During the late 1980s, Farid Esack was one of the most conspicuous Muslim campaigners against apartheid in his native South Africa. His sermons and broadsides diffused by the Call to Islam association of which he was National Co-Ordinator until 1990 were warmly received, particularly by anti-racist sections of the Christian churches. Among Muslims, however, he remained a provocative and sharply controversial figure. Most mosques and Islamic organisations saw him as a dangerous gadfly, either because they were nervous about his support for the ANC, which they believed might launch Ugandan-style expulsions of South Africa’s Asians, or because they were disturbed by his apparent co-option by Selly Oak-type Christians. Deprived of a substantial base of Muslim support, in the tense, dying years of the apartheid regime he found himself in the sparsely-populated veld which separated two laagers: the accommodationist or non-political movements (such as the Tablighi Jamat, or Ahmad Deedat’s Islamic Propagation Centre), and advocates of armed resistance to thetaghut of apartheid (Qibla, the Murabitun, and a confusion of others).
This rejection by South African Islam drove Esack further into the embrace of Christian activist movements, who paid for his studies and welcomed him on their platforms. But it is only with the publication of this book that the extent to which his views have reflected this Christian suhba has become clear. Esack is here proposing an iconoclastic revolution in Islamic methodology, the result being a set of Islamic ethics which dovetail precisely with liberal values. No unsightly survivals from the past are to be permitted: the Qur’anic ethic is, despite all appearances, a miraculous prefigurement of late twentieth-century Western ideals. Esack is here treading the path taken by earlier modernists, such as Ameer Ali, who a hundred years ago re-examined the Qur’an to discover in its pages the entire moral code of Victorian England.
Esack recognises that to defuse or bypass the apparently non-liberal and traditionalist thrust of Muslim scripture requires an elaborate new hermeneutic. (To kill the unsightly old furu for good, the old usul must be uprooted.) Hence much of the book attempts a scholarly reappraisal of tafsir (Quranic exegesis) and usul al-fiqh (jurisprudence). One recognises traces of a postmodern strategy in the hyperbolically close reading of the text, which then unravels, to be sewn back together with meanings ‘read in’ by the bold hermeneut.
Unfortunately, this project is marred by a worrying crop of academic solecisms, some quite glaring. Just a sample few of these will indicate the nature, if not the scale, of the problem. On page 95 a hadith describing all humanity as ‘the family of God’ is weirdly justified by attributing it to the neo-Wahhabi writer Nasir al-Albani’s book Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da’ifa, whose explicit intention is to list only hadiths which are spuriously attributed to the Prophet. On p.112 the bila kayf (immodal) interpretation of the anthropomorphic passages in the Qur’an is imputed to Ibn Hanbal (it is in fact a quintessentially Ash’ari doctrine). On page 270 we are told that the Ash’aris ‘opposed rationalism and were supportive of notions of predestination’, whereas this is in reality a good definition of the Hanbalism which the Ash’aris opposed: rationalism is prominent in the standard Ash’ari texts, as is their doctrine of Acquisition (kasb), which as Majid Fakhry has shown is a radical denial of Hanbalite/Mujbira notions of predestination. On page 276 a tafsir work is attributed to Ibn Arabi, whereas scholarship has known for several decades that this text is in fact by Afif al-Din al-Tilmasani. The use of dates is at times inconsistent and confusing: for instance, at the top of page 177, Shahrastani’s death date is given as 1153, while at the bottom of the same page it becomes 548: the Gregorian and Hijra dates respectively, although the distinction is not indicated or explained, here or elsewhere.
The reader’s confidence is further undermined when he learns of Esack’s scepticism about the authenticity of the hadith literature. Ignoring the recent vindication of the hadith by Harald Motzki of Hamburg University, Esack plumps for a traditional scepticism a la Goldziher and Schacht, and announces that ‘where I do cite a hadith in support of a particular opinion, it is not because I believe that it is authentically the word of Muhammad, although that may indeed be the case; I cite a hadith because it reflects the presence of, and support for, the idea among earlier Muslims.’ By this manoeuvre, most scriptural material which obstructs Esack’s theory of a liberal revelation is handily discarded. He does not, for instance, have to construct an exegesis to defuse such hadiths as ‘Each Jew or Christian who hears of me, and then does not believe my message, shall be one of the inhabitants of the Fire.’
