Which Islam? Whose Islam?
All Muslims Own the Interpretation of the Koran (Part I of 3)
M. Zuhdi Jasser
Radical interpretation of the Koran is caused by 19th century Wahhabi fundamentalist radicalism and 20th century political Islam. In this series, FSM Contributing Editor M. Zuhdi Jasser urges modern, peaceful Muslims to interpret the Koran themselves in order to break away from this radicalism.
(Part I of 3)
The world is just beginning to finally peel the onion of political Islam (Islamism). The central question is what lies at the core? Devotional anti-Islamist Muslims generally believe that at the core of Islamism, is neither a religion nor a faith. It is a global political movement and ideology falsely cloaked in a religion of the God of Abraham. How does a reform-minded Muslim go about proving such a supposition? Do we even need to? Whose interpretation of the Koran is more valid? Do we believe the peaceful Muslim interpretation or the Wahhabi-Jihadist one? More importantly, as we seek the preservation of our homeland security against radical Islamists, we finally realize a growing need for pious Muslims to articulate a clear alternative narrative to the intolerant anti-liberty Islamist political construct.
Only dedicated Muslims can answer these questions with credibility. Most Muslims just want to live and enjoy their daily lives, raise their children, go to work, and contribute to their local communities. The faith they actually practice in the belly of the liberty and freedom of America is most often quite reformed and liberalized in the daily constructs of their acceptance and internalization of pluralism. This has been generally by virtue of assimilation into the culture of Western enlightenment to which they have accommodated their own personal theological underpinnings. While a faith without a clergy lends itself to this accommodation of personal theological ideas, the established academic theology of Islamic jurisprudence is far behind and in desperate need of a renewed ijtihad (modern interpretation).
The Islamist leadership of the Islamic community, however, has generally not reflected the ideas of many, if not most, Western Muslims and has remained driven and radicalized by an overriding religious legal construct (Shari’a) still dated in the 15th century and also driven by 19th century Wahhabi fundamentalist radicalism and 20th century political Islam. The counter movements to any of this have been stifled by many factors. However most suffocating have been the despots, dictators, and ruthless monarchs of the Muslim world which killed individual inquiry and created a corruption brought to the West with many Muslim immigrants. The three-headed global snake of secular dictatorships, political Islam, and oil-funded Wahhabism in the 20th century has quashed any real opportunities for a second Muslim enlightenment - one that brings in a post-modern era. For those Muslims living in freedom in the West, our counter movements have been stifled by apathy, ignorance, moral weakness, and control of most major Islamic organizations by Islamists. To this, these organizations would respond with denial. But I challenge them to produce any anti-Wahhabi, anti-Islamist texts, interpretations, or sermons of any impact or persistence from their Islamist teachers and enablers. From the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) to the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America, they have remained driven and often funded by Wahhabi and Islamist interests who live and breathe political Islam.
There is no getting past the fact that every people and nation ultimately get the “government they deserve” by virtue of their own action or inaction. It is the same principle for our religious leadership, academia, mosques, and activist organizations within the Muslim community. As Muslims, unless we intellectually take on the fundamentalists, the Wahhabis, the Jihadis, and the Islamists for the intellectual reigns of our faith, we ultimately abrogate our ideology to their imams, clerics, and so-called ulemaa (scholars). The fact that I have a difficult time finding non-Islamist (or better yet, anti-Islamist Muslim) theological texts with which to teach my children is a serious problem to which few Muslims will own up.
The anti-Islamist Muslim narrative will only be credible if it includes a counter-Jihad which provides alternative Koranic interpretations to passages exploited by militant Islamists to divide their world into “Muslim and non-Muslim” or “Islam and War.” The answer from anti-Islamist Muslims must be founded in Koranic interpretations which comfortably articulate an Islam that can theologically defend Western secular democracies based upon universal principles of liberty.
This debate is usually roundly ignored by the mainstream media, which unfairly allows American Islamist organizations like CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations), MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council), ISNA (Islamic Society of North America), ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America) and the MAS (Muslim American Society) to speak for all American Muslims. Their Islamist response to the release of last week’s NYPD Terror Report on “Radicalization in the West: the Homegrown Threat” is a classic example of the unwillingness of the likes of CAIR and MPAC to publicly counter the radical ideologies of political Islam, which are the root cause of terrorism. The NYPD Report begins the long overdue discussion of beginning to understand the theological transformation of an individual (a militant Islamist) from peace-loving nationalist to global Jihadist.
