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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Woman Half-the-Man?: Crisis of Male Epistemology in Islamic Jurisprudence

Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina
University of Virginia


Islamic sacred law, the Shari`a, has been regarded by
Muslims as a perfect, divinely ordained
religious-ethical-legal system. The Shari`a relates
Muslims to God's purposes by providing comprehensive
directives in the two spheres of human activity: those
actions that relate humanity to God, and those that
relate humans to fellow humans. The former actions are
categorized as `ibadat (literally, "acts of honoring
God", technically, God-human relationships) and the
latter are known as mu`amalat (literally,
"transactions", technically, interhuman
relationships). Whereas the God-human relations have
remained more or less immutable in the Shari`a, the
area of interhuman relationships has demanded
rethinking and reinterpretation of the normative
sources like the Qur'an and the Sunna (Tradition) to
deduce new directives under changed social conditions.
There are, however, epistemological problems connected
with the way normative sources are retrieved and
interpreted by Muslim jurists which have hampered the
necessary progress towards one particular area in the
interhuman relationships, namely, the personal status
of Muslim women. The juridical deliberations in the
exclusively male-oriented traditional centers of
Islamic learning, the madrasa, have disregarded female
voices in the emerging discourse connected with
women's issues and human rights. The redefinition of
the status of a Muslim woman in modern society is one
of the major issues that confronts Muslim jurists'
claims to be authority on legal-ethical sources of
Islam. But such a redefinition, as I argue in the
paper, is dependent upon Muslim women's participation
in the legal- ethical deliberations concerning matters
whose situational aspects can be determined only by
women themselves. Without their participation in
legal-ethical deliberations, women's rights will
always depend on a "representational discourse"
conducted by male jurists who, in spite of their good
intentions, treats the subject as "absent" and hence,
lacking the necessary qualification to determine her
rights in a patriarchal society.
Male Jurists and Female Related Rulings

It was in the late 1960s when I began my studies in
Islamic jurisprudence at the madrasa (seminary) of the
Ayatollah Milani in Mashhad, Iran. Studies in the
madrasa were structured around texts, both initial
expositions and commentaries on them. In general,
classical Islamic juridical texts were organized to
undertake "first things first." Hence, in the Shi`ite
jurisprudence, with which I commenced my studies in
Islamic law, immediately following theoretical
discussion about the necessity of following one of the
living mujtahids (theologian-cum-jurist), the teacher
began with the rulings connected with ritual
purification (kitab al-tahara = The Book of

I always sensed some uneasiness in the teacher as well
as all male fellow students when the rulings on tahara
reached intimate matters connected with female
purification. At that point, as if sensing a need to
justify the embarrassment, my teacher often told the
story about the discomfort and inadequacy felt by the
late Ayatollah Burujardi (d. 1961) when he had to
lecture on the taharat al-niswan (women's ritual
purification) to his largely male audience made up of
senior members of the religious establishment of the
Qumm madrasa. Such sessions were part of the advanced
lectures given by Burujardi on juristic principles
applied to deduce these rulings. Since the traditional
centers of Islamic learning neither allowed female
participation nor public discussion on matters
concerning women's specific physical condition, the
lectures on taharat al-niswan dealt only with closing
judicial decisions, leaving the detailed explications
of the method and reasoning behind them for individual

However, that does not seem to be the case in the
early days of Islam. The Prophet himself was at
various times asked questions regarding the rules of
purification for women. Significantly, on many such
occasions the women of the Prophet's household were
the interlocutors and even the interpreters of the
religious guidance that affected women's ritual
purity. A'isha, according to the Muslim traditionist,
al-Bukhari, was present when a woman in Medina came to
ask the Prophet about the rules of cleanliness after
finishing menses.
He replied: "Take a piece of cloth perfumed with musk
and clean the private parts with it thrice." The
Prophet felt shy and turned his face. So I (A'isha)
pulled her to me and explained to her what the Prophet

In the same section another tradition reports that
when the Prophet replied that she should purify
herself with a piece of cloth scented with musk, the
woman asked: "How shall I purify myself with it?" He
said: "Glory be to God, purify yourself!" At that
point A'isha came to the rescue of the Prophet and
pulled her to herself and taught her the method of
cleansing herself.

The traditions clearly show that in the early days of
Islam in issues dealing with women's ritual
purification leading Muslim women provided with the
necessary instruction. The Prophet could not and did
not exclude women in dealing with their own particular
situation in the performance of their religious
duties. Moreover, as one can sense in some of these
traditions, the Prophet himself sensed discomfort in
going beyond expressing simply the rulings dealing
with women's ritual purification. This feeling of
inadequacy in dealing with peculiarly female concerns
in Islamic rituals continues in the way later jurists
treated juridical decisions affecting women.
Certainly, the difference was that while the Prophet's
wives and daughters were full participants in the
legal deliberations affecting Muslim women, we have no
record to suggest that the womenfolk of the jurist had
similar opportunity to intervene in female ritual

Anecdotes about the male legal scholar dealing with
intimate female issues and the problems he faces in
conveying innermost contents of female ritual
purification constitute legitimate entertainment among
the "puritanical" members of the Muslim religious
class. The subtle language of the Muslim "seminarians"
speaking about the "unspeakable" deserves a separate
study. But the contents of these anecdotes that lead
modern researchers to the contextualization of the
rulings about menses and sexual intercourse also point
to the way in which powerfully gender- oriented Muslim
culture treats matters connected with the "other
gender:" excluding it in the interpretive process.

In the male-dominated religious discourse of the
madrasa, information about women's experience is
mediated through the "intertext" of the oral
transmission of the anecdotes about women. The
previous anecdote about the senior male legal scholar
embarrassed by female ritual purification provides a
symbolic link in contextualizing the experience of
something absent - the elicitation of the condition of
being a woman by a man in a legal investigation.

