March 29, 2015
Islamic Reform — An Essay in Two Parts

Some recent articles and a little thought caused me to write an essay in two parts. Those two parts are consolidated into a single unit here.

The first part of the essay laid out a description of the problem Islam faces. It was originally posted as What Happened to Islam? That part is included immediately below.

What can be done about this problem? One approach is described as A Modest Proposal for a Muslim Reformation. That part is included further below.

Part 1: What Happened to Islam?

Azeem Ibrahim wrote an essay for the Chicago Tribune that, as published online for the Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald, carried the headline Wahhabi perversion of Islam sows seeds of terrorism. An edited version of this essay was printed in the Albuquerque Journal Saturday. Ibrahim's essay begins

What happened to Islam?

All religions have their extremists. Self-described pastor Terry Jones caused an international furor when he threatened to burn the Quran. The Ku Klux Klan has been parading nominally Christian symbols like Bibles and crosses for centuries. But these movements are seen for what they are: cults that appropriate the symbolism and style of a religion for their own amoral ends. Yet when voices like Anwar al-Awlaki, or before him, Osama bin Laden, preach that Islam requires murder — a straight reversal of the truth — their message finds fertile ground.

How did Islam come to this point? Can we do anything about it?

I think there are at least two key pieces to the answer Azeem Ibrahim is looking for. These two address why different religions' "extremists" are seen differently and why Islam's extreme voices find such fertile ground.

Different religions' "extremists" are seen differently because they are different. Zen masters (Buddhist extremists), for example, "live austere lives devoted to meditation and teaching, just like Buddha did." They turn inward to try to practice Buddhism in its pure form. The lives of Hindu, Sikh, and Jain extremists (ascetics) are similar; some (the "sky clad") go so far in their rejection of material things that they eschew clothing. Catholic and Orthodox extremists (cloistered monks and nuns) likewise spend their lives in personal spiritual development.

Even the more dangerous religious extremists — Terry Jones and the Ku Klux Klan (the KKK) who he mentioned, and others like Jim Jones and David Koresh who he didn't mention — are distinct from Islamic extremists. Terry Jones was a danger only to select books, copies of the Quran. Jim Jones and David Koresh were dangerous only to their own followers. Only the KKK was dangerous to outsiders, and their interest was political rather than religious — which is why the KKK (founded after the US Civil War, not centuries ago) was known as the terrorist wing of the Democrats' Party. And, of course, the KKK never claimed its ideology called for the murder of non-believers or for world conquest.

The Islamic extremists are different from all these others. Only the Islamic extremists and cults preach that their religion requires murder and conquest. They are seen differently because they are different.

The other key piece addresses why Islam's extreme voices find such fertile ground. This piece has at least two important parts. One part consists of the large number of passages in Islam's scriptures (particularly the Quran and the Hadiths) calling for violence — against Jews especially, and against anyone who is not Muslim.

The other part, possibly related to the first, is the proportion of Muslims who accept and support the message of the extreme voices. Polls indicate 20% of Muslims worldwide support the extremists in their religiously-inspired terrorism; in other religions, it's a miniscule fraction of a percent. Note that each 1% of Muslims worldwide is something over 15 million Muslims supporting jihadist terrorism. That makes Islamic terrorism a very different kind of problem.

Ibrahim talks about his faith:

Most branches of Islam are quietist, pietistic, apolitical. These are the millions of Muslims for whom, like people of faith around the world, being religious means prayer, study and self-reflection.

The divergence within Islam began in the 18th century with the advent of Wahhabism, named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who believed Muslims had strayed from the authentic teachings of Islam. Muslims who did not agree with his teachings were excommunicated or killed in an effort to purge Islam from what al-Wahhab believed to be unsanctioned innovations.

Wahhabi military campaigns waged war against moderate Muslims, demolishing Islamic shrines and slaughtering entire villages of Muslims who did not subscribe to extremism. This same extreme ideology is behind the present-day destruction of shrines and mosques and the continuing violence against minority and mainstream Muslims all over the world such as the Shiites in Pakistan.

Ibrahim goes on to argue that "It is clear that Wahhabism isn’t Islam — it is a cult movement that uses Islamic terminology and has hijacked the religion using petrodollars. In the process, its adherents are killing and maiming more Muslims than people of other faiths and are creating deep societal rifts and lasting enmities within their own communities."

A scene in pre-Taliban Afghanistan
This fits with what I noted in 2006, part of which may be summarized as follows: Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab produced an 18th century reinterpretation that said all post-8th century reinterpretations were invalid. His thought spawned the Salafist movement, including the Wahhabi and Deobandi sects. The Muslim Brotherhood built on al-Wahhab's work, successfully grafting onto it a totalitarian (extreme socialist) political ideology. Muslim Brotherhood writer Sayyid Qutb then provided the Brotherhood's jihadism with the more complete intellectual underpinnings that enabled it to spawn both al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as the Islamic State. Thus, the recent (20th century) innovation is the grafting of a political ideology onto the older religious concept. So the modern jihadism — and the terrorism — that we see from the Salafis and Wahhabis (and their progeny) today is a 20th century graft onto an 18th century reinterpretation which, by al-Wahhab's own logic, is not an authentic Islam.

Or so we would all hope. Even so, as Ibrahim notes, "The global propagation of a doctrine that has been a parent to jihadism impedes counterterrorism efforts."

What about Azeem Ibrahim's second questions: "Can we do anything about it?" A possible answer to that question is below.

