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Moderate Islam: A Pipe Dream!

Reader comment on item: [The Search for Moderate Islam:] A Reply to Lawrence Auster

Submitted by A (Keen) Student of Islam (India), Feb 26, 2005 at 00:01

February 25, 2005

Dear Dr.Pipes

I read your exchange (with Lawrence Auster) with great interest – and far greater satisfaction. That Islam, moderate or radical, is now being increasingly recognized in Western intelligentsia as one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity's carefully nurtured balance of modernistic values, is in itself a heartening sign.

Having done a modest reading of Islamic sources - Quran, Hadis and Seerat, I would tend to agree more with Auster, although the profundity of your own admirable intentions is laudable.

You state that "Islam can be whatever Muslims wish to make of it" despite the well-known reality that the perfected word of Allah is immutable (see HQ 3:7) and none has authority to alter it. Belief in Islam – or declaration of being Muslim – has an implicit requirement of faith also in the infallibility and immutability of the Quran. The scripture, therefore, cannot be interpreted to mean "whatever Muslims wish to make of it" because they are forbidden by the same scripture to do that!

The ostensibly peaceable, non-assertive or accommodative attitude historically evinced by certain individuals and groups dispersed over the non-Muslim world, living under varying circumstances of political empowerment, is likely to be more in emulation of the policy adopted by the Prophet (PBUH) during the Meccan period of his prophethood (when militarily weak), and less an indicator of a genuine desire to become moderate. Historical record proves how the immediate and inevitable consequence of demographic change has been establishment of the Islamic State.

In a speech on 19th September 2001, the US's greatest and perhaps most pampered Islamic ally in the global War Against Terror, President Musharraf of Pakistan, justifying collaboration with the US, is reported to have told Pakistanis:

"In this situation if we make the wrong decisions it can be very bad for us. Our critical concerns are our sovereignty, second our economy, third our strategic assets (nuclear and missiles), and forth [sic] our Kashmir cause. All four will be harmed if we make the wrong decision. When we make these decisions they must be according to Islam.

"Its [sic] not a question of bravery or cowardice. But bravery without thinking is stupidity. Allah has said that he who has ‘hikmat' has a huge blessing. We have to save our interests. Pakistan comes first, everything else is secondary.

"Some ‘ulema' are trying to react on pure emotions. I want to remind them of Islam's early history. The moved [sic] from Mecca to Medina (hijrat). Was this (God forbid) cowardice? This was wisdom to save Islam.

"Then when the Jews saw that Islam was getting stronger they started to conspire against the Muslims. When the Prophet (PBUH) saw this happening he signed a no war pact with his enemies in Mecca. I want to remind you of that pact. At the end of the pact, where his signature was required, the Meccans demanded that he cannot [sic] sign it as "Prophet Mohammed". The Prophet (PBUH) agreed.

The Prophet explained later that its [sic] best for Islam, and it's the right thing to do. And time proved him right. Six months later there was a war with the Jews and the Meccans did not support the Jews and the Muslim forces won. And some time after that Mecca also fell to Islamic mujahideen."

[Highlighting of text mine]

This is a sample of the Islamic syntax employed in a public address by the head of state of modern-day Pakistan for justifying co-operation with the US, de rigueur likening it to what the Prophet (PBUH) had done 14 centuries ago at the time of the Treaty of Hudaybiyah (628 CE) with the idolatrous Meccans! Needless to state to one of formidable Islamic scholarship as you, the treaty was regarded by the Prophet's (PBUH) companions as an admission of weakness, as was Pakistan's co-operation with the US by Musharraf's. One wonders (and shudders at the thought!) whether the last sentence in the portion of the speech quoted is a portent of what Musharraf (who, I would presume, is reckoned moderate by historical school standards) desires to be Washington's (scripturally inevitable?) destiny!

Long and deep study of historical Islam might be so much of a wasted effort if purely situational pragmatism and prudence - exemplified all through his career by the Prophet (PBUH) himself - is doggedly mistaken for a manifestation of an intrinsically felt need to humanize and modernize.

Only one who has the strength to deny a certain freedom may justly contemplate permitting it. HQ 109:1-6 to you your religion; to me my religion and other ayats like 2:256, revealed during the Prophet's (PBUH) early Meccan sojourn (and quoted ad nauseum by liberals), have even been confounded by apologists as prescriptions of religious tolerance, whereas in reality they were in the nature of expedient advice for securing concessions of practicing their own religion to minority Muslims, which the pluralist Meccans seem to have even allowed for a time. However, a few years after that treaty (631 C.E.), when the Prophet (PBUH) had acquired requisite military strength, his moderately tolerant disposition towards non-Islamic persuasions underwent an astonishing change and he sent Ali to Mecca to communicate the latest revelation from Allah – the ‘discharge from obligation' contained in HQ 9:1-6 – which "signified the end of idolatry in Arabia" (Pickthall, Delhi 1997, p.145). This goes to prove that Islam cannot be separated from its inherent penchant to dominate by means fair and foul. Instances of tolerance, adjustment, concession, and conciliation among others are matters of policy, not principle.

