No god but god

The origins, evolution, and future of Islam


Reza Aslan

2006, Random House, New York


Prologue, xxvii

…it is possible to trace how Muhammad’s revolutionary message of moral accountability and social egalitarianism was gradually reinterpreted by his successors into competing ideologies of rigid legalism and uncompromising orthodoxy, which fractured the Muslim community and widened the gap between mainstream, or Sunni, Islam and its two major branches, Shiʻism and Sufism.  Although sharing common sacred history, each group stove to develop its own interpretation of the scripture, its own ideas on theology and the law, and its own community of faith.  And each had different responses to the experience of colonialism in the eighteen and nineteen centuries.  Indeed, that experience forced the entire Muslim community to reconsider the role of faith in modern society.  While some Muslims pushed for creation of an indigenous Islamic Enlightenment by eagerly developing Islamic alternatives to Western secular notions of democracy, others advocated separation from Western cultural ideals in favor of the complete “Islamization” of society.  With the end of colonialism and the birth of the Islamic state in the twentieth century, these two groups have refined their arguments against the backdrop of the ongoing debate in the Muslim world over the prospect of forming a genuine Islamic democracy.  But as we shall see, at the center of the debate over Islam and democracy is a far more significant internal struggle over who gets to define the Islamic Reformation that is already under way in most of the Muslim world. 

            The reformation of Christianity was a terrifying process, but it was not, as it has so often been presented, a collision between Protestant reform and Catholic intransigence.  Rather, the Christian Reformation was an argument over the future of the faith—a violent, bloody argument that engulfed Europe in devastation and war for more than a century. 

            Thus far, the Islamic Reformation has proved no different.  For most of the Western world, September 11, 2001, signaled the commencement of a worldwide struggle between Islam and the West—the ultimate manifestation of the clash of civilizations.  From the Islamic perspective, however, the attack on New York and Washington were part of an ongoing clash between those Muslims who strive to reconcile their religious values with the realities of the modern world, and those who react to modernism and reform by reverting—sometimes fanatically—to the “fundamentals” of their faith. 


p. 28


Mecca.  This was a desert wasteland that produced nothing….”the only reason for Mecca to grow into a great trading center was it was able somehow to force the trade under its control.”  Indeed, that is precisely what Mecca had managed to do.  By inextricably linking the religious and economic life of the city, Qusayy and his descendents had developed an innovative religio-economic system that relied on control of the Kaʻba and its pilgrimage rites…to guarantee the economic, religious, and political supremacy of a single tribe, the Quraysh. 



p. 33-34

…Muhammad was a twenty-five-year-old man, still unmarried, with no cpital and no business of his own, who relied entirely on his uncle’s generosity for his employment and his housing.  In fact, his prospects were so depressingly low that when he asked for the hand of his uncle’s daughter, Umm Hani, she rejected him outright for a more prosperous suitor.

            Things changed for Muhammad when he attracted the attention of a remarkable forty-year-old widow named Khadija….

…he was renown for his generosity and the evenhandedness with which he conducted his business….he seemed to be acutely aware of his complicity in Mecca’s religio-economic system, which exploited the city’s unprotected masses in order to maintain the wealth and power of the élite.  For fifteen years he struggled with the incongruity between his lifestyle and his beliefs; by his fortieth year, he was an intensely troubled man. 

            Then, one night in 610 C.E., as he was meditating on Mt. Hira during one of his religious retreats, Muhammad had an encounter that would change the world.



p. 41, 44


…His message was simple:…”free the slave”…”feed others in times of famine”…

            This was a radical message, one that never been heard before in Mecca.  Muhammad was not yet establishing a new religion; he was calling for sweeping social reform.  He was not yet preaching monotheism; he was demanding economic justice.  And for this revolutionary and profoundly innovative message, he was more or less ignored.

…by proclaiming himself “the Messenger of God,” Muhammad was blatantly transgressing the traditional Arab process through which power was granted.  This was not authority that had been given to Muhammad as “the first among equals.”  Muhammad had no equals.



p. 52-53

“Muhammad in Medina” became the…standard that every Arab kingdom struggled to meet…all … strove to return to the original values of Muhammad’s unadulterated community as a means to wrest control of Muslim lands…

            Today, Medina is simultaneously the archetype of Islamic democracy and the impetus for Islamic militancy.  Islamic modernist like Egyptian writer and philosopher Ali Abd ar-Raziq (d. 1966) pointed to Muhammad’s community in Medina as proof that Islam advocated the separation of religious and temporal power, while Muslim extremists in Afghanistan and Iran have used the same community to fashion various models of Muslim theocracy.  In their struggle for equal rights, Muslim feminists have consistently drawn inspiration from the legal reforms Muhammad instituted in Medina, while at the same time, Muslim traditionalists have construed those same legal reforms as grounds for maintaining the subjugation of women in Islamic society.    For some, Muhammad’s actions in Medina serve as the model for Muslim-Jewish relations; for others, they demonstrate the insurmountable conflict that has always existed, and will always exists, between the two sons of Abraham.  Yet, regardless of whether one is labeled a Modernist or Traditionalist, a reformist or a fundamentalist, a feminist or a male chauvinist, all Muslims regard Medina as the model of Islamic perfection.  Put simply, Medina is what Islam was meant to be.  

