Islam was, until the 12th century, a civilization poised to inherit the world. The decline became perceptible in the 15th century. The causes of its dramatic regression towards contemporary powerlessness and barbarity are traced to the authoritarian interpretation of an authoritative text that bears seeds of decay.
15.4.1 The Shariat
Arabia was a province of Sassanid Persia when Muhammad (circa 570-632) called the Arabs to restore the faith of Abraham by following a revealed book, the Koran, the word of God in its entirety. Mohammed tainted the proposed creed with nomadic values of civilization, and war was waged according to nomadic principles: Islamic warriors were forbidden to kill women, children and monks in convents, and to cut down trees. Islamic warriors, including Mohammed who gave the example, were permitted to torture prisoners for information and kill prisoners likely to divulge secrets to the enemy.
The Koran is comprehensive in its teaching and so was the conduct of the holy Prophet. Some of the prophet’s acts were identified with those of Allah, including war. The Prophet lived so long that he was put through every conceivable human situation to demonstrate the practicability of Islam. He showed how one should behave as an orphan, full-blooded husband, father, head of family, community and state, member of society, business partner, soldier and commander. He set an example how to put up with persecution for faith and be magnanimous when in position to punish those who made one suffer. The personal conduct of the holy Prophet (Sunnah) is an integral part of faith. Obedience to him is next to God (Allah) 1. In short, the Koran and the Sunnah, which together constitute the Shariat, provide enough guidance for everyone in any station of life, for all times to come.
Tremendous award is promised to those who obey Allah and His messenger and there is a warning of dispossession of wealth for those who disregard the teaching of the Koran and Sunnah 2. Wealth is acquired by obedience and fidelity, not by industry and thrift. Islam, opposing Christianity not only by its simplicity (no trinity, no incarnation of God, no resurrection) but also by unashamedly catering to human basic pulsations, rapidly expanded and made millions of converts with a contemporary number of 1.16 billion believers 3. Islam was initially tolerant of the monotheistic Jewish religion and provided Jews with opportunities that they rarely experienced under other civilizations. Primitive Islam also allied with heretic oriental Christian sects that endeavored to conquer Jerusalem over the Byzantines, hence the tolerance of the Koran for Christians. Once Jerusalem was conquered, the alliance was denounced and the oriental Christians reduced to dhimmitude. These Christians were not Orthodox and the interpretations of the Koran emphasizing tolerance of Islam for Christians, is misleading.
15.4.2 The Fiqh-Siyasa system of government
Islam does not endorse the existence of a priestly class (ulema) to guard the message of God. The institution of the ulema is a human contrivance. The ulema was initially the pendant of the casuist of the Roman Church, i.e. the ultimate authority on the Shariat 4, from which he derived law applicable to concrete situations and issues. The ulemas were not an official part of the state but a necessary appendage that legitimized the authority and actions of the rulers in the name of Islam. Thus, while the interpretation of Islam (Fiqh) remained beyond the competence of the state, that had its own policy problems (Siyasa), it was undertaken by the ulema, who in turn bolstered the authority of the rulers by producing convenient interpretations in line with state policies. Thus was created a separation between executive and religious authority and the monopoly of the ulema over the interpretation of the Shariat was formalized into a priestly class. The absence of a mechanism to produce authentic interpretation of the texts explains the plethora of fatwas, i.e. opinions, rendered by self-styled ulemas.
Islamic interpretative tradition failed to distinguish between the authoritativeness of the text and the threat of authoritarian construction of the text. It made the interpretative process authoritarian and intellectually stifled creative thought, intolerant of divergent viewpoints, even in the intellectual sphere, and encouraged the individual Muslim to abdicate his responsibility in favor of the ulema to understand the eternal truth. The Koran repeatedly asserts the principle of individual responsibility. However, the successful annexation of the authority to understand Islamic injunctions by the ulema led to a dilution of the principle of individual responsibility, with ulemas handing down short authoritative verdicts (fatwas) on questions posed to them. Muslims are drilled into taking the word of the ulema on his duties to God, as gospel truth. Questioning the textual interpretation of the ulema came to be seen as questioning the immutable word of God.
