The way scholars form a reasonable interpretation of a
particular religious tradition is by merging the religion's myths with
what can be known abut the spiritual and political landscape in which
those myths arose. By relying on the Quran and the traditions of the
Prophet, along with our understanding of the cultural milieu in which
Mohammed was born and in which his message was formed, we can more
reasonably reconstruct the origins and evolution of Islam. [...]
Once a reasonable interpretation of the rise of Islam in sixth- and
seventh-century Arabia has been formed, it is possible to trace how
Muhammad's revolutionary message of moral accountability and social
egalitarianism was gradually reinterpreted by his successors into
competing ideologies of rigid legalism and uncompromising orthodoxy,
which fractured the Muslim community and widened the gap between
mainstream, or Sunni, Islam and its two major sectarian
movements, Shi'ism and Sufism. Although sharing a common
sacred history, each group strove to develop its own interpretation of
scripture, its own ideas on theology and the law, and its own community
of faith. And each had different responses to the experience of
colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, that
experience forced the entire Muslim community to reconsider the role of
faith in modern society. While some Muslims pushed for the creation of
an indigenous Islamic Enlightenment by eagerly developing Islamic
alternatives to Western secular notions of democracy, others advocated
separation from Western cultural ideals in favor of the complete
"Islamization" of society. With the end of colonialism and the birth of
the Islamic state in the twentieth century, these two groups have
refined their arguments against the backdrop of the ongoing debate in
the Muslim world over the prospect of forming a genuine Islamic
democracy. But as we shall see, at the center of the debate over Islam
and democracy is a far more significant internal struggle over who gets
to define the Islamic Reformation that is already under way in most of
the Muslim world.
-Reza Aslan, Prologue
Here is a book that many of us have been looking for since at
least 9-11. As a child, Reza Aslan experienced the excitement and hope
of the Iranian Revolution which seemed to portend the advent of an
Islam-based democracy a child and then the disappointment of its broken
promises, as the mullahs betrayed not just the ideals of the Revolution
but the teachings and traditions of Shi'a Islam as well. In this book he
provides a history of Islam and a glimpse of its possible future that is
informed by his desire to refurbish the image of his faith in the eyes
of the West and, perhaps more importantly, to reconcile modern Islam
with the liberal democratic template of the West, which is its
inevitable future, here at the End of History.
Critics who know the history far better than I fret that the narrative
Mr. Aslan provides here is too rosy, because he intends to read into
Islam's past the basis for a reformist agenda. That hardly seems
important given how badly it needs such reform. At any rate, the
initial sections on Mohammed and the founding of Islam are especially
compelling and are really must reading for anyone who can't understand
the faith's appeal or Mohammad's greatness. If the centrality of the Ka'ba in Islam has always mystified you, Mr. Aslan will show you how it's position as the site of Muhammad's quite literal iconoclasm makes it the equal of Mt. Sinai in significance. Likewise his depiction of the early Muslim community that Muhammad established in Medina, organized around revolutionary principles of social justice, is extremely compelling. If the picture he paints is idealized it's an ideal worth defending.
Much of the rest of the book is devoted to tracking the divisions that grew up within Islam, between Sunni and Shi'ites, then Sunni and Sufi, then the diversion of much of the Sunni population into Sa'udi backed Wahhabism, and finally into the various violent and radical strains that are fueling terror in the world today. While all of these divisions are somewhat tragic for Islam, not all had necessarily disastrous results. It's possible to imagine healthy communities within Sunni, Shi'a and Sufi Islam and the three co-existing peaceably. But Mr. Aslan identifies one divide to which he traces many of the problems of Islam generally, that between what he calls respectively Traditionalists and Rationalists:
As the starting point for all doctrinal discussions in Islam, the Oneness and Unity of God clearly raises some theological problems. For example, if God is absolutely omnipotent, then is God also responsible for evil? Does humanity have the free will to choose between right and wrong, or are we all predetermined for either salvation or damnation? And how is one to interpret God's attributes--God's Knowledge, God's Power, and especially God's Speech as recorded in the Quran? Is the word of God coexistent with God, or is it a created thing, like nature and the cosmos? [...]