While intelligible reenactment of the subjective
experience of the "other" through the formation of
figurally represented relations is not entirely
impossible, its cognitive content is not free of
suspicion. For instance, in the context of a legal
ruling pertaining to a woman's situation in a society,
the legal language constitutes the meaning of
utterance about the female "other" mediated through
male representations of interpersonal relations, the
mu`amalat. The legal utterance, in such circumstances,
without taking full account of the concerns and
conditions peculiar to female life, is promulgated and
interpreted by a male jurist to apply to all women in
a society. Hence, what we have in the text is figural
rather than the actual representation of woman's
situational and objective condition.

To overcome this cognitive impediment one needs to
undertake the analysis of the symbolic network of
Islamic legal discourse. In other words,
contextualization of rulings about sexual segregation,
for instance, that still stand unvitiated among the
religious-minded Muslims today, cannot be provided by
merely referring to the textual and cultural
validation of the practice in Muslim societies. One
needs to understand the intertextual network of
symbols expressed by means of the narratives developed
through interlocutory devices in which women are
represented as actors, as questioners, even
occasionally as disputants. To be sure, these
narratives extend beyond the legal rulings about the
male-female segregation. They in fact contribute to
the formation of a symbolic configuration of Islamic
cultural values.

Further elaboration on this particular issue of
segregation is in place. In general, rulings about
female segregation are based on the concept of `awra,
meaning "indecent to expose." On the basis of this
concept, jurists regard a woman's body, including her
face, as `awra. However, there are controversial texts
ascribed to the Prophet and some of his companions
that regard even her voice as `awra and hence, "proper
for veiling or covering" at all times. Through such an
extension of the `awra to include the voice, Islamic
law seems to advocate the position in which a woman is
legally silenced, morally separated, and religiously
veiled. Going beyond the text and the context of these
rulings, as I want to demonstrate in this essay, could
lead us to such an analysis of the intertextual
dimension of the cases that form an entire genre in
Islamic juridical texts. It could, furthermore, direct
us to pose a fundamental question in the Muslim
juridical studies: Can the male dominated religious
epistemology provide an authentic voice in the
interpretive process connected with the female
"other"? How can male jurists undertake to map the
subjective experience of the silent "other" of a
Muslim society? At this juncture I need to point out
my reservations about lending whole-hearted support to
feminist jurisprudence that regards male dominated
legal decisions as being conditioned by ideological
interpretation of law, and the male bias being the
source of violation of women's human rights. Even in
the male dominated Islamic culture, at the level of
figural representation, male jurists have been able to
transmit female existence and experience, however
imperfect, by eliciting that segment of their
ideological utterances that consider both genders to
be part of humanity. Without such an acknowledgement
of essential humanness of men and women, it would have
been impossible for them to transmit those values in
the culture that saw woman and man in relational terms
as parents, sister and brother, daughter and father,
mother and son, and husband and wife. Islamic legal
discourse has not always conceived of male-female
relations in terms of gender power struggle.

The argument to be developed in this paper is that the
major part of the present epistemological crisis in
Muslim jurisprudence over women's issues is due to the
blatant absence of female voice in Islamic legal
discourse. It is remarkable that even when women
transmitters of adth were admitted in the `ilm
al-rijal ("science dealing with the scrutiny of the
reporters") dealing with source criticism to
authenticate adth-reports in the Sunna, and even when
their narratives were recognized as valid
documentation for deducing various rulings, they were
not participants in the intellectual process that
produced the prejudicial rulings encroaching upon the
personal status of women. More importantly, the
revelational text, regardless of its being extracted
from the Qur'an or the Sunna, was casuistically
extrapolated in order to disprove a woman's
intellectual and emotional capacities to formulate
independent decisions that would have been more
sensitive and more accurate in estimating her
radically different life experience. The demand today
for new and expanded methodology of usul al-fiqh among
the Muslim fundamentalist leaders, clearly shows the
crisis that faces male-dominated epistemology in
coming to terms with the demands about the recognition
of the women's personal status and the
substantive-cognitive role of their reason in
reversing prejudicial decisions that deny her dignity
as a full person.

In order to demosntrate the seriousness of this crisis
in Muslim legal studies, let me begin by setting forth
some preliminary observations about Muslim religious
epistemology. There are four basic components that
constitute legal studies:

the usul: fundamental sources that provide paradigm
cases and the general principles that are behind them;
the furu`: present instances for which legal decisions
are being sought in the light of paradigm cases
provided in the fundamental sources;
the mawdu`at: "objects" or "situations" that determine
the status of present instances and the ordinances
that could be based on them to decide whether it is an
obligatory act, a recommended act, or an act permitted
at discretion, and so on.
the ahkam: ordinances that specify the religious

Whereas Muslim scholars are in agreement that
acquisition of knowledge regarding the usul
(fundamental sources) is incumbent individually on the
community members who should undertake investigation
of these sources themselves, in matters of ahkam
(religious ordinances) they must follow the judicial
rulings of a qualified jurisprudent, mujtahid.
However, the practice of the community throughout the
history has been to follow the juridical authority in
acquiring knowledge regarding both fundamental sources
and the rulings derived from them. This method of
acquisition of religious knowledge on the authority of
a learned member of the community is identified as
taqlid (following the authority of a leading legist),
which is theoretically permissible only in the matters
related to religious practice. What is the status of
mawdu`at (objects in a case)? Is taqlid permissible in
acquiring knowledge about "objects" and "situations"?

