Muslim loyalty and belonging

Some reflections on the psychosocial background

Our silence in the face of evil differs from that of secular people. For traditional theists, the sense of loss which evil conveys, of the fearful presence of a void, comes with a personal face: that of the devil. But the devil, being, in the Qur’an’s language, weak at plotting, carries in himself the seeds of his own downfall. The very fact that we can name him is consoling, since understanding is itself a consolation. The cruellest aspect of secularity is that its refusal to name the devil elevates him to something more than a mere personalised absence. The solace of religion, no less consoling for being painful, is that it insists that when we find no words to communicate our sense that evil has come and triumphed, our silence is one of bewilderment, not despair; of hope, not of finality.

The world is at present in the grip of fear. We fear an unknown absence that hides behind the mundanity of our experience; perhaps ubiquitous and confident, perhaps broken and at an end. Symbols of human communication such as the internet and the airlines have suddenly acquired a double meaning as the scene for a radical failure of communication. Above all, the fear is that of the unprecedented, as the world enters an age drastically unlike its predecessors, an age in which the religions are fragmenting into countless islands of opinion at a time when their members – and the world – are most insistently in need of their serene and consistent guidance.

At a time such as the present, a furqan , a discernment , between true and false religion breaks surface. Despite the endless, often superbly fruitful, differences between the great world religions, the pressure of secularity has threatened each religion with a comparable confiscation of timeless certainties, and their replacement by the single certainty of change. Many now feel that they are not living in a culture, but in a kind of process, as abiding canons of beauty are replaced with styles and idioms the only expectation we can have of which is that they will briefly gratify our own sense of stylishness, then to be replaced by something no less brilliantly shallow. Postmodernity , anticipated here by Warhol, is occasionalistic , a series of ruptured images, hostile to nothing but the claim that we have inherited the past and that language is truly meaningful.

In such conditions, the timeless certainties of religious faith must work hard to preserve not only their consistent sense of self, but the very vocabularies with which they express their claims. The American philosopher Richard Rorty offers this account of the secularisation process:

Europe did not decide to accept the idiom of Romantic poetry, or of socialist politics, or of Galilean mechanics. That sort of shift was no more an act of will than it was a result of argument. Rather, Europe gradually lost the habit of using certain words and gradually acquired the habit of using certain others. [1]

What has happened over the past century, in a steadily accelerating fashion, is that the series of mutations in values, often grounded in popular perceptions of scientific paradigm shifts, has placed the traditional vocabularies of religion under unprecedented stress. Against this background, we can see three large possibilities amidst the diversity of the world faiths. Firstly, the ‘time-capsule’ option, often embedded in local ethnic particularities, which seeks to preserve the lexicon of faith from any redefinition which might subvert the tradition’s essence. The risk of anachronism or irrelevance is seen as worth running in order to preserve ancient verities for later generations that might, in some hoped-for time of penitence, return to them. Secondly, there are movements, usually called ‘liberal’, which adopt the secular world’s reductionist vocabulary for the understanding of religion, whether this be psychological, philosophical, or sociological, and try to show how faith, or part of it, might be recoverable even if we use these terms. In the Christian context this is an established move, and has become secure enough to be popularised by such writers as John Robinson and Don Cupitt . In Islam, the marginality of Muhammad Shahrur and Farid Esack shows that for the present a thoroughgoing theological liberalism remains a friendless elite option, despite the de facto popularity of attenuated and sentimental forms of Muslimness .

The third possibility is to redefine the language of religion to allow it to support identity politics. Religion has, of course, always had the marking of collective and individual identity as one of its functions. However, in reaction against the threat of late modernity and postmodernity to identity, and in tacit acknowledgement of the associated problematizing of metaphysics and morality, this dimension has in all the world religions been allowed to expand beyond its natural scope and limits. Increasingly, religionists seem to define themselves sociologically, rather than theologically. The Durkheimian maxim that ‘the idea of society is the soul of religion’ [2] is not so far from the preoccupations of activists who are more eager to establish institutes for Islamic social sciences than to build seminaries.

