This essay overlaps to some extent with earlier essays of mine regarding the alleged existence of a “moderate Islam,” including Do we want an Islamic Reformation? and Why We Cannot Rely on Moderate Muslims. In this discussion I take as my starting point the fact that the traditional Islamic religious texts — the Koran supplemented by secondary sources such as the hadith literature — through a straightforward reading encourage perpetual violence against non-Muslims around the world until the global supremacy of Islam and its followers has been firmly established. There are plenty of studies available confirming this. Muslim scholars themselves, including prominent ones such as al-Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun, have supported this view for well over one thousand years and continue to do so in the twenty-first century.
One complicating factor is that lying to or deceiving non-Muslims using techniques known as taqiyya and kitman are perfectly permissible in Islam and widely practiced by Shias and Sunnis alike. The claim that this strategy exists within Shia Islam alone is false; for example, the Palestinian Sunni Jihadist leader Yasser Arafat (1929-2004) at the same time as he was talking about “peace” to Westerners — a game of deception which earned him a share in the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 — to Arabic-speaking audiences suggested that the Oslo peace negotiations with Israelis were merely temporary measures similar to the Treaty of Hudaybiyya between Muhammad’s followers and the non-Muslim Qurayshi tribe of Mecca, which was promptly broken as soon as the Muslims felt strong enough to get away with it.
Many Muslims, for instance Tariq Ramadan, are known to put up a “moderate” face in front of an infidel audience but present a very different message when addressing Muslims in their own language. Generally speaking it is permissible for Muslims to lie, or withhold the truth, if they cannot yet force their will on their opponents by brute force, as long as they keep the “true Islam” alive within their hearts. This does of course not mean that all Muslims do this always, but it is a common strategy employed particularly where Muslims are a minority.
In plain words this means that if Western countries ever become serious about closing their borders to Muslim immigration and expelling sharia-sponsoring persons from their lands, we should expect to see an immediate, massive increase in the number of “kind” and “tolerant” Muslims in the West, but many of them would be lying and biding their time for better days.
The trouble with self-proclaimed “moderate Muslims” is that many of them, most likely the majority, use deception to confuse the infidels while infiltrating their societies. This implies that non-Muslims cannot know for sure whether Muslims are being honest with them or not and can never fully trust them. It does not mean that “moderate Muslims” don’t exist in the form of individuals who genuinely desire to live in peace with their neighbors — people aren’t born Jihadists just because they have a Muslim name — but it is extremely hard for infidels to distinguish between those who are genuine and those who are merely trying to deceive us.
A soft-spoken Muslim can potentially without warning turn militant and go on a killing spree, a phenomenon dubbed “Sudden Jihad Syndrome.” Besides, well-meaning peaceful individuals with Muslim names can easily be sidelined, intimidated and silenced by their more violent and ruthless co-religionists. Finally, from a straightforward reading of Islamic scriptures and history, militant Jihadists frequently have a better scriptural and theological backing for their views than the so-called moderates. In short, the question isn’t whether there are moderate Muslims but whether there is a moderate Islam. The likely answer to this is no.
There is talk about the prospects of an “Islamic Reformation.” This primarily happens in the West, not in India, China or among Eastern Orthodox Christians because it reminds Westerners of the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth century Europe that split the Roman Catholic Church from Protestant reformers who refused to acknowledge the leadership of the Pope and criticized some of the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation triggered generations of regional turbulence in Europe; a hypothetical Islamic Reformation would likely cause generations of international turbulence, which is not an altogether pleasant scenario in a nuclear-armed world connected by intercontinental travel.
Any comparison between Christianity and Islam only takes you so far. There is no centralized hierarchical structure in Islam to rebel against similar to the Vatican in the Roman Catholic Church, but that is not the most important difference. The question of whether or not Islam can be reformed hinges upon your definition of the term “reformation.” Many Westerners implicitly envision something along the lines of “peaceful, non-sharia based with respect for individual choice and freedom of speech.” In other words: “Reform” is vaguely taken to mean “less sharia and violent Jihad,” although this is often implied and not explicitly spelled out.
Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin called for a return to a Golden Age of pure, early Christianity. Although the Protestant Reformation was a turbulent period, it did pave the way for more religious freedom in Christian Europe in the long run. This was partly because Christians could return to the example, as contained in their Gospels, of an early age where the founder of their religion and his disciples led a largely peaceful movement separate from the state. Muslims, on the other hand, can find a similar example only in the Mecca period since in Medina, if you rely on traditional history, Muhammad became a ruler who wielded political as well as religious power and waged wars against those who disagreed with him.
