Politics and the Prophet

Malise Ruthven

  • Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in an Arab Society by Michael Gilsenan
    Tauris, 377 pp, £14.95, February 1996, ISBN 1 85043 099 3
  • The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World edited by John L. Esposito
    Oxford, 480 pp, £295.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 19 506613 8
  • Unfolding Islam by P.J. Stewart
    Garnet, 268 pp, £25.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 86372 194 X
  • Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East by Fred Halliday
    Tauris, 256 pp, £35.00, January 1996, ISBN 1 86064 004 4

For too long Islamic studies have existed in an academic ghetto which reinforced the essentialist view shared by the Islamologues, that Islam was somehow ‘different’ from the West. A more fruitful approach is taken by Michael Gilsenan in Lords of the Lebanese Marches, based on field work he conducted in a Sunni Muslim rural area of North Lebanon during the early Seventies, before the recent civil war. This beautifully written book describes the culture of masculinity in its multiple refractions through violence and narrative, joking and play, a world where status and power are organised vertically, where big landowners use the small landowners as their strong-arm men to control the sharecroppers and labourers at the bottom of the social hierarchy and to compete for supremacy with their rival lords. Sharaf, ‘the honour of person and family, which is particularly identified with control of women’s sexuality, is crucial to the public, social identity of men.’ The sharaf of the mighty is linked with the destruction of the sharaf of others: great lords gain honour by ritually humiliating subordinates, whom they force to transgress their own codes of honour. Not surprisingly, life at the bottom is brutish and insecure. The poorest women and their children must undertake work that others regard as shameful. They are powerless to resist sexual exploitation or abuse by their masters. It is not so much these actions themselves, as the stories to which they give rise and which give them meaning, that interest Gilsenan. ‘Men struggle to reproduce, memorialise and guarantee narratives of being and place in the world against the ruptures, absences and arbitrariness mat continuously subvert them.’

The story of the rape of a 13-year-old peasant girl by a landlord’s son before the helpless eyes of her parents, who were compelled to watch by the rapist’s armed bodyguards, becomes ‘a metaphor of rule. Rape stands not only for a whole “backward” agrarian set of relations constructed on violence, but by extension, for relations of power and property within the modern state.’ Maleness and brute strength are at the centre of these narratives. A quarrel over a prostitute rapidly acquires a heroic dimension, becoming a ‘narrative of status, honour, blood and violent revenge’. In the public recital of the conflict, which leads to several murders, the original motive and setting are suppressed because the squabble was ‘culturally loaded with negative value and no setting for serious confrontation between men of honour’. Humour and the art of ridiculing one’s social inferiors confirm the social pecking order. Greater than the threat of being murdered (a common occurrence in these pages) are the shame and danger of ‘being taken to demonstrate publicly, not a proper concern for sharaf, but the discrepancy between the proper assertion of capacity and empty pretension’. This applies to modern trades and occupations as much as traditional ones. A chauffeur-mechanic, for example,

had to be able to talk, knowledgeably, about the machines and swap stories. He was expected to know what kind of tractor was good for what job, the costs and capacities of all the new models, and to talk with assurance and eventually some connoisseurship about any car on the street. Most important, he had to know the limits of his own competence. It was no use affecting a skill one did not possess, since one could so easily be exposed as a fool.

Islam is conspicuous by its absence. Though the society Gilsenan describes is a Muslim one, the patriarchal themes he uncovers and celebrates – the obsession with gender and status, the assertion of power through violence – are to be found in many non-Muslim Mediterranean societies, as well as others further afield, and this calls into question the widely held view that Islamic texts or values can of themselves be held responsible for types of behaviour that underpin male supremacism.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World includes articles on feminism and Muslim counter-feminism which suggest that many of these values are now being challenged. So, too, is the narrow association, in Western minds, of Islam and terrorism, although this is no easy matter: the suspicion that the God of Abraham delights in sacrificial blood and human carnage is not entirely groundless. In the most intractable of all conflicts, between Israelis and Palestinians, the brave and painful efforts of human peacemakers are being systematically unravelled by the God who feeds his chosen agents contradictory messages. Baruch Goldstein, who was responsible for the massacre of Arab worshippers in Hebron in 1994, is, like the late Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, a martyr for those Jews who believe that the divine manifests itself in real estate. The suicide-bombers of Hamas take things a stage further in their identification of territory with the sacred, wrapping themselves in explosives and fusing martyrdom with murder. Secularists have many crimes to answer for in this century, but the return of God to the public domain heralds blood, not brotherhood. Although Muslims and the scholars who come to their defence argue that the actions of Hamas are unrepresentative, that terrorism emanates from Ireland, Sri Lanka, the Basque region, even Oklahoma (where revolutionary anarchism meets Christian eschatology), some of the mud, or Semtex, inevitably sticks.