Mawdu` (singular of mawdu`at) signifies the actual
state of a thing before a ruling can be deduced. For
instance, before a jurist issues a ruling regarding
the shortening of the daily worship for those who
travel between two neighboring cities, such as
Berkeley and Palo Alto, he needs to define the legal
extent of a large city. Such an explanation of the
size of a city for legal purposes is known as mawdu`,
that is, substantive information about factors that
characterize a city. Or, in order to rule about ritual
impurity of the blood that stains a shirt, a jurist
needs to ascertain that it is definitely human and not
insect blood, because the status of human blood is
different in determining ritual impurity of the shirt.

Muslim scholars acknowledge that in investigating the
mawdu`at one need not be an expert. In fact, an
ordinary believer is in some instances even more
proficient than a scholar in determining the factual
state of an object or a situation. What matters is the
practical knowledge about an issue under
investigation. As such, one need not follow another
person's knowledge in mawdu` if he or she is certain
about its actual state. Moreover, juridical principle
states that knowledge about mawdu` does not fall under
the category of taqlid, that is, one need not follow
the juridical authority in order to determine objects
and situations of a case; rather, one should undertake
its investigation individually. The presumption is
that determination of the state or contextual
situation of the case is a rational process open to
all who possess sound reasoning. One should not let
someone else determine the object on which a judicial
decision would be based. However, there is a
stipulation in Islamic law that in the case of a
legally incompetent person or a minor, determining the
mawdu` could be assumed by a legal guardian (wali),
including a jurist.

To recapitulate, of the four fundamental components of
Islamic legal system it is only ahkam -ordinances-
that require following a jurist's research and
conclusions based on the main sources of Islamic legal
formulations. The other three parts are open to
individual research and their ultimate acknowledgment
or rejection. More importantly, it is in the area of
mawdu`at, as they affect the religious practice, that
there exists the space in which interpersonal
negotiations between different groups and individuals
are possible. The usul that should be based on firm
rational inquiry have their place in the hearts and
minds of the believers. Unlike the mawdu`at, the usul
(the paradigm cases in the Qur'an and the Sunna) have
only an indirect influence on the final outcome of a
juridical ruling.

This male dominated religious epistemology has given
rise to several fundamental questions related to the
determination of the situational aspects of cases in
connection with women. First of all, are women any
different from men in understanding the process of
identifying objects and their contexts as required
prior to issuing the legal decision? How about their
role in ascertaining the particular substantive state
of woman's situation related to sexuality and
reproduction, marriage and divorce? Is there any
principle in the juridical theory that would suggest a
form of thinking that distinguishes between the
concerns of men and the concerns of women?

If one follows the prerequisite individual rational
inquiry in the mawdu`at it would be correct to
conclude that the Islamic belief system dictates that
women need to represent their own concerns in all
matters of family and maternity care. Implicit in this
proposition is the recognition of women's right to
assess their particular social situations and
determine the legal applications in accordance with
their sense of priorities. Furthermore, since the
Islamic belief system does not speak about justice in
terms of equality of sexes and treats the underlying
difference of sex as natural, not the creation of
society, defining a particular mawdu` has to be
undertaken by the party concerned. From the juridical
literature examined in its historical context, it is
evident that, relatively speaking, Muslim jurists
succeeded in pursuing the Qur'anic impulse towards
family relationships and asserting individual rights
on the basis of God- centered equality. And, although
man retained wide authority over the wife, laws were
enacted to give woman unprecedented respect and
protection in the patriarchal context.

In family law, the rights of women, children, and
other dependents were protected against the male head
of the family, who, on the average, was stronger than
a woman and more independent, since he is free of
pregnancy and immediate care of children. Islamic
marital rules encouraged individual responsibility by
strengthening the nuclear family. Islamic law
protected male prerogative on the grounds that men
were required to support the household; whereas women
were protected primarily by their families. All legal
schools gave a husband one-sided divorce privileges
because for divorce initiated by a woman would mean
unsettle her husband's economic investment. Under
these rules a husband could divorce a wife almost at
will; but a wife who wished to leave her husband had
to show good reason. The main legal check upon the man
in divorce was essentially financial and a matter of
contract between equal parties that included a
provision about bridal gift. Part of the gift (sidaq
or mahr), which might be substantial, was paid at the
time of marriage; if he divorced her without special
reason, he had to pay her the rest.

The equality of women in the law carried with it an
important financial independence. Muslim women could
own property which could not be touched by any male
relative, including her husband who was required to
support her from his own funds. Moreover, women had a
personal status which might allow them to begin their
own business. However, this potential female
independence was curbed primarily by cultural means,
keeping marriages within the extended family, so that
family property would not leave the family through
women marrying out.

Hence, although wives and daughters were given a
stronger position than they had in the pre-Islamic
Arab culture, in one area the Qur'an left the status
of women to become the mawdu` for laws that permitted,
though mitigated, unequal status between men and
women, reducing a woman to "half-the-man." Her
distinctive contribution in determining her own social
context was thoroughly excluded by eliminating her as
the interpreter of her own objects and situations.
Patriarchal structures of Arab culture, in the form of
loosely camouflaged traditions ascribed to the
Prophet, left her intellectually crippled, while the
male jurists prepared the text of the laws for her
insidious domination by male members of the society.

