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.
If the reversal of many of Muhammad’s social reforms empowering women was a result of internal developments in the caliphate, the transformation of jihad into a war in defense of the faith–based on the idea that the world was an unstable relation between two antagonistic domains, dar al-Islam (the domain of peace) and dar al-Harb (the domain of war)–came largely in response to an external threat, the Crusades.
Following the defeat of the Byzantine army in 634 and the Sasanian Empire soon after, the third caliph, Uthman, came to power and took on the self-styled title Khalifat Allah (Successor to God). Uthman’s key accomplishment was to collect and canonize the Koran from numerous records, oral and written, of bits of revelation. Seeking to establish an orthodoxy, he rounded up and brought to Medina variant collections of the Koran and set fire to them.
Aslan’s point is simple yet subversive: Muhammad’s biographers lived and wrote in the context of a powerful empire, and their accounts reflected the political and religious ideologies of ninth-century Damascus, or eleventh-century Baghdad, rather than seventh-century Medina. This was truer still of the hadith (the oral anecdotes recalling words and deeds of the Prophet), which are second only to the Koran as a source of orthodoxy. As Aslan notes, the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher has demonstrated that many of the hundreds of thousands of hadith then in circulation were in fact “verses from the Torah and the Gospels, bits of Rabbinic sayings, ancient Persian maxims, passages of Greek philosophy, Indian proverbs, and even an almost word-for-word reproduction of the Lord’s Prayer.” By the ninth century, when Islamic law was being formulated, Muslim legal scholars divided the hadith into two categories: “lies told for material gain and lies told for ideological advantage.” The Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi has written of power struggles behind each hadith and behind each translation.
The Constitution of Medina assigned to Muhammad authority over religious and political matters, while allowing non-Muslims freedom in religious affairs. However, after Muhammad’s death a consensus emerged among both Sunnis and the supporters of Ali, that religious guidance was distinct from political authority. This history is especially important to recall, since much contemporary commentary innocently echoes extreme Islamist claims that there is no distinction in Islam between religion and politics. The secularizing tendency was set in motion by Abu Bakr, the first caliph, who is said to have proclaimed on assuming the caliphate: “Behold me, charged with the cares of the government. I am not the best among you. I need all your advice and help. If I do well, support me; if I make a mistake, counsel me…. As long as I obey God and the Prophet, obey me; if I neglect the laws of God and the Prophet, I have no right to your obedience.” Umar, the second caliph, continued to uphold Abu Bakr in this regard. In Shiite Islam, too, the secularizing position was upheld by Ali.
Indeed, the caliph was so rarely in a position of religious authority, able to define how one is to worship God or who is and is not a Muslim, that historical Islam developed with a strong secularizing impulse. Nor did a parallel and separate statelike authority develop in the religious realm, as it did in Western Christianity, with Roman Catholicism organized as the prototype of the Roman Empire and Protestant churches in the fashion of nation-states. The relationship between church and state, a key question for the secularizing movement in Western Europe, was not an issue in Islam, as it was in most other religions.
Even as it turned into a kingship, the caliph evolved as a secular position. It was only in the first half of the ninth century that the caliphate turned into a theocracy (and more recently in postrevolutionary Iran, with the installation of the clergy as guardians of the Constitution). What Aslan calls the Inquisition began with a single question–Is the Koran created or is it co-eternal with God?–and divided the Rationalists (or Mu’tazilite), who took the former position, from the Traditionalists, who upheld the latter. When the Islamic Inquisition ended at the close of the late ninth century–with the understanding that the caliph would never again embroil himself so explicitly in religious affairs–the Rationalists were discredited because of their close association with it.
Aslan argues that as the Traditionalist position elevated the ulama (religious scholars) to a position of unquestioned textual authority, the ulama in turn elevated the Koran from the source of moral guidance to that of sacred law, the Sharia. And yet the Sharia was designed to regulate an individual’s external actions; it had little to do with regulating inner spirituality. As it became clear that the Koran would not suffice as the source of law for an empire, the development of Sharia drew on other sources: the sunna (based on the hadith), the qiya (analogical arguments), ijma (legal precedent) and, finally, fatwa. Most misunderstood today (in part because of the Rushdie affair), a fatwa is not a binding legal ruling but the opinion of a qualified legal scholar, arrived at through ijtihad (independent legal reasoning) that the community is free to accept or reject. A vital source of law until the eleventh century, fatwa was outlawed as a legitimate tool of exegesis by the Traditionalist ulama. The ulama developed four schools of law among the Sunnis and one among the Shiites; until the modern period it was common for believers to switch their allegiance from one school to another at their pleasure, turning legal pluralism into a source of personal freedom. But with colonial modernity came total allegiance to one particular school of thought. This is why the Islamist demand for Sharia as the foundation of a truly Islamist state must face a conundrum: which particular interpretation of Sharia: the Sunni or the Shiite? If Sunni, then the Shafii, the Maliki, the Hanafi or the Hanbali? The problems created by the political pursuit of an Islamic state begin to recall the disputations among revolutionary Marxists over the nature of the proletarian state.