            As with all mythologies of this magnitude, it is often difficult to separate factual history from sacred history.  Part of the problem is that the historical traditions dealing with Muhammad’s time in Medina were written hundred of years after the Prophet’s death by Muslim historians who were keen to emphasize the universal recognition and immediate success of Muhammad’s divine mission.  Remember that Muhammad’s biographers were living at a time in which the Muslim community had already become an enormously powerful empire.  As a result, their accounts more often reflect the political and religious ideologies of the ninth-century Damascus, or eleventh-century Baghdad, than of seventh-century Medina.


MDA:  In short, everybody tries to reach or emulate a model that nobody is sure that is the right model. 




p. 58


…whereas power in the tribe was allocated to a number of figures, none of whom had any real executive authority, Muhammad instead united all the pre-Islamic positions of authority into himself.  He was not only the Shaykh [mda:  tribe’s leader, the president] of his community, but also his Hakam [mda:  judge, the Supreme Justice], its Qaʻid [mda:  Commander in Chief], and as the only legitimate connection to the Divine, its Kahim [soothsayer, Prophet].  His authority as Prophet/Lawgiver was absolute.


MDA:  In short, Muhammad was the first dictator in human society. 




p. 66


…the veil was neither compulsory nor, for that matter, widely adopted until generations after Muhammad’s death, when a large body of male scriptural and legal scholars began using their religious and political authority to regain the dominance they had lost in society as a result of the Prophet’s egalitarian reforms. 



p. 69


This…point bears repeating.  The fact is that for fourteen centuries, the science of Quranic commentary has been the exclusive domain of Muslim men.  And because each one of these exegets inevitably brings to the Quran his own ideology and his own preconceived notions, it should not be surprising to learn that certain verses have most often been read in their most misogynist interpretation.  Consider for example, how the following verse (4:34) regarding the obligations of men toward women has been rendered into English by two different but widely read contemporary translators of the Quran.  The first is from the Princeton edition, translated by Ahmed Ali; the second is from Majid Fakhry’s translation, published by New York University:

            Men are the support of women [qawwamma ’ala an-nisa] as God gives some more means than others, and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them)…..As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are willing).


                Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because they spend sme of their wealth….And for those [women] that you fear might rebel, admonish them and abandon them in their beds and beat them [adribubunna]. 

Because of the variability of the Arabic language, both of these translations are grammatically, syntactically, and definitionally correct.  The phrase qawwamma ’ala an-nisa can be understood as “watch over,” “protect,” “support,” “attend to,” “look after,” or “be in charge of “ women.  The final word in the verse, adribubunna, which Fakhry has rendered as “beat them,” can equally mean “turn away from them,” “go along with them,” and, remarkably, even “have consensual intercourse with them.”  If religion is indeed interpretation, then which meaning one chooses to accept and follow depends on what one is trying to extract from the text:  if one views the Quran as empowering women, then Ali’s; if one looks to the Quran to justify violence against women, then Fakhry’s. 



p. 73


Today, throughout the Muslim world, a whole new generation of contemporary female textual scholars is reengaging the Quran from a perspective that has been sorely lacking in Islamic scholarship.  Beginning with the notion that it is not the moral teachings of Islam but the social conditions of the seventh-century Arabia and the rampant misogyny of male Quranic exegetes that has been responsible for their inferior status in Muslim society, these women are approaching the quran free from the confines of traditional gender boundaries. 



p. 84


…perhaps the most important innovation in the doctrine of jihad was its outright prohibition of all but strictly defensive wars.  “Fight in the way of God those who fight you,” the Quran says, “but do not begin hostilities; God does not like the aggressor” (2:190).  Elsewhere the Quran is more explicit:  “permission to fight is given only to those who have been oppressed…who have been driven from their homes for saying ‘God is our Lord’” (22:39; emphasis added). 

            It is true that some verses in the Quran instruct Muhammad and his followers to “slay the polytheists wherever you confront them” (9:5), to “carry the struggle to the hypocrites who deny the faith” (9:73); and, especially, to “fight those who do not believe in God and the Last Day” (9:29).  However, it must be understood that these verses were directed specifically at the Quraysh and their clandestine partisans in Yathrib—specifically named in the Quran as “the polytheists” and “the hypocrites,” respectively—with whom the Ummah was locked in a terrible war. 

