The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call For Reform In Her Faith
St. Martin's Press, New York
Over time, this read-the-Koran response generated more questions: Why should I perpetuate the fib of reciting Arabic if it makes no practical sense and strikes no emotional chord? Why must we suspect that every English translation of the Koran "corrupts" the original text? I mean, if the Koran is as straightforward as the purists tell us, then aren't its teachings easily translated into a thousand tongues? Finally, why should stigma stalk those of us who haven't been weaned on Arabic when the fact is that only 13 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs? Translation: Eighty-seven percent of us aren't Arabs. "Know Your Islam," they say blithely. Whose Islam? Is this a faith or a cult?
…I attempted to access the madressa's library. What a production to arrange that trip. The library was a series of racks situated at the top of the stairs on the men's side of the mosque-off-limits to ladies without advance approval. Being eleven years old and of "obligatory age." I couldn't consort with adult males. So I had to persuade a by under the obligatory age-twelve or younger-to run upstairs on my behalf and secure permission for me any time I wanted to browse. Assuming I got the green light, all the men had to clear the area before I could ascend the stairs and pick through the collection of cheap brochures in the racks. Of course, my time was severely restricted since the men were waiting to return to their space.
…After washing my feet, arms, and face, I'd unfurl my velvet rug in the hallway, position it toward Mecca, lay down the piece of Arabian clay that my forehead would touch, and spend the next ten minutes praying. It's a discipline-building exercise, especially since you cleanse yourself two more times a day, and utter four more sets of prayers.
Still, the entire exercise of washing prescribed parts of the body, reciting specified verses, and prostrating at a nonnegotiable angle, all at assigned times of the day, can degenerate into mindless submission-and habitual submissiveness. If you haven't seen this tendency in your parents or grandparents, you're some rare Muslim…
…Muslims worship exactly the same God as do the Jews and the Christians. The Koran affirms this fact. … Prophet Muhammad didn't claim to introduce a new God to the entire world. His personal mission was to bring Arabs into the "rightly guided" family of Abraham, the first prophet to receive the revelation that there's one sovereign God. Growing up, I never heard Abraham's name in a history lesson. A glaring omission, given the Abraham's progeny went on to found the Jewish nation. Being the debut monotheists, the Jews laid the groundwork for the Christians and, later, the Muslims to emerge. So, you see, Muslims didn't invent one God; they renamed Him Allah. That's Arabic for "The God"-the God of Jews and Christians.
Where in the madress curriculum was that acknowledgement? It's as if nothing happened before Islam. Yet, if all pre-Islamic experience counts for naught, then so must a slew of our principles as Muslims. If more of us knew that slam is the product of intermingling histories, as opposed to a wholly original way of life-if we understood that we're spiritual mongrels-would more of us be willing to accept the "other"? I began to wonder why we're so reluctant to acknowledge outside influences, except when blaming the West for assorted colonial injuries. Which, in turn, raised a fundamental question: Is Islam more narrow-minded than the rest of the world's religions?
You know what happened after the show aired? Of all the complaints I got from Toronto-area Muslims, the most common was that these homosexuals "pigs" and "dogs" whom I had featured must have been-brace yourself-Jews. Never mind the heinous video of Iranian stoning practices, or Adnan's willingness to accept a theological thumbs-down about his sexuality, or the religious advisor's call for God-conscious humility on everyone's part. None of it registered with the incensed Muslims who wrote and phoned in. Only one thing scanned-that gay and lesbians couldn't possibly be part of "us." Homosexuals are manifestly moles for "them." This, from the bosom of a twenty-first-century cosmopolis.
I was nauseated. Whatever the culture in which Muslims lived, be it rural or digital, and whatever the generation, whether symbolized by a 1970s mosque for immigrants or by a media-connected city for the new millennium, Islam emerged as desperately tribal. Did we ever need a reformation.
…Muslims were imposing martial law and bludgeoning each other's freedoms before Europeans colonialism took off. My point is, our problems didn't start with the dastardly Crusaders. Our problems started with us. To this day, Muslims use the white man as a weapon of mass distraction-a distraction from the fact that we've never needed the "oppressive" West to oppress our own.
Having discovered how imitation came to be the norm in Islam, I remained perplexed by something. If we're going to imitate, then why not imitate tolerance instead of tyranny? Didn't we have a health precedent to emulate-ugh, imitate-in the way Muslims worked with Jews and Christians during the golden age of Islam? Why, then, have so many of us slid into an apparently bottomless pit of poisonous feeling toward non-Muslims?
…I realized that Muslim tolerance of Jews and Christians has always been fragile. During the golden age, tolerance often resembled low-grade contempt, not acceptance.