If Islam does indeed change to adapt to multi-cultural pluralistic modernity, it must exclude from its repertoire – or at least utterly modify – the Allah-ordained agenda of world domination, along with many other now-antiquated prescriptions on various aspects of human existence including those regulating individual conduct. But will it then remain pristine Islam any more? For, in that event, the very raison d'être for Allah's perfected religion will be jettisoned.

India is one of the few nations that have perhaps engaged in such a protracted and unceasing war against Islamic terror – since 712 C.E.! It has encountered both forms of Islamic expression that you discuss with Auster, assuming of course that both exist. But India, traditionally (and erroneously), regarded Islam and every other prophet-inspired monotheism it encountered as but another of the many paths it had itself indigenously developed for spiritual progress, never suspecting even for a moment that they were all of them primarily and entirely doctrines for political subjugation – tyranny at home and imperialism abroad. Sadly, India still seems to be saying: If someone wishes to believe in the veracity and immutability of something stated thousands of years ago, so be it, little realizing that such suicidal indifference might ultimately jeopardize the very catholicism it professes to cherish so much. So, making an attempt to study all prophet-inspirations, much less counter and neutralize them was never done. Even today, a majority of Indian non-Muslims still regard Islam in the same surrealistic light.

In the twenties of the last century, in the fond hope of winning co-operation of moderate Muslims at home, Gandhi had subordinated even something of as much moment as India's freedom struggle to an irrelevant extra-territorial movement that sought to re-instate a deposed Khalif in far away Turkey! Alas, the much-awaited co-operation remained wishful thinking till the end of his life, culminating in the vivisection of India on a religious basis. This, in spite of the fact that Gandhi had himself been initially shocked out of his wits at atrocities on Hindu civilian men, women and children during the infamous Moplah rebellion in 1922 (a fallout of the Khilafat movement), which he later quickly glossed over to regain his public posturing by saying that the Moplahs were a "brave god-fearing" lot and had perpetrated the heinous crimes only in pursuance of their religious beliefs (quoted by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar in his book, Pakistan, p.158)! Our current political leadership and other opinion-making institutions like the media find it both expedient and advantageous to toe Gandhi's line enthusiastically.

The Indian response could perhaps be attributed to its traditionally cultivated bonhomie, naiveté and an accretion of skewed concepts of tolerance. But it is astonishing that a school of thought in the West, like India, also subscribes to what may rightly be described as self-inflicted delusion. I say astonishing because the West, unlike India, was itself nurtured on – and had dire, first-hand experience of - a prophet-based inspiration in the form of Judaism and Christianity, much older than Islam but none too different from it. Three of the essential Islamic articles of unquestionable faith (iman) are in effect identical – Monotheism, Prophetic Tradition and Day of Judgement. Only two – the Quran and Prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH) – are matters in which they differ. Christianity shares with Islam even the claim to a supposedly ‘divine plan of converting non-believers, which is being diligently pursued by evangelists throughout the "unreached" world even in our day and age. Only the methods of achieving that apparently happy end may have changed over the centuries, not the fundamental irrationality of presumed superiority of one's own doctrine and absolute intolerance for another's. It therefore beats comprehension how a school of thought in the West, however well meaning, is so incapable of identifying a sibling doctrine - deriving from the same exclusivist tradition - for what it really is! One wonders if this is a disturbing indication of a dilution of the West's vaunted pragmatism, or perhaps of a need dictated by political correctness and accruing fringe benefits - Indian-style. Is it beginning to emulate the East in some way?

Eastern inclusivist and fundamentally pluralist thinking could perhaps be pardoned for clinging on to false hopes that Islam and its votaries would some day modernize and begin to think the way the rest of humanity does. But can we allow the same concession to essentially exclusivist Western thought, born as it is to a philosophy that is hardly any different from what guides Islam, especially at a time in human history when the West controls a disproportionately large chunk of global wealth and means? An error of judgment committed today by the West is likely to adversely affect the future course of humanity as a whole.

You make mention of reformers like Taha. Martin Luther too was a reformer. But what did he seek to reform? Mainly the doctrine of papal infallibility, indulgences and other wholly scriptural matters! The irrationality inherent to a prophet-centric Christianity, however, was left intact. I have read nothing attributed to him in which he promoted religious tolerance (as distinct from toleration) much less rationalism, otherwise we would not have had to suffer in 1999 – five centuries after Luther - the Pope expounding his plans for the evangelization of Asia in the third millennium! Jihad is only the Arabic word for evangelism; both are as current to discourse as they ever were. The compulsion to convert still remains the dominant mode, with only the means of achieving it varying with situation and perception. The basic point that must engage the thinking world, may I emphasize, is not debating on how to engage in a jihad (radically or moderately) but whether jihad/evangelism can be justified at any time, more so in our day and age. No Muslim worth his salt will ever tell you that jihad - moderate or radical - can be abandoned, just as no Christian will say that souls need not be saved! Therefore, Islam CANNOT change.

