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Focus on Islamism
Friday 20th August 2010
On being a Muslim Jew

SHIRAZ MAHER

I have long maintained that I don't ‘do' theology. It really is not my game and, given the mess modern Islam finds itself in, there is very little to be gained from my entering the fray. Those who know me or follow my writing will know that from 2001-2005, I was a member of the radical Islamist party, Hizb ut Tahrir. I can't profess to having known much about Islamic theology then either - joining was a political move, the Militant Tendency of my day - and I don't claim to be an expert on Islamic theology today either.

I have been content to have left the party on my own terms and in my own way after researching Islamic political thought for myself. Until now, I have never sought to comment on that further but the ongoing mosque controversy in New York - fuelled by some of the very worst elements of the American Right - and, this silly post by Edmund Standing on Harry's Place (from which he nominally retired as a blogger at one point) has forced me to review that.

Yesterday, Gene highlighted an incident where Imam Rauf was speaking at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was brutally murdered by terrorists in Karachi. Pearl's fate has been weighing on my mind quite a lot as I recently travelled to Pakistan for this magazine and interviewed Taliban fighters in Karachi. It was a hair-raising experience, made worse by their repeated and gloating references to Daniel Pearl. At one point, I was told by my Taliban handler, we were passing ‘nearby' to where he had been killed. "Do you want to see where?" I was asked.

So I was delighted when I heard about Rauf's statement at the memorial service. Geoffrey Goldberg writes:

In 2003, Imam Rauf was invited to speak at a memorial service for Daniel Pearl, the journalist murdered by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan. The service was held at B'nai Jeshurun, a prominent synagogue in Manhattan, and in the audience was Judea Pearl, Daniel Pearl's father. In his remarks, Rauf identified absolutely with Pearl, and identified himself absolutely with the ethical tradition of Judaism. "I am a Jew," he said.

There are those who would argue that these represent mere words, chosen carefully to appease a potentially suspicious audience. I would argue something different: That any Muslim imam who stands before a Jewish congregation and says, "I am a Jew," is placing his life in danger. Remember, Islamists hate the people they consider apostates even more than they hate Christians and Jews. In other words, the man many commentators on the right assert is a terrorist-sympathizer placed himself in mortal peril in order to identify himself with Christians and Jews, and specifically with the most famous Jewish victim of Islamism. You can read the full text of his remarks on the B'nai Jeshurun website, but here is an especially relevant portion:

We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind and soul Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad; hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.

If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.

And I am here to inform you, with the full authority of the Quranic texts and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, that to say La ilaha illallah Muhammadun rasulullah is no different.

It expresses the same theological and ethical principles and values.

Today, Standing has been busy parsing those prose. He tells us:

The most pertinent question to look at is how ‘the full authority of the Quranic texts and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad' relates to Rauf's claim that, as a Muslim, he is also a Jew and a Christian.

[...]

However, the question is: will they be saved as Jews and Christians, or only if they go on to become Muslims? In other words, does the Qur'an, as Rauf seems to suggest, view Jews, Christians, and Muslims as being on an equal footing?

The reality is, not at all...While Rauf appears to be saying it doesn't matter which faith you follow, that is very unlikely to be the case.

Standing goes on:

Rauf reduces what it means to be a Jew or a Christian to an Islamically acceptable understanding (‘If to be a Jew...', ‘If to be a Christian...'). In other words, he takes two ideas - belief in one God and loving one's fellow human being - and defines this as Judaism and Christianity.

[...]

When Rauf appears to consider Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as one and the same, and proclaims himself a ‘Jew' and a ‘Christian', ... the type of Jew or Christian he actually envisages [is] - a type of ‘Jew' or ‘Christian' who is actually a Muslim - given his view is based on ‘the full authority of the Quranic texts'.

Standing is, I am afraid, falling into to the woefully narrow (and wrong) view here of seeing Islam as a monolithic entity with only one ‘correct' view. My dear friend Faisal from the Spittoon says it all in the comments to Standing's piece:

I find this article a mean-spirited attempt at de-contextualisation of theology to villify Feisal Rauf.