To counter the Jihadist interpretation, we must disseminate peaceful interpretations of the same Koranic text especially in what appear to be the more troublesome passages utilized by Jihadists.
I am not formally an expert in Koranic Arabic or Shari’a (Islamic law). But when the academic institutions of Islamic theology have been corrupted, this may in fact be somewhat of an asset as long as one uses interpretations that can be legitimately derived from the Arabic text of the Koran based upon reason. Born in the U.S. and raised in Wisconsin, my formal education is in medicine and biomedical ethics with military medical training. But unlike the practice of medicine, I was raised by my devout Muslim parents, believing that the practice of my faith of Islam required neither a license nor a degree and was accountable only to God. A lifetime of Koranic and Islamic recitation, education, prayer, and practice are foundation enough for the right to hold valid opinions regarding the Koran and its interpretation. While this interpretation may be at odds with many of the so-called clerics and ulemaa of today, this should not shake the common Muslims’ ability to interpret our own faith in our personal relationship with God. In a free market of ideas, it is our duty to provide a liberty narrative and interpretation of Islam which counters the Islamists.
The Koran tells me that there is no clergy, no intermediaries, in our faith. All it takes to be a Muslim is to believe (bear witness) in the God of Abraham and the Message of the Prophet Mohammed. No other Muslim can tell me I’m not a Muslim and similarly, I cannot do the same. I can speak about Islamic behavior, ideologies, and practice, but takfir (apostasy: to deny a Muslim his chosen faith) is something only God can do on the Day of Judgment after our passing according to the Islam I was taught - no matter what the Wahhabis and Islamists may say. Apostasy laws are a prime example of what happens when Islamists have control of society’s legal venues. Similarly, blasphemy laws argue that the domain of religious scholars should be protected from critique. Post-modern society allows freedom of religion but not freedom from criticism or freedom from being offended. Islamists would use blasphemy laws to prevent valid critique of the political Islamist state. There are in fact, Islamic refutations to the imposition of blasphemy laws based upon universal religious freedom for all which can be argued within a liberty minded Islam.
There is no “communication” or “excommunication” for that matter involved in my being a Muslim. It is a complete free-for-all, with no institution providing or guaranteeing membership other than God. My faith, as I was taught, comes to me by virtue of my own choice and personal relationship with God. The Koran, to me as a Muslim, is God’s message. But the inspiration for my soul comes from within and is strengthened by my inner relationship with God. The text, God’s scripture, only validates that relationship. It is presented in the Koran as it was revealed in a setting, a history, of the 7th century, which Muslims need to separate from the religion which lives on today. Religion must modernize through ijtihad (re-interpretation) in order to stay relevant and relegate the outdated experiences to history. Without re-interpretation and separation of history from religion, it freezes in time and conflicts with modernity. The root cause of terrorism today is this conflict vis-à-vis political Islam and its conflict with Western secular democracy.
The tenor of the interpretation of the Islamic scripture is driven by the moral principles which I carry to the text. I believe that most simply look within God’s text for affirmation or denial of previously made conclusions, universal principles, concerning their own established moral precepts in life. It is not the text itself which teaches or creates the love or hate to which so many incorrectly ascribe it. It is the teachers, mentors, and parents who provide an interpretation of the Arabic Koran who ultimately become the disseminators and creators of the ideology, rather than God. The Arabic text is a fixed communication from God, in the Arabic language at the time of Mohammed, in the belief of Muslims. It is up to Muslims to interpret it and re-interpret it in other languages and in context to fit yesterday and today.
Similarly, the debates within the faith of Islam as to the interpretation of what is and what is not Islamic behavior and theology should be open to every Muslim with equal access. The discourse should always be founded in reason. Once reason gives way to the clerical attempt to control us by exerting a monopoly of understanding of God’s intention, Islamism will surge to further domination.
