RSS feed for Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit

Devoted to the viewpoint of Islam of Muhammad SAW and Amir ul-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib SA, in the Shi'a Fatimi Ismaili Dawoodi Bohra tradition.

December 7, 2002

dialouge of unprovable assertions.

There has certainly been a full-scale resurgence in the Blame Islam movement (myself, I tend towards the Blame Muslims camp). Jonah Goldberg calls on "moderate" muslims to prove they are not terrorists. Dipnut (no offense intended, that's his pseudonym) has a lengthy and rational post which says that "moderate" muslims are really the fanatics at that Islam is rotten at its core. Steven Den Beste calls for Islam itself - the sum total of the faith, not just individual strains of interpretation - to be radically "defeated" (extending his earlier arguments). And a scan of comment threads on LGF reveals calls for internment camps and "nuking the cube". These examples represent a progression of sorts, but Dipnut's and Steven's arguments represent a logical plateau. The arguments by NRO and LGF commentators are a kind of fallacious gorge isolating them and I have no desire to venture into such depths.

Dipnut's arguments are reasoned and well-organized, and it was a pleasure reading his writing. While I cannot fault his reasoning, my disagreement with his conclusions is no great surprise, but the reason is because I simply do not accept his assumptions (upon which his arguments are solidly grounded).

Dipnut writes:

The murderous mobs and terrorist cells may be un-Islamic in some obscure canonical sense, but right now they are more representative of Islam as a whole than are such as Aziz Poonawalla. The actual killers are only a small minority in Islam, but their sympathizers (by which I mean anyone with a neutral-or-better opinion of their activities) probably number in the hundreds of millions.

May be un-Islamic. Are more representative. Probably number. These are Dipnut's impressions and opinions, shaped by the media silence addressed earlier.

Note that I do not think the media is racist or that fixing that silence is a priority or any other such victimized petulance. The WHY behind the reason for the media filters are essentially irrelevant. But reliance on such heavily filtered data guarantees flawed conclusions.

The majority of Muslims ARE "moderate". This is a simple fact. The "core" of Islam is quite sound and healthy - but existing as it does in Asia and the Middle East, and documented in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Gujarati, mostly existing offline, and being of absolutely zero entertainment or shock value to the American media, the assertion that the core is rotten is intellectually dishonest. If Dipnut recognizes that the Core of Islam is completely beyond his access for observation and analysis, then the entire thesis must be re-examined.

Note that these assumptions are central to Steven's analysis as well. I sent Steven a link to the David Warren article "Wrestling with Islam" with the sole motive of finding it interesting, and certainty that it would trigger his blogging impulses (I dont have any ambition or desire to change Steven's view of Islam, as he speculated, though I certainly make use of him as foil for my own arguments). Steven focuses on Warren's pessimism as a function of his (Warren's) religious belief, regarding the outcome of the perceived clash of civilizations. Steven parlays this into an expression of his own atheist worldview, and finds cause for optimism:

If that's correct, it gives me even more hope for a positive outcome in this war, for it means that a sufficient number of terrible setbacks for their side will shatter that faith, as the infidel keep winning and Allah keeps not showing up for the fight.

I know that's not something a devout Muslim like Aziz would think is desirable, but for me as an atheist I see religion as being helpful for individuals but largely negative for society collectively. To the extent that individuals practice it without it becoming a societal force, it's net positive (in most cases) providing comfort and guidance. When it starts meddling in politics, the effects are uniformly negative in part because it is uniformly anti-pluralistic. Thus for me the ideal state is actually something like what we have in the US, where religion is quite common but there are so many different ones that no single one attains critical mass.

I agree that the United States is the closest to ideal, for complementary reasons, as a member of a minority of a minority religion. Steven is mistaken when he thinks I would disagree with him about the desirability of Wahabis finding that Allah does not materialize to lend their deranged interpretations spiritual legitimacy. I think my self-interest in such a scenario is obvious. But where I start to disagree is in how he extrapolates his atheist worldview to the most unlikely of targets - ie, the practice of religion:

I've been wondering for a while, and have sometimes voiced the possibility, that indeed one way for this war to end is for us to shatter Islam itself; not Islamism or pan-Arabism, but Islam outright. At the very least, the most fundamentalist forms of Islam may need to be shattered.

