Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent is Vital to Islam and America by Anouar Majid

Anouar Majid. A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America. ISBN: 0-8166-5127-2. University of Minnesota Press; 2007.

A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America

I first must say that this is the first review I’ve done of a book by an author who openly questions things that are widely-held tenets of Muslims such as the divine origin of the Qur’an, its complete transmission to us today, the infallibility of the Messenger Muhammad صلى الله عليه و سلم , the necessity of obeying the shari’ah (doing the ritual prayers, avoiding the consumption of prohibited items such as wine, etc.) and the reality of the Day of Judgment. While I do believe in these statements and I hope that one day my actions catch up with them, I have felt for a long time the necessity of embracing those who don’t subscribe to these items.

The first benefit of embracing these people is that they often are producers in their societies, meaning driving them away impoverishes the nation. How many cities in the United States thrive because of concentrations of gays and lesbians? Did not Iran lose a lot when so many Iranians left the country after the 1979 revolution? And while there are many reasons people leave predominantly Muslim countries, there’s no need to add repression to that list.

Second, and more importantly, the energy we “orthodox” Muslims spend discussing the errors of their ways distracts us from improving ourselves. We can even get to the point where we think attacking the kāfir, zindīq and fāsiq is a substitute for good deeds. When I was in Egypt and would read in the paper of a mob attack on Christians, I often suspected that the very people who would rush to “defend” Islam by attacking Christians may never have done a rak`a. Or at least I could not imagine how someone with an iota of fear of Allah could participate in these activities.

Finally, I am trying to cultivate in myself some naïveté about other human beings. So whenever I hear or see some Muslim (or someone who might be a Muslim) doing something apparently contradictory to my understanding of Islam, I imagine that he is a malāmātī ملاماتي (in a good way).

Now all of this is not part of Professor Anouar’s book, but it’s just my intro to encourage Muslims to read the book. One other feature which allowed me to read this book is the generally respectful and balanced tone which Professor Anouar uses regarding al-Islam and its symbols شعائر. What I mean by this is that he does not distort Islam by claiming that Islam enjoins a specific shameful incident, and where Muslims do wrong, he also mentions how non-Muslims may be doing something similar. It’s always amazing to me how modern liberal commentators talking about Muslim oppression forget that their own societies participated in the last 70 years in some of the most terrible bloodshed in human history. I remember in my lifetime how my United States government described the African National Congress as a terrorist organization and supported apartheid.

The author calls for heresy, “because all societies are diminished when multiple ways of being are eroded by self-appointed, single-minded guardians of authenticity.” (p. 2) Nor do Muslims alone need heresy; Americans as well have become victim to a rigid view of themselves that is just as much a religion (he calls it “Americanism”- p. 5) as Islam.

The author praises Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith, for the timeliness and boldness of his writing. He does criticize Harris for ignoring the role of secular circumstances in religious developments in our times. Are the actions of Muslims today the result of ideas and texts originating 1000 years ago or the current world system? Are American Christian conservatives the result of the Puritan colonists or the market fundamentalism of the neo-liberals?

I believe this linking of Muslims to the rest of the world is what separates Professor Anouar’s book from mass of critics of Muslims. When these critics criticize Muslims without linking them to what’s going on in the rest of the world, the only viable solution is their (military) extermination and subjugation. Professor Anouar writes:
Clearly, then, regime change, whether through military intervention, economic sanctions, or even friendly bank loans and grants is not the answer to Islam’s long-enduring impasse. The only way out from the Muslims’ intellectual crisis, which is at the heart of all the ills plaguing Muslim societies, is through the adoption of new forms of inquiry and protocols of discussion in a vibrant culture of ideas. Yet the burden of change and critical self-examination doesn’t fall on Muslims alone, but on the world’s people as a whole, since by now the entire planet is threatened with massive damage, or, rather, premature extinction, if our ways don’t change, and change radically as well. … The brave voices of American dissent … have been silenced by the loud cheering for the virtues of unbridled capitalist globalization. … One laments the bad timing for such a lapse, too, because no tradition can be more helpful to Muslims than that of America’s revolutionary generation. Many of the problems facing Muslims today, especially the place of religion in public life, were worked out successfully in eighteenth-century America. (pp. 14-5)

The first chapter, Death in Cancun, is an attack on neo-liberal globalization. More interesting to the readers of this blog are chapters 2 and 3, Specters of Annihilation and Islam and its Discontents, respectively. Specters of Annihilation is a summary of the rise of Islamism or Islamic fundamentalism, primarily relying on Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God. Armstrong argues that modernity has generated fundamentalist responses in all world religions. Professor Anouar shows how the writings of Muhammad Qutb and Nadia Yassine fit the pattern Armstrong identified and how Muslims’ responses to the threat of annihilation modernity posed have not succeeded in either limiting the threat or reconciling Muslims to modernity.

Islam and its Discontents examines North African and European reformist Muslims of the last 40 years. While their embrace of a “progressive interpretation of Islam may seem to be the best solution for Muslims in the present, mostly because Islam is a fact of life in Muslim societies and there seems to be no practical way of changing the situation. The problem with that approach, however, is that once one posits the Revelation as a nonnegotiable act, one is conceding, admittedly out of convenience, much of the ideological and cultural terrain to the ulema and the mostly conservative juridical corpus that underpins their theology.” (p. 102) Professor Anouar recommends approaches which start with the human origin of the mushaf مصحف (the written text of the Qur’an we use today). For the argument of the human origin of the mushaf, he cites Alfred-Louis de Prémare’s Aux origines du Coran: Questions d’hier, approaches d’aujourdhui, which the author notes has been published in Tunis. While the author does not discuss in detail the texts of hadith reports, one can assume that he recommends that Muslims similarly not treat these texts as revelation. (pp. 102-7)

My favorite chapter was America and Its Discontents. I never studied American history, and I honestly need to review this chapter several more times before I can write anything about it. Suffice it to say that I am puzzled how the disparate groups of religious fanatics and subjects of bizarre social experiments who colonized North America managed to unite into a functioning country. According to Professor Anouar, heretics were essential in this process, and the current American malaise is due to its lack of heresy.

One error that perhaps publishers can correct in a later edition:
Ismail is the son of Ya`qub, not Ishaq. (p. 66) صلى الله عليهم و سلم

Last edited 2008 Jan 29.

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