            Nevertheless, these verses have long been used by Muslim and non-Muslim alike to suggest that Islam advocates fighting unbelievers until they convert.  This view was put forward during the height of the Crusades, and partly in response to them, by later generations of Islamic legal scholars who developed what is now referred to as “the classical doctrine of jihad”:  a doctrine that, among other things, partitioned the world into two spheres, the House of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the House of War (dar al-Harb), with the former in constant pursuit of the latter. 



p. 85


….the idea of killing nonbelievers who refused to convert to Islam—the foundation of the classical doctrine of jihad—not only defied the example of Muhammad but also violated one of the most important principles in the Quran:  that “there can be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).  Indeed, on this point the Quran is adamant.  “The truth is from your Lord,” it says; “believe it if you like, or do not” (18:29).  The Quran also asks rhetorically, “Can you compel people to believe against their will?” (10:100).  Obviously not; the Quran therefore commands believers to say to those who do not believe, “To you your religion; to me mine” (109:6). 


MDA:  Well, when I read the verses cited above in their full, I find them confusing.  Usually those who do not worship are threatened with the flames of fire.  So, you allow them to not believe, but you threaten them with punishment, anyway.  I do not see in such a situation “no compulsion.” 



p. 94


…Muslim law, which considers Jews and Christians “protected peoples” (dhimmi), neither required not encouraged their conversion to Islam.  (Pagan and polytheists, however, were given a choice between conversion and death.) 


MDA:  First, I do not see in this tolerance, I see double standard.  Why pagans and polytheist would be excluded from understanding and tolerance and be given only the choice of conversion or death?

Second, during the Ottoman yoke of Bulgaria, Christians were forced to convert to Islam.  If they refused, they were killed, usually put on a stake or skinned alive. 



p. 103


It is no coincidence that just as they reversed many of Muhammad’s social reforms aimed at empowering women, the Muslim scriptural and legal scholars of the following centuries rejected the notion that Jews and Christians were part of the Ummah, and instead designated both groups as unbelievers.  These scholars reinterpreted the revelation to declare that the Quran had superseded, rather than supplemented, the Torah and the Gospels, and called on Muslims to distinguish themselves from the People of the Book.  This was largely an attempt to differentiate the nascent religion of Islam from other communities so it could establish its own religious independence, much as the early Christians gradually dissociated themselves from the Jewish practices and rituals that had given birth to their movement by demonizing the Jews as the killers of Jesus. 

            Nevertheless, the actions of these scriptural scholars were in direct defiance of Muhammad’s example and the teachings of the Quran.  For even though Muhammad recognized the irreconcilable differences that existed among the People of the Book, he never called for a partitioning of the faiths. 



p. 113-114


…”the Successor to the Messanger of God”—Caliph, in English. 

…the Caliph would be responsible for upholding the institutions of the Muslim faith, but he would not play a significant role in defining religious practice.  In other words, Abu Bakr would replace the Prophet as leader of the Ummah, but he would have no prophetic authority.  Muhammad was dead; his status as messenger died with him. 

            The deliberate ambiguity of his title was a great advantage for Abu Bakr and his immediate successors because it gave them the opportunity to define the position for themselves, something they would do in widely divergent ways. 


As we shall see, the Ummah would eventually fashion a comprehensive code of conduct meant to regulate every aspect of the believer’s life.  And while it would be a mistake to consider these religious clerics and scholastic theologians as constituting a single, monolithic tradition, the power of the Ummah and their influence in shaping the faith and practice of Islam cannot be overstated.  Caliphs will come and go, and the Caliphate as a civil institution will rise and fall in strength, but the authority of the Ummah and the power of their religious institutions will only increase with time. 



p. 114

As Caliph, Abu Bakr united the community under a single banner and initiated a time of military triumph and social concord that would become known in the Muslim world as the Golden Era of Islam.  It was Abu Bakr and his immediate successors—the first four Caliphs who were collectively referred to as the Rashidun, the “Rightly Guided Ones”—who tended the seed Muhammad had planted in the Hijaz until is sprouted into a dominant and far-reaching empire. 


As with most sacred histories, however, the truth about the era of the Rightly Guided Ones is far more complicated than the traditions suggest.  Indeed, the so-called Golden Era of Islam was anything but a time of religious concord and political harmony.  From the moment Muhammad died, there arose dozens of conflicting ideas about everything from how to interpret the prophet’s words and deeds to who should do the interpreting, from whom to choose as leader of the community to how the community should be led.  It was even unclear who could and could not be considered a member of the Ummah, or, for that matter, what one had to do to be saved. 



p. 136


The Caliphate…was an office that developed not so much through the conscious determination of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, but as the result of conditions that the Ummah encountered as it matured from a tiny community in the Hijaz to a vast empire stretching from the Atlas Mountains in west Africa to the eastern edges of the Indian subcontinent.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the disagreements over the function of the Caliphate and the nature of the Ummah ultimately tore the Muslim community apart, forever shattering any hope of preserving the unity and harmony that Muhammad had envisioned for his followers.    