As long as the writings from the violent Medina period remain in force, any return to the “Golden Age” of early Islam will imply a return to intolerance, militant Islamic supremacism and Jihad violence. Some observers look for a “Muslim Martin Luther” who is expected to end the resurgent Jihad. But one could argue that we already have such a person: He’s called Osama bin Laden. If “reform” is taken to mean a return to the historical period of the religious founder and his followers then it will inevitably lead to an upsurge in Jihadist violence, since that was what Muhammad and his companions actually did according to Islamic scriptures.
Can there be such a thing as a reformed, moderate Islam in the sense of a creed whose followers and believers will: coexist peacefully and on equal terms with non-Muslims, without forcing their beliefs or rule on anybody; refrain from reacting violently to perceived criticisms or insults of their Prophet or Holy Book; accept that individual Muslims should be free to openly leave their Faith if they so desire; accept that religion is primarily a private matter that should not regulate all of society according to unequal and totalitarian sharia law?
My bet is that such a version of Islam is unlikely to materialize and even less likely to succeed. I will now take a look at a few hypothetical ways in which this religion might be reformed and show why they probably won’t achieve much success in the long run. Some of them already have been tried, but with only moderate success or among very marginal groups.
One possible solution could be to restrain or cage Islam within a framework of rigidly enforced secularism. This kind of muscular secularism has been attempted under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (“Father of Turks,” 1881-1938), military officer and autocratic founder of the Republic of Turkey, serving as its first president after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War. An admirer of the European Enlightenment, he sought to modernize his country by turning it into a secular nation-state and reducing the influence of Islam in Turkish political life as much as practically possible through a far-reaching program of political, economic and cultural reforms whose principles are commonly referred to as Kemalism. In 1924 he abolished the institution of the Caliphate. Although it had existed in name only for over a thousand years and was devoid of real power, it nevertheless served as a formal link with the first Caliphs after Muhammad’s death and a symbol of (largely imaginary) Islamic unity. For this reason, millions of Muslims would like to recreate the Caliphate and restore it as a symbol of and vehicle for achieving Islamic global supremacy.
These reforms were partly successful, but they came at a price. Since Muslims are accustomed to venerating a particular person, Atatürk created something of a cult surrounding his person that could have been considered “Fascist” in other times and places. Visitors to Turkey have described what might be called the competing personality cults of two individuals: Atatürk and Muhammad. In the end, it appears as if Muhammad won this contest.
Secular or not, Turkey has never been a beacon of tolerance. The rather few non-Muslims who have remained in the country face harassment, sometimes of a brutal nature. Serious riots broke out in Istanbul on September 6, 1955 which led to looting in Christian neighborhoods and the destruction of many of the city’s churches and Jewish synagogues. More than 5,000 shops belonging to the Greek minority were looted by an emotional crowd of thousands of Turkish Muslim militants who carried out several “circumcisions” on the spot with knives.
The one thousand year long Turkish Jihad against Greek-speaking Christians continued when the allegedly secular Turkey invaded the island of Cyprus in 1974, ethnically cleansing nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriots from their homes and replacing them with Turks. During the last years of the Ottoman Empire in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Turkish Muslims repeatedly massacred Bulgarians, Serbs and other Christian subject peoples who were perceived to be disobedient dhimmis, culminating in the outright Jihad genocide of Armenian Christians. To this day, Turkish authorities flatly deny that there was any systematic effort at forcing Armenians out of eastern Anatolia. Turkey instead claims that hundreds of thousands of Turks were killed by Armenians. Talking about the Armenian Genocide is literally banned by law.
In his article Green Money, Islamist Politics in Turkey, Michael Rubin in the Middle East Quarterly in 2005 warned against an ongoing re-Islamization of Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Reconciliation Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) swept to power in the parliamentary elections in 2002, aided by public disgust over corruption within long-feuding coalition parties but also by a substantial influx of Yesil Sermaye, “green money,” from wealthy Arab businessmen and oil-rich Middle Eastern states. Erdogan was a popular mayor of Istanbul in 1994-98 and worked hard to avoid repeating former mistakes of speaking too overtly about his long-term goals of reestablishing the Islamic profile of Turkey.
