It is not easy to mutilate Islam. In other religions, “reformists” have only to infiltrate the hierarchy to implement their programmes. In Islam, there is no hierarchy: no bishops, no Dalai Lama, no Chief Rabbi, nothing. Orthodoxy, insofar as this essentially Christian word can safely be borrowed by Muslims, is not dictated to the faithful by a class of salaried religious bureaucrats. Instead, it is defined by the consensus (ijma) of the whole believing community writes Mohammed Al-Abbasi. This apparently extreme form of religious democracy does of course recognise certain boundaries. “My community shall not agree on an error“, promised the blessed Prophet; which means that a verdict given through ijma, however and whenever constituted, is one that has been guided by God. Vox populi, vox Dei. And Muslim ideas on religious authority are, by definition, always ultimately drawn from the unchanging revealed sources of the Quran and the Sunna, interpreted and reframed to retain their relevance amid shifting social conditions. But within these scriptural parameters, there will always exist a good deal of space, which can be filled with either conflict, or constructive diversity, according to taste. Classical Islam, which survived, at least in theory, into the present century, was rather proud of this sort of pluralism. After all, did not the first Muslims believe that the differences among the community s scholars are a mercy from God? Did not the existence of numerous theological and legal schools encourage debate and self-examination, thereby lessening the risk of stagnation? It is true that hostility between different interpretations of Islam led to occasional ructions, and caused puzzlement for governments which needed to enforce a standard legal code. But by and large, the system worked, maintaining a centuries-long diversity within the essential and recognisable unity of Muslim life. The arrival of modernity has pulverised these arrangements, probably for ever. When the European powers invaded and occupied the Muslim lands, they swept away the old lawcourts and schools, and imposed norms and curricula devised by themselves. Arab and Indian schoolboys suddenly found themselves learning Homer and Wordsworth, Voltaire and Adam Smith. In Algeria, right until independence in 1961, every Arab child had to memorise a poem which asserted, “Our ancestors, the Gauls, had blonde hair (nos ancetres les Gaulois etaient blonds)”. This extreme dislocation did not come to an end when the Muslim states regained their political independence. The relics of the ancient Islamic order, where this had not been extirpated by force, were in most cases too enfeebled to reassert themselves. Among the elites at least, the cultural holocaust seemed to have been a real success. And yet the advocates of this mass conversion: the secular missionaries, their converts and schools, had forgotten something important. Quite simply, the European soul cannot be exported. The triumph of Western culture in America and Australia had been achieved through the straightforward method of killing most of the natives and replacing them with Europeans. This was not so easily done in the Muslim world, despite partial successes in places such as Algeria and Kazakhstan. The natives were too numerous, and their countries too hot, for European immigration to work properly; hence most of them managed to keep their land and their lives. Their new overlords were happy to let this happen, confident that over the years, demoralisation and the decay of the indigenous culture would lead to a successful conversion to the coloniser’s attitudes and lifestyle.
What these theorists forgot, fatally, was that to have a culture, one has to belong both to its present and its past. The present could be acquired, through a visit to the tailor and sending one’s children to a modern-style school. The European past, however, remained European property. Hence the schizophrenia of secular intellectuals in the Muslim world. Hence, too, the increasing success of the Islamic, so-called fundamentalist, alternative. For to be a secularised and westernised Muslim is to live without a past. However eagerly such a person may rub shoulders with the Westerner in his wine bars, colleges and clubs, however many successful plays and novels he may churn out, he is at root still something of an interloper, who knows that while his European friends are the products of the long and steady evolution of a single culture, and would probably recognise their grandparents lifestyle as being authentically related to their own, the interloper is a convert, whose own ancestors lived a life which to him is either unknown or unimaginably alien. Somewhere in his pedigree there lies a radical fault line, beyond which is the Other. The soul of the authentic European, however indifferent he may be to his past, is not so riven.
It took several decades for the deracinated intellectuals of the Muslim world to realise that they could not be Europeans after all. When this realisation began to dawn, the smooth road to modernity suddenly seemed to take a sharp turning into uncertainty and chaos. The early voices of indigenous reawakening, such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad, had themselves been pseudo-Europeans who had seen the process of cultural suicide for what it was: the relinquishment of one culture, coupled with the emotionally and philosophically impossible attempt to replace it with another. But then came the rub. This new awareness, coming as it did from apostates from the European process rather than from representatives of the surviving indigenous culture, was not pleased with what it saw in traditional religion. There seemed to be too much diversity, too little hygienic consistency. With the neatness of mind which they had learnt from the West, and driven by a giddy enthusiasm which blinded them to the finer aspects of the classical heritage, many of the fundamentalists announced that they found the Islam of the people horribly untidy. Why not sweep away all the mediaeval cobwebs, and create a bright new Islam, streamlined and ready to take its place as an ideology alongside Marxism, capitalism, and secular nationalism? To achieve this aim, it was thought that the four madhhabs of fiqh had to go. Ditto for the Ash`ari and Maturidi theological traditions. The Sufi orders were often spectacularly exotic and untidy: they of course had to be expunged as well. In fact, at least ninety percent of the traditional Islamic texts could happily be consigned to the shredding machine: while what was left, it was hoped, would be the Islam of the Prophet, stripped of unsightly barnacles, and presiding over a reunified Muslim world, striding towards a new and shining destiny.