…Ye'or coined the word dhimmitude to describe Islam's ideology of wholesale discrimination against Jews and Christians. Why dhimmitude? It comes from al-dhimma, the Arabic term for those groups-our fellow Peoples of the Book-who are entitled to protection in Muslims societies.
…In North Africa, Jews and Christians wore shoulder patches with pictures of pigs and monkeys, respectively. They had to slap these symbols on the doors of their homes, too. In Baghdad, seat of Islamic enlightenment, the dhimmi people dressed in cloths bearing yellow symbols-a marker resuscitated by the Nazis…Islam has come to be an insular, often hateful religion. If you combine a ban on thinking with a long-practiced code of discrimination, what are you bound to get? You get imitation and you get intolerance. Above all, you get imitation of intolerance.
…Listen to the experience of a UCLA professor, Khaled Abou El Fadl. He knows a Muslim convert who was instructed by a mullah to ditch his pet dog. This convert found that no matter where he left the dog, it would straggle back to his doorstep. The man asked his mullah what to do with a dog who refused to be abandoned.
Starve it, the mullah replied.
When El Fadl heard this merciless story, he was catapulted into rebellion. The Kuwaiti-born, Egyptian-trained scholar of Islamic law pored through original texts and early interpretations to find out if the mullah had any leg to stand on. And that's when he discovered how dogs, women, and Jews have been scurrilously linked as lesser beings, not by Prophet Muhammad, who apparently thought highly enough of dogs to pray in their presence, but by later intellects. Like the construct of Sharia law, the vilification of dogs (and Jews and women) has been a choice. God didn't choose it; a bunch of godfathers did.
Here's another barometer of Arab hypocrisy. For years, Kuwait donated less than Israel to the UN agency that cares for Palestinian refugees. Nor did Saudi Arabia outspend Israel until oil revenues gushed forth. And today? Despite obscenely overstuffed money vaults and a whole lot of land to spare, the Saudis won't take in Palestinians as citizens. They will, however, broadcast telethons to raise millions for the financing of suicide bombers. They'll also award the families of successful bombers a trip to Mecca, all expenses paid.
…Said himself asked of Arabs: "Why don't we fight harder for freedom of opinions in our own societies, a freedom, no one needs to be told, that scarcely exists?"
…a victory party in Toronto organized by young, mostly secular, Muslims….they found it strange that more Muslims weren't admitting the wisdom of a preemptive strike against Saddam. Strange, they said, because preemptive action was exactly the strategy used by Prophet Muhammad to oust those whom he suspected of plotting against Islam. "If preemptive war was good for Muslims then," shrugged one of the celebrants, "why not for Americans now?"
"Because standards of behavior have evolved since the seventh century," I said, playing the contrarian.
"Tell that to the Islamic countries that still treat women like dirt."
"And make life hell for religious minorities," I added.
A majority of the world's refugees spill out from Islamic countries. Not surprising, since most of the world's civil wars rage among Muslims. Says Iranian journalist Amir Taheri, "The Arab states have fought no fewer than fifteen open or secret wars against one another since the 1930s…" In the past ten years, Islamists and their socialist foes have butchered a hundred thousand Algerians. In February 1982, the Baathist forces of Syria's Hafez Assad bombarded a town harboring Muslim extremists. His hoodlums obliterated 25,000 people. And from 1975 to 1990, the Lebanese civil war cost at least 150,000 lives, most of them belonging to Palestinians. That's more than ten times as many deaths as Israel has inflicted in fifty years of combat.
…myths with which Islam has been propagated through the centuries. These myths have turned non-Arab Muslims into clients of their Arab masters-patrons who must buy what's being sold to them in the name of Islamic "enlightenment."
To me, the most galling of these myths is jahiliyah, the moral darkness that's said to have existed before Islam's arrival. I recently cracked open a book at a relative's place in Toronto. It referred to the pre-Islamic period as the Age of Ignorance-capital A, capital I. Granted, the seventh-century Arabian peninsula baked in depravity and violence, sparking the need for a unifying faith. I don't disagree there. But the Koran speaks of moral backwardness only in the context of Arab history. The charade is, Arab have assumed that the various non-Arab peoples they've conquered were also morally ignorant. The conquered have effectively been taught that because the Koran attributes darkness to the pre-Islamic period, all wisdom prior to Muhammad carries the weight of blasphemy and applies to every Muslim, outside of Arabia no less than inside.
…Naipaul recounted his travels through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. While acknowledging their struggles with European colonizers, he "was soon to discover that no colonization had been so thorough as the colonization that had come with the Arab faith….It was an article of the Arab faith that everything before [it] was wrong, misguided, heretical; there was no room in the heart or mind of these believers for their pre-Mohammedan past." I've listened to more than a few Muslims write off Naipaul as a racist. That's ironic, because his point helps explain why, at my madressa, I never heard about the Jewish and Christian sources of many Islamic traditions. To recognize these influences would imply that the world didn't suffer from total foolishness before Islam, that Arab Muslims have borrowed from their predecessors, that they're hybrids with a debt to others rather than pure revolutionaries. But to say so is to defy the tribe.