Prior to AKP’s election victory, Erdogan’s ally Abdullah Gül, who in 2007 became President of the Republic of Turkey despite opposition from secular forces, between 1983 and 1991 worked as a specialist at the Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Islamic banks, especially those sponsored by the Saudis, have channeled billions of dollars to enterprises in Turkey and elsewhere. “The growth of the Islamic business sector is apparent across Turkey and appears intricately linked to the AKP’s rise. A decade ago, rural and conservative Turks tended to inhabit poorer sections of town and shop in mom-and-pop stores or outdoor markets while wealthier and secular Turks spent their money in modern shops and Western-style supermarkets. Green money investment has caused the pattern to blur.”
According to a former member of the AKP, “Before the 2002 election, there were rumors that an AKP victory would lead to an infusion of $10-$20 billion, mostly from Saudi Arabia. It looks like the rumors came true.” Wealthier countries such as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia have made their foreign aid to the AKP dependent on Turkey readjusting its position toward Israel. Turkey has since then become much more anti-Israeli, going from being something of a lukewarm ally to being a leader of Islamic hostility to the Jewish state. Turkish authorities have also taken a more active interest in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
As writer Michael Rubin concluded back in 2005, “Today, in private conversations in teahouses and in the National Assembly, many Turkish officials discuss green money and AKP financial opacity as the new threat. Money buys the short-term popularity necessary to initiate long-term changes, be they in Turkey’s foreign or domestic policy. Under apparent Saudi influence, such changes will likely further erode Turkish secularism. If the AKP is able to translate money into power and power into money, then the main loser will be Turkish secularism. As an executive with one of Istanbul’s largest firms said, ‘The AKP is like a cancer. You feel fine, but then one day you start coughing blood. By the time you realize there’s a problem, it’s too far-gone.’”
During their years in power, the AKP have systematically dismantled many key reforms dating back to Kemalism and have neutered dozens of generals and other officers of senior ranks within the Army, traditionally the guardians of Atatürk’s legacy; the Army has intervened on a number of occasions in the past to uphold the secular nature of the state.
An ugly Turkish nationalism with barely concealed neo-Ottoman undertones is on the rise. In 2005, the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) topped the bestseller list in Turkey, second only to a book about a Turkish national hero detonating a nuclear bomb in Washington D.C, the capital city of its NATO “ally,” the USA. In return, both the Republican US President George W. Bush and his Democrat successor Barack Hussein Obama have openly pushed for full membership and access for nearly 80 million Turks to the European Union. So have several British Prime Ministers, including Tony Blair and David Cameron.
Millions of Turks already live within the EU in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and particularly Germany, which has a sizeable minority of Turkish descent. Turkish authorities are consciously trying to influence their behavior as well as voting patterns, thereby using them as a spearhead for Turkish Muslim influence in and colonization of Europe. The Turkish government in 2010 angered Turkish-German politicians by inviting them to an Istanbul conference and then urging them to resist social integration in their adopted homeland. Erdogan urged Turks living in foreign countries to take out citizenship of the new homelands — not to integrate, but rather to become more politically active, according to the website of the Germany’s Der Spiegel, Europe’s largest weekly magazine. Ali Ertan Toprak, deputy chairman of the Alevi community in Germany, told the news magazine that government representatives had said: “We have to inject European culture with Turkish.”
Participants told Spiegel that Erdogan repeated elements of his controversial speech in Germany in 2008 in which he said: “Assimilation is a crime against humanity.” The invitation to politicians and religious leaders of Turkish descent included lunch in a five-star hotel in Istanbul and offered to cover their travel costs. The title of the meeting was: “Wherever one of our countrymen is, we are there too.” It was organized by Erdogan’s reigning AKP.
Prime Minister Erdogan has repeatedly suggested that “Islamophobia” is a crime against humanity and that there is no such thing as moderate Islam vs. radical Islam, there is only Islam. He has also stated that the goal of Turkish foreign policy is to “restore the might of the Ottoman Empire,” something that will naturally cause concern among many Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians, Croats, Armenians and other abused former Ottoman subjects.