The result has often been a magnification of traditional polarities between the self and the other, enabled by the steady draining-away of religiously-inspired assumptions concerning the universality of notions of honour and decency. Examples are many and diverse. Who could have thought that Buddhism, apparently the most pacific of religions, could have provided space for a movement such as Aum Shinrikyo , thousands of whose acolytes have been interrogated in connection with terrorist outrages against innocent civilians? Central to the cult’s appeal, it seems, has been a redefinition of Buddhism as a movement for the preservation of East Asian identity. [3]

In India, a vegetarian creed such as Hinduism, in Gandhi’s province of Gujarat, has now generated religious identity movements which, to the horror of more traditional practitioners, appear to recommend the expulsion, forced conversion, or massacre, of non-Hindu minorities. The process of the ‘ saffronising ’ of India , descending on the Ayodhya flashpoint, is seemingly well-advanced, and the prospects for regional peace and conviviality have seldom seemed less hopeful. [4]

In the universe of Islam, the same transposition of the vocabulary of faith into the vocabulary of identity is well underway. What would Averroes have made of the common modern practice of defining the Hajj as the ‘annual conference of the Muslims’? Why do social scientists increasingly interpret the phenomenon of veiling in terms of the affirmation of identity? Why does congregational prayer sometimes suggest a political gesture to what is behind the worshippers, rather than to what lies beyond the qibla wall?

The instrumentality of religion has changed, in important segments of the world faiths. God is not denied by the sloganeers of identity; rather He is enlisted as a party member. No such revivalist can entertain the suggestion that the new liberation being recommended is a group liberation in the world that marginalises the more fundamental project of an individual liberation from the world; but his vocabulary nonetheless steadily betrays him. In the Qur’an , the word iman (usually translated as ‘faith’) appears twenty times as frequently as the word islam . In the sermons of the identity merchants, the ratio usually seems to be reversed.

Neither does the instrumentality of identity advocate a return to the indigenous and the particular. Were it to do so, it would necessarily require a respectful engagement with the art, spirituality, and intellectuality of the religion’s cultural provinces. And it is a shared feature of all identity politicking in world religions today that whereas religious revivals in the great ages of faith invariably generated artistic and literary florescence, the revivalists seem to produce only impoverishment. Beauty must wait; because da‘wa , the Mission, is more urgent; an odd logic to premodern believers, who assumed that every summons to the Real must be beautiful, and that nothing transforms a society or an individual soul more deeply than a great work of art, a building, a poem, or the serenity of a saint.

Perhaps we could even invoke this as the nearest approximation we will find to an objective yardstick against which to judge the spiritual authenticity ( asala ruhiyya ) of religious revivals. Truth, as Plato taught, ineluctably produces beauty. The illuminated soul shines, and cannot confine the light within its own self. Whatever is done, or made, or said, or written, by such a soul, is great art, and this is part of our caliphal participation and responsibility in creation. As Abd al- Rahman Jami puts it:

Every beauty and perfection manifested in the theatre of the diverse grades of beings is a ray of His perfect beauty reflected therein. It is from these rays that exalted souls have received their impress of beauty and their quality of perfection. [5]

If we apply this measure, how much authenticity may we really attribute to the soi-disant Islamic revivalism of today? ‘Say: who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He hath brought forth for His bondmen?’ (7:32) Who indeed?

The modern Muslim instrumentality of identity, then, does not seem to be about the affirmation of a culturally embedded self. The young radical activist does not really want to be a Pakistani, or an Algerian, or an American. Such a person requires what one might call a negative identity. He or she desperately desires not to be someone. The medievals knew God by listing all the things that God could not be; this is the strategy known as negative theology, richly deployed in both Muslim and Christian metaphysics. The moderns, it seems, being more interested in religion than in God, define religion by listing all the things that it cannot be. Hence Islam, we are loudly told, is a list of prohibitions. Everywhere we turn there is something we must not believe, and certainly must not do. The list of ideas entailing shirk or bid‘ a grows ever-longer; and no-one any longer takes pleasure and joy even in the diminishing list of things which are still allowed.

Islam, then, is about not being and doing things. What is left is one’s identity. Because the list of prohibitions is so desperately extended, and embraces most if not all the beloved practices of the village or the urban district, one is no longer allowably Sylheti , or Sarajevin . This is a questing for identity that denies real, embedded identity. As such, it often betrays its twentieth-century tributaries:

The type and forms of cultural valuations employed by the new fundamentalist movements cannot be explained by an analysis of the tradition of Islamic religion and history; it has to be seen as an effect of inter-cultural exchange, which is fundamentally based on a Western understanding of Islam as the culture of the Other . [6]

Long ago, the ever-insightful Hourani was no less frank in noticing the Western etiology of ‘movement Islam’:

Much has been written in recent years about modern movements in Islam, and the origins and direction of some of them are by now well-known: a new emphasis on virtuous activity, justified in terms of certain traditional sayings, but derived in fact from the European ‘scientific’ thought of the 19th century, and tending sometimes towards a revolutionary nihilism. [7]

Other, more psychological tributaries might also be cited. The shift to a culturally disembedded radicalism is often malignantly driven by a desire to wreak revenge on one’s traditionalist parents or one’s community for frustrations suffered at their hands. Again, it appears as a Western social phenomenon, rather than as traditional tawba . Often, too, it is perversely responsive to a global discourse that may despise those countries or their diaspora ethnicities. It is, in short, a way of legitimising self-hatred; a religio -legal justification of an inferiority complex.