p. 139


Throughout Islamic history, as Muslim dynasties tumbled over each other, Muslim kings were crowned and dethroned, and Islamic parliaments elected and dissolved, only the Ummah, in their capacity as the link to the traditions of the past, have managed to retain their self-imposed role as the leaders of Muslim society.  As a result, over the past fourteen centuries, Islam as we know it has been almost exclusively defined by an extremely small, rigid, and often profoundly traditionalist group of men who, for better or worse, consider themselves to be the unyielding pillars upon which the religious, social, and political foundations of the religion rest.  How they gained this authority, and what they have done with it, is perhaps the most important chapter in the story of Islam. 



p. 153-154


By the ninth and tenth centuries, this debate over determinism and free will was loosely divided between two major strands of thought:  the so-called “Rationalist position,” most clearly represented by the Muʻtazilite school, and the “Traditionalist” position, dominated by the Ashʻarite school.  The Rationalist Ulama of the Muʻtazilah argued that God, while fundamentally indefinable, nevertheless exists within the framework of human reason.  Challenging the notion that religious truth could be accessed only through divine revelation, the Muʻtazilah promulgated the doctrine that all theological arguments must adhere to the principles of rational thought.  Even the interpretation of the Quran and the traditions, or Sunna, of the Prophet were, for the rationalists, subordinate to human reason. 


The Ashʻari argued that human reason, while certainly important, must nevertheless be subordinate to the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet.  If religious knowledge could be gained only through rational speculation, as the Muʻtazilah claimed, there would be no need for prophets and revelations; the result would be a confusion of theological diversity that would allow people to follow their own wills rather than the will of God.  The Ashʻari considered reason to be unstable and changing, while the prophetic and scriptural traditions—especially as they were defined by the Traditionalist Ulama—were stable and fixed. 



p. 158-159


The debate between the Rationalist and the Traditionalist Ulama continued for a few hundred years, with each school alternating in influence, until the end of the thirteenth century, when, partly in response to al-Ma’mun’s disastrous Inquisition, the Traditionalist position became the dominant position in Sunni Islam.  Most Rationalist were branded as heretics, and their theories gradually lost influence in all major schools of law and theology with exception of the Shiʻite schools…And while the debate over the nature of the Quran continues to this day, the influence of the Traditionalists interpretation has led to a number of extraordinary theological and legal developments in Islam. 

For instance, belief in the eternal, uncreated word of God has led to the widespread conviction among Muslims that the Quran cannot be translated from its original language.  A translation into any other language would remove the direct speech of God, rendering it an interpretation of the Quran, not the Quran itself.  … Muslims of every culture and ethnicity must read the Quran in Arabic, whether they understand it or not. 



p. 161


For the rationalists, who reject the notion of an uncreated Quran, the only reasonable method of exegesis was one that accounted for the temporal nature of the Relevation.  For this reason, the Rationalists stressed the primacy of human reason in determining not just the essence of the Quran, but also its meaning and, most importantly, its historical context.  To the Traditionalists, the eternal and uncreated nature of the Quran made it pointless to talk of historical context or original intent when interpreting it.  The Quran has never changes and will never change; neither should its interpretation.

….What was appropriate for Muhammad’s community in the seventh century C.E. must be appropriate for all Muslim communities to come, regardless of the circumstances.  This view of the Quran as static and unchanging became increasingly problematic as the revelation gradually transformed from merely the principle of moral guidance in the Muslim community to the primary source of Islam’s Sacred Law:  the Shariah. 



p. 163-164  Developing the Shariah


The Sunna is composed of thousands upon thousands of stories, or hadith, that claim to recount Muhammad’s words and deeds, as well as those of the earliest Companions.  …as these hadith were passed down from generation to generation, they became increasingly convoluted and inauthentic, so that after a while, nearly every legal or religious opinion—no matter how radical or eccentric—could be legitimated by the Prophet’s authority.  By the ninth century, the situation had gotten so out of hand that a group of legal scholars, working independently of one another, attempted to catalogue the most reliable hadith into authoritative collections…

            The primary criterion by which these collections were authenticated was the chain of transmission, or isnad, that often accompanied each hadith. 

…their method lacked any attempt at political or religious objectivity.  The bulk of what are considered to be sound traditions were deemed so not because their isnads were particularly strong, but because they reflected the majority beliefs and practices of the community.  In other words, the hadith were collected, and the Sunna developed, specifically to create a sense of Islamic orthodoxy and orthopraxy by legitimizing those beliefs and practices that were already widely accepted by the majority of the Ulama, and eliminating those that were not.  While some hadith may in fact contain an authentic historical core that can be traced back to thea Prophet and his earliest Companions, the truth is that the Sunna is a far better refection of the opinions of the ninth-century Ulama [Is’lam’s cleric establishment] than of the seventh-century Ummah [Muslim community in Medina]. 


