Faithful voices

The Word of Islam
March 22, 1996

Go to the sources and listen to voices that have rung with authority for generations," advises John Williams. Afterwards, one can "discriminate clearly among the modern voices". But is it as simple as that? If we assign, from the very beginning, that kind of exclusive primacy to orthodox sources, what chance is there of an alternative voice being heard at all? The sources and voices Williams selects are indeed representative and authoritative. It is Islamic orthodoxy speaking in confident accents, though the eloquence comes partly from the superb idiomatic English of Williams's translation.

The voice of the Arabic Koran is invariably aristocratic, dignified and magisterial whether the subject be the sublimity of God or the sordidness of seventh-century Arabia. Williams includes awkward passages about polygamy, slave concubines and the husband's unilateral right to beat a recalcitrant wife. Such prescriptions embarrass apologetic Muslims who often put tortured interpretations on simple texts to keep their Islam shoulder to shoulder with the best of the enlightened West.

After the Quran, the major textual source of Islam is the Traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. The selections portray believers zealously referring every imaginable concern to his authority and wisdom. Muhammad's belief and decisions are normative for all Muslims in all ages. The classical sources portray him simply as an Arab prophet-chief. Modern Muslim apologists represent him, variously, as a pioneer of gender equality, a pacifist and a reluctant mystic who accidentally made the mistake of founding an empire. It is a measure of his posthumous authority that all contemporary advocacies of Islam, whether reformist or obscurantist, still have to pretend to wear his insignia.

The selections from the manuals of the four Sunni law schools show us how appalled Islam governs all aspects of public and private life. The Muslim jurists, the equivalent of the Jewish rabbinate, sought legal insight (fiqh) into the divine law (Shari'ah). The ritual and ethical detail is lavish, though for many modern Muslims of purely antiquarian interest. (For purposes of calculating the obligatory alms tax, for instance, the taxable minimum on camels is five:one goat is due.)There has been no serious attempt to establish a modern school of fiqh: the gate of ijtihad (independent personal reasoning) has remained closed since the Middle Ages. The four medieval canons are still held to be authoritative although piecemeal changes are allowed.

In the dispute between theological orthodoxy and the heretics, Williams does not take sides. However, the tone of the chosen orthodox voices is marked by a deplorably archaic authoritarianism. The Koran is always quoted with terminological emphasis: the "liberal" theologians of the day - the Mu'tazilah - had no chance of being heard. The philosophical tradition, an unstable marriage of Greek curiosity with Koranic dogma, also died an early death. Had these two traditions survived into the modern world, the Islamic Enlightenment could have been formed using native resources. As it is, the stimulus is likely to be western and therefore unacceptable to Muslims.

Only orthodox opinions have survived into the modern world - but not intact. The orthodox but politically radical medieval theologian, ibn Taimiyya, jailed in three cities, was sincere and intelligent. Williams calls him "the Islamic Martin Luther". But the Germans have not made Luther a state theologian whereas a censored ibn Taimiyya is the patron saint of feudal Saudi Arabia. If alive today, would he be jailed in a fourth city?

Countless theologians ambush the Koran's human margins, closing in on God's word. Al-Ghazzali, the decisive theologian responsible for signing the death-warrant for philosophy in the Muslim Orient, attributed all heretical opinions to satanic influence. This liberty, taken by zealots of all confessions, conceals an exclusively religious form of hubris: men seek the authority of the divine for what are purely human views. The Koran is elastic enough to accommodate the aspirations of the heretics too. That may be theologically puzzling but it is undeniably true.

The chapter on early sectarian movements shows each faction putting its own goals and grudges first while all pretend to be seeking merely "God's good pleasure". I wish Williams had omitted this kind of pious balderdash and let us instead hear some voices of skeptical wisdom - the Muslim philosophers and a poet such as Umar Khayyam. Only the harsh realities of this world could make a dent in the armour of devout conservatism.

Shabbir Akhtar teaches at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

The Word of Islam

Editor - John Williams
ISBN - 0 500 771 0
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £12.95
Pages - 232

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