What, then, remains? Once the son of Pakistani migrants has stripped himself of his shalvar , his pir , his qawwalis , his gulab jamon , his entire sense of living as the product of a great civilisation that produced the Taj Mahal and the ghazals of Ghalib , what does he have left? Again, the negative theology option will define his identity as what-is-left-over; a religion of the gaps, a kind of void. That void he understands as the Sunna . The Sunna , that is, as figured negatively, as a list of denials, of wrenchings from disturbing memories, as a justification for the abandonment of techniques of spirituality that obstruct rather than reassure the ego.

Is this, then, a failure of religion? Is the young zealot so overwhelmed by his alienation, his humiliation, and sense of rootlessness , that the Sunna which is what-is-left-over cannot restore his spirit? Surely the scriptures insist that a turn to the Sunna must heal him, and help him to come to terms with his history and the trials of his life?

Actions, however, are by intentions. According to tradition, people tend to have the rulers they deserve, and the forces that rule the human soul are also in every case the appropriate ones for that person. The Sunna is a model of sacred humanity. That is to say, humanity bathed in sakina , the peaceable ‘habitation’ of God’s presence. ‘He is the one who sent down the sakina upon the believers’ hearts, that they might grow in faith.’ (48:4) This is in Sura al- Fath , which unveils to the believing community the nature of the test that they have just passed through, and which endured for several long years. The triumph at Mecca came about not through anger, anxiety, fear, and rage at the difficult, sometimes desperate situation of the Muslims, a small island of monotheists in a pagan sea. It came about through their serenity, their sakina , which, Ibn Juzayy tells us, means stillness ( sukun ), contentment ( tuma’nina ), and also mercy ( rahma ). [8] These are the gifts of reliance on Allah’s promise amidst apparent misfortune. The alternative is to be of those who are described as az-zannina bi’Llahi zanna’s -saw’: ‘Those who think ill thoughts of Allah’, which, the commentators explain, means the suspicion that He will let the believers down.

The monotheistic God, of course, does not let the believers down. ‘Weaken not; nor grieve. You are the uppermost, if you have iman ’ (3:139): the verse revealed in the aftermath of the shock of Uhud .

So the young zealot, driven half out of his mind by his sense of alienation and despair, reads the Sunna with the wrong dictionary. His view of the history of his community is one of khidhlan – that God has effectively abandoned it. Only a tiny, almost infinitesimal fraction of the scholars of historic Islam were even believers. The Ottomans, the Moguls, the Uzbek khanates, the Seljuks , the Malay states, the Hausa princedoms; all of these were lands of pure shirk and innovation; deserts with no oases of faith. And this conviction has to make him one of az-zannina bi’Llah zanna’s -saw – those who think ill thoughts of Allah. Their contention is that Islamic civilisation has been an atrocious, monumental, desperate failure; and the consequences of this conviction, for their religious faith, and for their ability to feel sakina , are no less disastrous. A God that has allowed the final religion to go astray so calamitously cannot, ultimately, be trusted. His policy seems usually to have been one of khidhlan , of the betrayal of the believers. Religion itself becomes, in Durkheim’s language, entirely ‘ piacular ’, it is an attempt at cathartic, ritualised breast-beating, a rite of atonement and mourning, that seeks to channel one’s fear of the uncontrollable and apparently blind forces which punish and threaten one’s tribe. A cathartic component of religion has here become co-extensive with faith itself.

What it feels like to worship such a God is hard to imagine. But today, in Islam, as at the fringes of other religions, there are indeed people who worship him. No peace can come of such worship, only a growing sense of being trapped inside a logic that leads only to fear and despair, unrelieved by anything more than the faintest glimmer of hope. Perhaps, the activist feels, worshipping his God, if we are pure enough, and angry enough, God will relent towards us; and we can anticipate the Second Coming by defying time itself, and creating a utopia for the pure somewhere on this earth. The piacular thus accumulates into an apocalypse.