It is relevant that it is mainly in the sphere of
interpersonal relationships, the mu`amalat section of
the jurisprudence, that woman's input in clarification
of her mawdu` - her substantive social context - was
kept in check. In the sphere of God-human
relationship, the `ibadat section of law, her equality
with man before God was never questioned.
Nevertheless, the manner in which her input in the
mu`amalat was circumscribed had implications for her
performance of the `ibadat, the requirements of
God-human relationship. Thus, for instance, the
prohibition of independent female travel, requiring
the presence of a male relative, has directly affected
her religious freedom to undertake the performance of
the obligatory hajj (annual pilgrimage) in Mekka. This
prohibition, it must be pointed out, was based on the
juristic principle that "averting causes of corruption
has precedence over bringing about that which has
benefit" (dar'u al- mafasid muqaddam `ala jalb
al-masalih). Other similar juristic principles have
also been regularly invoked to curb not only women's
rights but also the rights of minorities to function
as full citizens in some Muslim societies.
Paradigm Cases in Rulings about Woman's Status

The paradigm cases dealing with the status of women
are derived directly from an investigation of the
sources of law. The sources are treated hierarchally,
reflecting the religious evaluation of the epistemes
contained in the Qur'an and the Sunna. Thus in
formulating judicial decisions (fatawa) a jurist goes
first to the Qur'an, then to the exegetical works in
conjunction with the Sunna, and finally, to the
juridical corpus, in that order, to follow the process
of extrapolating fresh decisions from paradigmatic
cases. I follow this approach with the methodological
concern that any study of this kind requires a
normative interpretation of the religious
underpinnings presented in the Qur'an. It is
foundational to my study to raise the question: Should
"Islam," as a belief system, be defined and judged by
its practitioners or should its practitioners be
defined and judged by a normative standard provided by
the revelational sources on which the religious belief
system is constructed? I believe I need an
interpretive standpoint from which I can judge that
some affirmations regarding women are peripheral or
incidental to the tradition and that others are
central and essential, that some are privileged and
can serve as a guide for the interpretation of others.
With this in mind, I begin to respond to my question:
"Woman, half-the-man?" by looking at the Qur'an and
its exegesis as the source of religious affirmations
that altered, in decisive ways, the objects and
situations within which legal-moral judgements were
made regarding women in Muslim society. The estimation
of a woman's position in the jurisprudence, is
contextualized in the following pertinent reference,
where the Qur'an speaks about contracting a debt:
O believers, when you contract a debt one upon another
for a stated term, write it down, and let a scribe
write it down between you justly, and let not any
scribe refuse to write it down, as God has taught him;
so let him write, and let the debtor dictate, and let
him fear God his Lord and not diminish anything of
it.....And call in to witness two witnesses, men; or
if the two be not men, then one man and two women,
such witnesses as you approve of, that if one of the
two errs the other will remind her; and let the
witnesses not refuse, whenever they are
summoned.....And fear God; God teaches you, and God
has knowledge of everything. (emphasis added) (Q.

The passage is regarded as the scriptural basis for
the law of evidence (shahadat) in jurisprudence.
Moreover, it has also been evoked to communicate the
inferiority of a woman's evidence as compared to a
man's. Exegetical literature discusses variations in
the reading of the phrase: "....if one of the two errs
('an tadilla ihdahuma)," and consider whether the
clause is conditional and if it connotes the
superiority of male memory power. In fact, abars cites
a specified opinion which he rejects and which
maintained that the Qur'an made this provision of
"reminding" in women's evidence because "forgetfulness
overcomes women [inherently] more than it does men."

None of the commentaries in the classical age go
beyond lexical and grammatical exposition of the
statement to establish that women are in need of being
reminded in order to render their evidence equal to
that of a man who enjoys impeccable memory. To be
sure, Baydawi maintains that the Shafi`ite jurists
implemented the terms of this verse only in the case
of business and financial transactions (amwal),
whereas the anafites extended the requirement to
criminology and law of retribution.

Yet, the grammatical conclusion that the Qur'anic
statement "if one of the two errs...." is a
conditional clause had enormous implications in
explicating the nature of divine commandment in
jurisprudence. This grammatical specification had been
acknowledged despite the fact that only one
transmitter among the early transmitters of the
Qur'anic text had insisted in reading the clause as
conditional with 'in. For the jurists looking at the
denotation of the statement the question is: Is the
conditional commandment given for the specific
situation in the Medina society to be interpreted as
an unconditional commandment, evincing the probable
conclusion that regardless whether a woman errs or
not, her evidence is to be reduced to half of a man's

In fact, some later exegetes, like the Shi`ite Mulla
Fath Allah Kashani, maintained that the statement is
unconditional because woman is inherently weaker in
her rational judgment than man who is intellectually
stronger, and forgetfulness is far from his nature.
Furthermore, he asserts that, according to Sufyan b.
`Uyayna, the verse's requirement of two women brings
together the evidence of two women and raises it to be
equivalent to that of one man. However, both the
explicit denotation and the implied context of the
verse in the exegetical literature strictly allowed a
conditional commandment to be surmised. It denied the
unconditional purport with its implications for the
inherent inferiority of a woman that was asserted in
the legal decisions, including those maintained by the
Shafi`ites in the limited area of financial

In the legal texts, the object and the social
situation of a Muslim woman, as extracted from the
conditional commandment of the Qur'an, was defined in
terms of her position in the regional culture. The
cultural evaluation of a woman was transmitted in some
of adth-reports that were used to overcome the
conditional denotation of the Qur'anic law of
evidence. These were used as evidentiary documentation
to extrapolate unqualified stipulations that a woman's
evidence equals half of that of a man's, regardless of
the situational factors.

When we examine the hadith literature to determine how
far Q. 2:282 had reinforced the cultural estimation of
a woman's intelligence in providing evidence, we
discover that al-Bukhari has preserved an interesting
rubric in one of the odd places towards the end of his
compilation dealing with the evidentiary nature of a
"single" narrative (khabar al-wahid). Al-Bukhari's
rubrics actually serve as his judicial decisions
(fatawa) for which he produces hadith-reports that
follow as documentation. Thus, under the rubric of
Khabar al-mar'at al-wahida (narrative reported by a
"single" woman), he cites the following tradition:
[`Abd Allah] ibn `Umar said: Some companions of the
Prophet, including Sa`d, were going to eat meat. But
one of the wives of the Prophet called them, saying:
"It is the meat of a certain reptile (dabb)!" The
people then stopped eating it. On that the Prophet
said: "Carry on eating, for it is lawful." Or, he
said: "There is no harm in eating it, but it is not
from my meals."