Certainly Wahhabism has to be the primary target of this, and what would remain in what I see as the ideal case would be Islam as personal religion but without Islam as mass movement. Islam existing, Islam still broadly believed, but Islam in a thousand small pieces (if not in hundreds of millions). Islam not as a small number of vast monoliths, but Islam as a personal faith, interpreted as the result of individual study and thought. Islam as belief and not dogma; as religion and not as identity. Islam as moral guidance and not as politics. Islam as the equivalent of the thousand Protestant sects of Christianity, not Islam as Catholic Church. Islam as a force in individual lives but with little direct effect on the operations of society (any society, theirs or ours). Islam as one religion among many.

This extends Steven's prior ideas about Defeating Islam, but here the scope is expanded dramatically. Having never met Steven, I can't be certain, but I think I detect his sense of humor at work. It cannot be a coincidence that his side of the debate with me always returns to defining my belief on his terms :) But treating this as a serious proposal, it's easy to identify gaping flaws in his understanding of how Islam is structured.

The fact is, the vision of an intensely personal Islam that Steven advocates is already central to the faith. In fact, as a Shi'a, I am further from this state than a Wahabi, since Shi'a do believe in hierarchical religious systems and Sunnis practice a more distributed form of worship. The analogy between Shi'a and Sunni is analogous to Catholic and Protestant. The danger of the Wahabis is not that it is a centralized theocracy, but rather that every wingnut with a Qur'an is free to indulge in projection of their prejudices and grievances onto the text, without any authority to assist with the context.

The great schools of Islamic thought - four Sunni "madhabs", and the Shi'a branches - all have extensive devotion to exegisis of the Qur'an, as a coherent book. Only the Wahabis take a word-by-word, reductionist approach to the text. Lacking a centralized authority, they are able to assign meanings based on expediency, not context or analysis. Steven's solution would undermine these traditional structured schools and actually encourage Wahabi-like theologies. To extend his analogy towards Christianity, he is labeling Protestants "Catholics" and then arguing that they need to be more Protestant!

Also, Steven has a dramatically false assertion:

Warren makes a point also made elsewhere that the western concepts of tolerance and sympathy (which manifest in the most extreme form now as "multiculturalism") are in fact relatively modern, and that the Muslims who embrace those ideals learned them from the West (mainly from Christian missionaries), and are in the minority.

Actually, Islam makes the same distinction in the Qur'an that Christianity has always made between "believers" and "non-believers". I find it ironic that an atheist like Steven has never come across this concept in Christianity before. The Qur'an has very strong messages of tolerance - explicitly calling for respect and freedom of other faiths to exist and practice in peace. The most famous surat in the Qur'an about tolerance has a powerful, yet simple message:

O disbelievers!
I worship not that which ye worship;
Nor worship ye that which I worship.
And I shall not worship that which ye worship.
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.

And the Abbasid Caliphate, based in Baghdad, was reknowned for its tolerance and benevolent rule over its non-Muslim subjects. The Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt even had non-Muslims at the highest levels of government. And the Mughal Emperor Akbar married a Hindu princess. These are simply a few counterexamples to disprove Steven's general assertion that tolerance is alien to Islamic teachings or cultures.

And Steven makes the same media-filtered gaffe as Dipnut when he tries to assert that tolerant Muslims are in the minority. It certainly me be true that a minority of Muslims viewed in the media are tolerant. But to extrapolate from a filtered data set to the general populace? I invite Steven to consult his copy of Bevington and review the section on "Estimated Error in the Mean" (specifically Equation 4.14).

Dipnut also tries to underscore the general argument by making the case that the Wahabis' control of Mecca lends them a far-reaching legitimacy:

A "moderate" Muslim*, living in the West, may deplore the bloody-minded Wahhabi sect of Islam, but as a Muslim he cannot elude its influence. The Wahhabis own Mecca, and as we'll soon see, whoever owns Mecca gets to decide not only the landscaping and architecture but the meaning of the place. When our friendly Muslim goes on his hajj, he'll be in the Wahhabis' hands. He'll live, for a time, in their brutal austerity, in their idea of a good society. He'll adopt their customs. He'll do as they say, if only to get through the day in a strange land. The white-washed, windowless walls will enclose him, the endless drumbeat of purity purity purity will soak into him as he reaches for the wellspring of his own soul, to offer his devotion to God.
And for the rest of his life, five times a day, he'll relive the experience, praying toward the Mecca of the Wahhabis' sterile hopes and dreams. Of course, this won't make him a Wahhabi. He can retain his own ideals, his own interpretation. But that interpretation will always be at odds with a central part of his religious experience. A small thing, perhaps, but a small leak in the boat means bailing water throughout the journey.