Reliable or not, the Sunna was grossly inadequate for addressing the myriad legal issues that arose as Islam expanded into an Empire.  A number of other sources had to be developed to cope with those concerns not expressly dealt with in the Quran and the Sunna.  Chief among these was the use of analogical arguments, or qiyas, which allowed the Ulama to draw parallels between their community and Muhammad’s when responding to new and unfamiliar legal dilemmas.  Of course, analogies can be stretch only so far and, in any case, the Traditionalists-dominated schools of law were wary of placing too much emphais on reasoning over Revelation.  So while qiyas remained a vital tool in the development of the Shariah, the Ulama ultimately grew far more dependent on the fourth source of law, ijma, or “juridical consensus.”

Relying on the Prophet’s saying that “my community will never agree on an error,” the Ulama posited that the unanimous consensus of the legal scholars of a particular age on a particular issue could create binding legal decisions, even if those decisions seemed to violate Quranic prescriptions (as was the case with the practice of stoning adulterers).  Like the Sunna, ijma was developed specifically to create orthodoxy among the Muslim community.  But more importantly, ijma served to consolidate the authority of the Ulama as the sole determiners of acceptable Muslim behavior and beliefs. 


eventually the consensus of one generation of scholars became binding for successive generations, with the result that the Ulama gradually became less concerned with developing innovative solutions to contemporary legal problems and more occupied with what in Islam is referred to derisively as taqlid—the blind acceptance of juridical precedent. 

            One other major source of law must be mentioned.  During the formative stages of the Shariah, it was commonly believed that when the Quran and the Sunna were silent on an issue, and if analogy and consensus had failed to deliver a solution, a qualified legal scholar could use his own independent juristic reasoning to issue a legal ruling, or fatwa, which could then be accepted or rejected by the community as they wished.  Know as ijtihad, this was an absolutely vital source of the law until the end of the tenth century, when the Traditionalists Ulama, who at that time dominated nearly all the major schools of law, outlawed it as a legitimated tool of exegesis.  The “closing of the gates of ijtihad,” as this action has been called, signaled the beginning of the end for those who held that religious truth, as long as it did not explicitly contradict the Revelation, could be discovered through human reasoning.  



p. 166


            The Ulama associated with these [four main schools in modern Sunni world] entrenched themselves as the sole authority of acceptable Islamic beliefs.  As these schools of thought gradually transformed into legal institutions, the diversity of ideas and freedom of opinion that characterized their early development gave way to rigid formalism, strict adherence to precedent, and an almost complete stultification of independent thought, so that even by the twelfth century, Muslim thinkers … began decrying the Ulama….complaint against the Ulama is as applicable today as it was nine hundred years ago. 



p. 169


…with Muhammad’s death, the Revelation ceased.  But that does not mean that the Ummah stopped evolving.  On the contrary, the contemporary Muslim community—nearly a billion and a half strong—bears almost no resemblance to the small community of faith that Muhammad left behind in seventh-century Arabia.  While the Revelation may have ended, the Quran is still a living text and must be treated as such.  The notion that historical context should play no role in the interpretation of the Quran—that what applied to Muhammad’s community applies to all Muslims communities for all time—is simply an untenable position in every sense. 

            Nevertheless, the heirs of Traditionalism have managed to silence most critics of reform, even when that criticism has come from their own ranks. 



p. 170


The problem is that it is practically impossible to reconcile the Traditionalist view of the Shariah with modern conceptions of democracy and human rights.  Any modern Islamic state has only three alternatives for incorporating the Shariah into its legal systems.  It can accept the Shariah as a legitimate source of civil law, but choose to ignore it in all but most obvious family, divorce, or inheritance cases, as Egypt and Pakistan do.  It can fully apply the Shariah to the state with no attempt either to modernize it or adapt it to contemporary norms of law and society, as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under Taliban have done.    Or it can attempt to infuse the traditional values of the Shariah with modern principles of democracy and human rights through a comprehensive reform methodology.  Iraq’s burgeoning democratic experiment notwithstanding, thus far only one Islamic state has seriously considered the latter option. 

            For more than twenty years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been struggling to reconcile popular and divine sovereignty in an attempt to construct a genuinely Islamic democracy dedicated to pluralism, liberalism, and human rights.  It has been a difficult, violent, and hitherto unsuccessful endeavor. 