An important dietary matter is the object of the
narrative, on the basis of which a legal ruling
permitting a particular kind of meat is being deduced.
However, this permission is stated on the authority of
the Prophet, who reportedly reverses an opinion
prohibiting its consumption expressed by one of his
wives. The implications of this hadith for the
admissibility of a woman's evidence in specifying the
object of a ruling cannot be sufficiently emphasized.
The hadith indicates that a narrative related by a
"single" woman, even if she happens to be one of the
Prophet's wives, cannot be permitted as evidence for a
prohibitive legal ruling. On the contrary, as reported
in another tradition in the same section, a hadith
reported by a "single" truthful male transmitter is
admissible as documentation for all kinds of

The purpose of al-Bukhari's compilation is not to
provide additional documentation by citing the above
verse as proof for his implied conclusion that
regarding a "single" female narrator's credibility is
vitiated by the absence of another female. However,
the law of evidence in Q. 2:282 is the unmistakable
context of this tradition. This and other similar
traditions raise serious questions not only about the
authenticity of these narratives that ignored the
intertextuality of the daily details of the lives of
women entrapped in male jurist's subjectivity and his
skewed vision of her social role; it also puts in
doubt the claim by the pious for the validity and
applicability of these legal rulings in all age and at
all times. Moreover, in the absence of reevaluation of
the relevant authoritative texts within their
historical and cultural contexts, Islamic
jurisprudence has been impaired by irrelevant
hairsplitting exercises, reflecting an acute
formalistic rather than substantive approach to
religious knowledge. Hence, instead of squarely
confronting the question of mawdu`at dealing with
women's situation in Muslim society under variable
historical circumstances, the jurists have vacillated
between the prestige of the written tradition and
non-essential conceptual and terminological devices
developed in the Islamic legal theory to interpret it.
Both the methods of inquiry and the forms of argument
indicate the juridical tradition's inadequacies in
furnishing solutions to the concrete problems faced by
Muslim women. The nature of religious discourse
employed in the madrasa setting makes it epistemically
impossible to speak about specific objects and
situations peculiar to Muslim woman's personal status,
without referring to the revelational knowledge
preserved in the prestigious texts. It is ultimately
the written tradition - and not human reason that can
negotiate the intertextuality of the judicial
decisions made by a male jurist. Application of human
reasoning, in any of its forms, has been permanently
crippled by the madrasa attitude, articulated in
various works of Islamic thought, that human reason on
its own is not capable of extracting practical
knowledge regarding an ideal Islamic order.

The legal rulings regarding the inferiority of woman's
evidence were extrapolated mainly on the basis of the
Qur'an 2:282, fortified by traditions that accepted
the inherent inferiority of women in matters of
religion and intelligence. These rulings reveal even
more serious problems in defining the object and
situational context (mawdu`at) particular to women's
social and personal condition. Undoubtedly, it was in
the area of evidence that it was inferred that
al-Bukhari implied that a single woman's testimony is
half that of a man's. Yet the conditional commandment
of the verse 2:282 could not be interpreted so
explicitly in view of the contextual restriction
imposed by the kind of transaction. To resolve this
apparent contradiction between the restrictive and
conditional terms of the verse, and the unqualified
terms related in some traditions, jurists had to
define the objects and situations in which female
evidence and attending conditions could become

Investigation in the specific text and the context of
the Qur'an and the hadith led jurists to recognize
substantially different situations in Muslim
interpersonal relations where women functioned as
witnesses, providing objective testimony for ultimate
judicial rulings. The Qur'anic law of evidence treated
only one instance of the social situation in which her
evidence in the matter of contract involving financial
obligation was, for practical reasons, devalued.
Muslim jurists were cognizant of other situations in
which this conditional and situational enactment of
the Qur'anic law could not be generalized.
Consequently, they promulgated three situations in the
process of validating a woman's testimony on any
interpersonal situation, including contractual

A non-permissible situation in which women's testimony
is not admissible at all;
A permissible situation in which women testified with
men; and, therefore, their testimony is admissible;
A permissible situation in which women's testimony is
admissible, even if there were no men testifying with

It is worth noting that in none of these cases is a
woman admitted as the only witness. In all instances
she is mentioned in plural, not necessarily in the
formula of two women equal to one man, as implied in
the Q. 2:282. In most of the examples cited for each
situation it is not difficult to find the underlying
concern of the Muslim culture in which a woman's role
was defined by the powerful male functioning as her
manager. More pertinently, while her testimony was
admitted in instances of marriage and debts or in
areas of her expertise such as determining cases of
rape and pregnancy, her evidence was excluded from
cases of divorce and murder. When it came to cases of
adultery, Islamic law admitted two women's testimony
if accompanied by that of three men. However, if there
was only one male witness and six or more female
witnesses, their collective testimony could not be
regarded as valid. On the other hand, a single woman's
claim that she is virgin when accused of adultery by
four male witnesses, stands unvitiated provided a
midwife establishes the validity of her claim.
Concluding Remarks

Rulings about woman's testimony have filled the
sections of kitab al-qada' (administration of justice)
where jurists have identified minutely where and when
women can function as qualified witnesses. It is not
difficult to discern underlying concern for justice
when one takes into account stringent requirements to
establish evidence for accusation against anyone in
Muslim society. However, there is no doubt that the
tone of the rulings is set by the powerful male
jurist, who, in most cases, ignores the female
evaluation of her own social situation, for instance
in divorce, that furnishes the object of the ruling.
There is almost an a fortiori argument derived from
the Q. 2:282 to support the implied inherent
inequality of sexes which then makes men take charge
of a woman's affairs as determined by the competent
legal authority. The religious epistemology that was
constructed on revelational knowledge in the juridical
studies has served the Muslim jurists' endeavors in
extracting unconditional commandments from the
conditional and culturally conditioned references,
both in the Qur'an and the Sunna dealing with the
historical Muslim social universe.

