Islam's unofficial clergy are not people of the Book but slaves of the Book. All has been surrendered not to God but to a text. And it is a text that is gang-raped to yield whatever ephemeral slogan t

February 13, 1998

When Shabbir Akhtar published his doubts about Islam in The THES, fellow Muslims reacted with sympathy and sadness. Yet he remains convinced that Islam would benefit from a battle between free-thinking intellectuals and those who see themselves as 'God's anointed'

During the recent Muslim religious festival of Ramadan I was talking to a visiting Malay academic who had read my piece "Ex-defender of the faith'', published in The THES last August. In it I argued that my experiences during three years as a philosophy lecturer at the International Islamic University in Malaysia had led me to re-examine my attachment to the Islamic faith. I had started to feel that, historically, Islam was tied too closely to its Arab origins. Is Islam, in fact, a global faith or merely an Arab cultural achievement? In conversation with my Malay friend I speculated that the recent financial and environmental crises in Malaysia were perhaps partly a divine punishment for maltreating visiting philosophy lecturers. I smiled at him lest he miss the joke.

Since August I have had much feedback about my autobiographical piece. It was received with sadness rather than anger by Muslim readers. One devout Muslim friend sympathised: "You must have suffered like hell to have written that article'', while a secularised Muslim acquaintance remarked: "You have lived for three years in the Middle Ages''. A Turkish Muslim wrote me a long letter attributing my "confusions'' to a knowledge of "too many faiths and heresies''. He clinched the case by quoting a Turkish proverb: "He became an infidel - hesitating between two mosques''.

The university dismissed all my criticisms as baseless. For my part, I concede that the attack in my August article on the suitability of Arabic for philosophical discussion was unfair. Arabic, like Hebrew, has the capacity to generate novel words and expressions from existing roots. However, unlike in English, there is a great reluctance to borrow foreign vocabulary owing to a religiously sanctioned emphasis on the purity of the Arabic language. And my article was not intended as a personal attack on the rector of the university; it would be absurd to blame one man or one institution for what are the limitations of a whole civilisation.

On a practical level, although the university authorities have not defended Arab linguistic imperialism as a policy, they have implemented it in practice. Students constantly complain about the university's attempt to force them to take courses in Arabic even in areas irrelevant to their degrees. The Koran, of course, does exalt Arabic but it simultaneously regards all human languages as "the signs of God".

Every scholar in the faculty of revealed knowledge who had access to both western and Islamic learning was miserable in that environment and all have subsequently left to take up academic posts in Britain and North America. Indeed, some of us had proposed the idea of a department of occidental studies where Muslims would investigate objectively the status of western civilisation. There would be a journal edited there, scholars from the West would come for visits, and so on. The proposal was dismissed as being part of "a western plot to undermine Islam''.

I worry about my former students. In Islam, as in Judaism and Confucianism, there is rote learning and a reverence for the precise written text. Some students not only memorised the Koran but even attempted a kind of memorisation of the whole heritage for a higher degree.A masters candidate had often "mastered" nothing but rote learning.

Needed now are two battles, within Islam, that could act as catalysts for the emergence of an Islamic Enlightenment. I hope that both will happen in my lifetime. There will be suffering. The first is a struggle for the universality of Islam, a move away from its traditional Arabolatry. Paul, at the beginning of Christianity, took the Jews to task for their self-image as People of the Covenant. In doing so, he freed the new Christian movement from its Hebrew cultural background. No one today associates Christianity with the Jews or even with the Greek language. Islam, by contrast, has suffered from too close an identification with Arab culture. This linkage must be decisively ruptured. Ironically, Muslim missionaries from the Indian subcontinent are now increasingly preaching Islam in Arab lands, disturbed by the neo-paganism of contemporary Arab societies.

The second internal struggle will pit Muslim intellectuals against the traditional religious intelligentsia, the ulama, who see themselves as the anointed. This will be a theological battle, not merely a political squabble between radicals and moderates that leaves Islam theologically intact. The ulama, Islam's unofficial clergy, are merely jurists and yet they pretend to sit in judgement on the possibility or impossibility of all knowledge, not only legal knowledge. The totalitarian implications are clear. The Kingdom of God must now become a republic to suit our modern estate.

Faith is not something that the ulama possess; rather it possesses them. They are not people of the Book but slaves of the Book: all has been surrendered not to God but to a text. And it is a text that is gang-raped to yield whatever ephemeral slogan they need. The anointed ones speak the rhetoric of truth, goodness and justice while merely gilding their own hidden lust for power. Islamic societies need to rediscover their spiritual character. Prayer should amount to worship and not be simply a socially prudent habit.

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

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