Srdja Trifkovic, the Serb American author of the excellent book Defeating Jihad: How the war on terror may yet be won, in spite of ourselves, warns against the rise of a neo-Ottoman Turkey. On March 9 2010, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presented the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the Wahhabist kingdom’s most prestigious prize for his “services to Islam.” Erdogan earned the King Faisal Prize for having “rendered outstanding service to Islam by defending the causes of the Islamic nation.” As Mr.Trifkovic notes:
“In August 2008 Ankara welcomed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a formal state visit, and last year  it announced that it would not join any sanctions aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the same spirit the AKP government repeatedly played host to Sudan’s President Omer Hassan al-Bashir — a nasty piece of jihadist work if there ever was one — who stands accused of genocide against non-Muslims. Erdogan has barred Israel from annual military exercises on Turkey’s soil, but his government signed a military pact with Syria last October and has been conducting joint military exercises with the regime of Bashir al-Assad. Turkey’s strident apologia of Hamas is more vehement than anything coming out of Cairo or Amman. (Talking of terrorists, Erdogan has stated, repeatedly, ‘I do not want to see the word ‘Islam’ or ‘Islamist’ in connection with the word ‘terrorism’!’) simultaneous pressure to conform to Islam at home has gathered pace over the past seven years, and is now relentless. . . . Ankara’s continuing bid to join the European Union is running parallel with its openly neo-Ottoman policy of re-establishing an autonomous sphere of influence in the Balkans and in the former Soviet Central Asian republics.”
There are currently serious cracks in the façade of Turkish secularism. We should remember that Iran, too, was perceived as being a moderate, modern country until a revolution brought the cleric and Jihadist terrorist sponsor Khomeini to power in 1979. The lesson we can draw from this is that Islam can lie dormant for generations, yet strike again with renewed vigor when the opportunity arises. Nearly a century after Atatürk implemented sweeping reforms to curtail Islamic influences in Turkey, Islam is making a roaring comeback in his country.
Kemalism never “cured” Islam; it could be likened to a drug treatment that held some symptoms of an illness temporarily in check, but as soon as the patient stopped taking the drugs the illness bounced back immediately. Kemalism kept Islam at bay for a while but never truly reformed it. If we stick with the analogy of caging a beast we can conclude that this strategy works only for as long as the beast is kept in chains and under close guard. Sooner or later, however, somebody like Erdogan may release it from its prison again.
A few observers claim that certain branches of Shia Islam are supposedly more tolerant than Sunni Islam. Shia is short for shiat Ali, the partisans of Ali. Its followers will be referred to as Shias here, but they are often called Shiites or Shi’ites in English. Fatimah (ca. AD 605-633), the daughter of Muhammad from his first marriage to Khadijah, married Ali ibn Abi Talib (ca. AD 600-661), Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, the fourth Caliph of the Sunnis and the last of the Rashidun (the “rightly guided” Caliphs who knew Muhammad personally) as well as the first Imam of Shia Islam. Fatimah and Ali in turn became the parents of Hasan and Husayn, the male grandsons of Muhammad who, despite his many wives and concubines surprisingly didn’t produce a single son who lived to adulthood. The Day of Ashura, the anniversary of Husayn ibn (son of) Ali’s “martyrdom” at the Battle of Karbala in Iraq in AD 680, is a major and bloody festival and day of mourning for Shia Muslims around the world.
Ali was one of the caliphs, “successors” to Muhammad as political leaders and “Commander of the Faithful” (but not divine messengers bringing additional revelations) following his death. They were Abu Bakr (rule AD 632-634), an early convert to Muhammad’s cause who married his daughter Aisha, then Omar or Umar Ibn al-Khattab during whose rule from 634-644 Arab armies went beyond the Arabian Peninsula to conquer Mesopotamia, Syria and parts of Iran and Egypt, followed by Uthman ibn Affan from 644-656 and thereafter Ali.
Shias believe that the Caliphate should pass down only through direct descendants of Muhammad via the marriage between Ali and Fatimah, the Ahl al-Bayt or “People of the House” [of the Prophet Muhammad]. The vast majority of modern Shias are “Twelvers” who recognize twelve spiritual leaders or Imams, the last of whom is currently believed to be in hiding but will eventually return. Iran is the stronghold of the Twelvers, but they also constitute the majority of the population in neighboring Iraq. There are sizeable Shia communities in the Yemen, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India.
Yes, there are theological differences between Sunnis and Shias. These can be significant enough for Muslims themselves but for non-Muslims they are usually not important, apart from the possibility that ethnic and theological fissures between various groups of Muslims can be exploited by outsiders as a part of a “divide-and-rule” policy. Shias, too, want Islam to rule the world; advocate violent Jihad to achieve Islamic supremacy and have the same brutal discrimination of non-Muslims. To illustrate this we can think of the Ayatollah Khomeini (1900-1989), a senior Shia cleric who after the Iranian Revolution that saw the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 became the Supreme Leader of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran. He was the ultimate political and religious authority in the country until his death. Since its inception, the IRI has been an extremely repressive state at home and a major sponsor of Jihad terrorism abroad. Shia Islam is not more peaceful than Sunni Islam, nor is it more tolerant, at least not if we’re talking about Twelvers. The Ismailis are somewhat better.