One of the greatest steps forward we can make as a faith community is to believe that ijtihad (modern interpretation) is not only open to every Muslim, but also our obligation as practitioners of our faith. The first great step toward reformation within Islam against political Islam will only come when we deconstruct the intellectual elitism of the ulemaa (Islamic scholars). Often, even some of the most reform-minded ulemaa who are formally trained in Islamic jurisprudence and theology and thus carry a sense of entitlement, have a very difficult time accepting the criticism and opinions of pious Muslims who have not been granted entry into the “brotherhood” of clerics and scholars of Islam.
This is the age-old theocratic mechanism of stifling debate and maintaining control of a religious community by the clerics and imams (religious teachers). They first declare the non-scholar (non-professorial) interpretations of our own religious texts to be invalid because their source is not learned. They then state that there can be no more debate since the “non-imam” Muslim has been discredited. The determination of who is and who is not learned is only the domain of the ulemaa (scholars). As far as the imams are concerned, the practice and study of a faith for one’s entire life, or years for that matter, does not suffice to provide a basis for holding strong convictions regarding scriptural and legal interpretations. Ultimately, this is the difference between theocracy and societies based upon liberty. Liberal societies focus upon ideas and reason, while theocracies focus upon the mandate and power of the theocrats who believe they are the representatives of God and only their interpretation of His text is valid.
Thus, real Muslim reform needs two elements. Not only do we need to “open the doors of ijtihad” (re-interpretation) again, but open the rules of engagement to encourage and respect a very public discourse which equally values the input of every single Muslim regardless of “training.”
Thus, one of the foundational principles of our American Islamic Forum for Democracy was that we affirm the “inalienable right of every Muslim to be equally entitled to their opinion concerning their own interpretation of the religion of Islam and its scriptures. We refuse to accept subservience of the interpretation of our personal faith and personal relationship with God to imams (teachers and prayer leaders) and other ulemaa.” While certainly religious teachers are central to those seeking knowledge and learning, the choice of teacher and sources (which can be infinite) is up to the individual and not the community. Once the teacher becomes community leader and politician he is no longer a spiritual teacher but rather a theocrat. Accountability of faith ultimately resides with God and no one else.
Some would argue that this defies respect for the academia of theology. This could not be further from the truth. One can believe in the virtue of reason and the equal access to it by all while also condemning theocracy, theocrats, and their creeping controls over the community. At the end of the day, the prevailing interpretations of Islam in 2007 are those which are offered by the Muslims of today and by those Muslims who choose and who have the moral courage to engage in the debate. The only way in which we can defeat Wahhabism and its associated global Jihadism and Islamism is to open the access of interpretation of our scripture to all Muslims who love the faith and choose to practice it. The Islamists will ultimately fall defeated in discredit and disgrace by the reasoning of enlightened liberty-minded anti-Islamist Muslims of the West when we finally wake up to their religious legitimacy simply as practicing Muslims. We should look back at previous religious reformation in Christianity, for example, and the separation of church and state which created America. While obvious differences with Islam exist, centrally, the premise of change against theocracy is the same. The faith of Islam and its current pseudo-clergy in control can only be modernized and displaced from the bottom up. Theocrats, like any autocrat and despot, seek to maintain control at all costs - regardless of reason and universal humanitarian principles.
This discussion sets the stage for a long overdue public debate within the Muslim community about passages in the Koran which are currently being bandied about the Internet. How do “good Muslims” differ from radical ones insofar as the practice of religion and its interpretation from their same Koran? How do we reconcile some of the difficult more violent passages of the Koran with life today? And under what authority?
I will begin to try and address some of these issues from my own personal perspective in my next column. It was, however, first important to discuss the legitimacy with which a non-cleric, non-ulemaa like myself and so many other like-minded anti-Islamist Muslims can and should express a post-modern interpretation of Islamic scripture in the Koran. A palpable movement of Muslims can begin to create an expression of a post-modern interpretation of our Arabic Koran. This interpretation can be at home with American liberty and freedom.
The so-called scholars of the now politically defunct Christian clerics of the Church of England of the 18th century suffered a similar fate. Hopefully this struggle for Muslims won’t be as bloody, but the signs are it may. Anti-Islamist Muslims will defeat political Islam when they find and articulate universal liberty and freedom from our own scripture while preserving our own spiritual Islam. This will require a bottom-up re-interpretation of the Koran which is much needed in this tumultuous point in history. This is most likely the only way for us to see the root cause of terrorism finally disappear.
read full author bio here