            Of course, Iran is a special case.  … the Shiʻah have never been eager to identify themselves with the majority Muslim community. 



p. 179

Karbala became Shiʻism’s Garden of Eden, with humanity’s original sin being not disobedience to God, but unfaithfulness to God’s moral principles.  Just as the early Christians coped with Jesus’ demoralizing death by reinterpreting the Crucifixion as a conscious and eternal decision of self-sacrifice, so also did the Shiʻah claim Husayn’s martyrdom to have been both a conscious and an eternal decision.  The Shiʻah claim that long before Husayn was born, the events of Karbala had been miraculously revealed to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Muhammad, Ali, and Fatima.  The Shiʻah noted that Husayn knew he could nor defeat the Caliph, yet he deliberately chose to continue to Kufa in order to sacrifice himself for his principles and for all generations to come. 



p. 184-185


…The Jafari school…differentiates itself from Sunni schools of law, first by recognizing a different set of hadith, which include stories of the Imams as well as of Muhammad, and second by vigorously employing ijtihad, or independent juristic reasoning, as one of the primary sources of Shiʻite jurisprudence.    To this day, Shiʻite law maintains the conviction that “whatever is ordered by reason, is also ordered by religion,”…

…only those who have attained the very highest level of scholarship and who can boast the greatest number of disciples are still allowed to practice ijtihad.  At the top of this order…are the ayatollahs (the title means “the sign of God”), whose decisions are binding on their disciples.  Only a handful of authoritative ayatollahs exist today—primary in Iran and Iraq—but their religious and political authority over the Shiʻite is formidable.  …it was precisely this authority that allowed the Ayatollah Khomeini to impose his will upon the social, political, and economic forces that led to the Iranian Revolution if 1979.  



p. 189

…the Iranian revolution of 1979 was the inevitable conclusion of two previous popular revolutions—the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11 and the Nationalist revolution of 1953—both of which were suppressed by foreign governments (the first by the Russians and, to a lesser extent, the British; the second,…by the United States) who wished to maintain their grip on Iran’s natural resources.  By the late 1970’s, most Iranians had grown so weary of the corrupt and ineffective rule of Iran’s monarch, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, that another revolution was unavoidable.  



p. 191


Khomeini argued that in the absence of the Mahdi, divine guidance could come only from the Hidden Imam’s representative on earth:  that is, the Ulama.  Khomeini was not the first Shiʻite theologian to have made this claim; the same idea was formulated at the turn of the twentieth century by politically minded clerics…But the Valayat-e Faqih [Khomeini ideology] proposed two startling modifications to the traditional Shiʻite doctrine.  First, it insisted that absolute authority be concentrated in the hands of a single cleric, instead of all qualified clerics.  Second, it argued that, as the deputy of the Mahdi, the supreme cleric’s authority was identical to that of the “Hidden Imam.”  In other words, Khomeini’s guidance was, like the guidance of the prophet and the twelve Imams, infallible and divinely inspired.

….Khomeini wrote in his historic political treatise, Islamic Government,“ he [the qualified jurist] will enjoy all the rights in the affairs of the society that were enjoyed by the Prophet.”



p. 192


…what made Khomeini so alluring was his ability to couch his theology in the populist rhetoric of the time.  He thus reached out to Iran’s influential communist and Marxist factions by reformulating traditional Shiʻite ideology into a call for an uprising of the oppressed masses.  He wooed the secular nationalists by lacing his speeches with allusions to Iran’s mythic past, while purposely obscuring the details of his political philosophy.    What he often failed to mention publicly was that such a state would not be feasible except, as he wrote, “with the supervision of the religious leaders.” 

….the Valayt-e Faqih merely replaced one form of tyranny with another. 



p. 226-227


In 1877, Sayyid Ahmed Khan founded the Aligarh School, the primary goal of which was the revitalization of Islamic glory through modern European education.  Sir Sayyid was convinced that if he could shine the light of European rationalism and scientific thought upon traditional Muslim beliefs and customs, the result would be an indigenous Islamic Enlightenment that would propel the Muslim world into the twentieth century.  The Aligarh taught its students to throw off the shackles of the Ulama and their blind imitation (taqlid) of Islamic doctrine, for none of the problems facing Muslims in the modern world could be solved through their antiquated theology.  The only hope for Islamic revival was the modernization of the Shariah; and the only way to achieve this was to take it out of the hands of the incompetent and irrelevant Ulama. 



p. 230-231


…Ideals such as social egalitarianism, popular sovereignty, and the pursuit and preservation of knowledge had their origins not in the Christian Europe, but in the Ummah.  It was Muhammad’s revolutionary community that had introduced the concept of popular sanction over the ruling government while dissolving all ethnic boundaries between individuals and giving women and children unprecedented rights and privileges. 

…the Ulama bore the responsibility for the decline of Islamic civilization.  In their self-appointed role as the guardians of Islam, the Ulama had so stifled independent thought and scientific progress that even as Europe awakened to the Enlightenment, the Muslim world was still floundering in the Middle Ages.  By forbidding rational dialogue about the limits of law and the meaning of scripture, The Ulama, whom al-Afghani likened to “a very narrow wick on top of which is a very small flame that neither lights its surroundings nor gives light to others,” had become the true enemies of Islam. 