Ismailism is generally considered a branch of Shia Islam, the second largest sect of Shiaism but much smaller than the Twelvers. Aga Khan is the hereditary title of the Imam of the largest contemporary branch of Ismaili followers. The Ismailis were most active in medieval times through the Fatimids and the Qarmatians. Al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, for centuries the highest center of religious learning for Sunnis worldwide, was ironically founded around AD 970 under the Shia Fatimid Dynasty. They ruled parts of North Africa and the Middle East from the tenth to twelfth centuries and claimed descent from Fatimah, hence the name.
Combined, the adherents of the various branches of Shia Islam amount to less than fifteen percent of Muslims globally, the remaining 85-90% being Sunnis. This makes followers of Ismailism a minority of a minority whose international influence peaked a thousand years ago. Perhaps they are slightly more peaceful than the others and as such preferable, but they are also numerically marginal and therefore largely irrelevant in the greater scheme of things.
Another community that is frequently put under the Shia label is the Alevi community in Turkey. They have several million followers, but their religious beliefs are so different from those of Sunnis and even mainstream Shias when it comes to prayer, pilgrimage, mosque attendance and other core Islamic practices that they are at the very fringes of the Islamic religion, perhaps outside of its boundaries according to some of their many Sunni critics. Alevis praise Ali beyond what mainstream Shias do, comparable to the Alawis or Alawitesin Syria who are viewed with hostility by many Sunni Muslims. The Alevis and the Alawis are most likely too numerically marginal to become a dominant force any time soon, if ever.
The Druze make up a small sect that historically began as an offshoot of Ismaili Islam and whose close-knit communities number a few hundred thousand followers, primarily in the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan). Yet their beliefs are so distinct from those of other Muslims that, while Arabic-speaking, they are often classified as a separate religious group. Uniquely, the Druze in Israel participate in active military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) alongside Jews, something which no Muslim community there has ever done.
My view is that as long as you start out with the texts used by orthodox Muslims — the Koran, the hadith and the Sira — it is more or less impossible to come up with a peaceful version of Islam. In principle it might be possible to change things by either adding more religious texts or by ignoring some of those that already exist. Both options are problematic, though.
There are the “Koran only” Muslims, who currently constitute an extremely small group of people. They advocate that Muslims should ignore the hadith and the Sira and rely solely on the Koran for guidance. Hadith might be translated as “narrative” or “report” (plural: ahadith, often simply called hadiths in English). They are narrations concerning the words and deeds of Muhammad and his companions, collectively creating a biography of his life. This is important as Muhammad is treated as the “living Koran” whose words and deeds, his Sunna, are considered authoritative and an important source of law for traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence. While a very large number of presumably fabricated hadith were in circulation by the year 800, something Muslims freely admit, Islamic legal scholars tried to sort out more reliable collections dubbed sahih (“true” or “valid”). The two most highly respected collections of the six primary ones used by Sunnis are those gathered by Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. Both of them worked in the mid-800s AD, in other words more than two centuries after Muhammad is supposed to have died. Shias have their own hadith collections.
A major practical problem with the “Koran only” approach is that a great deal of information regarding traditional doctrines, including practices related to prayer, pilgrimage and the Five Pillars, are contained exclusively or primarily in extra-Koranic material such as the hadith and are not elaborated upon in any great detail in the Koran. The Koran itself refers to following the example of the Prophet, and that example is to a large extent explained in the hadith literature. Islam as we know it just wouldn’t make sense theologically without the hadith.
Moreover, an anti-hadith program would be extremely hard to implement in practice. Traditional sharia law carries the death penalty for apostates, and those who formally choose to ignore the hadith literature can easily be classified and treated as such by orthodox Muslims. Besides, if you remove the hadith literature this will take away some of the most aggressive and violent texts and examples, but the Koran itself has dozens of verses containing hatred for infidels or advocating Jihad, including violent struggle, against non-Muslims to impose Islamic rule on them. It would therefore at best provide a partial solution.