The treatment of women in Islamic legal tradition is a
classic example of the "epistemological crisis" faced
by madrasa-educated scholars of Islamic law. Honest
and critical evaluation of this crisis is dependent
upon the appraisal of the historical development of
theoretical and conceptual structures of the Islamic
religious sciences, including jurisprudence. In order
to provide an authentic intertextuality to the text
and the context of legal rulings that reduce women, in
a mathematical fashion sometimes, to half a man,
Muslim male jurists have to include women in
communicating the mawdu`at about women. Without such
participation in the interpretive process of the text
to communicate its context and intertext that has been
the source of her cultural subjugation, Muslim women
stand little chance to overcome being reduced to the
legally silent, morally segregated and religiously
veiled half-the- man.

Diambil dari

Arab Intellectuals: Under Threat by Islamists

By A. Dankowitz*


The restrictions placed on intellectuals' freedom of
expression in the Arab world and the death threats
from Islamists are hampering the activities of
reformist, secular, and moderate Arab intellectuals.
Many of them have found asylum in Western countries,
and are attempting to impact Arab and international
public opinion from there. Some have stopped writing;
others have been forced to request protection from the

Recently, several reformist intellectuals have faced
threats from both the Islamists and the Arab regimes.
The following are a few examples of threats, and Arab
media reactions to them:

Muhammad Sa'id Al-'Ashmawi

Egyptian judge and author Muhammad Sa'id Al-'Ashmawi
has been subject to Islamist threats since 1979. The
reason for this was his interpretation of Koranic
verses according to their historical context, which
was perceived by Islamists as undermining their
religious validity for all places and times. In
January 1980, the Egyptian authorities assigned him a
police escort.

In March, 2004, following a speech he delivered in the
U.S. on moderation and reform in Islam and in Egypt,
the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior cancelled his
police protection. The leading reformist Internet
sites and joined
the campaign in his defense, and called on the
Egyptian government to renew his police protection.
Only after Al-'Ashmawi brought a legal suit against
the Ministry of the Interior was his police protection
renewed, though at a lower level that does not meet
his security needs. According to Al-'Ashmawi, the
authorities have, in effect, placed him under house
arrest, since "everyone is afraid that [extremists]
will assault me on the streets of Egypt, which are no
longer safe for me and for others."[2]

Dr. Ahmad Al-Baghdadi

In March 2005, Dr. Ahmad Al-Baghdadi, a reformist
author who teaches political science at Kuwait
University, published a public request for political
asylum in a Western country, after a Kuwaiti court
condemned him to a one-year prison sentence, commuted
to three years on probation and bail of 2,000 dinars
($6,800). In response to the court's decision, he also
announced that he would stop writing in the Kuwaiti

Al-Baghdadi was sued by three Islamists who accused
him of contempt for Islam after he wrote, in a June
2004 article in a Kuwaiti paper, that he would prefer
his son to study music rather than the Koran. The
circuit-level court cleared Al-Baghdadi of the
charges, stating that he had merely expressed his
opinion and had not attacked the religion. The court
of appeals, however, overturned the decision, and
pronounced that Al-Baghdadi had overstepped the limits
of criticism and freedom of expression when he implied
that there was a connection between studying Islam and
reciting the Koran, on the one hand, and terrorism and
intellectual backwardness, on the other.[3]

Lafif Lakhdar

On May 6, 2005, the website of the Tunisian Islamist
movement Al-Nahdha posted a statement hinting that
reformist Tunisian intellectual Lafif Lakhdar was the
author of an anti-Islamic book defaming the Prophet
Muhammad. The book, titled The Unknown in the
Prophet's Life, was published on the Christian website In April, 2005, demonstrations
against the book broke out in Sudan after a chapter
was published by the Muslim Brotherhood movement in
Sudan (known for its ties with the leader of the
Tunisian Islamist movement, Sheikh Rashed

In response to the accusation linking him to the book,
Lakhdar issued a call urging civil society
organizations around the world, and especially human
rights organizations, to take legal measures against
Al-Nahdha and its leader, Al-Ghanushi, who enjoys
political asylum in Britain. Lakhdar explained that by
posting this false accusation, Al-Ghanushi had
intended to incite extremist Islamists to kill him. In
Lakhdar's own words, in the past Al-Ghanushi
"sanctioned the killing of President Sadat, today he
is sanctioning my killing, and tomorrow, the killing
of others."[5] Lakhdar also cited a number of inciting
statements that Al-Ghanushi had made in the past.[6]

Lakhdar's appeal provoked many responses, leading
Al-Nahdha to hastily remove the accusation from its
site. Hundreds of intellectuals signed a petition by
the Arab Organization for the Defense of Expression
and Press Freedom, which launched an international
campaign to defend Lakhdar's life and freedom. The
organization appointed Egyptian intellectual Gamal
Al-Bana as honorary chair of this campaign.[7]

According to the organization, the false accusation
linking Lakhdar to the book was retaliation for the
petition that he had co-authored with Jawwad Hashem
and Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi, which called upon the U.N.
to establish an international tribunal to try clerics
who incite to terrorism, including Sheikh Rashed

The Arab Organization for the Defense of Expression
and Press Freedom called on the French government to
provide Lakhdar with the necessary protection, since,
due to Al-Nahdha's incitement, "there is a real threat
to his life."[9]

Sayyed Al-Qimni

The most recent case was in July 2005, when, following
death threats from Islamists, the reformist Egyptian
author and researcher Sayyed Al-Qimni, who had a
weekly column in the Egyptian magazine Roz Al-Yousef,
announced that he was submitting to the demands of
those who threatened him. He announced that he was
retracting everything he had written in the past, and
would no longer write or appear in the media.[10] Ten
days later, Al-Qimni received an additional message
from the Egyptian "Jihad" group saying that he had
been spared a fate similar to that of the assistant
editor of the Al-Ahram daily, Ridha Hilal. Hilal
disappeared in August 2003 and the Egyptian security
services have been unable to locate him or to discover
what befell him.[11]

The following is a collection of reactions in the
Arabic press to these cases:

"What is the Difference between Killing a Man With a
Gun and Issuing a Fatwa Permitting His Killing?"