Except for the fact that every fabricated, unverifiable religious doctrine, to survive the march of time, must be followed with religious zeal, there is little else in it that can be termed ‘religious' in the sense of the spiritualistic overtones we attach to the word today. In the course of Semitic and European history especially, religious and political ideologies are often found to have been applied with perfect interchangeability. They are all political ideologies touted as spiritualisms in the name of a divinity that was deliberately kept vague so that none but the prophet or priest could claim to understand and interpret it, or enforce conduct in its name. Communism is Christianity without God, Islam is Christianity without the camouflage of much-hyped love! So, there ought really to be nothing "offensive" in Auster's comparison of the two.

You state that only a person's politics and actions, and not his faith, fall within your purview. This would be perfectly in order if you were dealing with someone with both the discretion and capability to make a clear distinction between matters spiritual and temporal. But when you propose to engage a Muslim in discourse, you have to bring his faith into the purview of examination simply because that is the sole guide of his politics and actions, both for the real sublunary existence as well as the hypothetical afterlife! The need to include his personal and individual faith in our scope of examination is all the more urgent because it obliges him to view every other doctrine as false and evil, to do everything in his power to destroy it and to convert everyone else to Islam or kill them if they refuse!

In India, with the second largest Muslim population in the world, it is enough for political parties to merely woo a few worthies among the clergy like the Shahi Imam of Delhi's mosque to secure a desirable swing in Muslim support at elections to a secular parliament! Similarly, in the Northeastern states, the Church dictates the way that the now almost entirely Christian populations vote. It is quite possible that prudence in avoiding critical comment is the need of the hour, but how long can one justify, by use of escapist clichés, an avoidance of critique on a doctrine that has never respected the need for reciprocity in its regard for other faiths?

You state: "in 1005 it [Islamic civilization] represented the best that humans had attained at that time in terms of learning, governance, and general advancement", and suggest that "Auster ground himself more in this civilization before dismissing it". Philip Hitti states in his History of the Arabs (p. 174, London, 1951) that Arabs had nothing to teach others in matters of Art, Sculpture, Philosophy, Medicine, Science, Literature or Administration – in short nothing worthwhile! Perhaps you might find a far greater advancement in all these and more fields of human endeavor in the India of the time, if only you looked. And this, in the face of cultured Islamic onslaughts on Hindu civilization at its northwestern borders in present day Afghanistan! It was only later that India slipped down in excellence, first through Islamic religio-political usurpation and later due to expatriation of economic plunder by European Christian colonizers. Most of what you label Islamic achievement was parasitic and drawn from host cultures like India. I might recommend to your notice just a few examples of what some European thinkers have felt obliged to write on this aspect:

"We find among the Indians the vestiges of the most remote antiquity.... We know that all peoples came there to draw the elements of their knowledge.... India, in her splendor, gave religions and laws to all the other peoples; Egypt and Greece owed to her both their fables and their wisdom."
- P.Sonnerat, Voyage aux Indes orientales et à la Chine (Paris, 1782), quoted in Les Indes Florissantes - Anthologie des voyageurs franÇais (1750 - 1820), by Guy Deleury (Paris : Robert Laffont, 1991), p.16-17.

"Time was, not more distant than a century and a half ago, when Bengal was much more wealthy than was Britain."
- William Digby, ‘Prosperous' British India (London, 1901), p.141, and Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilisation and Decay (London, 1900), quoted in "Golden Bengal," The Modern Review (Calcutta), October 1908, p. 298-299

"Very soon after Plassey [in 1757], the Bengal plunder began to arrive in London, and the effect appears to have been instantaneous, for all the authorities agree that the ‘industrial revolution'....began with the year 1760..... Possibly since the world began no investment has ever yielded the profit reaped from the Indian plunder."
- William Digby, ‘Prosperous' British India (London, 1901), p.141, and Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilisation and Decay (London, 1900), quoted in "Golden Bengal," The Modern Review (Calcutta), October 1908, p. 298-299

The contention that Muslims in the first half of their gory history might perhaps have been less bestial than their European Christian counterparts is neither consolation nor justification for religious perversion or wanton aggression. There is a great deal of glossing over at work here, and the matter needs to be discussed in trifle more detail.