To guard against stereotyping and name-calling, accurate information about Islam has never been more urgently required in the west. What does ‘Islam’ actually say about terrorism, holy war, suicide? In denouncing extremism, should we use ‘our’ language – the language of liberal democracy – or ‘theirs’, the language of the Qur’an? Journalists and politicians are asked to frame questions or take positions on ‘Islamic’ matters. This is not easy: until very recently Islamic studies was confined to a relatively small number of specialists.

There is undoubtedly, as John Esposito, editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia, states in his Preface, a need for an ‘easily accessible major reference work’ in which students, journalists and political analysts can find ‘readily available and succinct information on contemporary Muslim politics and societies’. The principal academic reference work, The Encyclopedia of Islam, is still incomplete and relies largely on traditional Orientalist scholarship in classical and medieval texts. This new encyclopedia, therefore, fills an important gap; it does not shy away from such controversial issues as terrorism, holy war, human rights and the status of women. In his entry on Terrorism, Augustus Richard Norton argues that the ‘deliberate and random uses of violence for political ends against protected (i.e. non-combatant) groups’ has historic roots in the Middle East, but is far from being exclusive to one confession. He maintains that the first modern act of political terrorism in the region was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by Irgun Zvi Leumi under the leadership of Menachem Begin; the assassinations of Lord Moyne, the British Minister Resident, and Count Bernadotte, the UN mediator, by Jewish extremists long preceded that of Anwar Sadat by their Muslim counterparts. The Sabra and Chatila massacres, connived at if not actively encouraged by the Israeli Army, and the Israeli bombings of Palestinian camps in Lebanon have cost many more non-combatant lives than atrocities committed by Palestinians. Nevertheless Norton’s observation that ‘phrases such as “Islamic terrorism” significantly misrepresent the religious roots of violence committed by Muslims’ does not dispose of the problem. There is undoubtedly a religious dimension to much modern terrorism and it is not just related to the VIP treatment martyrs expect in Paradise. As we know, the new generation of revolutionary terrorists finds its justification in religious texts. God assisted Joshua in the slaughter of the Canaanities – a lesson not lost on Baruch Goldstein. Muhammad expelled or massacred the Jewish tribes of Medina and waged jihad against the Meccan polytheists. Though his campaigns may have been moderate by the standards of the day, the precedents remain, enshrined in the Qur’an and still usable by those modern Islamist ideologues who push aside centuries of qualifying scholarship with a dismissive sweep of the hand.

Commenting on the limited nature of the wars conducted by the Prophet of Islam in Unfolding Islam, P.J. Stewart writes: ‘If Islamic rules were followed today, much of modern warfare would be impossible, and terrorism would be unthinkable. There would be no attacks on civilians, no retaliation against innocent parties, no taking hostage of non-combatants, no incendiary devices.’ He adds rather lamely that ‘many Muslims have failed to respect these limitations.’ His book, based on a reading of the original Arabic sources, offers no explanation as to why some contemporary Muslims have deviated so far from these original principles beyond arguing that Western governments are largely to blame. They have failed to accept the Muslim nation-states as equal partners or to give the reformists who inherited power ‘adequate help to lift their economies out of poverty’, leaving the masses to turn to revolutionary ‘theo-politics’ (a term he prefers to ‘Islamism’ or ‘fundamentalism’). He has little to say about the systemic corruption of contemporary Muslim governments, the failure of public institutions, or the repression and absence of human rights in a region that must rank with China in its hostility to intellectual freedom and democratic government.

In his article on Jihad in the Oxford Encyclopedia Rudolph Peters points to the ambiguity of the Qur’anic verses on warfare: ‘It is not clear whether the Qur’an allows fighting the unbelievers only as a defence against aggression or under all circumstances.’ The classical commentators, however, generally endorsed the view that war was the permanent condition of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, emphasised by the division of the world between the Dar al Islam (the sphere of submission) and Dar al Harb (the sphere of war) with an intermediate category, Dar al Aman (the sphere of truce) gradually developing as more complex models of international relations became necessary. There are plenty of Prophetic precedents for peaceful resolution of conflicts, notably Muhammad’s bloodless ‘conquest’ of Mecca in 630 CE (a feat consciously emulated by Ibn Saud, Arabia’s modern unifier, in 1924). The trouble lies not with the original models, but the mentality of those who resurrect them without regard to historical contingencies or the fifteen centuries of refinement by Islam’s rabbinical class, the ‘ulama. Several of the contributing editors to this Encyclopedia address this issue, notably Shahrough Akhavi in his biographical entry on Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian ideologue executed by Nasser in 1966 and lodestar of today’s Islamic militants. Akhavi shows how Qutb constantly refers to Islam’s primary texts, the Qur’an and Hadith (Prophetic Traditions) ahistorically, while reinterpreting them in such a way as to claim Islamic origins for concepts like democracy and social justice largely derived from unacknowledged Western intellectual sources. In a similar vein Dale Eickelman attributes the new Islamist movements to the rise of mass education and the decline of the ‘ulama. The results are tragically obvious in Algeria, where religious autodidacts, rejecting the body of traditional scholarship, murder the innocent in the name of Islamic rectitude.