The reformist Libyan intellectual Dr. Muhammad
Al-Houni wrote: "It is worth our while to consider
what is happening these days to the intellectual Lafif
Lakhdar, and to draw lessons from it...

"We all know how these stories end: somebody accuses
someone else of heresy... and a third person, seeking
reward [in the hereafter], physically eliminates the
one accused of heresy. The new feature in
[Al-Ghanushi's] assault on Lafif Lakhdar is that the
crime presented as the reason for his elimination is
based on a cheap lie: a book that Lakhdar never

The Iraqi reformist Dr. 'Abd Al-Khaliq Hussein wrote:

"Al-Ghanushi's blind fanaticism, hatred, and stubborn
desire to take revenge on his political rival has
blinded him, and he has taken a path ridden with
hatred, lies, and incitement to murder Lafif Lakhdar,
in order to eliminate an intellectual rival...

"With his false accusation, Rashed Al-Ghanushi has
revealed his ignorance and hatred, and has
demonstrated to everyone that he is intellectually,
politically, and morally bankrupt...What is the
difference between killing a man with a gun and
issuing a fatwa permitting his killing? The clerics
who incite to terrorism [are, in fact], inciting the
Muslim youth to carry out suicide acts and to murder
innocent people, in Iraq and elsewhere...

"The incitement to murder Lafif Lakhdar is [actually]
incitement to murder the free intellectuals who call
for democracy, secularism, and modernism. This is
intellectual terrorism on the part of Al-Ghanushi and
others who issue fatwas inciting to terrorism. It is
therefore incumbent upon us as intellectuals... to
help bring Al-Ghanushi to justice within the British
judicial system, since he lives in London and enjoys
freedom and a safe life there, thanks to the very
'infidels' against whom he incites..."[13]

Both Arab and Western Governments are Powerless when
Faced With Clerics Who Incite to Bloodshed

In a May 16, 2005 interview with reformist researcher
and author Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi about the threats
against Lakhdar, Al-Nabulsi was asked what can be done
to protect reformist Arab intellectuals - both those
living in Arab states and those living abroad.
Al-Nabulsi said,

"The Arab governments cannot do anything when it comes
to clerics who sanction bloodshed. What have the Arab
authorities done about Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi? What have
the Western governments done about Rashed Al-Ghanushi,
who lives in London? And what has Saudi Arabia done
about the 26 clerics who published a fatwa last year
legitimizing the jihad in Iraq, which is, in essence,
pure terrorism? The governments can't do anything to
these people. There is no solution other than to place
the subject under international jurisdiction. The
international community should establish an
international tribunal to try these people... Just as
the U.N. is currently investigating the murder of a
political leader, [former Lebanese prime minister]
Al-Hariri, it should also investigate the death
threats against the intellectual leader Lahkdar."[14]

Roz Al-Yousef Weekly: Even If Al-Qimni Retracts His
Writings, We Do Not Retract Ours

An editorial in Roz Al-Yousef, the magazine in which
Al-Qimni published his weekly articles, was skeptical
about the threats on Al-Qimni's life and expressed
reservations about his decision to stop writing:

"Even if Al-Qimni has retracted what he wrote, we are
not retracting what we published, [since] we regard it
as part of our duty to provide [the public] with an
opportunity to discuss Islamic ideas and topics
without overstepping the boundaries of religious or of
freedom of thought..."[15]

The Terrorism Against Al-Qimni Reflects the
Intellectual and Cultural Bankruptcy of the Arab World

Dr. Ahmad Al-Baghdadi, author and political science
lecturer at Kuwait University, who had also announced
that he would stop writing due to harassment (but
later resumed writing) questioned whether Al-Qimni had
made the right decision.

In an article in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, he

"In our miserable Arab world, the intellectual writes
with one hand and carries his coffin with the other.
He writes with only the wall behind him [to protect
him], and his bank account is usually modest. In
addition to all these worries, there are the
terrorists, who threaten to murder him.

"Is it possible to condemn a man like Dr. Al-Qimni who
has remained calm through all these troubles and has
reached such a difficult decision? Do you think that
the decision to stop writing was easy [for him]? The
pen is the only lung which provides [an Arab]
intellectual with air. When he is forced to put down
his pen, it is like being stabbed in the heart...

"In today's world of terrorism, there is no
laughter... In our Arab world, the era of noble
virtues is over. But as someone who has had a similar
experience [of being persecuted], I tell my brother
Dr. Sayyed Al-Qimni that to believe that life and
death are in the hands of a cowardly terrorist is to
show disbelief in the all-powerful Allah. Who among us
has a guarantee of life when traveling in his car,
flying in a plane, or even when he goes to sleep in
his bed at night?...

