A Review of Islam and the Future of Tolerance

Caveat: I know Maajid is not an apostate! I say it tongue and cheek.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance gives readers something which feels almost alien – a cordial, open, honest conversation about the challenges of reforming Islam. As I turned each page I found myself anticipating (perhaps wanting?) to see a cataclysmic locking of horns (Infidel vs. Apostate). This epic cage match never eventuated. In fact the only part in the book remotely resembling an impasse, pertained to the reading of Islamic history in the sections ‘Nature of Islam’ and ‘Finding the Way Forward’. The disagreement was of little consequence to the overall discussion. What was particularly gratifying was seeing Sam’s eagerness to learn from Maajid, demonstrating again – unlike some of his opponents – just how open he is to new ideas. Initially Sam took the backseat in the conversation, and adopted more of an interviewers’ style, seeking clarification around the concepts and definitions on offer. When one reads the book you come to understand Sam’s admission that he was the one most changed by their conversation, which makes the suggestion that Maajid is Sam’s lapdog, simply absurd.

The conversation becomes more even-handed as you read on. Still – although I didn’t do a word count – it seemed Maajid got the bigger slice of the dialogue. I was quite happy about that, I read Sam all the time, and I know his views fairly well. Maajid has one other book – Radical, a memoir which I highly recommend – and his public appearances and articles, provide a pretty clear picture of his own views. However, the depth and nuances of those views really come to the fore in this book and it was all the more gripping for that reason. There is a feeling throughout that Sam is being cautious, as if he’s half expecting a backlash of the sort he has become accustomed. He rather amusingly even “bends over backwards” to articulate a position held by his detractors to gauge Maajid’s reaction (surely, Maajid must, at the least, agree with his opponents here, this conversation is going too well, with a little too much agreement!). If that is indeed what Sam was doing, I certainly can’t fault him for it. Too often people appear liberal and interested in honest discussion and turn out to be just another religious apologist. I too found myself reading Maajid, waiting for something to object to on those grounds. Thankfully that moment never came to pass.

Maajid does a great job demonstrating the nuances in scriptural interpretation and how literalism doesn’t necessarily equate to bad (a view Sam understands as his Jainism example shows). As an example he used the stance of the Hanafi School – which were closest to the time of prophet – regarding the prohibition of khamr (alcohol). In essence the word khamr relates to alcohol derived from grapes, so the prohibition therefore, only relates to wine. Maajid points out this is a literalist argument, making the blanket ban on alcohol an interpretation that was successful in supplanting the traditional view. In regards to the murder of infidels he asks, does “smite their necks” translate to “smite their necks today?” Good point, however, I would ask, if God thought it permissible during the war against infidels of the period – and clearly many Muslims feel history is repeating itself – what are the chances an omniscient deity would have a different view in 2015? Do we really need another prophet to tell us whether that edict is applicable today? It’s when you start tying scripture to actual concepts of God – what He is and what powers He possesses – that you run into problems. A better way to allow reform to grow, would be to divorce the two, which sadly can’t be done.

The alcohol example actually indicates both a solution and a problem. The solution being there is wiggle room here. The problem being that it hinges on arguing for interpretations which, whether scripturally viable or not, have to, at least, be better argued than current interpretations enabling the problems we see, and will need to be argued for as long as Islam permeates the religious landscape. Whatever one takes away from the alcohol example, one point has to be that the interpretation which bans all alcohol won over many Muslim communities. Also, Sam rightly points out that some interpretations are more plausible than others, and even if reform was achieved; if someone or some group in the future reads the texts uncritically, and is anchored to the concept of God and the belief that the Quran is the inerrant, eternal word of God – in line with the Asha’ira school – then religious barbarism can be renewed again and again. So whilst I agree it’s certainly unrealistic to apostatize 1.6 billion Muslims; can even Maajid deny that it would be a hell of a lot easier? Again it comes back to what people believe is at stake. The interpretations that get you a more liberal Islam are not just difficult because the cases are not well argued, or there isn’t scriptural justifications for them. It also has something to do with the consequences of getting it wrong. If you believe in God and read the Quran and Hadith, it is understandable why you may conduct yourself in a way that doesn’t dovetail with modern society. Whereas if you misinterpret Shakespeare – unless you’re an academic and have written a patently ridiculous interpretation of Shakespeare’s works, that draws ridicule from your peers – then there is not much at stake.

With all that said this book was a thrilling read and – if you will allow me this cliché – a breath of fresh air. They cover a lot of ground from the role of foreign policy to the Regressive left and the differences between Islamism, Jihadism, and conservatism among the world’s Muslims. They touch on belief as drivers of behavior, the challenges of having this conversation in other contexts and locations, what it means for women to have this conversation and so on. You won’t read this book and come away with all the answers to your questions or a blueprint of how to reform Islam. Rather you will go away with a better understanding of the issues, a renewed hope in civil discourse, and the knowledge that you were a small part of what will be seen as the kick starter, for the reform of Islam. Not to take anything away from the many men and women – in some cases children – (Muslim and non-Muslim), who have been working on this front, but I would not be too begrudging if these two gentlemen were most remembered as the founding fathers of this effort.

Two asides:

  • Maajid says in the book that doctrines are the construct of human beings which is true. However, one of those human beings is thought to be a prophet. This legitimizes his interpretation of the word of God more than any ensuing theologian. And if God came down tomorrow and said “hey, ISIS has the right of it, stop bastardizing my words with your liberal interpretation”. What then? This may seem like an insincere question but I assure you I am wholly sincere. After all people readily buy into the idea that God has come down from the heavens on different occasions to deliver his word to the people, utilizing prophets like Moses and Mohammed. If it were to happen again, and that was his message, would we or would Maajid as a Muslim, tell him to go fuck himself. Or would, or rather should we be joining ISIS to defeat the infidels and re-establish the caliphate?
  • Maajid highlights what I consider to be a loophole that gets Muslims out of some the more undesirable edicts in Islam. He mentioned that in one tradition, the prophet Mohammed channeled the word of God and addressed believers stating “Oh, my people if you don’t sin and repent, I will bring a people more blessed than you who will sin and who do repent, because I want your repentance”. This he says led some schools within Islam to advocate for their right to sin. Well one could simply appease Him here. Sure I will drink and attend a strip club in the infidel’s homeland and for this I will repent. Then tomorrow, I and eighteen of my brothers will wage Jihad against the infidel, and if my interpretation of scripture is wrong in this regard, well then I may simply repent for that too. Of course, if God did indeed say that, well what is he playing at? This is another reason why I can’t bring myself to believe in Him. He seems such a contradictory, inconsistent, emotional, reactionary character!
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A Review of Islam and the Future of Tolerance

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