Editorially, the Oxford Encyclopedia claims to balance the social science orientation of much Western scholarship on Islam and the more faith-oriented and ‘essentialist’ approach of an increasing number of Muslim scholars now writing in Western languages. Many of the former, alert to the infiltration of Western political discourse into the modernist Islamic movements, make a distinction between political Islam, or Islamism, and the popular religiosity on which this style of politics feeds. The lines between them, however, are not easily drawn. As Esposito points out in his overview of Islam, the re-emergence of political Islam has been accompanied by a revival of religious observance at a private level: ‘The indices of an Islamic reawakening in personal life are: increased attendance at mosque and to prayer and fasting, a proliferation of religious publications, audio and videotapes, greater emphasis on Islamic dress and values, and the revitalisation of Sufism.’ Among the factors contributing to the Islamic revival, says Esposito, were rapid urbanisation and migration to the big cities. Loss of village life, with its extended family networks underpinned by traditional values, was accompanied by the shock of modern urban life with its Westernised cultures and customs. Many people, ‘swept along in a sea of alienation and marginalisation, found an anchor ... in their religion’.

In Islam and the Myth of Confrontation Fred Halliday attributes the appeal of Islamist movements in the Middle East to the crisis of the postcolonial state – in particular, its inability to meet the economic and cultural aspirations of its people. The movement in Iran ‘has an Islamic ideological character, yet it cannot be explained by Islam any more than an abstracted Christianity can explain the peasant movements of Germany in the early 16th century, or the Solidarnosc movement of the Seventies in Poland’. Where does this leave the ‘modern Islamic world’? If Halliday is right and Islamist movements in different parts of the globe really have local and particular causes, can such an entity be said to exist at all? Even if it is thought to be a convenient label to pin on a variety of religio-political cultures to which approximately one-fifth of humankind belongs, can a significant part of these cultures really be said to constitute a ‘threat’ to the West?

For many Muslims the ‘West’ (a construct as hard to pin down and describe as the ‘modern Islamic world’ itself) is still the enemy or rival, and the same underlying perception, of two competing cultural and religious systems with fully developed alternative world views, informs many of the Oxford Encyclopedia’s contributions. As Halliday points out with admirable lucidity, this is one aspect of the myth of confrontation recently popularised by Samuel Huntington of Harvard. Yet for Halliday the idea that Islamic and Western ‘civilisations’ are on a collision course is in reality a reflection of conflicts within the Islamic world.

‘The myth of confrontation,’ Halliday writes, ‘is sustained from two apparently contradictory sides – from the camp of those, mainly in the West, seeking to turn the Muslim world into another enemy, and from those within the Islamic countries who advocate confrontation with the non-Muslim, and particularly Western, world.’ Even if the present governments fighting Islamist terror in North Africa and the Middle East were to fall tomorrow, the revolutionary alternatives would not pose a serious challenge to the West. There is no single Islamic order. No particular form of government is deducible from Islam’s holy texts any more than it is from Christianity’s. Spanish fascism relied on Roman Catholicism for its ideological legitimacy; but Catholic thinkers could equally have relied on Catholic tradition to uphold democracy.

The variety of Muslim approaches to politics is documented in many of the Oxford Encyclopedia’s articles. Shahrough Akhavi, following Sami Zubaida, points out that the founders of the schools of Islamic law (madhabs) in the eighth and ninth centuries CE never contested the separation of the spheres of religion and state by the ruling caliphs of those times. Modern Muslim governments which have imported institutional and legal structures from the West are not necessarily departing from precedents established centuries ago. Today’s Islamists, who recognise the contribution of the great legists to the very identity of Islam, are nevertheless implicitly criticising these same legists when they declare the rulers of contemporary Muslim states to be infidels.

