Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The House of Islam

If you want a sympathetic, insiders introduction to Islam you could do a lot worse than Ed Husain's The House of Islam: A Global History.

Husain is British-born of Bangladeshi parents, and grew up in East London.  After a youthful flirtation with Hizb ut-Tahrir and radical Islam, he returned to his parents' Sufi teachings and studied Islam in earnest, travelling to Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia to study under various Sufi divines and explore the origins of Islam.  In 2007 he co-founded the Quilliam Foundation, which describes itself as a counter-extremism foundation, and he also consults for the US-based Council of Foreign Relations.  In sum, he is a devout Muslim who is implacably opposed to extremism.

In The House of Islam he provides an inside look into the Islamic faith.  He aims to both enlighten Western readers as to what Islam should be about, and is about for the majority of Muslims, and to challenge the growing influence of Salafism in the Islamic world. 

The book is divided into four parts.  In the first he provides a historical introduction to Islam, including a summary of the most important Islamic beliefs and practices, a brief insight into early Islamic history including the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers, the Sunni-Shia split, the current makeup of the Islamic population, an explanation of Sharia and an introduction to Sufism. 

The middle two sections present his defence of Sufism and critique of Salafism, along with his explanation of why Salafism appears to be gaining ground in the Islamic world, why it is a perversion of Islam and what should be done about it.

In the final section he returns to Islamic spirituality, outlining the things he finds most attractive and engaging about Islam and the reasons Islam has survived and thrived for the past 1,400 years and continues to attract followers to this day.

Part of the key to his argument is his ability to make a clear distinction between the mainstream of Islam and the various manifestations of  extremism.  This thread runs right through the book.  For instance, he opens his account of Sharia Law with a story from one of the hadiths about an exchange between the Prophet and the man he appointed to lead the mission to Yemen.  The upshot is as follows.

When facing tough questions which require guidance, a Muslim refers to the Quran and the Prophet.  If an answer is not found then a Muslim exercises their independent reasoning, or ijtihad.

He goes on to cite stories in which the Prophet refused to provide specific answers to questions about how his followers should order their lives, wither remaining silent or one one occasion responding, 'you know best about the affairs of your world'. 

Muslim scholars would later see this as strong evidence that Islam did not seek to control every aspect of a believers life.  Instead, Islam sought to provide broad principles of good morality...

Over the years, of course, questions arose in Muslim societies and an increasingly complex and diverse body of legal interpretation arose.  These essentially identified five kinds of acts.

...obligatory acts, such as prayers or almsgiving....acts rewarded by God that are not compulsory, such as keeping streets clean....acts it is preferable to avoid, but which are not sinful, such as smoking cigarettes....acts that merited punishment by God in the next life, such as murder or theft.... (and two categories of) permissible acts.

Historically the vast majority of Muslim jurists agreed, as have most Muslims, with the principle that everything is Halal (permissible) except for a few limitations.... But the rise of literalism and extremism among Muslims globally has resulted in an important shift.  Now for Muslim puritans and their followers, everything is prohibited - Haram - unless it is specifically permitted.

So what is this Muslim puritanism which he critiques?  He identifies a number of aspects of this belief system.  First of all he identifies its origins in the 'hundred years of humiliation' of Islamic societies in the 19th century, beginning with the French invasion of Egypt under Napoleon and ending with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1 and its replacement with a mix of arbitrary national boundaries and European protectorates which fragmented the Islamic homelands of the Middle East and North Africa.  This led to the breakdown of established Islamic authority, both political and religious, and developed fertile ground for radical movements. 

Secondly, he identifies a range of versions of Islamism.

Just as Marxism, communism and socialism exist across a spectrum from violent revolutionary...to democratic socialist, so it is with Islamism.... Islamists range from violent nationalists (Hamas in Gaza) to rebellious and repressed opposition (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) to those who have moved away from Islamism and become Muslim conservatives, much like Christian Democrats.

The common factor in all of these is to assert a strong role for Islam in the governance of society, as a provider of laws and authority.  Not all Islamists are violent terrorists, but some are.

His second category is that of Salafis or Wahabbis. 

Put simply, a Salafi is a Muslim who claims to be following the example of the Salaf, the first three generations of Muslims.... After these three generations they consider that Islam grew corrupted through Christian, Roman, Persian, Greek and other influences.  To be pure, therefore, Muslims must adhere only to the practices of the Salaf.

These believers are often referred to as Wahabbis because Abd al-Wahhab was a 18th century Salafi teacher who became dominant in Saudi Arabia and whose teachings are still the official doctrine there.  These believers are often referred to in the West as fundamentalists.  Although the term is a Christian one it is apt, because Christian fundamentalists also recognise only the writings of the New Testament as authoritative, including the life and teachings of Jesus and the writings of those he taught directly, or who were mentored by his apostles - the first three generations.  Hence, ironically, Christian fundamentalists relate strongly to Salafism (which they fear) and find any other form of Islam inexplicable.

