sea in this commentary, the same words could be pronounced today in analyzing the arguments that condemn the whole of Islam for the crimes committed by a radical minority. Certainly, these words apply shockingly to the indifference shown by Europe when a renewed slaughter of Muslims in ex-Yugoslavia took place a decade ago, and could also partly explain the current campaign against Turkish entry into the European Union. But let me stipulate that I do not, and would not, equate the new U.S. campaign for democratization of the Islamic world with the assault on the Ottomans seen in 1912; and I know that President George W. Bush will not accede to the demands of Christian fanatics, and declare war on Islam as a faith.

I will conclude by citing, ad extenso, another example from Judeo-Islamic history that discredits the fear-mongering of those obsessed with jihad, Shariah, and the Dhimma as the alleged principles by which all Muslims purportedly seek to conquer the West today. That is the existence of a phenomenon known as "Jewish Sufism."

One of the most prominent commentators on "Jewish Sufism" is a scholar named Paul B. Fenton, who teaches at the Université de Strasbourg, in France. Fenton is also known as a ferocious critic of the Dhimma. But his article "Abraham Maimonides (1186-1237: Founding a Mystical Dynasty," in Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leadership in the 13th Century (Ed. Moshe Idel and Mortimer Ostow, Jerusalem, 1998), is filled with provocative observations. Fenton describes a group of Jews, directly descending from the great theologian Moses Maimonides, among whom "there arose a pietistic elite whose search for mystical fulfilment led them to introduce into the framework of traditional Judaism a creative change that drew its inspiration from the nearest spiritual model -- Islamic Sufism." These Jewish figures wrote in Arabic, but according to Fenton, "had historical circumstances been less unfavourable and had their writings been translated into Hebrew... the pietist movement could have profoundly and permanently transformed the face of Judaism."

The leading figure in the phenomenon of "Jewish Sufism" was none other than the son of Maimonides, Abraham Maimonides (1138-1204), who succeeded to his father's position as rayyis al-Yahud, or chief scholar of the Egyptian Jews. Abraham Maimonides went so far as to praise the Muslim Sufis as the spiritual heirs of the ancient Hebrew prophets, expressing his disappointment that his fellow-Jews did not emulate them. He was, according to Fenton, eager to found a Jewish Tariqa, or Sufi order. He adopted many Islamic practices, including forms of prayer, and took on the woollen garment or suf for which, according to many, the Sufis were named. The spiritual disciplines he embraced were carried forward and defended by his family, including his grandson David Maimonides (1222-1300). As in the case of Bahya ibn Paquda, Fenton, the critic of the Dhimma, notes that Abraham Maimonides "was trying to enact within Judaism that which [Al-Ghazali] had accomplished more successfully within Islam, namely a synthesis of rational and mystical currents compatible with an orthodox perspective." According to Fenton, Sufi influence extended to the last member of the "Maimonidean dynasty," David ben Joshua Maimonides (1334-1415). Fenton even asserts that had the influence of the Maimonidean dynasty prevailed, "the face of subsequent Judaism would have strangely resembled that of Sufism."

Should non-Muslims fear and denounce Sufism as a cover for jihad, Shariah, and the Dhimma, and, therefore, execrate scholars like Menahem Mansoor and the anti-Dhimma authority, Fenton, as miserable "Dhimmis" who have given up in the face of Islamic aggression? Fenton himself, writing on Jewish Sufism, aspires to evoke "the Dhimmis utter religious isolation within Islamic society at the time, which we do not think the adoption of Sufism could have alleviated." And yet, dialogue and interchange between Muslims, Jews, and Christians were common while the Dhimma was in effect. Is it impossible to imagine that, like other legal standards in societies throughout history, the dhimma was porous, and did not obstruct fruitful intellectual, social, political, and moral solidarity between believers in the different versions of the same faith, the belief in One God? To leap ahead centuries, was the sermon pronounced in New York in 1912, which described things as they were and are, an expression of cowardice in the face of an Islamic menace? Few would, or should, make such claims. Victory in the war against Islamist radicalism will be won by those who understand distinctions, not those who confuse them.