As we have seen, the major hadith collections were gathered a long time after Muhammad and all those who knew him were dead, assuming here that Muhammad as he appears from Islamic sources was an historical person who lived in present-day Mecca and Medina. There are scholars who dispute this, too. We should remember that although it is perfectly possible to question the historical authenticity of many hadith, the same could be said about parts of the Koran as well. It is very difficult and artificial for an objective scholar to claim that “we cannot trust any of the hadith, but the Koran is perfect and can be relied upon.” The Koran itself came into existence during a prolonged historical process taking many generations.
All things considered it is highly unlikely whether you could get the majority of the world’s Muslims to permanently abandon the hadith literature. Even if you managed to achieve this it would merely remove some of the intolerant texts, not the dozens of Jihad verses found in the Koran itself. The Koran-only approach to Islamic reform is therefore fundamentally flawed.
An even more radical approach would be to ignore the chapters identified with the Medina period and focus on the chapters of the Koran allegedly revealed in Mecca. This would reverse the standard doctrine of abrogation, which stipulates that if there is a conflict between two different Koranic verses then the verse that was revealed last takes priority. This creates a massive headache for champions of a “moderate” Islam because nearly all of the somewhat more tolerant verses and chapters in the Koran are identified with the Mecca period or shortly after the Hijra, the flight or migration of Muhammad and his earliest followers from Mecca to the city of Yathrib (Medina) in AD 622, which is the year when the Islamic calendar begins.
As soon as he was established in Medina, Muhammad became the political leader of an expanding group of people who conducted raiding parties/armed robberies against their opponents. As a consequence, the revelations became progressively more aggressive and violent, cancelling out earlier ones. The traditional interpretation is that the tolerance of Mecca was only because Muhammad and his followers then lacked the strength to intimidate their opponents into submission by brute force. In other words: The Meccan revelations constitute a special case, the Medinan revelations the general case of Islamic behavior.
At least one person in the 1960s and 70s argued that this principle of abrogation should be reversed, that the Mecca period constitutes the general case of Islamic behavior and the “true Islam.” This was the Sudanese Muslim writer Mahmud Muhammud Taha. Taha suggested that the violence of the Medina era was because their non-Muslim opponents at that point in time weren’t “mature” enough to adopt Islam peacefully and therefore had to be forced to do so, for their own good. Yet in our time, people are supposedly mature enough to recognize Islam as the One True Faith and adopt it voluntarily, hence violence is no longer required.
This sounds fine on paper, until you analyze the details of his arguments and discover that he retained the option of using violence against those “immature” individuals and peoples who do not quietly submit to Islam, which amounts to a highly traditional view of Jihad. The sword should be used as a “surgical tool” to cut them off from the body of society. He supported the idea of slavery on a moral basis today, not just as an historical fact. “Freedom” is identical with sharia and being a slave of Allah. Taha also approved of many of the most appalling aspects of sharia law, such as stoning people to death for adultery and whipping those who enjoy a glass of wine. Yet although Taha’s ideas fell far short of what is needed, he was nevertheless considered so controversial that he was executed in his native Sudan in 1985 as an apostate, an adult person who has willfully left the fold of Islam. His example perfectly illustrates the tremendous obstacles and dangers any potential Muslim reformer has to face.
Certain radical scholars such as the German linguist Christoph Luxenberg have suggested that parts of the Koran, especially some of the Meccan chapters, were originally based on pre-Islamic Christian texts written in Syriac or Syro-Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Classical Arabic. Not all critical scholars agree with this hypothesis, but if you take this line of thought seriously then it would fatally undermine the arguments presented by Mahmud Muhammud Taha because it would imply that the most peaceful and tolerant chapters of the Koran, the Meccan suras, are peaceful and tolerant in part because they are based on Christian texts. The much more violent Medinan chapters that were inspired by Muhammad and his companions, whoever they really were, are the most authentically Islamic, the “true Islam.”
As these examples demonstrate, reforming Islam by removing or ignoring some of the established texts is very difficult to achieve. Could it be possible to do the reverse, and soften the traditional texts by adding new material to supplement and dilute older texts rather than removing them? In theory, this might be possible. It has already been tried in real life. However, any such attempts will immediately run into powerful opposition from orthodox Muslims who hold that Muhammad was the “Seal of the Prophets” who brought the final revelations from Allah for all eternity to mankind in the form of the Koran. This implies that those who claim to bring new teachings to supplement the Koran will be viewed as imposters.
