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December 14, 2017874Views

United Islam Stands, Divided It Falls

Henry Hopwood Phillips: Islam's credibility as a world religion can only be maintained if its three factions find common ground.

Arguments about Islam abound. Most revolve around which variety of the faith is referred to. On the positive side, three decades ago people didn't know their Sharia from their elbow, their Kharijites from their knees, whereas now few don't. On the sad side, most of this knowledge has been garnered in an attempt to understand the increasingly frequent atrocities perpetrated in Mohammad's name.

This has led to commentators on left and right to request a Martin Luther character, deus ex machina, from the Muslim world. The West, looking over the shoulder of its own history, dreams of a totemic figure who might historicise and democratise Islamic scripture, and in the process reduce the faith's dependency on a disparate clergy that's proved intransigent when it's come to letting Islam adapt in a manner similar to the Anglican Church after the effects of nineteenth century Biblical Criticism.

The problem is not that Islam lacks Luthers, however. On the contrary, it's had too many of them. From Ibn Taymiyyah to Al-Wahhab, from Fodio to Maududi, Islam has rarely been deprived of those who fancy themselves as mujaddid (renewers of the faith). And few could seriously accuse Salafists (followers of the ancestors ways) of not returning ad fontes.

But the result has been legions of Muslims short-circuiting centuries of accreted wisdom deposited in what is, in retrospect, called 'classical Islam', and the proliferation of 'takfir' - the idea that instead of a sinning Muslim being simply a bad Muslim, he is no longer a Muslim at all. A position that makes him or her a legitimate target of jihad.

The fact those seeking to purge takfir now possess large arsenals has thrown into greater relief the fact that the arteries of Islam have hardened into three main positions. First, 'conservatives' who practice one of the four main Sunni law schools (madhhabs) and claim to be the authentic bearers of Mohammad's tradition (Sunna). These are, at heart, purveyors of an old status quo and quietist at heart. Second, loud and violent groups of Protestants (we like to forget the mad years of Christian Protestantism when the oddest sects flourished in a cauldron of violence) who claim to be bearers of Mohammad's authentic words (ridden of weak, da'if, Hadiths) - one of which is undoubtedly the Islamic State. Third are modernists; essentially apologists who force the faith through a liberal cookie-cutter. Many are attracted to Sufism and believe that ijtihad (independent reasoning) - essentially seeking to answer what Mohammad would do today - is more important than fidelity to Islam's historical answers.

To simplify: the ineffectuals, the maniacs and the sell-outs. And what's been lost in this odd mix is a faith that first, isn't inert; second, doesn't kill those who fail to fulfil its tenets; and third, doesn't float free of its historical moorings. The truth flits around all three and is murdered by division.

The conservative school is correct that much of the wisdom accrued in the history of fiqh (jurisprudence) offers a welcome counterbalance to the mania for simplicity and death among Islam's Protestants.

The school is, however, in denial, and more importantly, causing more harm than good, if it refuses to see that widespread disaffection is being produced by many of the Hadiths it feels it must claim are true (mainly in Sahih al-Bukhari) for the sake of the integrity of its grand juridical edifice.

The modernists are correct that Muslims have ignored or altered texts they've disagreed with throughout history. In the Qur'an the claim that polytheists are 'filthy' is contradicted by the policy, in jurisprudence, of taharat al-adami (Adamic purity). In the Hadiths, few Muslims take the story that the sun prostrates to Allah very seriously in spite of its flawless isnad (chain of authorities linking the tale to the time of Mohammad). And those are only the overt refutations. The Muslim authorities of all seasons and places have chosen to keep harsh punishments on the books to satisfy the Qur'an on paper, while in practice making sure standards of proof are so high that they can never be

The modernists are wrong, however, to see the West as a normative model for the trajectory of Islamic civilisation. The West has its own problems, mostly to do with the relationship between technocracy and society, and Islam stands to repeat not only its own but another civilisation's mistakes if it believes itself only capable of mimicry.

Finally, the Protestant movement is correct that Islam needs to stop sleepwalking into an early grave. Its zeal, its faith, its passion are exemplary in an age when these virtues are dissipating into an atmosphere governed by an arid system of work and its metrics. Many Muslim Protestants are guided by a sadness, inverted into anger, that seeks to confront powerful, ill-defined and globalised injustices. This can only be a good thing.

Islam's Protestant movement is wrong to think, however, that the best way of achieving the world's submission to virtue is through violence. It must remember that the tiny number of 'sword verses' in the Qur'an is vastly outnumbered by the one hundred and twenty-four that urge either non-aggression or proportionality. They must recall that Aisha noted Mohammad didn't interfere with anybody 'unless it was done in the path of God'. The Qur'an is full of these elliptical phrases but a straight-forward quotation must surely be 2:169 in which God observes that devil is forever urging Man 'to say about God that which [he] does not know'. Such humility is in short supply among Protestant Muslims.

In sum, Islam needs the conservative school's awareness and knowledge of the past, it needs the modernist's ability to reshape the faith's materials for the future, and it needs the zeal of its Protestants, who will undoubtedly form the energy of the engine that will appear if all combine sensibly. If no common ground between these movements can be established Islam will fall to centrifugal forces already in play, with conservatives governing local madrasas, modernists dominating the fashionable ramparts of academia and IS commanding war zones. But in this tripartite world of no compromise it is arguable who suffers more - kafirun or ummah.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Co-founder, historian and Editor-at-Large of Excvbitor


Twitter: @byzantinepower


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    There is actually no real evidence that mahommed ever lived. He is not mentioned by name in the koran. H doesn't appear until some years after the various versions of the koran had been unified. Having travelled in moslem countries and known some pretty powerful men in those countries, I have always seen islam as an ideology invented by the Arabic armies after they had begun their sweep of conquering, because they needed something to help them rule their new and rather disparate territories. There is an opinion (and its only that) that they siezed upon some old Jewish writings and invented their "religion" because the idea of an ideology was unknown at the time. The hadiths have been added to over the succeeding centuries in order to validate actions they wanted to take or already had taken.

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