Part 2: A Modest Proposal for a Muslim Reformation

In Part 1, above, I noted Azeem Ibrahim's article in the Chicago Tribune, printed in edited form in the Albuquerque Journal, and printed in the Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald as Wahhabi perversion of Islam sows seeds of terrorism. In his article, Ibrahim asked

How did Islam come to this point? Can we do anything about it?
This post addresses Azeem Ibrahim's second question: "Can we do anything about it?"

Of course, that may depend a bit on who "we" is. "We" as non-Muslims can talk, but "we" can't do diddley squat. "We" as Muslims can do something, and "we" must be the ones to do it.

So let's take a look at what "we" as Muslims can do.

The thing we must do, first and foremost, is admit that Mohammed was a man — a human being. This is a small thing that is absolutely consistent with everything in the Quran and the Hadiths. A very small thing, but this admission would lead to several major conclusions.

One conclusion — one that can have a huge impact on the number of violent attacks in various Muslim countries — is this: Mohammed was a prophet. The last prophet. He was a man. He was not Allah. He was not God. Indeed, Allah did not speak to Mohammed. Remember that the Quran was revealed to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel, not directly by Allah.

Blasphemy is defined as (a) the act of insulting or showing contempt for God or (b) the act of claiming the attributes of God. Since Mohammed was not Allah, things said against Mohammed obviously cannot be blasphemy. Neither can things said against Mohammed's associates or others. Those asserting that speaking against Mohammed and/or his associates is blasphemy are admitting they are worshiping Mohammed et al. as gods. That is un-Islamic.

A second conclusion is that, since Mohammed was a man and was not Allah, Mohammed was fallible. He was subject to the same temptations and faults as the rest of us. And based on the record enshrined in the Quran and the Hadiths, he succumbed to them — he fell to temptation and became a mere warlord carrying a veneer of religion with him as a shield.

How would this one small acknowledgment, that Mohammad was a human being, be reflected in Islamic doctrine? Perhaps not at all if Mohammed was a perfect man without human weaknesses — that is, not really a human being. But if Mohammed was a real human being, and failed at times like all the rest of the human race, it may be that only one small thing would need to be changed. That one small thing is the doctrine of abrogation, which would need to be reversed. In other words, the doctrine would become this: If two verses (ayat) contradict one another, the earlier one is the better one. The effect of this change would be that Islam would be taught as Mohammed originally taught it, not as he later changed it — which really should please the Islamic fundamentalists if they are at all honest in their claims of wanting to follow original Islam.

The reason this is so important

is because the nature of Mohammad's revelations totally changed once he gained military power. When he first started out (when Islam was a small minority) Mohammad preached peace and tolerance. But once he gained enough followers, started raiding caravans, and gained military and financial power (from the booty he gained from the caravans), he stopped trying to curry favor with the Jews and Christians and his revelations became intolerant and then downright hateful.
Thus, with this reform, Islam would become what its proponents keep claiming it is — a religion of peace. No more Islamist supremacy, because "Muhammad proclaimed to them [the people of Mecca] that he was of the line of the Jewish prophets, and was commissioned by God to restore true faith in the one God of Abraham." It was only later, when he had succumbed to temptation, that he started preaching violence and hatred. The likely reason for this change is all too human — Mohammed and his teachings were rejected by all but a few of the Jews to whome he preached.

It didn't start out that way.

When Muhammad first arrived in their valley, the Jews listened politely to him, but when they analyzed the prophet verses he had come up with in Mecca, they realized they were not based on the Torah. They were versions of the derivative Jewish legends about the prophets, but even then there were significant variations, yet Muhammad claimed his versions were the correct ones because he got everything from God. When he insisted they accept him as their prophet, the Jews laughed in his face and began mocking him.
Mohammed evidently had an all-too-human reaction: He turned on the Jews he had been preaching to, began preaching to the non-Jewish and non-Christian Arabs, and started raiding the caravans and settlements of everyone but his own followers. All of Mohammed's hateful and spiteful teachings come from this later period, as and after Mohammed turned into a common warlord.

This modest proposal does have at least two key issues to overcome. One is that the charge of blasphemy must cease to be used when things are said or done that can be interpreted as insufficiently laudatory toward Mohammed, his companions, and his wives. This means changing a long-standing tribal and cultural practice.

The other key problem is the Islamic doctrine that the Quran is eternal, unchanged, and unchangeable. And yet it is an absolute fact that the Quran has changed. The versions of the Quran compiled shortly after Mohammed's death by his companions differed from one another. This problem was (largely) ended when a single standard "unchanged and unchangeable" version of the Quran was established by the Caliph Uthman; this version is now considered to be the archetype of today's Quran.

A scene in pre-Taliban Afghanistan
In addition, of course, the Quran itself shows it has changed. Many ayat (verses) in the Quran contradict others. Why else would something like the doctrine of abrogation be required? It was needed to paper over the differences between the original and the newer (changed) verses. Mohammed couldn't wipe clean his followers' memories, so he had to invent a way to deal with the Quranic changes.

It wouldn't actually be necessary to go all the way back to Mohammed's time to get rid of (nearly) all the current problems with Islamic extremism. As a practical matter, in practice, all that would be necessary is to go back to the doctrines before the changes authored by al-Wahhab. That would remove the Salafists, including the Wahhabi and Deobandi sects, the Muslim Brotherhood, the writings of Sayyid Qutb, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State (ISIS) — all things that by al-Wahhab's own logic are not authentically Islamic.

If these problems (largely cultural ones) can be overcome, it would appear a true Islamic Reformation may indeed be possible. With that Reformation, the Muslim world may come to look more like pre-Taliban Afghanistan and pre-war Lebanon and Egypt before its domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Category: Religion (Islam)


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