On Being a Muslim is not to be compared with Hans Kung's tome On Being a Christian , a summa of modern Catholic anguish. Farid Esack writes in a free, easy, conversational style like that used in a teenage magazine. Exclamation marks, often multiple, express his joy and liberation on virtually every page. Muslims, he declares, "wanna have some power".
But he cautions "No fatwa (legal opinion) without taqwa (righteousness)". To acquire his piety he sets out on the road to Mecca. In quest of the Holy Cave of "Muhammad, our shepherd", a repentant Esack is the "lost sheep begging to be found and returned to the flock". There are no signposts on the path leading to the cave of revelation; Esack follows the Pepsi cans that litter its modern route. After a tiring journey, he is suddenly at the cave only to find there the ungrammatical
graffiti of lovers: "Galiema and Fatima was here - 1967".
It could have been a revelatory moment but Esack did not stay to note the ubiquity of human love.
Western Christians and liberals have praised Esack as a brave Muslim fighting those omnipresent villains, the Muslim fundamentalists. Muslims, however, condemn his interpretation of the Koran as criminally secularised and accuse him of taking in vain the name of Allah. From a Christian and liberal point of view, he holds all the right opinions: that Muslims need to conform to the modern world, that Muhammad really upheld universal peace, equality and democracy. Esack quotes selectively from the classical sources of the tradition he criticises. And he proudly lists his Christian mentors in Europe.
The self-admiration is frequent. Take a few pages at random. "It is always nice to see my name in print and, with this book, it's going to be nice again." Esack spots "the joy in my new class's eyes when they hear that I'm going to be their teacher". He says of himself that he is like the boy who tells his mother "Let's play darts. I'll throw the darts and you say "Wonderful'". The self-praise descends into tautology and pun: "I am I"; "I am Farid" ( farid means unique in Arabic). Then the megalomania descends into incoherence: "I am chosen because I am chosen, not because you are frozen".
Esack is opportunist in his use of Muhammad's sayings, whose authenticity is disputed and for the reason that divided classical Islam into strong, intermediate and weak. He is understandably fond of the saying "Seek an opinion ( fatwa ) from your heart". But this is certainly a fabrication reflecting the wishes of a later liberal age. Esack dismisses as weak the more authoritarian sayings, locating their source of authority no higher than his opponent's own top shelf. In any case, tracing back all Muslim attitudes to the mind and policy of Muhammad is now unnecessary: Muslim common sense needs no imprimatur from the past.
Esack rightly reads the Koran as a plea for social justice. But it was not originally intended to be merely a call for such justice; it was a demand for an enthusiastic response to the whole authority of the word of God. Esack re-interprets the Koran as a purely moral guide whose author is indifferent to the distinction between faith and disbelief. We worship a God, he insists,who does not believe in such labels. Nonetheless, "On Being a South African Muslim" would be a better title given Esack's narrowly political anxieties. For Esack, Islam is a means to political and personal moral power. But surely religion makes you stronger, not strong; our modern objection is not to religion but to the weakness that requires religion. No authentic Muslim would recognise himself in these pages.
Shabbir Akhtar is the author of A Faith for All Seasons: Islam and Western Modernity .
On Being a Muslim: Finding a Religious Path in the World Today
Author - Farid Esack
ISBN - 1 85168 146 9
Publisher - Oneworld
Price - £10.99
Pages - 212