By the ninth and tenth centuries, this debate over determinism and free will was loosely divided between two major strands of thought: the so-called "Rationalist position," most clearly represented by the Mu'tazilite school, and the "Traditionalist" position, dominated by the Ash'arite school. The Rationalist Ulama of the Mu'tazilah argued that God , while fundamentally indefinable, nevertheless exists within the framework of human reason. Challenging the notion that religious truth could be accessed only through divine revelation, the Mu'tazilah promulgated the doctrine that all theological arguments must adhere to the principals of rational thought. Even the interpretation of the Quran and the traditions, or Sunna, of the Prophet were, for the Rationalists, subordinate to human reason. [...]
The Ash'ari argued that human reason, while certainly important, must nevertheless be subordinate to the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet. If religious knowledge could be gained only through rational speculation, as the Mu'tazilah claimed, there would be no need for prophets and revelations; the result would be a confusion of theological diversity that would allow people to follow their own wills rather than the will of God. The Ash'ari considered reason to be unstable and changing, while the prophetic and scriptural traditions--especially as they were defined by the Traditionalist Ulama--were stable and fixed.
With regard to the question of free will, Rationalist theologians adopted and expanded the view that humanity was perfectly free to act in either goodness or evil, meaning that the responsibility for salvation rested directly in the hands of the believer.
This definition seems problematic, even if we can see what he's getting at. To the extent that the Traditionalist will have insisted that only their orthodox interpretation of Islam is accurate and that it is timeless, unchanging and comes directly from God, it would make for a religion that is too static and inflexible to serve a world that is very much different than the desert community in which it arose. However, as presented here the Rationalist position is entirely untenable as well. We've rehearsed the limitations of Reason often enough here, not least its capacity to demonstrate that belief in Reason is ultimately irrational. Were we require rational proof for everything we believe to be true we'd have to rule out rationality as well--an obvious bridge too far. But the implication of Mr. Aslan's formulation is that Reason is indeed superior to Faith, rather than a tool of faith and dependent in its own way on faith. The Ash'ari certainly appear to get the better of that argument. Faith in God and obedience to the morality that He dictated for us must by their very nature be beyond rational proof, else there'd be no such thing as faith. We are left to take Mr. Aslan's point about the problems caused by the rigidity and over-literalism of the Traditionalists without being too terribly comfortable about the Rationalist view he offers instead.
In the final section of the book though Mr. Aslan more than redeems any confusions in the middle as he applies his "Rationalist's" understanding of Islam's origins and principles to discuss what the future of Islam might (must) be:
On the day Khomeini returned to Iran, I took my four-year old sister by the hand and, despite my mother's warning not to venture outdoors, led her out of our apartment in downtown Tehran to join the celebrations in the streets. It had been days since we had gone outside. The days preceding the Shah's exile and the Ayatollah's return had been violent ones. The schools were closed, most television and radio stations shut down, and our quiet, suburban neighborhood deserted. So when we looked out of our window on that February morning and saw the euphoria in the streets, no warning could have kept us inside.
Filling a plastic pitcher with Tang and stealing two packages of Dixie Cups from our mother's cupboard, my sister and I snuck out to join the revelry. One by one we filled the cups and passed them out to the crowd. Strangers stopped to lift us up and kiss our cheeks. Handfuls of sweets were thrown from open windows. There was music and dancing everywhere. I wasn't really sure what we were celebrating, but I didn't care. I was swept up in the moment and enthralled by the strange words on everyone's lips -- words I had heard before but which were still mystifying and unexplained: Freedom! Liberty! Democracy!