Long ago, Toynbee saw that such projects invariably end in misery. In the end, even Herod serves the oppressed community better than does Bar Kochva . Toynbee wrote of

‘ Zealotism ’: a psychological state – as unmistakeably pathological as it is unmistakeably exaggerated – which is one of the two possible alternative reactions of the passive party in a collision between two civilizations. [9]

The zealot, Toynbee’s ‘barbarian saviour-archaist’, cannot imagine that faith might require the wisdom to recognise the capacities of individual human beings in different ages. Invoking a ferocious definition of amr bi’l-ma‘ruf , ‘Commanding the Good’, at a time when most people are weak and struggle even to honour the basic demands of religion, betrays an abject and disastrous lack of common sense. [10] ‘Forcing religion down people’s throats’ will induce many of them to vomit it up again; such is the resilience or perversity of human nature. States which impose severe moral codes in public will find that they cannot deal with the proliferation of private vice, which almost masquerades as virtue in a political context where religion has identified itself with a piacular rite of repression. States which behave in such a way as to be excluded from global trade will languish in poverty, further fostering disenchantment and exporting streams of refugees.

The sunna , brandished as a weapon of revenge against the sources of one’s humiliation, will not allow itself to be used in this way. The sunna , as pure form, as a structure of life, cannot be itself if the inward reality of sakina is absent. The Law is merciful when interpreted and applied by those who believe that God’s practice towards His people has been merciful. In the hands of the zealot, it may become the most persuasive of all arguments against religion.

Actions, then, are by intentions, and the interpretation of scripture is the proof of this. Scripture is a holy place; and we need to calm ourselves before entering it. If we march in, hearts blazing with fury, viewing the world with suspiciousness about the divine intention, then we violate that holy place. In earlier times, only the pure of heart, and those with decades of humbling scholarship behind them, were allowed to cross the threshhold into that space. Now the doors have been kicked open, and a crowd of furious, hungry, desperate men, stands quarrelling around the text.

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I would like to move on now. Much of what I have said has been dismal; but religion is surely about facing reality. Too many of us today live amid delusions, no doubt because we find the reality of our times too disturbing to contemplate. Conspiracy theories, paranoia, fantasies about the past or the future; these abound in religious conferences; not just among Muslims, but among religionists everywhere. Religion, however, invites us to ‘get real’ – to use a very Muslim Americanism. Because we believe in God and an afterlife, and in the ultimate restitution for injustice, we should have souls great enough to look reality in the face without flinching.

My experience of the world of faith which we all inherit is, despite all that I have said about the sickness of identity mania, a positive one. I mentioned at the beginning of this lecture that there are three religious paths commonly taken today: the time-capsule, the liberal, and that of identity politics dressed up as scripturalism . The liberal option, despite the shallow purchase of its theology, is in practice widely followed among Muslims: these are the millions of individuals who may cherish the memory of a pious aunt, or perhaps a moment of religious insight earlier in their lives, or some vague sense of belonging to an inherited religious culture, but who seldom attend the mosque.

For most religiously-active Muslims, the conservative option, with a variety of variations, is the most commonly pursued. Almost all senior ulema in Sunni countries adhere to some form of conservatism, entailing adherence to one of the four Sunni madhhabs and to either the Ash‘ari or the Maturidi theology. Often, too, they will be actively involved in Sufism. This is a reality of which the West is largely unaware, given that it constructs its images of Muslim action from media images which inevitably focus on the frantic and the dangerous. [11]

What is needed, then, is for mainstream Islam to reassert its possession of tafsir . It remains in a strong position to do this. The zealots are everywhere a very small percentage of the total of believers. The masses are either too traditional or too religiously weak to want to follow them. Never will extremism triumph for long, simply because normal people do not want it. Already we find a growing sense around the Muslim world that zealotry damages only Islam, and serves its rivals. ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, as Nietszche observes.

A further reason why extremism has an uncertain future is that human beings are naturally religious. Secularisation theories are now everywhere in confusion; and religion prospers mightily in most countries of the world. Belief in the transcendent is, it seems, hard-wired into our species, and what most human beings crave is not a megaphone for their frustrations, but a voice for justice which also serves as a source of peace and serenity in a stressful world. Any religion that fails to supply this will soon be replaced by something else. There has never been an exception to this in human history. Christianity succeeded because pagan Roman religion failed to provide a sense of spiritual upliftment . Islam succeeded because the Eastern churches were spiritually debilitated by centuries of bitter polemic. New religious movements in the West succeed by offering techniques of meditation and alternative therapies which seem absent from established religions as they are presently formulated. Islam, wherever it degenerates into a primal scream of panic about one’s situation in the world, will certainly be replaced by any other religion that offers sakina .