Aslan’s principal ambition is to revive a tradition in Islam that joins pluralism with a strong secularizing tendency. The foundation of Islamic pluralism can be summed up in one indisputable Koranic verse: “There can be no compulsion in religion.” The problematic side of Aslan’s otherwise marvelous book surfaces when he attempts to deduce a politics for the present from his historical analysis. Lapsing into an unfortunate evolutionism, he assumes that Muslim-majority countries must follow the trajectory of European history, including religious wars: “What is taking place now in the Muslim world is an internal conflict between Muslims, not an external battle between Islam and the West.”
Yet colonialism added a new, inescapable dimension to this internal struggle inside Islamic civilization and societies. With modern colonialism, the West–particularly Western civilization–ceased to be an external factor. The colonial state was a form of modern power; its establishment set in motion a dialectic between (Western) state and (non-Western) society. Since at least the fifteenth century, the West has no longer been external to the non-West. Through conquest and occupation and protracted top-down projects to change society, the West (as a civilization) has become an integral part of the societies it has conquered. Despite–or because of–its violence, the colonial encounter breached the levees between civilizations. One product of the breached levees is the colonial and postcolonial intelligentsia, which is neither Western nor non-Western. This single fact sheds light on why Aslan’s civilizational history is not enough to fulfill his political ambitions.
Contemporary political Islam needs to be understood as a product of the encounter between the West and Muslim-majority societies. Intellectual responses to colonialism ranged from those who admired the West and saw Westernization as necessary for modernization (Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan and his Kashmiri protégé, Chiragh Ali) to those who followed Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), the founder of Islamic modernism, who claimed that the intellectual foundations on which the West was built–social egalitarianism, popular sovereignty and the pursuit and preservation of knowledge–were borrowed from Islam. Their differences notwithstanding, both sides agreed that the ulama had so stifled independent thought and scientific progress that it had led to the decline of Islamic civilization. Aslan traces the genealogy of contemporary political Islam from Afghani to his student Muhammad Abdu, who advocated a return to the unadulterated values of the salafs (the pious forefathers) and “who would become Egypt’s most influential voice of Muslim reform.” Abdu called for a reopening of the “gates of ijtihad” and, like Sir Sayyid, “demanded that every man-made source of law–the sunna, ijma, qiyas and the like–be subject to rational discourse. Even the holy Quran must be reopened to interpretation, questioning and debate from all sectors of Muslim society.” Abdu categorically rejected the possibility of placing secular powers in the hands of the religious clerics. Together, Afghani and Abdu founded the Salafiyyah movement, Egypt’s version of the modernist project.
Aslan weaves a magnificent tapestry of major thinkers in the history of Islamist thought, including Hasan al-Banna, a Sufi who turned away from nationalism, which he saw as the principal cause of World War I, and established the Muslim Brothers–not as a political party but as the world’s first Islamic social movement calling for a just and egalitarian society. Whereas Banna was convinced that the state could be reformed only by reforming the self, the next generation of Islamists was led by the Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb, an advocate of revolution against secular regimes in the Muslim world, who was tortured in jail after conspiring to overthrow Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and hanged for treason in 1966. Yet Aslan’s “internalist” history fails to address at least three important concerns. The first is the embrace of violence that marks a rupture in political Islam between Banna’s belief that Islamicization proceeded through social reform and Qutb’s belief that it required the seizure of state power. The second is the spectacular rise of Islamism following the Iranian Revolution. And the third is the deep implication of the West in the unfolding story.
The ascendancy of political Islam has to be appreciated in both ideological and political terms. Ideologically, radical political Islam claims a contradictory inheritance. On the one hand, it shares with modern secular ideologies (nationalism, Marxism) an embrace of political violence as a liberating force. On the other, it is part of the resurgence of different forms of nativism (linked to racial, ethnic and religious identities) in large parts of the postcolonial world. The appeal of nativism lies in its critique of secular nationalist historiography, which has tended to highlight only the recent impact of Western imperialism as important to understanding the present. But nativism does not simply exalt precolonial history; it also promises a return to it, as if the deep impact of colonialism could simply be wished away.
Within the Muslim world, the allure of such nativism has grown since the defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war of Nasser, who embodied the hopes of secular nationalism in the region. By the time of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Islamic struggle against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, political Islam had eclipsed secular nationalism in the struggle against Western imperialism. Ironically, the West was deeply implicated in the political resurgence of radical Islam in the 1980s as part of a crusade against the Soviet Union, which had thrown its weight behind secular nationalists in the region. Determined to undermine its cold war adversary, the United States, in alliance with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, provided the Afghan jihadists with ideological and political tutelage, and abundant financial and technical resources, including a network of militarized madrassas that trained tens of thousands of soldiers, some of whom would later turn their guns against their sponsors. This born-again version of Islam subverted key tenets of the faith by redefining jihad as an individual military commitment with no regard for the distinction between combatants and noncombatants.
