In the months following 9/11, I was struck by stories in the press that more and more Americans were going to bookstores to buy copies of the Koran, hoping to find a clue as to the motivation of the suicide bombers. When the fall semester at Columbia ended and I went home to Kampala, Uganda, the invasion of Afghanistan had begun, the Iraq War was in the air and anxiety about the “war on terror” was growing by the day. But there was no queue at the local bookstore in Kampala of people looking for a copy of the Bible to understand the rapidly deteriorating international situation–even though there was no shortage of Bible-talk among promoters, executors and supporters of the “war on terror.”
Islam watchers at universities and think tanks in the West have pored over the Koran, marker in hand, looking for suras and ayas that either hinder or promote coexistence between Muslims and others. Few Islam watchers have considered how passages from the Koran translate into concrete acts. That is what makes the three books under review here so refreshing. They draw the obvious but all too rarely made distinction between Islam as faith and Islam as ideology.
Reza Aslan’s brilliantly readable introduction to the historical faith, No god but God, provides a suitable bridge between the two. A central question informs Aslan’s endeavor: Does the legacy of the Prophet of Medina lie in his revolutionary message or in the autocratic powers that the Constitution of Medina granted him? Aslan’s book tells the story of how Muhammad’s revolutionary message was gradually reinterpreted, and subverted, by his successors into an orthodoxy and how a narrow coterie of religious scholars were able to establish themselves as its custodians, in the process transforming the Koran from the source of a moral message to the repository of a comprehensive legislation, the Sharia.
Often depicted by its critics as inhospitable to women’s rights and inherently bellicose, Islam introduced notable reforms with respect to gender and war. For the first time in Arabia, notes Aslan, women were “given the right both to inherit the property of their husbands and to keep their dowries as their own personal property…. If the husband died, his wife would inherit a portion of his property; if he divorced her, the entire dowry was hers to take back to her family.” Aslan distinguishes between two different discussions of gender in Islam: religious and social. Whereas men and women stand as absolute equals before God, the social message of the Koran calls for equalizing–rather than leveling–the position of men and women in society. Muhammad also pioneered a notion of war that was revolutionary in distinguishing combatant from civilian and emancipatory in insisting that war–as the Koran says–cannot be holy, only just or unjust. Meant to differentiate pre-Islamic from Islamic notions of war, jihad prohibited all but strictly defensive wars.
After Muhammad’s death, however, the position of women deteriorated, the scope of the umma (the community of believers) was narrowed and the understanding of “the lesser jihad” was distorted. The codification of the faith represented the practice of Islam in power rather than Islam in rebellion. As Aslan points out, the sexual subordination associated with Islam in its most rigid application–separation of the sexes, obligatory veiling–was an innovation of Muhammad’s successors. The second caliph, Umar, a pious but misogynistic man who had earlier been refused the hand of Aisha’s sister, introduced segregated prayers, forbade Muhammad’s widows from performing the hajj and instituted several penal ordinances against women.