Historians, had they been consulted, might have pointed out to these eager activists that exactly the same policy had been pursued by the zealots of the Reformation in Europe, and with some very unlooked-for results. The issues were often very similar. The mediaeval scholastic edifice was pulled down, to be replaced with a reliance on scripture as interpreted by the individual conscience. Great scholars of the past were finally buried, often after being bitterly anathematised. The idea of sainthood, since it was absent from the vocabulary of the first believers (being all saints, they didn t need it), was considered as suspect. Places of worship were stripped of elaborate decoration, while the complex sacred symbolism which had formerly underpinned the arts proved an especially tempting target. Religious festivals were reduced to those which seemed to be sanctioned explicitly in revelation. City and countryside alike were purged of local sacred tradition, and submitted to a policy of standardisation. A sort of spiritual sterilisation resulted which opened the way for the crass materialism of the Industrial Revolution and the eventual general secularisation of the European mind. Predictably enough, our own Islamic Protestantism, like that of Calvin, Luther and Cromwell, has in practice yielded division rather than unity, and mental and cultural poverty rather than a new brilliance. Not only are the Muslim Protestants (salafis, as they inaccurately call themselves) at loggerheads with traditional orthodox ulema, but they find it notoriously hard to agree among themselves. In Egypt alone, it is estimated that there are over seven hundred salafi groups, between whom bitter arguments and even violent clashes are depressingly common. In Afghanistan, the inability of the Wahhabi fighters to tolerate the existence of other readings of Islam has plunged the country into a civil war which has caused more damage than ten years of Russian occupation. The reason for this intolerance and discord is obvious. Now that the Four Schools have been dismissed as innovation (bid`a), each Protestant Muslim is expected to refer directly to the Quran and Hadith to discover the doctrines and rites of religion. The result has been predictable: instead of four schools, we now have thousands. Even in Britain, there are Muslim groups whose contact with traditional education is so tenuous that they refer to translations of the Quran and Sunna, rather than asking experts or consulting properly researched works of fiqh and aqida. To mention their names would be both unnecessary and unkind, but we are all familiar with the fanatical rigour and bizarre interpretations they can come up with, and the strange delight they appear to take in attacking all who differ from their totalitarian and shallow view of religion. It is worth thinking about why this do-it-yourself approach to the Shari`a should be so hazardous. To derive rulings directly from the Quran, one has to have mastered Arabic, since a translation of the Book is never really a translation – it simply conveys something of its inspiration and formal content. It is likewise necessary to know the seven variant Readers of the Holy Quran, and to know which verses are abrogated, and to be able at least to read the main commentaries. And as if this were not enough, the task of deriving rulings from the Sunna is even more exacting. There are hadiths even in Bukhari and Muslim which are known to be abrogated and which no longer apply, while many others can only be understood in relation to their original context. And there are plenty of sound hadiths scattered through hundreds of books which have not been translated into English. On top of all this, one needs to understand the sophisticated legal mechanisms recognised by the early Muslims, such as analogy (qiyas), consensus, considerations of public interest, the various classes of hadith, and so on. Unless one knows all this, one is in immediate danger of straying from the straight path, and introducing extreme and reprehensible forms of innovation into the Sharia.
It should be clear that the responsible alternative is to follow one of the four accepted schools (Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki and Hanbali), whose founders were infinitely more competent than the young enthusiasts of today in deriving the rules of Shari`a from the revealed sources. Similarly, in spiritual matters, it can be very hazardous to try to deduce a spiritual method for ourselves from the revealed sources instead of recognising that we are not qualified to do so and that we should seek a spiritual guide who himself follows the Quran and Sunna. Nothing is more hazardous that sailing across the ocean of revelation, whether of the law or the spirit, in a vessel knocked together by oneself rather than built by a great master-craftsman. An example? I was once at a ghetto mosque in Brooklyn, New York, listening to a group of new converts earnestly trying to discover from the Yusuf Ali transaltion of the Quran and Muhsin Khan’s translation of Bukhari, whether it would be permissible to steal money from a liquor store. When I intervened, it turned out that none of them had even heard of the Four Madhhabs or the need to rely on authoritative scholarship. Readers can probably supply more examples of this kind of lethal ignorance from their own experiences. The Muslim world, in struggling to shake off the burden of secularity, is in danger of sliding into a Protestant confusion which will destroy its unity forever, just as the Reformation destroyed Christian unity and threw Europe into centuries of savage religious warfare. The traditional, authentic Islam, still taught in universities such as Al-Azhar, has provided the basis for stable unity in the past, and is demonstrably workable. The self-styled Salafi models, whether we choose to call them Wahhabi or anything else, tend to generate intolerance, disorder, and a hostility to all forms of intellectual and spiritual life, an attitude which may, ultimately, succeed where the colonialists and the Westernisers failed. The enthusiasms of the enemies of ijma seem to resemble death throes, not tokens of new life.