            But al-Afghani was no member of the Aligarh.  In fact, he considered Sayyid Ahmed Khan a tool of the colonialist powers for his dotting emulation of European ideals.  As far as al-Afghani was concerned, Europe’s only advantages over Islamic civilization were its technological advancements and its economic prowess.  Both of these attributes would have to be developed in the Muslim world if Islam were to regain its former glory.  But the only way to achieve lasting social, political, and economic reform in the region would be to contemporize those enduring Islamic values that had founded the Muslim community.  Merely imitating Europe, as Ahmed Khan would have Muslims do, was a waste of time. 



p. 232


…Abdu called for the reopening of the gates of ijtihad, or independent reasoning.  The only way to Muslim empowerment, he argued, was to liberate Islam from the iron grip of the Ulama and their traditionalist interpretation of the Shariah.  Like Sir Sayyid, Abdu demanded that every man-made source of law—the Sunna, ijma, qiyas, and the like—must be subject to rational discourse.  Even the holy Quran must be reopened to interpretation, questioning, and debate from all sectors of Muslim society.  Muslims do not need the guidance of the Ulama to engage the sacred Revelation, Abdu argued, they must be free to experience the Quran on their own. 

            While Abdu did not believe that Islam need separate its religious ideals from the secular realm, e categorically rejected the possibility of placing secular powers in the hands of religious clerics, whom he deemed totally unqualified to lead the Muslim community into the new century. 



p. 239


            Not to be confused with Pan-Islamism, the supernationalist theory of Muslim unity under a single Caliph, Islamism called for the creation of an Islamic state in which the sociopolitical order would be defined solely according to Muslim values.  The Islamists argued that Islam is a comprehensive ideology that governs all aspects of the believer’s life.  As Qutb wrote, the fundamental concern of Islam is “to unify the realm of earth and the realm of heaven in one system.”  The primary condition for the realization of that system would be the adoption and implementation of the Shariah in the public sphere.  Western secular values must be rejected in the Muslim world because Islam forbids its theological beliefs to be “divorced in nature or in objective from secular life and customs.”  All secular governments, therefore, including those run by Arabs like Nasser, must be replaced by force if necessary, with a viable and morally accountable Islamic state. 

…radicalized members of the Muslim Brothers who had managed to escape Nasser’s wrath found refuge in the only place that would open its arms to them:  Saudi Arabia, a country on the verge of an economic explosion that would transform its rough band of tribal leaders into the wealthiest men in the world—an astounding achievement for a kingdom founded a little more than a decade earlier as the result of an informal alliance between an insignificant tribal Shaykh and a barely literate religious zealot. 



p. 242-3


…Abd al-Wahhab called for a return to the unadulterated Muslim community established by Muhammad in Medina.  Yet Abd al-Wahhab’s was an archaic and exclusivist vision of the original community, and any Muslims who did not share it—especially the Sufies and Shiʻah—were put to the sword. 

            As Hamod Algar has pointed out, hat it not been for the extraordinary circumstances under which Wahhabism emerged, it would undoubtedly have “passed into history as a marginal and short-lived sectarian movement.”  Not only was this a spiritually and intellectually insignificant movement in a religion founded principally upon spiritualism and intellectualism, it was not even considered true orthodoxy by the majority of Sunni Muslims.  Yet Wahhabism had two distinct advantages that would guarantee its place as the most important sectarian movement in Islam since the Penitents first gathered at Karbala a thousand years earlier.  First, it had the good fortune to emerge in the sacred lands of the Arabian Peninsula, where it could lay claim to a powerful legacy of religious revivalism.  Second, it benefited from willing and eager patron who saw in its simple ideals the means of gaining unprecedented control over the region.  That patron was Muhammad ibn Saud. 



p. 243-4


The facts of the alliance between Ibn Saud and Abd al-Wahhab have given way to legend.  The two men first met as Abd al-Wahhab and his disciples were tearing through the Arabian Peninsula, demolishing tombs, cutting down sacred trees, and massacring any Muslim who did not accept their uncompromisingly puritanical vision of Islam.  After being expelled from an oasis where they had received shelter (the horrified villagers demanded that Abd al-Wahhab leave after he publicly stoned a woman to death), they made their way toward the oasis of Daruyah and its Shaykh, Muhammad ibn Saud, who was more than happy to give Abd al-Wahhab and his holy warriors his unconditional protection. 

            “This oasis is yours,” Ibn Saud promised; “do not fear your enemies.”

            Abd al-Wahhab replied with an unusual demand.  “I want you to grant me an oath,” he said, “that you will perform jihad against the unbelievers [non-Wahhabi Muslims].  In return you will be leader of the Muslim community, and I will be leader in religious matters.”

            Ibn Saud agreed, and an alliance was formed that would not only alter the course of Islamic history, it would change the geopolitical balance of the world.    They [Wahhab’s warriors] sacked the treasury of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and set fire to evry book they could find, save the Quran.  They banned music and flowers from the sacred cities and outlawed the smoking of tobacco and the dringking of coffee.  Under penalty of death, they forced the men to grow beards and the women to be veiled and secluded. 



p. 245-6


..Saudi Arabia was both an utterly totalitarian and an uncompromisingly Wahhabist state.  Here there was no debate between Modernists and Islamists; there was no debate whatsoever.  Nationalism, Pan-Arabism, Pan-Islamism, Islamic socialism—none of these vibrant and influential movements in the Muslim world had a significant voice in the Saudi kingdom.  The only doctrine that was tolerated was Wahhabi doctrine; the only ideology, Islamic fundamentalism.  Any deviation was violently suppressed. 