One personal story illustrating this dilemma is provided by that of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (ca.1839-1908), who was born in Qadian in Punjab in northwest India. He founded the so-called Ahmadiyya movement in 1889 and professed to be a divinely guided reformer and the Mahdi, a messianic figure expected by many (but not all) Muslims to appear before the Day of Judgment, the end of the world as we know it, to rid the Earth of wrongdoing and injustice.
Ghulam Ahmad authored dozens of books and reinterpreted Islam in an entirely new fashion, with far less emphasis on violent Jihad. Yet because of the teachings he added and the divinely inspired mission he claimed for himself most Muslims viewed him as a false prophet. His followers are considered non-Muslims in countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and are relentlessly persecuted even in a “moderate” Muslim majority country such as Indonesia.
The physicist Mohammad Abdus Salam (1926-1996) was born in then British-ruled India, present-day Pakistan. He received part of his education at the University of Cambridge in England and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for contributions to the theory of unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles, making him one of very few individuals from a Muslim background to win a science Nobel and the only one so far to win in arguably the most prestigious category, that of physics. Ahmadis don’t count as “proper” Muslims, except if they do something great like winning a Nobel Prize, and barely even then. To make matters worse, he shared his Prize with two Jews, the physicists Sheldon Lee Glashow (born 1932) and Steven Weinberg (born 1933) from the USA.
He contributed to Pakistan’s nuclear program, but members of the Ahmadiyya community have been physically and legally harassed in Pakistan and charged with being unbelievers “impersonating Muslims.” The word “Muslim” has been erased from an epitaph engraved on the tomb of Abdus Salam, which used to read “the First Muslim Nobel Laureate.”
The Bahá’í Faith is a monotheistic religion with several million believers. It was born in the nineteenth century and sees itself as the continuation of the world’s major religions, not just Islam. Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-1850) from Shiraz, Iran at the age of 24 announced himself a messenger of God, rejected violence and holy war (Jihad), recognized the equality of women and took the title the Báb (“Gate”). He wrote numerous letters and books that combined constituted a new religious law. His followers were tortured and killed and he himself was executed in a public square in the city of Tabriz. His remains were eventually brought to a tomb on Mount Carmel in the city Haifa in present-day northern Israel.
Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri (1817-1892) from Iran, later known as Bahá’u’lláh (“Glory of God”) to his followers, announced his claim to a divine mission to the followers of the Báb. Those who accepted this became the first members of the Bahá’í Faith. The Turkish Sultan banished him to Akko, where he lived for many years. His remains were buried in a small building there known as the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. The scenic Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa and Akko have become popular sites for visitors. Bahá’u’lláh claimed to be the latest in a series of religious messengers to mankind from an almighty and omnipresent God, the previous of whom included such figures as Abraham, the Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. Yet this view cannot be reconciled with the Islamic doctrine of Muhammad being the final Messenger of Allah.
Bahá’ís are without question more peaceful than most Muslims, but can they be considered Muslims? From an outsiders point of view, it could be said with considerable justification that although it claims to have a connection with previous religions, among them Islam, the Bahá’í Faith amounted to a totally new religion, complete with a set of canonical texts: the writings of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. Whereas Ahmadis are treated with suspicion they consider themselves Muslims and are normally referred to as a rather unorthodox Muslim community.
By contrast, Bahá’ís are generally referred to as a separate faith by both themselves and others. They went as far as changing the direction of prayers from Mecca to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh in Israel where their Prophet-Founder was buried. They are therefore viewed as apostates by virtually all Muslims, Shias and Sunnis alike, and are ruthlessly persecuted nearly everywhere in the allegedly tolerant Islamic world while they can openly practice their religion undisturbed among the Jews in the supposedly evil, oppressive state of Israel.
You can find what might be termed lax Islam or diluted Islam, yet this is not quite the same as a “moderate Islam,” despite what some observers like to think. “Lax Islam” is when its believers don’t formally change anything in the core religious texts, but simply choose to deemphasize them and be relaxed in implementing their teachings in real life. Many Sufis could fit into this category since they focus more in the supposedly inner, spiritual side of religion and less on outwardly following its legalistic details. Yet precisely for this reason, Sufis are often treated with corresponding suspicion by stricter Islamic scholars. Sufism has existed for over a thousand years, but it still hasn’t managed to create a tolerant Islamic world.