This is absolutely false (to say nothing of the profound misunderstanding of Hajj[1]). Consider a history lesson: ALL of the great Islamic empires (Ummaiyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Babur, Ottoman) established their capitals in brand new cities - Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Delhi, Constantinpole - rather than try to control Mecca directly. The main role of Mecca was that whichever ruler's name was read aloud at the Great Mosque on holy friday was the generally acknowledged Symbolic Leader of Islam (in the Sunni tradition). But this did not translate to any kind of pan-Islamic control, and rival Islamic empires existed simultaneously at many points in history.

Granted, the Wahabis control Mecca, but that is SOLELY because the Sauds control Arabia. And the Sauds control Arabia SOLELY with British, then American, support.

But is their control of Mecca the reason that the Wahabis have established such a threatening posture regarding proslytezation? NO. It is because Wahabis are funded by Saudis. The success of the Wahabis is DIRECTLY a function of their enormous base of political and economic support from the Sauds. The Sauds are DIRECTLY supported by the West. The West is in a Clash of Civilizations with Wahabi Islam? Do you detect a certain irony?

The truth is that the rest of the 99% of the Muslims worldwide who belong to thousands upon thousands of different ethnic/political sects, and who adhere to any one of hundreds of theological schools, are not influenced by Wahabism because they control Mecca. It is because the poverty of the third world, the oppressive rule of tyrants, and the misguided implementation of ideological economic policies, have all resulted in a vast pool of disaffected people. These people exist in Palestine, in Turkey, in Israel, in Egypt - even in France. This is fertile ground for Wahabism, a parasitic interpretation whose Christian counterpart has not gained much traction in recent history (the occassional Fallwell and Robertson aside) because the disaffected class has largely been pacified.

The real problem thus boils down into a top-down parasite (Wahabism) that is artificially supported (Sauds) feeding on a vast pool that is fed from bottoms-upwards by oppression and misery. How to correct the problem? Remove either the parasite or the pool. The pool is a larger problem and much more complicated. The parasite is a simple problem. Which do you think the war on Iraq will solve, if you by into the warblogger and neocon theories about why Iraq needs the smackdown?

So what then to make of all these non-Muslims exhorting Reformations and Defeats? Al these calls for Islam to be remade into something a little more Western or democratic or Christian or fuzzy or otherwise compatible with the NRO crew and the neocon agenda? The fact is, Islam as mass movement is a manifestation of the inherent strength underlying the basic undistorted message of the Qur'an. Which is embodied by the daily living practice of nearly a billion "moderate" muslims worldwide. This is an unstoppable force of good in the world, whose legacy is generation upon generation of decent and moral people, who strive for ascension to the next world by the virtue of their deeds in the present one.

This may not be very reassuring to Steven, but Islam has and will continue and grow. The calls for Reformations and the polemics about how rotten the Core of Islam is, are mere hysterics, fueled by false binary-ism of the Clash of Civilizations thesis. Those who buy into the existenc of a separable entity called "The West" and another called "Islam" are naturally going to try and neuter the other side. Steven's hope that Islam loses its appeal and becomes more of a personal philosophy (akin to his self-defined engineerism) is really an attempt to destroy what makes Islam unique, so that it becomes more familiar, and thus less threatening. Trying to convince him that Islam is not the problem, that it is a solution to the problem, is pointless, and it is not my goal, because what he thinks about Islam is essentially irrelevant.

The current phase of Wahabism is an artificial construct, which we as Muslims must deal with realistically - but it is not a manifestation of an inner rot - it was grafted onto Islam by Imperials and continues to be propped up by neo-Imperials. But ratherthan cast stones of blae, we have to grapple with it in a realistic way. I will discuss how Muslims need to do this in a future post.

[1] Few non-Muslims are aware, but what you do during Hajj was prescribed by the Prophet SAW, and is not influenced in any way by the Saudis. The religious rituals, the ascetic quality to the experience, all are constant and have been since the Prophet SAW himself led it. What the Saudis have done is actually make Hajj safer, cleaner, and more accessible, and they finance hundreds of thousands if not millions of pilgrims each year, providing opportunity for Hajj to millions who would otherwise never have the means to complete this requirement of faith. The treatment of the Hajj is the one single aspect of the Saud legacy in Islam with which I not only find zero fault, but actually praise to the highest degree.With all due respect to Dipnut, all his comments about Hajj and filtering worldview and whatnot are the purest nonsense.

permalink | posted by Shi'a Pundit


Nahj-ul Balagha

About Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit was launched in 2002 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The blog focuses on issues pertaining to Shi'a Islam in the west and in the Islamic world. The author is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Bohras adhere to the Shi'a Fatimi tradition of Islam, headed by the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS).

traffic stats -

html hit counter