Even Christian or secular readers of his text will note that this involves Esack in a contradiction when he turns to his leading task: the adumbration of a new Qur’anic hermeneutic. This is because his radical deconstruction of the Qur’an relies heavily on locating it within its original context. The Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman suggested that the sacred text acquired its temporal colouring from its passage through the mind of the Prophet, and that the traditional situational exegesis (asbab al-nuzul) active upon each verse has a confining effect. The rules of the Qur’an cannot regularly transcend the coordinates in time and space which they immediately addressed. A hukm, to use the language of the jurists, is not normative and cannot transcend the archetypal illa or the sabab. And with the ratio of so many moral events today radically altered, Rahman and Esack demand that the content of the Qur’anic message must in many places be subject to suspension or fundamental reevaluation. Hence Esack writes (p.12): ‘it is impossible to speak of an interpretation of the qur’anic text applicable to the whole world.’ This opinion is hardly post-modern or even novel: it informed the jurisprudence of Najm al-Din al-Tufi and many Shi’a Ghulat in the middle ages, and is a recurrent modernist theme in our century. Mustafa al-Siba’i, for instance, used it to enable his vision of the Qur’an as a kind of Marxist manifesto. But Esack, by querying the hadith literature, has in fact closed this option against himself. The contexts of Qur’anic revelation are mediated entirely by the hadith. Sira is merely a hadith genre – and not the least precarious one; and if there is no Sira, there are no asbab al-nuzul. Having allowed Schacht to bake his cake, Esack cannot then unbake it in order to do exegesis.
Esack’s tafsir, as he himself makes clear, is driven by praxis. It is not an abstract encounter with God and revelation that moves him to redefine the latter (and to some extent the former); it is his own turbulent experience of injustice in the world.
He borrows from the liberation theology of Gutierrez and others to suggest that old-fashioned scriptural readings which acquiesce in establishment tyranny must be displaced by a liberative exegesis that emphasises God’s justice. This is a curious proposal, particularly since Shabbir Akhtar and others have already seen liberation theology as amounting in effect to an Islamization of Christianity. The New Testament urges us to ‘resist not him that is evil’, and enjoins believers to postpone restitution until the imminent Second Coming. Islam, by contrast, appears as intrinsically liberative, taking its cue from the patterns of the Sira. Kenneth Cragg has famously criticised Islam’s alleged optimism about ‘political religion’ and the chances of reforming the deeply sinful structures of the world. But Esack is here working with the contrary stereotypes: we must inject the allegedly Christian paradigm of liberation into a static and accommodationist Islam, so as to render religion capable of changing structures, not just individual souls.
Esack’s odd but interesting exercise in role reversal was inspired by his admirable willingness to cooperate with Christian opponents of apartheid. A prominent consequence of this has been his interrogation of what he takes to be traditional Sunni verdicts on the religious efficacy of the Religions of the Book. For him, the supersessory salvation history conceptualised in the kalam is not enough; he will only approve a doctrine which allows Christians and Jews, and others, to achieve salvation on their own terms. This obliges him to examine and attempt to defuse the numerous Qur’anic verses that appear to condemn pre-Muslim forms of religion, a task to which he brings to bear the theory developed in particular by Rashid Rida that iman and kufr do not denote what Cantwell Smith would describe as ‘reified’ faith and unbelief, but dispositions of the heart which can exist within any religious denomination. Tackling the verses one by one, as though they were a series of bombs, he disposes of some quite elegantly, but their sheer number appears finally to overwhelm him. He declines, for instance, even to attempt any defusing of a verse such as ‘They commit kufr who say, “God is Jesus, the son of Mary”.’
Esack’s frankly exhausting (but not exhaustive) tour of the exclusivist verses of the Qur’an is generally oblivious to Muslim reflection on this celebrated issue. He notes briefly the contribution of Shah Wali Allah al-Dahlawi (in Arabic, ignoring Marcia Hermanson’s English translation), but fails to cite from that author’s principal work on the subject, al-Budur al-Bazigha, in which the Indian author develops a perfectly humane explication of how non-Muslims can be saved, even if they have been exposed to Islam and refused it. Neither is there any awareness of the dispute between Ash’ari theories of accountability being conditional upon receipt of revelation, and the Maturidi notion of universal access to fundamental metaphysical and moral truths irrespective of access to a scripture. Recent Western discussions of the theme, to the extent that they do not appear in Christian periodicals, are also ignored. Thus, for instance, Kevin Reinhart’s important book Before Revelation merits no discussion whatsoever.