The mainstream, then, must reclaim the initiative, and expel the zealots from the sacred place. It should not find it difficult to do this. It has, after all, a great civilisation behind it, which extremism cannot claim. It has, too, a rich tradition of spirituality, still vibrant in many countries, which, where made available to Westerners, can seem hard to resist. This was recently made plain to me by the director of the Swedish Islamic Academy. He told me that consistently, during his quarter-century as a Muslim in Stockholm , whenever he mentions that he is a Sufi, people lean forward to learn more. When he mentions Islam, they lean back, alarmed. Is this merely the expression of prejudice? Perhaps. But Muslims should also consider the possibility that educated Western people may be sincerely, rather than cynically, horrified by expressions of Islamic identity politics; and may be sincerely, rather than superficially, impressed by the literature and practice of traditional spiritual Islam. No-one who wishes to practice da‘wa in the West, or among Westernised Muslims, can afford to bypass that reality.

Once the sakina has been found again, once religion becomes a matter of the love of God rather than the hatred of our political and social situation, we can begin to extract our communities from the hole which we have dug for ourselves. Let us take, as a topical example, the question of suicide bombing. Historians might well wonder how this form of warfare could take root in any of the Abrahamic religions. One thinks of the kamikaze pilots of Shinto Japan, whose religious rituals, coupled with a final message read before a camera, provoked such horror and alienation in 1940s America . One thinks, too, of the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war . The religious motivation behind many Tamil terrorists, rooted in a Buddhist South Asian culture, also springs to mind. Such a mentality is possible only for those who do not fully believe in a personal God, and hence have no notion of the human body as made, in some sense in God’s image. For Sunni Islam, however, in which even tattooing is a forbidden practice, such an activity is historically without precedent. Coupled with the policy of targeting the enemy’s civilians virtually at random, it is clearly the symptom of a deep-rooted sickness. It recalls the collectivist ethos (‘ asabiyya ) of the pre-Islamic Arabs, whose code of revenge ( tha’r ) authorised the taking of any life from a rival tribe to compensate for the loss of one of one’s own, a system decisively abrogated by the Qur’an’s ‘no soul shall bear the burden of another’ (6:164). [12] It is also, we may speculate, connected with the phenomenon of radical religion as a form of self-hatred of which I spoke earlier. The piacular believer is so alienated from his self that he can contemplate its physical destruction, thus replicating, in Toynbee’s words, ‘the melodramatic suicide of the Zealots who faced hopeless military odds’. [13]

This desperation is unworthy of the umma of Islam. Entirely traditional scholars speak out against it in the strongest terms, as a bid‘a in the most necessary sense of the term. But we need also to re-engage with the principle of rahma , of mercy, which flows from sakina . Why exactly do the hadith suggest that Muslims must not ‘destroy anyone with fire’? [14] Why are believers commanded so strongly to avoid taking the lives of civilians? One reason is because if we do this, we damage the lives of others whom we will probably never even meet. ‘Whosoever kills a human being for other than murder or corruption in the earth, it will be as if he had killed all mankind. ’ ( 5:32 ) Many suffer when one is killed. Orphans, widows, relations, friends, neighbours; all these are the victims of the single crime. Crime is never against an individual; it never has a single victim. War in the valid shari‘a sense targets only combatants, whose relatives recognise that such was their status. The targeting of civilians, however, is part of the barbarism of modern Western, Clausewitzian conflict, inflicting a deeper sense of loss and alienation; and it is entirely foreign to our heritage.

During the Second World War, my grandfather worked as a firefighter in the London Blitz. After the war, his behaviour grew erratic, and his marriage ended painfully, inflicting shock-waves on children and a wider world of relatives. Years afterwards the reason for it became clear. One night, after an air-raid, he had pulled from the rubble of a building the body of a small girl who looked exactly like his own daughter. The trauma of that moment never left him until he died, fifty years later. That trauma lives on, subtly, in the lives of all his descendants.

Those who take the lives of women and children, indiscriminately, and simply because they live on the other side of a frontier, should remember that they are inflicting wounds on other lives as well that can never properly be healed.