Two other elements complete the picture.  The first is the reinterpretation of the call to jihad, a Arabic word meaning 'struggle', from a word describing spiritual striving to a word for holy war.  Hence, Islamic extremists feel themselves called to fight for Islam, whereas historically Islam saw war as a necessary evil and viewed it in similar terms to those of Christian 'just war' theory.  Finally there is the use of takfir, the claiming of a right to declare other Muslims to be unbelievers.  We see this practice and its results across the Middle East, where Sunni extremists declare their rivals to be takfir, not Islamic and hence apostates, and then are entitled to kill them.  This is the justification for persecution of Shi-ites, Sufis and other Islamic believers who the extremists do not regard as pure enough.  Hence the primary victims of Islamic terrorism are not Westerners, or even religious minorities within Islamic countries (although of course both these have been targeted), but other Muslims who do not toe the Salafi line.

Along with these religious steps to extremism, he identifies a number of factors which fuel it.  A key one is a loss of Islamic confidence, which leads Muslims to close down and become controlling.  He points out, for instance, the Muslims historically had a largely peaceful relationship with Jews.  When a number of European nations expelled Jews in the late Middle Ages they found refuge in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, where many became prominent members of society.  Yet now Jews are persecuted across the Islamic world.  Similarly, Christians, who were historically protected by Islamic regimes, are now facing increasing persecution. 

This loss of confidence is also shown in increasing puritanism and particularly in increased strictures on women and sex.  There is no instruction in the Quran, and little in the hadiths, about women's dress codes, and what there is simply reflects normal Arabic dress of the time.  Sex and marriage are dealt with frankly and openly in early Islamic writings and early European travellers were amazed at the sexual freedom of the Islamic societies they encountered. 

Now the boot is on the foot - in the West we have more sexual freedom than ever, while much of Islamic society has moved towards veiling and segregating its women, placing all the burden of sexual misconduct on them.  He cites the horrific tale of the 2002 fire in a girl's school in Mecca in which the escaping students were barred from exiting the building because they were not appropriately veiled (having removed their veils in the women-only environment of the school) and 15 students and teachers died.  Yet this veiling and segregation neither protects women nor prevents male sexual misconduct.  In Yemen, a fully veiled society, 90% of women report having experienced sexual harassment, and such harassment is almost universal for women in Saudi Arabia.  Meanwhile, Salafi men are able to find any number of loopholes to authorise sexual misconduct - such as taking non-Muslim women as sex slaves in war zones, or contracting temporary 'marriages' with prostitutes on sex holidays to the West. 

Husain estimates that Salafis may comprise as few as 5% of the global Muslim population.  Yet they wield disproportionate influence for a few reasons.  One is their stridency and certainty, and their mastery of modern communication.  The second is their control of Saudi Arabia, which has custody of both the holy sites of Mecca and Medina and of the world's richest oilfields, enabling it to spread Wahhabism around the globe.  The third is that in his view more moderate Muslim leaders have been slow to react to the threat - for instance, condemning the actions of extremists but not making attempts to expel them from the faith altogether. 

Ultimately, Husain is wary but hopeful.  He has great faith in Islam and the power of its simple message to which he returns at the end of the book - submission to God, devotion to prayer, the centrality of the family, care for others and the promise of eternity.  In contrast to each of the perversions of Salafism he presents what he sees as good and beautiful in Islamic tradition.  Against stultifying legalism he presents the Sufi vision of deep spirituality and love for God.  Against the puritanical repression of women and sexuality he presents the frank eroticism of Arabic and Persian love poetry.  Against the Salafi destruction of monuments of other cultures and even Sufi shrines he presents the centuries of protection of such heritage in the Middle East.  Against the persecution of Jews and Christians he presents the protection of Christianity in early Islamic regimes and the protection offered to Jewish refugees in the late Middle Ages.

He is hopeful that extremists can be converted to a more moderate and mainstream view, as he was himself and as for instance Tunisia's formerly extremist leader Sheik Rachid al-Ghannouchi was after the Arab Spring.  Things need not always be as they are now.  If not, he believes that with the right approach from mainstream Muslims, supported by Western governments, the extremists can be isolated within Islam and denied legitimacy.

It is tempting for us in the West to see and fear Islam as a monolithic force which is out to destroy us.  Plenty of right-wing Western campaigners would like us to see it that way, because it boosts their own influence in Western societies and sidelines those who argue for inclusion and engagement.  But it ain't necessarily so.  Islam is not perfect and it has its share of violent extremists - perhaps even more than its share.  But it is possible for us to live at peace with wider Islamic society.  And isn't peace what we all at least say we want?

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