Both Christianity and Islam, by their very doctrine, were always and are even today competitors for world domination. They were contending for larger and larger chunks of Europe and the Middle East (the Americas being till then unknown and the East, difficult to reach), making them natural enemies. Both being parasitic in their outlook, they sought moral justification and ungrudging public support for their avaricious designs through shrewd use of the religious card on credulous populations with underdeveloped values and morals. Columbus and the conquistadors merely emulated in the Americas what Moses, Joshua and their followers had done in the name of god to the hapless populations of the Promised Land.

Because of extreme racist proclivities, however, Judaism had lacked evangelical zeal, which Christianity supplied. It must be remembered that Paul, like his latter-day missionary successors, was in any case only interested in the number of converts, and had brought into the so-called Christian fold people of various ethnic backgrounds to the eternal discomfiture of the Jews. Christianity, thus, had no qualms about bringing in more. Rather than waste human resources by simply slaughtering captives, Jewish-style, for their differing opinions of god, Christianity introduced a brilliant method (called evangelism) of conditioning their thoughts and actions so the able-bodied among them could be commandeered for physical labour and those capable of intellectualism, roped in for their literary output. In time, however, as Christianity spread and came under the influence of superior intellectual traditions of ancient cultures, especially Hellenic, an element of humanism crept ever so unobtrusively into its discourse. Interestingly enough, the once-jealous and capricious god began to be portrayed as possessing attributes of kindness, compassion, love and other human values that were entirely alien to the brazen, gleeful Old Testament conceptualization of divinity. Today, that same figment of a perverse Mosaic imagination has been transformed into something that almost entirely epitomizes love and compassion (towards Christians alone, by the way; the others still eternally fry in Purgatory!). The cutting edge that allowed early Christians to subjugate with a clear conscience was thus lost!

In the third millennium, Pope John Paul II still labours in the antiquated conviction that

"missionary evangelization is the primary service that the Church can render to every individual and all humanity in the modern world".

A statement by Cardinal Francis Arinze, expanding upon what the pontiff believes, makes rather interesting reading in this connection:

"The Church's primary mission is evangelisation. Has the Church anything else to do? No. Evangelisation is central to the mission of the Chruch. The task of evangelising all people constitutes the central mission of the Church. The Church has no other assignment. If Catholics today won souls at the rate that the early Christians did as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Father would very soon have to close down the Pontifical Council of Interreligious Dialogue because there would be nobody left to talk to." (‘The Examiner' of October 18, 1997, quoted)

Perhaps this is the chief reason for the ostensibly humanitarian mask that so camouflages evangelical activity in our time.

But Islam changed all that. It eulogized faith (in Allah and His Prophet PBUH) – not humaneness - as the primary source of all goodness, and condemned disbelief – not callousness - as the cause of all evil. Not stopping there, it also ensured perpetuation of presumed infallibility and immutability of Islamic scripture through draconian blasphemy laws so that even its most vicious beliefs remained unchallenged and unaltered for all time.

The best deed - as well the worst - that a Muslim could ever think of performing, became independent of time, place or circumstance. Righteousness was inexorably linked to belief in Islam, every wickedness to its refutation. Outlandish Quranic prescriptions about Right and Wrong, Good and Bad, Justice and Injustice, Righteousness and Sin and allied normative attributes, completely isolated from the modern sense of those words which human sensibility might normally expect, were made codes of superlative thought and action. [For instance, Ayat 72:14 informs us that the very act of denial of Islam is grave ‘injustice'. Which normal person in any era would regard a difference of opinion as unjust? Only an act of injury committed in pursuance of such disagreement, might.]

In addition to these improvements over Biblical theology, Islam also prescribed the death penalty for apostasy to ensure that no Muslim could ever opt out of the confines of his faith and remain alive!

From the point of view of parasitic doctrines, therefore, the Quranic claim (5:3) of Islam being the perfected faith is absolutely correct!

This is a generalized statement of only a probable scenario of the origin, development and perfection of institutionalized - almost industrial - human subjugation, as I see it. Someone more enlightened might propose a better alternative. Nevertheless, it is exceedingly plain that neither Christianity nor Islam is ever likely to alter its presumptuous belief of uniqueness and monopoly over so-called truth, or give up its 2000-year itch to convert.

Debating whether the Muslim or his European counterpart was more bloodthirsty will lead us nowhere. All that is now history. What is of moment is whether we can any longer afford to be evasive or soft in our critique so that our lenience, nonchalance and feigned incomprehension again permits both perversions to vie with one another in depravity, and with means of mass destruction Moses, in his wildest dreams, could never have imagined!

I am a great admirer of your writing. But I must disagree with your advocacy of hoping for prophet-centric creeds in general and Islam in particular to change some day. The problem is NOT radical Islam. IT IS ISLAM, period! And moderate Islam, being non-existent, is perhaps the ultimate in pipe-dreams (no pun intended!) as a solution to what could justly be regarded as the greatest challenge ever, faced by humanity!

A (Keen) Student of Islam

c.c.: Lawrence Auster

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