Imam Rauf made these comments in a speech made at the memorial service for Daniel Pearl, who was slaughtered in Pakistan by the British Islamist, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and cohorts in Al-Qaeda.

If a situation like that does not impel a cleric to reach out and make conciliatory comments and religious platitudes, I don't know what does.

What next? Digging out a speech Rauf made at an Easter Celebration and insinuating that he is a liar because Islam does not believe that Christ was resurrected?

One of the most depressing aspects of this debate has been to show that there are people out there who will damn Muslims if they are perceived to be isolationists and in the ghetto, and damned if they attempt to reach out.

I don't know Imam Rauf. I've never met him. But his position when he says, "I am a Jew" or "I am a Christian" sits perfectly well with me. Indeed, it reaffirms the very view of Islam that I came to adopt somewhere on the top floor of Cambridge University Library before I promptly resigned my membership of Hizb ut Tahrir. And that view is this.

I had been reading the work of Abul Kalam Azad (11 November 1888 - 22 February 1958) an Indian Muslim scholar and sometime politician in the Indian Freedom Movement. In the 1920s he wrote his seminal text, Tarjuman al-Quran, which, although ostensibly a commentary on the Qu'ran, indirectly explained his commitment to the Indian National Congress and its secular nationalism.

To cut down a long and verbose investigation on Islamic theology, Azad essentially took the concept of tauhid - the oneness of God - and interpreted it through the prism of a Sufi concept known as Wahdat al-Wajood. Azad argued that the basis of devotion to God should be rational belief and that man should strive to embody as many divine attributes as possible within himself, such as humility and righteousness. This is clearly expressed in the Qu'ran's opening chapter al-Fatiha, he argued, which states:

Praise is for Allah only - the Lord of all being; the benevolent, the Merciful; Master of the day of judgement

It epitomises the three central attributes of God - tauhid, mercy and justice. From this, continuing his exposition of al-Fatiha, Azad argued that its concept of monotheism is, in fact, a pantheistic one. He supported this by highlighting the Qu'ran's recognition of all previous prophets and the requirement on Muslims to accept them and their messages as being authentic. Indeed, some juristic schools within Islam accept what they call, "the law of previous prophets" (Shara man qablana).

This was only possible, Azad reasoned, because all religions preach the same essential message of tauhid, stressing universal values of righteousness, piety and humility. All monotheistic faiths are consequently legitimate paths to God having originally been conceived by him, prompting Azad to declare:

the Qu'ran has come only to confirm the previous revealed scriptures and not to deny them.

Therefore, while Azad would, of course, have regarded Islam as the best way to realise God - it was by no means the only way. Indeed, Azad held that against the backdrop of rising communal violence in India, Muslims should not seek new converts to the faith but should instead urge lapsed followers of other religions to rediscover their faith. In short, that would mean advising a non-observant Jew about the virtues of observing the Sabbath or advising Christians about the benefits of going to Church - rather than telling them to become Muslim.

I see no problem with any of this.

It was - and remains - a profound principle challenging the exclusionary beliefs held by some Muslim scholars about the supremacy of Islam and their binary division of the world into believers and non-believers.

Azad went further. Arguing that no one was immune to redemption, he suggested that the exclusionary practices of Muslims which failed to accommodate diversity demonstrated their failure to appreciate the lessons from the Quran's opening chapter. Failing to make common cause with wider society through emphasising points of similarity violated God's unity, he argued:

The unity of man is the primary aim of religion.

And Azad did not just stop with those who might be referred to as obvious ‘people of the book'. He also argued that Hindus were ‘people of the book' too.

The history of the Hindu concept of God is a panoramic view of conflicting ideologies. On the one hand there is the philosophy of the unity of God, and on the other there is the religion as it is practiced [today].

After all, some aspects of Hindu theology, particularly those which stress the trimurti (Hindu trinity) are monotheistic in their basic composition. Followers of the trimurti itself subscribe to a central belief about the unity of God represented through three of his attributes - Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the sustainer; and Shiva, the destroyer. While these deities are often represented independently through artistic depiction, examining the theoretical basis of trimurti reveals that it is not dissimilar to the Christian concept of the trinity, particularly Sabellianism, which maintains the belief that the three agents of the trinity represent different modes of the same person, rather than three wholly different people.