Does one conclude from this that there are no characteristics that distinguish the world of Islam from the rest of the modern world? On matters relating to the status of women, it is arguable that Muslims are committed to forms of segregation that differ widely from ‘Western’ notions of equality. Some of these forms are symbolically retained through the custom of veiling, even when economic conditions dictate that women participate in the workforce. Male-female separation in public has become one of the Islamist shibboleths, and in this respect Muslim practice differs from the social conservatism governing male-female relations in, say, India or Japan. The significance of such symbolic forms, however, is questionable. Is the ‘veiled’ Malaysian female aeronautical engineer treated better or worse than her Japanese counterpart? And would any difference in the treatment she receives be attributable to religious factors?

In his chapter on human rights Halliday rejects the thesis that ‘Islamic’ and ‘Western’ ideas of human rights might be incompatible: Islam is a ‘varied, multivocal system’ and the ‘actual record of human societies, contemporary and historical, shows a great variety in the degree to which the state has, by universal standards, violated the rights of its subjects’. But as Halliday himself points out, there remain some key Islamic texts that are not easily discounted. These include the testamentary inferiority of women (whose evidence is only worth half that of a man in certain legal proceedings); the inferior status of non-Muslims (formally protected if Jews or Christians, but denied full equality, for example, in marriage); and the fate of apostates (subject to legal disabilities or punishable by death for their ‘treason’). Ann Elizabeth Mayer, in her Encyclopedia article on human rights, explains how the Organisation of the Islamic Conference – the world’s leading international Islamic body – has introduced ‘Islamic’ qualifications into its Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, reducing protection for these very categories and in effect admitting that there is indeed a conflict between Shari’ah and international human rights theory, which does not permit religious criteria to override rights.

In his historical survey of the Middle East and North Africa, Peter von Sivers links the rise of the modern Islamist movement with the decline of the Sufi – or mystical – orders, which developed in the 12th and 13th centuries. The inward and ascetic aspects of the main orders – and of the body of Sufi verse in Persian, Turkish and Urdu – have for several centuries aroused the suspicion of reformist and modernist Islam. Von Sivers believes that without a revival of mysticism allowing for a degree of pluralism in society, the Islamists will never be able to accommodate all faithful Muslims. Sufism, the ‘vision of union and oneness’ described by another contributor, William Chittick, is the heart and soul of Islam. If ‘the understanding of the inner domains of Islamic experience is lost ... nothing is left but legal nit-picking and theological bickering’.

At present the Islamic reformists and ‘theo-politicals’ are locked in a debate that deliberately excludes Sufism. Yet for P.J. Stewart, who believes that Islam may well become the world’s majority religion, its future must lie in a rejuvenated mystical orientation where depth of religious feeling can be yoked to metaphorical understandings of the Qur’an and to the Prophet’s traditions. There are signs that this is already happening. Islamism has been checked, if not defeated, in Central Asia, where Muslim populations benefiting from the universal literacy bequeathed by the Soviets are turning to Sufism rather than political Islam. Despite the clamour of media-grabbing organisations, such as Hizbul Tahrir and its offshoot the Muhajiroun, one of the fastest growing Islamic movements in the West (and worldwide) is the pietistic Tablighi Jamat, a strictly non-political organisation whose spiritual roots lie in the reformed Sufism of the Naqshabandi order in India.

If the future of Islam lies with Sufism, despite temporary appearances to the contrary, the future of Islamology looks much less certain. In his article on methodologies in Islamic Studies, Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian-born Professor of Islamic Thought at the Sorbonne, berates the lack of caution of Orientalist scholarship in ‘overgeneralisation of the data concerning Islam’. His criticisms appear to be directed at Western writers, but on the evidence of this encyclopedia, it also applies to those Muslim writers (too numerous to list) who promote what are essentially doctrinal positions based on a partisan and ahistorical interpretation of texts:

The academic discourse on ‘Islamic studies’ has still to proffer explanation as to how so many diverse fields, theories, cultural spheres, disciplines, and concepts came to be associated with a single word ‘Islam’ and why the discussion remains so one-dimensional where Islam is concerned. In contrast, the study of Western society is characterised by careful scrutiny, attention to precise detail, meticulous distinctions, and theory-building. Indeed, the study of Western cultures continues to develop along such lines and to move in a different direction altogether from the unfortunate approach adopted in the area of ‘Islam’ and the so-called ‘Arab world’.

Islamic studies, Arkoun insists, is the last bastion of Western hegemonic reason inherited from the Enlightenment, an ideological discourse whose counterpart is the single-party nation state that monopolises power in developing countries while denouncing Western ‘imperialism’ and ‘neocolonialism’. The popular response to this is an ‘Islam’ that has become a ‘collective phantasm, unrealistic and preoccupied with a romanticised past’. This, says Arkoun, is a new historical force requiring analysis and interpretation, using the tools of social psychology and cultural anthropology. But it is not ‘Islam’ as such. There are few social or political realities that can be attributed to the faith itself.