Even more puzzling is Esack’s neglect of Western Muslim reflection on the theme of religious plurality. William Chittick’s monographImaginal Worlds: Ibn Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity outlines, albeit with regrettable brevity, the Andalusian theosophist’s appreciation of non-Muslim faith. Ibn Arabi’s perspective predates Esack by eight hundred years, and yet is incomparably more nuanced, and has the indispensable merit of being rooted not in the transient hurly-burly of ‘praxis’, but in metaphysics and the direct knowledge of God. Ibn Arabi is only somewhat less controversial a figure than Esack, but this should not have deterred the bold South African pioneer from mining his works to discover that Islam has, after all, nurtured an authentically pluralistic theology of the Other.
Chittick himself stands in the tradition of Western Muslim theological writing that was launched by Rene Guenon (Abdal Wahid Yahya, d.1951), and which remains, in this reviewer’s opinion, among the most fascinating pluralistic theologies in Islam or in any religion, despite its undoubted errors. It is surely an odd failing of Esack’s book that he fails to mention the very existence of this prolifically-published school of thought, which could offer him a paradigm of toleration which spares him the labour and humiliation of weeding out unfashionable views from the Islamic scriptures to allow space for his own concept of ‘what Allah must have meant’.
Esack’s exuberant manifesto goes on to tackle a further issue. Accepting without discussion the liberal axiom that racism and ‘sexism’ are analogous forms of oppression, he demands the abolition of gender-related dimensions of Qur’anic legislation which conflict with modern liberal values. In the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela had promised the mainstream Muslim organisations that Muslim personal law would be introduced following the abolition of apartheid, allowing South Africa’s Muslim community the right to be judged by Shari’a values in matters of inheritance and marriage law. Esack, however, led a determined protest against this move. In May 1995 he appeared before the relevant government sub-committee, and pleaded with the authorities to change their mind. Partially due to this, in October 1996, the final version of the country’s constitution made it clear that there would be no room for Shari’a justice in the new South African state. Esack, predictably, was delighted.
Esack’s campaign against the Shari’a is a manifestation of his apparent conviction that in every case where the ethos of the Qur’an appears to conflict with that of modern liberalism, then it is the Qur’an which must give way. Liberals who demand the abolition of Qur’anic guidance on inheritance, marriage, divorce, custodianship of minors, and indeed any other social issue, must be set in authority over the ijma of the Umma, past and present.
This approach has provoked huge controversy in South Africa, particularly in connection with Esack’s advocacy of female imams in mosques. He cites with approval a remote Cape Province community where men and women take turns in leading the Friday prayers, and mocks the foolish ‘conservatives’ who have the temerity to reject this. At this stage of the book Esack does not even go through the motions of claiming a Qur’anic justification for his views. Neither can he be troubled to discuss the minority of classical scholars, such as Ibn Arabi (again), who have validated the imamship of women for male or mixed congregations, or their fiqh justifications. The medieval experience of, say, the Madrasa Saqlatuniya in Cairo, staffed entirely by women, and where women led other women in prayer, does not merit a mention, nor do bula preachers in Bosnia, or the Hausaland wan-taro. The recent discussion of the gender issue by Sachiko Murata, which is transforming the teaching of gender in Islamic studies departments in the United States, is passed over in silence. The sole and sufficientdalil is what he calls ‘progressive’ – the progress involved being not in the direction of the model exampled by the Companions, but towards the consensual values of the modern secular West.
This feminist issue recalls once again Esack’s responsiveness to his Christian tutors, who have been anxious to direct Muslims along the lines recently followed by those liberal churches which ordain priestesses. The age-old European concern with securing the Europeanization of the earth – imperialism, to use a more frank expression – today relies on reshaping the parameters accepted by the Other: accession to Western values can only be guaranteed when non-Westerners think in Western terms. Among secular thinkers this is today a common transformation, but in Esack’s case, his tutors have successfully secured a more interesting paradigm shift of a theological order. His book is written entirely in Christian theological language. It completely lacks the style and reverent tenor of Muslim reflection, with its characteristic indigenous terminology, and with the deployment of scriptures as sacred archetypes rather than as archaic problems. In fact, Esack is even less inclined to invoke God than are many Christian theologians, who at least manage to squeeze Him in parenthetically when they wish to make a poetic gesture, growing tired of their sterile intellectualizing. One wishes that his tutors had shared with him Anselm’s distinction between soliloquy and allocution, between speaking about God and speaking with God. Muslim religious reflection traditionally attempts the latter; but Esack is more comfortable deriving affective resonance from sociological rhetoric (‘liberation’, ‘tolerance’, ‘progress’), transposing ‘God’ to what becomes at best a minor and even dissonant key.