What is required, then, is an act of repentance, tawba . Our communities need to turn away from the utilitarian ethic that justifies even the worst and most inhuman barbarities as expedient means, and turn back to the authentic religious teaching that it is better to pray patiently than to descend into a tit-for-tat moral relativism that recalls the worst practices of the Jahiliyya . Religious patience, moreover, never runs out, because it knows that it will one day be crowned with glory. ‘True patience’, the Muslim proverb runs, ‘is never exhausted.’ And in the Qur’an : ‘the patient shall be given their full reward without reckoning.’ (39:10) The phrasing is superb. Yuwaffa suggests that they will be given a full, fair, proportionate reckoning; and then the phrase bi- ghayri hisab – it is to be without any reckoning at all. Patience, one of the supreme Qur’anic virtues, which led to the success of the peaceful entry into Mecca , is rewarded also in the next life, infinitely.

Here, then, is another possible yardstick against which to measure the authenticity of our Islam. Impatience is impiety, it is the way of the zannina bi’Llahi zanna’s -saw’. And those who cannot restrain themselves will be smacked down. Worse, they will bring misfortunes upon their communities. ‘Beware of a tribulation which will certainly not afflict only the wrongdoers amongst you,’ the Qur’an warns us. (8:25) To act impatiently on grounds of ‘ asabiyya , and to defy fundamental religious teachings about the sanctity of life, and to harbour ill thoughts about God’s providence – all these sins must lead, in the traditional Muslim understanding, to divine punishment. Those who regard them as a shortcut to a world in which their self-image will be healed are likely to be disappointed.

That disappointment is now palpable in the world of Islamic identity-politics. It is time that the great majority stopped being a silent majority, and raised its voice courageously. The sunna must be reclaimed as a via positiva . This is not, I believe, a heroic option; it is a fundamental religious duty. To uphold the honour of Islam, as a great world religion, and to defy the voices that would turn it into little more than a resentful sect, is a fard ‘ ayn – an individual obligation.

We need institutions and faces that can believably do this. A few of our mosques and Islamic centres are in the grip of a small minority of worshippers who care nothing for peaceful coexistence with their fellow citizens, and whose hearts and minds are overseas. Most Muslims here, however, wish to be accepted as full and respected partners in the project of building a just and prosperous society, and do not wish their places of worship to be directed by the representatives of other governments or zealot political movements. Neither are they at ease with the reinvention of religion as a ritual of distress. This majority must now speak out. Sullenness, jealousy, lack of tawakkul , lack of optimism, all these are vices which must be transcended. And that transcending can only take place where religion is once again centred on the love and fear of God, not on attempts to heal a wounded pride.

I am very optimistic that this will take place. As I have already indicated, the extremists remain numerically and intellectually on the extremes. Islam is, despite the headlines, a success story. Most Muslims prefer the spiritual to the frantic; patience to the primal scream. We must now make it clear to our institutions of learning, and to those who would help us from abroad, that the principle of shura demands that the extremes be excluded, and that the voice of majoritarian Islam be allowed its natural place.

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This optimism must, however, be tempered with an awareness of the immediate tactical situation. Despite the alarmism of a few intransigent voices such as Daniel Pipes and Lamin Sanneh , [15] few if any of us respect the Middle Eastern mass-murderers who are currently inviting the world to regard Islam as the great political and moral failure of the new century. Nonetheless, we breathe the air that they have poisoned. And the poison exists here, as elsewhere, because of the aggression of a small minority of zealots.

Again, it is time to speak out in favour of normalcy. The message is a positive one: Islam is not intrinsically committed to violent reaction against the global consensus. Most scholars do not teach that globalisation obliges us to make hijra to a neighbouring planet. Of course we have our own distinctive assurances on moral matters, and a deep scepticism about the ability of a consumer society to increase human fulfilment and to protect the integrity of creation. But Muslims are not committed to jumping ship. In British India , a political context far less egalitarian than the one we inhabit here, there were few who chose the option of hijra to Afghanistan . The ulema overwhelmingly stayed in place, and were not prominent during the Mutiny. ‘Some scholars,’ as a historian of the period notes, ‘held that a country remained daru’l -Islam as long as a single provision of the Law was kept in force. [16] Once the bitterness of the Mutiny had subsided, the Muslims were a peaceful presence who contributed much to the deeply flawed but stable global enterprise that was the British Empire . Those Pathans who fought and died at Monte Cassino , the Hausas of the Nigeria Regiment who fought with the Chindits in Burma; the Bengali Lascars who died in the Battle of the Atlantic, were not conscripts, they were volunteers. Fighting against a common totalitarian enemy they were engaged, in the broad understanding of the term, in a jihad. One cannot deplore too strongly the attempt by a few Muslims, such as Ataullah Kopanski , to present Nazism as a potential ally for Islam. [17] Clearly, had National Socialism triumphed, its scientists would have aimed at the elimination or reduction to servile status of all the non-white races of the world, not excepting the followers of Islam. To fight for the Allies was unquestionably a jihad.