…the clench of tribalism eased up in the early centuries of Islam and ingenuity flourished. How do we account for the golden age of trade, debate, and cultural cross-fertilization? ...
Accumulating military victories meant that Arabs felt they had an appreciable and secure future. Which, in turn, meant that Islam didn't need to be thoroughly rigid or in-your-face. Better, in fact, that Islam be malleable so that the swiftly expanding empire could be massaged and managed. It's true that you couldn't separate religion from politics, but you could separate absolutism from prestige. The realization that absolutism doesn't bring prestige may be what fired up ambitious emirs to engage the best minds of the day-those of Jews and Christians, of course, but also those of non-Arab Muslims. It was non-Arabs who created the vast corpus of Islamic law up to and during the golden age. …The moral might be that Arab Muslims struck a balance between their tribal past and a pluralistic future.
When Arab Muslims lost their empire, they also forfeited the balance between past and future, tribalism and tolerance. They went down in battle after battle against non-Arabs-from the Berbers to the Mongols, from the Crusaders to the Ottoman Turks.
The only undisputed glory that desert Arabs could now claim was the glory of Islam's founding moment. …The crucial equilibrium between past and future steadily degenerated into a defensive preoccupation with the past-and, in particular, into a fixation on the founding moment. I call it fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism has fed several tragedies. The clergy, Islam's arrivistes, became Islam's de facto gatekeepers. With the gates of ijtihad-independent though-closing by the twelfth century, muftis were already gaining the power to patrol the truth. As the truth narrowed, their mandate bloated…All types of innovation became suspect and eventually banned. As guardians of the founding moment, clerics went back to the original "perfect" texts, the Koran and the hadiths, for proof that it's forbidden to seek any additional knowledge. Among the Prophet's sayings that they brought into vogue: "Beware of new things, for every new thing is an innovation and every innovation a mistake."…
The muzzle on innovation should have been limited to Arabia, if it had to be introduced at all. Instead, the anti-innovation rule hit Muslims well beyond the desert. In 1579, for example, Istanbul got an observatory. In 1580, clerics had it demolished.
…reenactment of the founding moment might even appeal to a mass Muslim hunger for redemption. But,.., bin Laden's "reform" isn't reform. His Islam reinforces the vicious circle of repression in which Muslims have found themselves, with few exceptions, since the times of Arab conquest. His is a tribal theology that equates unity with uniformity, vaulting a clutch of interpreters over individual, independent reasoning. Bin Laden offers nothing near an anti-imperial agenda. All he offers is more dictatorship from the desert.
Think about where bin Laden's mission took root: Saudi Arabia. He has turned only on its leaders, not on the country itself. This matters because Saudi Arabia's very existence springs from a pact between clerical and political interests. In the mid 1700s, a tribal chieftain named Muhammad ibn Saud approached a religious "reformer" named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to strike a marriage of convenience. Bless my intend to forge a kingdom from pieces of the Arabia peninsula, he proposed to al-Wahhab, and I'll make you the new kingdom's spiritual guide. More accustomed to being run out of town by elites, al-Wahhab signed on. His "reformed" Islam, influenced by ibn Tammiya, has in turn influenced bin Laden. It's a Spartan faith-scalped of its intellectual pedigree and relentlessly engaged in holy war. The jihadist justification allowed al-Wahhab's political partner, the tribe of ibn Saud, to raid territories and expand the kingdom over two hundred years. In 1932, from the debris of the Ottoman Empire, the formal Saudi state emerged. Its wholly undemocratic pact with Wahhabi mullahs remained firmly in place. So did its commitment to jihad. Through both of these things, Saudi Arabia has mastered the art of colonizing Muslims.
…Judaism, unlike Islam and Christianity, doesn't set out to convert. It harbors no claim to universalism. By its own laws, it can't evangelize. "That's because Jews are 'the chosen ones.'" Muslims are apt to sniff. "Chosen people don't need to prove themselves. Come hell or high water, their salvation is in the bag." I consider this a tragic misapprehension. Jews believe they're chosen, but not simply for raisins in heaven. They're also chosen for burdens on earth, and on behalf of all humanity. Whether Jews prove themselves capable of handling those burdens responsibly will determine if they deserve deliverance. Far from being "in the bag." Salvation rests in being responsible. But what does that mean? I can only convey the mainstream Jewish consensus: Being responsible means resisting tribal arrogance.
…focus on local people, not on industrial behemoths, thereby distinguishing between need and greed. And it would give Muslims a future to live for rather than a pst to die for.