The idea of conceiving God through his attributes is not an alien concept within Islam either. The name ‘Allah' represents a composite mix of his ninety-nine attributes by which he can also be known. Therefore, just as Smartha Hindus believe God to embody the attributes of creation, sustenance and destruction, these are characteristics similarly attributed to Allah, by which he can also be invoked rather than using the central name: Allah. Muslims therefore also regard Allah as the creator, Al-Khaliq; the sustainer, Al-Qayyum; and the one who takes life (i.e. the soul), Al-Mumit.

The Qu'ran also makes it clear that Muslims can invoke God by calling on those attributes, telling its readers,

Call upon Allah, or call upon ar-Rahman: by whatever name you call upon Him, (it is well): for to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names.

By reassessing the theological relationship between Hinduism and Islam in this way Azad hoped to deconstruct the tensions which kept Hindus and Muslims apart. From establishing this principle it followed that all religions can be the same in spirit because the religion of God is one, if religiosity is defined as devotion to God, however conceived. This also circumvents questions about the validity of differing religious codes by suggesting their differences reflect the diversity of human civilisation, but that their essential spirit remains the same and universal.

Azad's acceptance of multiple paths to God makes it entirely unholy to forge division based on religion alone. Religion, viewed this way, is a constructive social element which can be used to transcended racial and communal difference by employing universal values. Azad told his readers:

If an idolater honours and worships God in his own way, he should not be shown any disrespect, because the honour and worship of God is, in any event, still the honour and worship of God.

Indian Muslims were therefore urged to see themselves as part of a wider, indivisible Indian society and not distinguish themselves by virtue of religion alone. For these reasons, Azad bitterly opposed the division of India and the creation of Pakistan.

This is where Standing gets it so wrong. Simply telling Muslims their religion is rubbish at every opportunity will get you nowhere. What Azad's scholarship offers is the most compelling case for a progressive, liberal, and secular Islam at peace with itself and the wider world. Popularising those beliefs from within - and with reliance on - an Islamic tradition gives ordinary Muslims the best chance to decisively and fatally undermine the millenarian mania of their co-religionists.

How could any sincere and thoughtful contributor to this debate want anything else?

Postscript: I should add that the ideas discussed here are much more meaty and substantive than what I have offered up. Friends who are more qualified and understanding than myself will expand on these concepts and ideas for those that want to pursue the debate in all its theological nuance. As I've said before, theology really is not my game.  

 
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Wien1938
August 22nd, 2010
4:08 AM
This is a very fine and interesting blog entry. The author is right about the non-monolithic nature of Islam having listened to some very interesting opinions in an interview with Walid Phares sometime ago. Neoconservative? Moi?

Rebecca Lesses
August 20th, 2010
4:08 PM
Thank you for this very clear exposition of universalistic Islamic theology. You may not call yourself a theologian, but you explained this point of view beautifully.

Edmund Standing
August 20th, 2010
3:08 PM
'It was - and remains - a profound principle challenging the exclusionary beliefs held by some Muslim scholars about the supremacy of Islam and their binary division of the world into believers and non-believers'. And where on earth would they get that idea from? It wouldn't possibly be the central holy book of Islam, then? Look, good on you if you really think this Azad stuff has traction. I hope so. But don't ask me to talk down to Muslims about their religion in the context of debate and discussion, any more than I do to anyone of any faith. I suppose I could just stay silent on the issue of religion altogether, but it seems a perfectly legitimate topic to discuss and criticise, just as Christianity, Socialism, book reviews, and art exhibitions are.

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About Focus on Islamism

Focus on Islamism is a blog dedicated to analysing and exposing the modern ideological phenomenon known as Islamism.

Shiraz Maher is a writer and broadcaster.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is a PhD student at King's College, London.  He has contributed to various online and printed publications including, The Daily Telegraph, Lebanon's Daily Star, Standpoint and NOWLebanon. 

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