…The Saudis offered all the money, support, and security the Brothers needed to fight back against secular nationalism in their home countries.  But the Muslim Brothers discovered more that shelter in Saudi Arabia.  They discovered Wahhabism; and they were not alone.  Hundreds of thousands of poor workers from all over the Muslim world began pouring into Saudi Arabia to work the oil fileds.  By the time they returned to their homes, they were fully indoctrinated in Saudi religiosity. 

…In 1962, their missionary efforts gained momentum with the creation of the Muslim World League, whose primary goal was the spread of Wahhabi ideology to the rest of the Muslim world.  This was, in effect, the new Islamic expansion…

            Since the creation of the Muslim World League, the simplicity, certainty, and unconditional morality of Wahhabism have infiltrated every corner of the Muslim world.  Thanks to Saudi evangelism, Wahhabi doctrine has dramatically affected the religio-political ideologies of the Muslim Brothers, Mawdudi’s Islamic association, the Palestinian Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, to name only a few groups.  The Saudis have become the patrons of a new kind of Pan-Islamism:  one based on the austere, uncompromising, and extremist ideology of Islamic fundamentalism, which has become a powerful voice in deciding the future of the Islamic state. 



p. 248


Despite the tragedy of September 11 and the subsequent terrorist acts against Western targets throughout the world, despite the clash-of-civilizations mentality that seized the globe and the clash-of-monotheisms reality underlying it, despite the blatant religious rhetoric resonating throughout the halls of governments, there is one thing that cannot be overemphasized.  What is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West.  The West is merely a bystander—an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter of its story.



p. 255


In many ways, the partition of India was the inevitable result of three centuries of Britain’s divide-and-rule policy.  As the evens of the Indian Revolt demonstrated, the British believed that the best way to curb nationalist sentiment was to classify the indigenous population not as Indians, but as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, etc.  The categorization and separation of native people was a common tactic for maintaining colonial control over territories whose national boundaries had been arbitrarily drawn with little consideration for the ethnic, cultural, or religious makeup of the local institutions.  The French went to great length to cultivated class division in Algeria, the Belgians promoted tribal factionalism in Rwanda, and the British fostered sectarian schisms in Iraq, all in a futile attempt to minimize nationalist tendencies and stymie united calls for independence.  No wonder, then, that when the colonialists were finally expelled from these manufactured states, they left behind not only economic and political turmoil, but deeply divided populations with little common ground on which to construct a national identity. 



p. 257


            The experience of Pakistan serves as a reminder that the Islamic state is by no means a monolithic concept.  Indeed, there are many countries in the modern world that could be termed Islamic states, none of which have much in common with each other.  Egypt is an autocracy posing as a republic, with a president for life and an impotent parliament.  Syria is an Arab dictatorship whose ruler serves at the pleasure of its all-powerful military.  Jordan and Morocco are volatile kingdoms whose young monarchs have made timid steps toward democratization, though without forfeiting their absolute rule.  Iran is a fascist country run by a corrupt clerical oligarchy committed to snuffing out any attempt at democratic reform.  Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist theocracy that claims its only constitution is the Quran and its only law the Shariah.  And yet not only do all of these countries view themselves as the realization of the Medinan ideal, they view each other as contemptible desecrations of that ideal. 



p. 262-3


Islam has had a long commitment to religious pluralism.  Muhammad’s recognition of Jews and Christians as protected peoples (dhimmi), his belief in a common divine text from which all revealed scriptures are derived (the Umm al-Kitab), and his dream of establishing a single, united Ummah encompassing all three faiths of Abraham were startlingly revolutionary ideas in an era in which religion literally created borders between peoples.  And despite the ways in which it has been interpreted by militants and fundamentalists who refuse to recognize its historical and cultural context, there are a few scriptures in the great religions of the world that can match the reverence with which the Quran speaks of other religious traditions. 

            It is true that the Quran does not hold the same respect for polytheistic religions as it does for monotheistic ones.  However, this is primarily a consequence of the fact that the Revelation was revealed during a protracted and bloody war with the “polytheistic” Quraysh.  The truth that is the Quran designation of “protected peoples” was highly flexible and was routinely tailored to match public policy.  When Islam expanded into Iran and India, both dualist Zoroastrians and certain polytheistic Hindu sects were designated as dhimmi.  And while the Quran does not allow nay religion to violate core Muslim values, there is no country in the world that does not restrict the freedom of religion according to public morality.  Pluralism implies religions tolerance, not unchecked religious freedom.