15.4.3 The contemporary fundamentalist revival
History fully records how Muslims succeeded in every sphere of life when they acted upon Mohammad’s advice and how they failed when they disregarded it. The ulemas rely on history and past victories of Islam to defend the position that the only way out of its present woes, despite the numerical strength and tremendous material resources at its command, is to go back sincerely to the Koran and Sunnah in their true spirit and in their pristine form. The surrender of intellectual independence and inquiry by individuals explains, at least in part, the cognitive decay in Islamic societies that results in blind deference and strict application of the Shariat interpreted by politicized ulemas. Enforced in contemporary Islamic republics as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Libya, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and Afghanistan, the fatwas generate violent aftermaths and abhorrent situations.
15.4.4 The contemporary liberal school
Contemporary Islamic thought is mired in a conflict between strict textual constructionists, who insist on a literal interpretation of Shariat, and a liberal school, which argues that the texts do not speak unequivocally but need to be supplemented by an understanding of new realities not addressed by the texts in the immediate term.
The liberal school pushing for change is outside mainstream Islamic thought and has little influence on Islam as a popular religion because it is viewed as working outside the religious elite -ulema- that is endowed with a monopoly over religious understanding and interpretation. Given that modernization is seen as Westernization, the liberal school is discredited as stooges of the West, by appealing to the xenophobia of Muslims indignant for being on the periphery of the global power structure.
A rigid and hierarchical structure of religious authority has nurtured obscurantism and intolerance in the past and is unlikely to perform better in the future. The ulemas have neither the intellectual background nor the inclination to re-contextualize the sources of Islamic law to contemporary social conditions. Any attempt to deal with Islamic intellectual decadence and the ability of the obscurantists to exploit religious dogma to incite violence must shun reverence for past history and to the traditional Fiqh-siyasa system. With no concept of separation between religion and politics under Islamic philosophy, any arrangement respecting the traditional system runs the risk of remaining informal.
The opposition to the liberal movement is very fierce and has been manifested again during the pastoral visit of Benedict XVI in Jordania, on May 8, 2009. The liberal Jordan’s government is under attack because Pope Benedict XVI allegedly demonstrated Islamophoby during an academic lecture he delivered at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006. The pope reported a disputatio, i.e. a confronting of viewpoints as was regularly held in those days among learned men, held between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II and a Moslem scholar in 1391. The controversial passage (my own free translation) of the papal lecture is:
“During the 7th controversy, the emperor takes on the issue of the jihad. Assuredly, the emperor knew that the Sourate 2, 256 says “No coercion in matters of faith”.
“This is a sourate of the initial period, when Mohamed himself was still powerless and threatened. Naturally, the emperor also knew the dispositions developed in later times and fixed in the Koran, around the holy war. Without going in details as the difference in treatment between those who possess the “Book” and the “unbelievers”, the emperor, with astonishing rudeness, asks simply to his interlocutor the central question on the relation between religion and violence in general, saying: ”show me now what Mohamed brought that is knew and you will find only inhumane and bad things, as is his mandate to diffuse by the sword the faith he preaches”.
“The emperor explains thereupon the reasons why the propagation of faith through violence is an unreasonable thing. Violence is in opposition with the nature of God and the nature of the soul: “God does not appreciate blood; not to act according to reason (logos) is contrary to the nature of God. Faith is the fruit of the soul, not of the body. Consequently, he who wants to lead somebody to faith must possess the capacity to speak well and reason correctly, and not of violence and threat.… …To convince a reasonable soul, there is no need to possess neither an arm nor instruments to strike nor any other means that be with which one may threaten the death of a human being….”
“The decisive affirmation in this argumentation against conversion by violent means is: not to act according to reason is contrary to the nature of God. The (contemporary) editor of this disputatio, Th. Khoury, comments: for the emperor, a Byzantine who grew up in Greek philosophy, this affirmation is evidence. For the Moslem doctrine, on the contrary, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is linked to none of our categories, be it that of the reasonable. In this context, Khoury mentions the work of a renowned French islamolog, T. Arnaldez, who explains that Ibn Hazn goes so far as to state that God would not be even bound by his own word and that nothing would force Him to reveal the Truth to us.”
This lecture, in which the pope underlines his disagreement with the emperor by mentioning his rudeness, was rich in engrossing considerations about the importance of reason in the Christian world of the XIVth century and its refusal of coercion in matters of faith. Who would see in this superb lecture emphasising the proposition that “Act against reason is act against the essence of God” an offence against whoever it may be? The pope in truth called for a renewed dialogue between the two religions. The following days, a grenade was thrown at the oldest church of Gaza, a nun was killed in Somalia and heinous anti-Christian manifestations propped up throughout the Islamic word. The German Chancellor Angela Merckel took the defense of the pope, the French president Jacques Chirac excused the murderers and bigots.