A few months later, the promise of those words seemed about to be fulfilled when Iran's provisional government drafted a constitution for the newly formed and thrillingly titled Islamic Republic of Iran. Under Khomeini's guidance, the constitution was a combination of third-world anti-imperialism mixed with the socio-economic theories of legendary Iranian ideologues like Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shariati, the religio-political philosophies of Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, and the traditional Shiite ideals of Islamic populism. Its founding articles promised equality of the sexes, religious pluralism, social justice, the freedom of speech, and the right to peaceful assembly -- all the lofty principles the revolution had fought to attain -- while simultaneously affirming the Islamic character of the new Republic.
In some ways, Iran's new constitution did not differ markedly from the one written after the country's first anti-imperialist revolution in 1905, except that this constitution appeared to envisage two governments. The first, representing the sovereignty of the people, included a popularly elected President who would serve as the executive of a highly centralized state, a Parliament charged with creating and debating laws, and an independent Judiciary to interpret those laws. The second, representing the sovereignty of God, included just one man: the Ayatollah Khomeini.
This was the theory of the Valayat-e Faqih ("the guardianship of the jurist"), which Khomeini had been developing during his years of exile in France. In essence, the Valayat-e Faqih proposed that in the absence of the Imams (the divinely-inspired saints of Shi'ism) the country's "most learned cleric" (the Faqih, also called the "Supreme Jurist") should be given "the responsibility of transacting all the business and carrying out all the affairs with which the Imams were entrusted."
Khomeini was not the first Shi'ite theologian to have made this claim; the same idea was formulated at the turn of the twentieth century by politically minded clerics like Sheikh Fazlollah Nuri (one of Khomeini's ideological heroes) and the Ayatollah Kashani. But what was startling about the Valayat-e Faqih was Khomeini's insistence that the Faqih's authority on earth must be equal to the infallible and divine authority of the Imam. In other words, Khomeini had made himself a saint who's ever decision was binding and who's very authority was unconditional.
It is a sign of the great diversity of religious and political thought that exists in Shi'ism that most other ayatollahs in Iran -- including his superiors, the Ayatollahs Boroujerdi and Shariatmadari -- rejected the Valayat-e Faqih, claiming that the role of Muslim clerics in post-revolutionary Iran was merely to preserve the spiritual character of the Islamic state, not to run it. But what made Khomeini so alluring was his ability to couch his radical theology in the populist rhetoric of the time. He thus reached out to Iran's influential communist and Marxist factions by reformulating traditional Shi'ite ideology into a call for an uprising of the oppressed masses. He wooed the secular nationalists by lacing his speeches with allusions to Iran's mythic past, while purposely obscuring the details of his political philosophy. "We do not say that government must be in the hands of the Faqih," he claimed. "Rather we say that government must be run in accordance with God's laws for the welfare of the country." What he often failed to mention publicly was that such a state would not be feasible except, as he wrote, "with the supervision of the religious leaders."
Consequently, Khomeini was able, by the power of his charisma, to institute the Valayat-e Faqih as the model for Iran's post-revolutionary government, paving the way for the institutionalization of absolute clerical control. Still, Iranians were too elated by their new-found independence and too blinded by the conspiracy theories floating in the air about another attempt by the CIA and the U.S. embassy in Tehran to reestablish the Shah on his throne (just as they had done in 1953), to recognize the implications of the Valayat-e Faqih. Despite warnings from the provisional government and the vociferous arguments of Khomeini's rival ayatollahs, particularly Ayatollah Shariatmadari (whom Khomeini eventually stripped of his religious credentials despite centuries of Shiite law forbidding such actions), the Iran's new constitution was approved in a national referendum by over 98 percent of the electorate.
By the time most Iranians realized what they had voted for, Saddam Hussein, encouraged by the United States and furnished with chemical and biological samples by the CDC and the Virginia-based company the American Type Culture Collection, launched an attack on Iranian soil. As happens in times of war, all dissenting voices were silenced in the interest of national security, and the dream that had instigated the revolution a year earlier gave way to the reality of a totalitarian state plagued by the gross ineptitude of a ruling clerical regime wielding unconditional religious and political authority.