Christian missiology has long recognised the need to secure such a paradigm shift in Muslim discourse. Attempts to debate with Muslims on Muslim ground, using Muslim categories, have an unnervingly poor record of securing conversions. Modern missionary establishments, nowadays politely wrapped in the veil of ‘dialogue’, prefer to convert Muslims first to the use of Western Christian terminology and concerns, after which, it is thought, formal conversion will follow naturally. And in Esack’s case, the success of this approach is very striking. Given his language, his moral code, his disdain for the ‘the letter’ and preference for the ‘spirit’ (however shallowly defined), Esack has become closer to the New Testament than to the Quran.
To his credit, Esack closes his book by faltering. His exultant hyperliberal diatribe which throughout the work annoys readers with sarcastic and polemical language (the ulema are ‘the clerics’; the Prophet is referred to merely as ‘Muhammad’), gives way in the last pages to some long overdue reflections broadly on the theme of ‘where will it all end?’ And where indeed? He rightly comments that ‘pluralism itself is not without ideology, but is intrinsically related to a discourse founded and nurtured in critical scholarship which, in turn, functions as an extension of areligious – even anti-religious – Western scholarship.’ Well, yes indeed, but Esack is not going even to suggest a response to this one. He has opened the postmodernist Pandora’s Box, and cannot say what will emerge next. He speculates about Hindu priests conducting marriage ceremonies in mosques – and why not, given his logic? So well has Esack lubricated the canons of fiqh that anything is now possible. Should the next item be homosexual imams? New regulations for wudu? Shari’a marriages for consenting incest partners? Once the canon is broken, this year’s extremism is easily transformed into next year’s pioneering innovation. ‘Islam’ itself is emptied of normative content, and self-destructs.
Esack has faintly grasped that his liberal ghuluww is wide open to this sort of reductio ad absurdum. Who will close the floodgates? And even more alarmingly, who is authorised to perform this subjectivist ijtihad? What subjective Rahmanian ‘elan’ will shape the new exegesis? After all, the same looseness that enables a hyperliberal hermeneutic can as easily be deployed to authenticate violent extremism. In Algeria, the pseudo-Salafi guerrillas who slit the throats of women who refuse the niqab are using a very Esackian approach to revelation. The traditional ijma consensus is as objectionable to takfir-validating Wahhabis as it is to homosexualist or feminist exegetes.
Algeria and South Africa, sitting at both extremes of Africa, well reflect the social roots of anti-ijma zealotry. Both are countries where white minority rule distorted and suppressed Muslim expression; although in Algeria white rule was after 1962 continued not by colons but by brown local converts to ideas of European cultural supremacy. Disillusionment with accommodationist leadership coupled with the suppression of majoritarian Islamist discourse in both cases nourished the liberal and fascistic fringes. In Algeria, extremism will only diminish when a popular government is allowed to take power. But in South Africa, that popular government has already come into being. And as Esack himself notes, the constituency for his hyperliberalism has shrivelled rapidly since Mandela’s victory. His Call to Islam society no longer even exists. Confronted with the eternal concomitants of liberal legislation and a pornographic media – South Africa is presently enduring a boom in the sex, drugs and crime industries – Muslims are recognising that the consensual Shari’a is a more coherent model of response than a hyperliberalism that having contributed to the problem, cannot be expected to solve it. In the new South Africa, Esack seems set to become a lone voice crying in the wilderness for a bygone age of simpler black-and-white certainties.
It remains only to comment on the book’s physical appearance. This is curiously disappointing. An antagonist to mainstream Islam will not find a Muslim publisher, and Esack has been obliged to publish with Oneworld, a small Oxford house associated with Baha’ism, the Iranian messianic movement. Oneworld have bound the volume using the ‘perfect’ method which ensures that copies will disintegrate after a few years on the shelf. A perfect metaphor, no doubt, for this and all other ephemeral attempts to replace a magnificent logocentrism with the presumptions of a cultural subaltern; but as Muslims well know, the Bible command still stands and challenges us all: Be not conformed unto this world.