Islam is violence, Islam is conservatism, and Islam is irrationality. Are these assertions false negative stereotypes? There have been, in the past, moments of mutual tolerance between religions and attempts by Moslem philosophers to erase the evil aspects of their own creed. There is no reason to assume that these moments are forever gone.
Is there no hope? This monumental relief, (figure 15.15) made by Jef Lambeaux in 1890 represents human passions. God and crucified Christ, in the upper right corner, maternity down left, Adam and Eva, war and bacchanals, death in the upper middle, are all represented in a debauchery of naked bodies. This relief is in the pavilion Horta in the parc of the Cinquantenaire, in Brussels, and was conceded by king Baudouin to king Fayçal of Saudi Arabia in 1967. It is in the custody of the World Islamic League, presided in Belgium by the ambassador of Saudi Arabia. Is this a sign of coming tolerance? The printed press of Pakistan, the TV station Al Jazeera accessible to illiterates, the internet and portable phones, the diversity of the cultures that compose the Islamic world, and the influence of the corrosive Western civilization, are all reasons to hope for the better.
The Torah (Pentateuch and the Talmud) is the word of God. It professes that there is an elected nomad nation, Israel, whose God, Yahweh, will lead it to the domination of the sedentary population of Canaan, whose despicable morals and repulsive habits must be carefully eschewed, and the people themselves exterminated. This ferocious ethnocentrism backed by a Holy Book has, in the course of the centuries, been severely challenged. Islam means submission. No more than the Orthodox Jew, the Orthodox Muslim is enticed to think by himself. He believes in the word of Allah dispensed to him by the Koran, the Shariat and the fatwas of the Ulemas. Islam transcended the limits of the tribe and extended its benefits to the Umma; the community of the believers who lived and prospered in a State governed by God. These were happy times when all succeeded to the warriors of Allah united in a same language, a same Faith and a military success due, evidently, to the protection lent by Allah to the believers.
Times have changed, the bitter taste of total military and economic defeat could instill doubt in the word of Yahweh and of Allah but many faithful refuse this evidence, as we see every day. The urge to join the Umma is very strong and it spectacularly concretized in India, with the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, where to the Muslims retired after partition in 1947, with eviction of the non-Muslim residents, of course. This transhumance desired by the Muslim leader involved 100 million people of whom 10 million were killed underway, but this was deemed preferable to a multi religious Indian state where Muslims were denied leadership. Over a million Moslems remained however in India after the partition. Among them, the Islamists demand autonomy and indulged in terrorist activities in 2007 and 2008. Idem in the Western part of China, where the moslem Uyghur form a majority of the local population. The Umma is striven at in Cashmere, Chechnya, the Kosovo, Thailand, the Ivory Coast, whereas a strict application of the Shariat is advocated in Arabia, Algeria, the Darfour where the opposition is between Christian and polytheist sedentary Blacks and nomad Muslim Arabs, Somalia, Indonesia and Afghanistan. Muslims have, from the beginning of Islam, been raised in the idea of continuous war against unbelievers, war that will not fail to end with victory and total territorial occupation. No other issue is possible or envisaged. In this context, the contemporary occupation of the heart of Islamic territories conquered during the first jihad, i.e. Palestine and Iraq, is intolerable. The presence of heathen armies in Arabia is inadmissible because it signifies the absolute inferiority of Muslim arms. The pitiless repression of the Christian Armenians in 1915 by Ottoman Muslims in war at that time against Russia, France and Great Britain and the recent Indonesian savagery inflicted to catholic Oriental Timor that had demanded independence, is explained by this syndrome of definitive possession of acquired lands.
France also suffers from such a syndrome: any newly acquired land is systematically and immediately included within the nation that is proclaimed one and indivisible, and a devolution is unthinkable. We will analyze this problem closely in the next chapter.
1. 3:33 O ye who believe! Obey Allah and the Messenger.
8:21 Obey Allah and the Messenger and do not turn away from him while you hear him speak.
47:34 Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and let not your works go vain.
2. 9:24 If your fathers, and your sons, and your brethren, and your wives, and your kinsfolk, and the wealth you have acquired, and the trade whose dullness you fear, and the dwelling which you love are dearer to you than Allah and His Messenger and striving in His cause, then wait till Allah comes with His judgment, and Allah guides not the disobedient people.