Besides, lax Islam will only provide non-Muslims with a temporary respite, not a lasting antidote to violent Jihad, since the core texts continue to exist. Sooner or later, somebody will come along who takes Islamic written texts seriously and decides to implement them. The Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great (1542-1605) in India was a relatively tolerant ruler for his time because he didn’t follow Islamic teachings, but then he was succeeded by Aurangzeb (1618-1707), a pious and serious Muslim who followed Islamic teachings and for that reason was extremely brutal when dealing with Hindus and other non-Muslims within his Empire.
Diluted Islam could be defined as societies where Islam was recently established and is therefore extensively mixed up with preexisting, un-Islamic practices. This is often cited by those who profess their hope in a “regional” and supposedly more tolerant version of Islam somewhere in the Balkans, Africa, India or Southeast Asia. Those who support this hypothesis typically state that Islam is not monolithic, but this becomes less and less true year by year thanks to rapid global communications. Pakistan has virtually wiped out its non-Muslim communities through relentless persecution and is a major sponsor of Jihad terrorism abroad. “Pakistani” or “Indian” Islam appears strikingly similar to Middle Eastern Islam or “desert Islam,” as the self-proclaimed reformist Irshad Manji has been known to talk about.
It is true that Muslims in parts of Indonesia have traditionally been less violent than Arab Muslims in the Middle East, but they are more recently converted peoples. The regional differences shrink continuously in our age of globalization as Islam becomes firmly established locally, as believers travel for pilgrimage to Mecca and as local groups get sponsored by Saudi Arabian oil money. If you look at Southeast Asia as a whole, Muslims kill thousands of non-Muslims in regions where they are a sizable minority, for instance in southern Thailand or the Philippines. In allegedly “moderate” Indonesia they have destroyed hundreds of Christian churches. Much the same goes for the Balkans in Southeast Europe.
In the city-state of Singapore, the Muslim minority benefits from the economic affluence generated by the predominately Chinese non-Muslim majority, but they can still cause problems and are kept under close control in a somewhat authoritarian society. Malaysia has been a moderate economic success story mainly because Muslims became a demographic majority not too long ago. Discrimination against non-Muslims is increasing there now.
All things considered, empirical evidence from different continents strongly suggests a common pattern wherein Muslims create repression where they constitute the majority and violent unrest where they constitute the minority. This happens regardless of the ethnic and racial composition of the local population. The only common factor is Islam and the violent supremacist teachings contained in the central texts of this religion. As long as these texts remain unchanged and in force, so will Muslim violence against non-Muslims everywhere.
This leaves another hypothetical possibility for significant change of Islam: That a major armed confrontation with groups of non-Muslims results in such a crushing defeat that it totally shatters the confidence Muslims have in the supremacy of their Faith and their Umma. A Jewish gentleman once pointed out to me that when Roman forces destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the earthly center of Judaism, Jewish scriptures didn’t change per se but were reinterpreted to fit a new situation in the diaspora, as Jews were scattered in different corners of the world. An equivalent to this in Islam would be the destruction of the major mosques in Mecca and Medina. This analogy is imperfect because Judaism has never advocated world conquest and does not exist as a vehicle for achieving global military dominance. Islam does.
Given that Muslims are currently engaged in open conflicts with most of the global centers of power at the same time, and given that many non-Muslims from North America via Western Europe, Israel, Russia and India to China have nuclear weapons, the destruction of Mecca in the course of the twenty-first century should be treated as a real possibility. What kind of effect such an event would have on the Islamic psyche is hard to predict. Perhaps it would shatter Islam completely because the Islamic mentality is based on dominance and supremacy; perhaps it would create a tidal wave of Muslim anger and global Jihad. It is said that those who live by the sword will also die by it. Islam has certainly lived by the sword. Perhaps the creed will exit world history just as it entered: With a great burst of violence.
To sum up, it is very difficult to see how Islam, based on its existing texts, can be changed into something that is peaceful enough to be satisfactory from a non-Muslim point of view. It is a highly unpleasant thought that a religion with over a billion adherents worldwide is inherently violent and incompatible with a modern society. It is understandable that some observers dislike this idea so much that they create an illusory reality where this isn’t the case, but an honest, straightforward reading of Islamic texts leaves us with few other conclusions.
What, then, is to be done? In the short run, damage control. Islam needs to be caged and restrained as much as practically possible and Muslim Jihadists must be deprived of the financial and technological resources to harm us. Wherever possible, non-Muslims should seek to physically separate themselves from Muslims. In the long run, one can only hope that Islam will be broken by its confrontation with modernity before it forces mankind into a massive confrontation that could cause tremendous human suffering before the dust settles.