More recently, the struggle against communism effectively united Muslims and Christendom, a long alliance which both sides seem to have forgotten with astonishing speed and completeness.

English law, with its partial legal privileging of Anglican faith, is dimly theocratic, but does not make the totalising claims which the radicals make for their own various imams. Muslims in the United Kingdom are not being offered a choice between God’s law and man’s. God’s law, for the mainstream fuqaha , is an ideal for whose realisation we cherish a firm and ultimate hope. But it also includes the duty to act, out of maslaha , within the framework of laws drafted by majoritarian non-Muslim legislatures. This is, no doubt, why the tale of the prophet Joseph was so popular in pre-modern Muslim minority contexts. Some of the greatest Muslim poetical works written in Spain after the reconquista were based on the story of the monotheist prophet who accepted a senior post in a non-believing political order. The story is no less popular in the villages of Tatarstan , of Muslim Siberia, and of China .

Islam, therefore, supplies arguments for loyalty. Not because it regards the present state of affairs as ideal (a view commended by no-one) but because it recognises that it is the point from which one needs to begin working towards the ideal, an ideal which will itself be reshaped by the powerful instruments of ijtihad . The fundamental objects, maqasid , of the Shari ‘a are the right to life, mind, religion, lineage, and honour; and these are respected in the legal codes of the contemporary West. We may even venture to note that they appear to be better maintained here than in the hamfisted attempts at creating Shari ‘a states that we see in several corners of the Muslim world. Muslims may be unhappy with the asylum laws here, but would one wish to claim asylum in any Muslim country that currently springs to mind? We may not approve of all the local rules of evidence, but if we are honest, we will surely hesitate to claim that a murder investigation is better pursued in, say, Iran or Saudi Arabia , than in English jurisdiction.

The radicals in our inner cities, of course, will at this point revert to their primal scream. They know full well that their movements have failed, and that despite decades of effort by them there is no Shari ‘a order in the world. They intuit that they are engaged in acts of collective religious suicide. Yet they protest and rail against the established political order, because for them religion has become nothing but the piacular rite of protest. Shouting at rallies and denouncing the mainstream are for them the most satisfying acts of worship. Were they to be denied these practices, they would be forced back on their own spiritual resources, and they are well-aware of how much they will find there.

Loyalty, then, is to the balanced, middle way, the wasat , which is the Sunna . Islam is a wisdom tradition that has seldom if ever generated extremes that have had a permanent impact. The current wave of zealotry will, I make no doubt, pass away as rapidly as it came, perhaps after some climacteric Masada . Some souls will have been damaged by it; the name of the religion will have been damaged by it, and the historians will note, with a regretful curiosity, how Islam was for a few years associated with terrorism. But the extremism will disappear, because no-one who has a future really desires it.

Can we accelerate this healing process? We are, I think, obliged to try. We have the advantage of knowing how to speak, and to whom to speak. The radical has to shout for a long time before anyone outside the Muslim community notices him. But the traditionally-committed Muslim who is part of society at large already possesses the network. He can claim membership in one of the world’s great traditions of art and literature, one that has already attracted many cultivated people in the West. Although the central mosques in most Western capitals are controlled by Saudis with no affection for the society around them, and no ability to speak to it, Islam’s non-hierarchical nature means that such people can simply be circumvented. Their cultural maladroitness will always work to the mainstream’s advantage. Alternative mosques and institutions of learning need to be established as matrices for the proclamation of authentic, mainstream, spiritual, moral Islam. There are strong reasons why this must succeed. Firstly, because everyone who has an interest in social cohesion wants it to succeed. Secondly, because unlike the Islam of those who distrust the divine purposes in history, traditional Islam is optimistic and brings sakina to the human soul. And finally, and most momentously, because this version of faith happens to be true.


1. Richard Rorty , Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, ( repr . New Delhi , 1989), p.6.

2. Emile Durkheim , The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, tr. J Swain. (New York, 1915), p.419.

3. Robert Jay Lifton , Destroying the world to save it. Aum Shinrikyo , apocalyptic violence, and the new global terrorism. (New York, 1999.)