The intention of the U.S. government in supporting Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war was to curb the spread of Iran's revolution, but it had the more disastrous effect of curbing its evolution. It wasn't until the end of the war in 1988 and the death of Khomeini a year later that the democratic ideals embedded in Iran's constitution were gradually unearthed by a new generation of Iranians too young to remember the tyranny of the Shah but old enough to realize that the present system was not what their parents had intended. It was their discontent that fueled the activities of a handful of reformist academics, politicians, philosophers, and theologians who have embarked on a new revolution in Iran not to secularize the country but to refocus it on genuine Islamic values like pluralism, freedom, justice, human rights, and above all, democracy. As the eminent Iranian political philosopher, Abdol Karim Soroush, has defiantly remarked, "We no longer claim that a genuinely religious government can be democratic but that it cannot be otherwise."
Iran's previous revolutions in 1905 and 1953 were hijacked by foreigners who interests were served by suppressing democracy in the region. The revolution of 1979 was hijacked by the country's own clerical establishment who used their moral authority to gain absolute power. This new revolution, however, despite the brutally intransigent response it has thus far received from Iran's clerical oligarchy, will not be quelled. That's because the fight for Islamic democracy in Iran is merely one front in a worldwide battle taking place in the Muslim world -- a jihad, if you will -- to strip the traditionalist Ulama of their monopoly over the meaning and message of Islam, and pave the way for the realization of the long-awaited and hard-fought Islamic Reformation that is already under way in most of the Muslim world.
The reformation of Christianity was a terrifying process, but it was not, as it has so often been presented, a collision between Protestant reform and Catholic intransigence. Rather, the Christian Reformation was an argument over the future of the faith -- a violent, bloody argument that engulfed Europe in devastation and war for more than a century. Thus far, the Islamic Reformation has proved no different.
For most of the Western world, Sept. 11, 2001, signaled the commencement of a worldwide struggle between Islam and the West -- the ultimate manifestation of the clash of civilizations. From the Islamic perspective, however, the attacks on New York and Washington were part of an ongoing clash between those Muslims who strive to reconcile their religious values with the realities of the modern world, and those who react to modernism and reform by reverting -- sometimes fanatically -- to the "fundamentals" of their faith.
This is a cataclysmic internal struggle taking place not in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, where the Islamic message was first introduced to the world, but in the developing capitals of the Muslim world -- Tehran, Cairo, Damascus, and Jakarta -- and in the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe and the United States -- New York, London, Paris, and Berlin -- where that message is being redefined by scores of first and second generation Muslim immigrants.
By merging the Islamic values of their ancestors with the democratic ideals of their new homes, these Muslims have formed what Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Muslim intellectual and grandson of Hasan al-Banna, terms a "mobilizing force" for a Muslim reformation that, after centuries of stony sleep, has finally awoken and is now slouching toward Medina to be born.
It's important to note the irony here that the problem with the Iranian Revolution as Khomeini put it into effect was that it was Rationalist, deeply influenced by the totalitarian ideologies of the West, and not based in the true tradition of Islam. As Mr. Aslan suggests, the Reformation of Islam will require that the values of that original Islamic revelation be reconciled with more modern means of organizing
government and the economy. What waits to be born is almost inevitably a form of Islamic liberal capitalist protestant (small "p"). The Islamism will make it unique, but the basic forms will be recognizable since they seem to be universal here at the End of History. The changes that this will involve from where most Islamic nations are today are understandably frightening and it's certainly understandable if many resent the idea that they're essentially being forced to adopt a Western model. More importantly, and a point missed by many in the West, if Muslims look towards the example of the dying states of secular Europe they're entitled to wonder what is to be gained by such a Reformation. But if they look to America they can see the exciting prospect that such a liberal democracy can be (must be) explicitly based in Abrahamic religion and can vindicate the values of their tradition. If the arrival in Medina sees the creation of faith-based Islamic republics that parallel, though differ from, the American faith-based republic, then the future of Islam will be bright indeed.