The Koran, in other words, is not the place to look if you want to understand the roots of political Islam, whether it is the kind that inspired the 9/11 hijackers, the Islamic nationalism of Hamas or the Shiite radicalism of Lebanese Hezbollah. Still less can this phenomenon be explained by “culture talk” about the pathologies of the Muslim world or that figment of the Western imagination, the “Arab mind.” As Terry McDermott, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, concludes in Perfect Soldiers, his book on the 9/11 assailants, Mohamed Atta and his co-conspirators were “fairly ordinary” people from intact middle-class homes who were neither deeply disturbed nor estranged nor duped by handlers. Politics had more to do with their anger at the United States than piety. If the point of McDermott’s book is that the remaking of ordinary individuals into political militants was not some form of brainwashing–that it was also political–one needs to turn to Yaroslav Trofimov’s Faith at War for an insight into this political process.
Trofimov, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, traveled through Muslim-majority countries in order to better understand why “sometimes those who know us best hate us most.” The first part of his journey yields little for the simple reason that he sees little: Even as he travels through a multidimensional land, with a geography rich in history and swept by rapidly globalizing ideas, Trofimov encounters its inhabitants as if they were one-dimensional beings (Muslims) living inside a civilizational container (Islam). It is when he lets go of this assumption–in Tunisia, Iraq and Lebanon–that his journey begins to yield fruit.
In Tunisia Trofimov follows the track of a militantly secular regime that has banned all public expression of religiosity and set up an entire state apparatus for controlling Islam; at the same time, he sees how this same secular regime allows the Jewish minority in Djerba to run its own strictly religious gender-segregated education system. As he discovers how secularism can function as a prop for a dictatorship, making the veil, in the words of someone he meets, “a symbol of resistance for all,” Trofimov draws his first political lesson: Like the Iran of the Shah, this secular dictatorship has engendered an opposition alliance between secular dissidents and Islamists.
Trofimov’s education continues in Iraq. Wading through the popular bitterness of a country abandoned to looters on the morrow of “liberation,” he witnesses the turnaround in Falluja. Following the killing of civilians by troops of the 82nd Airborne Division, the city, which had surrendered to American soldiers without firing a shot, first becomes a “byword for the bloody anti-American insurgency.” It is then “bombed into rubble by American forces” and finally becomes “the first part of Iraq fully controlled by insurgents, an area where neither American troops nor Western civilians dared to tread for several months.”
Worrying that he may have gone native like an anthropologist, Trofimov decides “to see Iraq as the soldiers did” and learns firsthand a basic lesson in rampant racism: He witnesses how skinny Iraqi troops without any body armor are sent ahead of Americans who, dressed in Kevlar helmets and bulletproof vests, not only hang back but taunt the Iraqis as “hajjis,” turning an Arabic term of respect for one who has performed the pilgrimage to Mecca into a term of abuse akin to “gook” and “jap” of previous years, except that this time the abuse is hurled at an ally, not an enemy. The spread of anti-American rhetoric on both sides of the Euphrates–a prelude to the insurgency spreading all over Iraq–does not surprise him.
Trofimov turns to the Islamist resistance, both nonviolent and violent, and to the American attempt to win the middle ground through a step-by-step embrace of different brands of political Islam, culminating in the acceptance of Ayatollah Sistani’s demand for a direct election based on universal suffrage. Sistani represents an Iraqi Shiite nationalism wary of sectarian identification. In contrast to Iran, where Shiite Islam claims a national status, in Iraq the Shiite majority not only confronts the challenge of coexistence with Sunnis, Christians and secularists; it is also characterized by a minority psychology of a group long locked out of power. Sistani both reflects this psychology and is keenly aware of the challenge of coexistence.
Sistani’s rival, and the American nightmare, is Muqtada al-Sadr, whose ambition is to represent all Iraqis, not just the Shiites. Trofimov argues that the Mahdi Army, Sadr’s well-armed militia, is proof that the resistance in Iraq is not just Sunni. Sadr has been keen to learn from the example of Hezbollah, an organization that arose in response to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and which, like the Afghan mujahedeen, would ultimately reverse a bloody foreign occupation. Trofimov meets with Hezbollah and finds it “the most efficient organization I have come across in the Middle East,” adding, “in my dealings with the U.S. military, I never saw such precision.” But Hezbollah is more than a guerrilla movement. It is also a shadow government that has run a variety of services, from water provision to garbage collection to a TV network, Al Manar. More important, Hezbollah has evolved from an insurgency into a powerful political party, establishing an attractive model for other insurrectionary groups in the region. As Trofimov notes, when Sadr launched the first of his two uprisings against American forces in Iraq in April 2004, “he declared his militia to be an Iraqi extension of the Lebanese group.”
If the weakness of Trofimov’s analysis is that it lacks a sense of the tensions within the resistance, his analysis of Hezbollah contains an important lesson: Having achieved its goal of ending the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, and faced with a political process that called for alliance-building, Hezbollah learned to subordinate political violence to the political arts of persuasion and organization. To grasp this lesson is to see the real political challenge of the Iraq occupation: Will the American-led alliance have the political wisdom and courage to realize that its only chance to tame the resistance is to make one last concession, total withdrawal?