By Ahmer Anwer
December 17, 2015
Islamo-xenophobes claim a fundamental warp in Islam. Quranic injunction requires that the faithful wage holy war against heretics, polytheists, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, dipsomaniacs, smokers, singers, visual artists – in a word, all things outside a rigidly defined “Muslim Nation”.
This is not simply one element in the picture, but the dogmatic essence of Islam, its insoluble “essentialist” problem that must turn followers into fire-breathing, fulminating, ‘aliens’. Islam breeds jihadists. “Muslims” are dangerous, deranged zealots deserving to be damned and excoriated – hunted and punished – for their fanatical and violent faith.
Interestingly, Wahhabists and other ultra-orthodox sects – those incendiary non-state militias operating under the glow of a pretended holy nimbus that the Americans like to call “radical” – espouse an understanding of Islam that actually is not dissimilar. However, holy war, though systemic to Islam, is not with them a problem but the very opposite. As a divine commandment, jihad sanctifies even the murder of innocents as a legitimate tactic of political bargaining by terrorisation. Spiritually, it opens a stairway to heaven.
By contrast ‘moderate’ Muslims, being in some ways children of the European Enlightenment, carry on an endless casuistry with Islam’s scourges. Does such and such verse and chapter “really” mean bloody war in the physical world? Does not “war” signal defensive rather than offensive violence? Is war even “war”? Doesn’t “jihad” connote rather a lofty spiritual ideal – a battle of the virtuous to tame one’s inner demons and temptations, a struggle that rages only inside the souls of the faithful?
Arguably though, this rational-humanist gesture on part of ‘moderates’ too implies a species of essentialism. No, runs the counterargument, it’s altogether distortive and irrelevant to view Islam as a faith born in turbulent times, amid violent tribal and clan hostilities. Islam quite simply represents a refined spiritual quest for self-betterment and the most rational, enlightened, merciful codification of universal principles of living acceptable to God and man ever developed.
Strikingly, both positions – the one that virulently demonises Islam (and pronounces as deserved and “doable” everything from body searches to gang rapes, lynching, pogroms and shaming rituals of correction), and the other one that seeks to align a 6th century religion with 21st century canons of political correctness – have a key element in common: the demand for essentialist totalisation. Also called “fundamentalism”!
Neither set of disputants seems willing to see “Islam” as a complex, layered, often conflicted and contradictory historical entity with multiple facets and unresolved problems of meaning and interpretation, none of which need placation by blood from the other side today. For both contenders in the argument, things are hewn in stone.
“Islam” then becomes a totalised fixity, a terroristic name. In this grand Morality Play no room is allowed to nuance or ambivalence. We are in the presence of pure Good; or else, of sheer, unredeemed Evil. Either way, adduced text must be wrought, tweaked, morphed, modified or read selectively, to bring it in line with positions already taken, prejudices already embraced. Reality must be accommodated to myth-making.
Yet if one is willing to historicise and de-essentialise, one can step out of this permanent logjam of attack and defence. Some things become understandable in their time, context and period actualities. Eschewing dangerous rigidities, one can accept that in certain chapters, Islam’s history, as with other faiths, too has included glorification of holy wars, crusades and dharma-yuddhs, though this is never the whole story. This is a question not of a religion’s incurable “essence”, but of history, shifting societal actualities, crisscrossed maps and changing circumstances.
Whether the Muslim religion “really” preached this or that or something in between, does still have its interpretive importance. But, absent political agendas, it does not – need not – matter to lives meant to be lived in the world as constituted; the world of today.
Once you are committed to live by principles that are humane, life-loving, difference-honouring and inclusive, then to your infinite enrichment, it becomes possible to celebrate and revere – rather than to fear and abominate – life in its magical plenitude and abundant plurality. And you need no longer feel inescapably tethered by the absolutist division of a difference that is just a first-order false contradiction.