4. Brenda Crossman, Secularism’s Last Sigh? Hindutva and the ( mis )rule of law. New Delhi and (Oxford, 1999.)

5. Abdülkadir Emiroglu , Molla Cami’nin eserleri ( Ankara , 1976), p.70.

6. Mona Abaza and Georg Stauth , ‘Occidental Reason, Orientalism , Islamic fundamentalism: a critique’, in Martin Albrow and Elizabeth King (eds.), Globalization, Knowledge and Society (London etc., 1990), p.223. Carrell’s influence on Sayyid Qutb is frequently cited in this connection.

7. A. Hourani , ‘ Shaikh Khalid and the Naqshbandi Order’, in S.M. Stern et al., ( eds ), Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition ( Oxford , 1972), 89.

8. Ibn Juzayy al- Kalbi , Tafsir ( Beirut , 1403), 694.

9. Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History ( Oxford , 1939), IV, 639. Cf. ibid., V, 331n: ‘The Jewish Zealots of that age, like the Wahhhabis at the present day, combine their puritanism with militancy.’

10. Here the question has been posed of the present-day appropriateness of Imam al- Ghazali’s strongly ‘ jihadist ’ stance. In his fiqh works, such as the Wasit , Ghazali suggests no more than a mainstream Shafi‘i understanding of the believer’s relationship to war and peace; but the Ihya shows that jihad is integrated into the very centre of his understanding of Prophetic emulation (see for instance Ihya ’ ‘ Ulum al-Din (Cairo, 1347; = K. Adab al- ma‘isha , bayan shuja‘atih ), 338-9: ‘no-one was more vehement in war than him’, ‘he was always the first to exchange blows with the enemy’, etc. Reflecting on the Ihya’s ‘ jihadist ’ aspects, Michael Cook has shown that in comparison with the majority of ulema , Ghazali’s views on amr bi’l-ma‘ruf are ‘marked by a certain flirtation with radicalism … Ghazali is no accommodationist : he displays great enthusiasm for men who take their lives in their hands.’ (Michael Cook, Commanding the Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought ( Cambridge , 2000), p.456.) Modern Arab activists, even of the mainstream ‘Islamist’ variety, have frequently been embarrassed by Ghazali’s emphatic ‘ jihadism ’; and Cook shows (p.527) how several modern summaries of the Ihya remove Ghazali’s remarks on changing evil ‘with the hand’. More radical writers, however, applaud Ghazali : the Algerian revolutionary Ali Belhajj ‘quotes Ghazali’s passage on armed bands with obvious relish’ (p.528). The response to such implicit accusations should surely be that Imam al- Ghazali adopted a stance within his own lifetime that he would not necessarily counsel for our own complex and fitna -ridden age and circumstances, in which the use of armed force against heavy odds is typically denounced by the ulema as an action against Muslim interests ( masalih ).

11. Blaming the West for this is sometimes, but not invariably fair; the newsmedia cannot be expected to focus on the pacific or the spiritual. Perhaps we need to be more frank in blaming our own Muslim communities for failing to engage in more successful and sophisticated public relations. My own encounters with television and newspaper journalists have confirmed that the mass media are only too happy to take articles from Muslims, or broadcast films made by Muslims; but that they cannot see where to find the contributions. In the United Kingdom , there is only one Muslim film production company, but several hundred cable and satellite TV channels. Major mosques and organisations have little or no public relations expertise. To accuse the West of misrepresentation is sometimes proper, but all too often reflects a hermeneutic of suspicion rooted in zealot attitudes to the Other .

12. For pre-Islamic Arab ‘pride’ suicide, see Mustafa Jawad , ‘Al- Muntahirun fi’l-Jahiliyya wa’l -Islam’, in Al- Hilal , 42 (1934), 475-9. For Islam’s understanding of suicide as an ‘Indian foolishness’ see Baydawi , Tafsir ( Istanbul , 1329), 109 (to Qur’an , 4:29 ). It is presumably not without significance that the deaths of Saul and Samson do not figure in the Muslim scriptures.

13. Toynbee, op. cit., VI, 128.

14. Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam: A Reader ( Princeton , 1996), 36.

15. Lamin Sanneh , ‘Sacred and Secular in Islam’, ISIM Newsletter 10 (July, 2002), 6, makes the following incendiary claim about the September 11 attacks: ‘The West […] has sought comfort in the convenient thought that it is only a renegade breakaway group of Muslim fundamentalists who have struck out in violence. Most Muslims do not share that view.’

16. Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India : Deoband 1860-1900 ( Princeton , 1982), 51. For the muted role of the ulema during the Mutiny, see p. 82.

17. Ataullah Kopanski, Sabres of Two Easts : an untold history of Muslims in Eastern Europe ( Islamabad , 1995).