"The important question is: How long will these base
people, who do not believe in Allah and His Messenger,
arbitrarily control the fate of the intellectuals?...
When will the world arrest the [extremists] who belong
to religious groups, and put them in international

"The terror against Dr. Al-Qimni and others reveals
the intellectual bankruptcy of the religious groups,
and the cultural bankruptcy of the Arab regimes and of
the Arab peoples. By Allah, the West should not be
condemned for thinking that every Muslim is a
terrorist, when it sees all these shameful deeds and
the Muslims remain as silent as the dead..."[16]

Director of Al-Arabiyya TV: "We are Living in a
Climate that Silences Authors"

Director of Al-Arabiyya TV and former editor of the
London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Abd Al-Rahman
Al-Rashed criticized the public manner in which
Al-Qimni chose to quit:

"Clerics, intellectuals, and authors have all
experienced the same tragedy as Sayyed Al-Qimni... All
have experienced the fear, and have walked the same
path, when coercion forced them to stop expressing
their thoughts - yet they did not issue communiqués,
and they did not publish an admission of fear...

"Sayyed Al-Qimni did what dozens of authors and
writers did before him... This is understandable,
considering the psychological state [that he is
probably in]. However, he made a grave mistake when he
agreed to be used as a tool for spreading fear and
frustration... He could have retired quietly, or
announced that he would no longer write, without
publicizing [the threat].

"Since the 1980s, and following the emergence of the
extremists due to the success of the Islamic
revolution in Iran, we in the Arab region have been
living in a climate that silences authors. Most of the
Arab extremists have made it a mission to persecute
thinkers, authors, playwrights, and those working in
the cinema. They recently added to this list the
moderate imams and clerics, and are using the same
method against them, namely overt and covert threats.

"As long as the [Arab] society fails to express
solidarity against the intimidation, the accusations
of heresy and treason, and against the direct threats
- many people like Sayyed Al-Qimni will announce their
retirement. Those who rejoice to see an intellectual
like Al-Qimni leave the arena are opening the [gates
of] Hell for themselves. As we have seen, these
threats do not spare any sector. They have reached the
top echelons, and have even targeted senior clerics
and leading Islamic thinkers, because beside every
radical there is someone even more radical."[17]

Al-Qimni Has Exposed the Disgrace of the Arab Regimes

Ahmad Abu Matar, a Palestinian intellectual living in
Oslo, wrote that Al-Qimni should not be condemned for
his decision:

"Every man has his specific circumstances, and we
cannot charge him to choose a certain path of struggle
when we do not live under the same conditions... In my
view, we must all support Al-Qimni, and stand with
him. If his position encourages the terrorists to
intensify the terror, it will cause everyone to
realize the extent of the darkness that will prevail
in our lives if these [terrorists] come to power...
The Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which lasted for
several years, is the best proof of what the Arab
Taliban will do if they come to power.

"[Al-Qimni's position] has exposed the disgrace of the
Arab regimes, some of whom allied themselves in the
past with [Islamist] groups for [short-]term
purposes... Afterwards, these [groups] became enemies
of the regimes and the citizens, to the point of
issuing threats such as the threats against Al-Qimni
and dozens of others...

"If I may give Al-Qimni advice, I would say that the
option of emigration, which was chosen by Nasser Hamed
Abu Zayid [an Egyptian researcher and intellectual]
and by Ahmad Subhi Mansour [a former lecturer at
Al-Azhar University who was fired for his writings on
the Sunna], is the preferable option. It will protect
his life and ensure that he will continue [to carry
out] his role, which illuminates the important and
necessary path in this dark time that the Arab peoples
are living in."[18]

Al-Qimni's Announcement Calls on the Arabs to Wake Up
and Deal with Reality

Egyptian researcher and author Kamal Ghabrial praised
Al-Qimni's announcement, and argued that it was

"a bomb in the face of the regimes that rule the
helpless, in the face of the hypocrites and those who
play with the fate of their nations; a bomb in the
face of the peoples that are indifferent, distracted,
ignorant, and fanatical; a bomb in the face of the
writers and those in the media who sell out [their
opinions] and [publish] in haste; a bomb in the face
of the hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness and false heroism
of those who have not even one percent of the courage
and heroism displayed by Dr. Sayyed Al-Qimni...

"Al-Qimni's announcement shows every self-respecting
man that we are living in a world that does not
respect thought, and even erects a gallows for it...
His announcement does not include a single word that
indicates an actual retreat from his positions, or
even actual fear... This announcement is not
submission to the bats of darkness [i.e. the
fundamentalists]. [Rather] it spits in their face, and
[also] spits in the face of the era that has created
them, cultivated them, and submitted to them. It is a
call urging all of us to wake up from our slumber and
deal with the perverted reality under which we are

What Would Happen If Everyone Gave in to Terrorism?

In contrast to the sympathetic reactions expressing
solidarity with Al-Qimni, there were also harshly
critical reactions in Arab reformist circles. For
example, Dr. Ihsan Al-Taraboulsi, a Lebanese
intellectual living in the U.S., asked what would
happen if everyone submitted to the terrorists. He

"Sayyed Al-Qimni has turned into a living model for
the terrorist fundamentalists, and they will use him
in the future as a sharp weapon against the
reformists... It would have been better if you had
died, Sayyed Al-Qimni, because in your death [you
would have willed] us life. Your life today is [like]
death, and [it is] a humiliation to us

Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian reformist
intellectual living in the U.S., published a reaction
in the same vein:

"You [Sayyed Al-Qimni] are an example of the cowardly
intellectual. You left the criminal fundamentalist
terrorists with the false impression that they had
vanquished the reformists, and that, if they increase
the threats against us, perhaps we will relinquish our
ideas and our views - just as you did, out of fear,
weakness, and love of life...

"Do you think that you are the only one who is getting
death threats every day? All of us, all the reformist
intellectuals, receive such threats on a daily basis,
and they have even tried to murder us - but we did not
announce it [in public], we did not write about it, we
did not fear, and we made no retraction...

"Why don't you walk in the footsteps of the martyrs of
[free] thought, such as... Farag Foda [an Egyptian
intellectual who was assassinated by fundamentalists],
Hussein Muruwwa and Mahdi 'Amel [Lebanese
intellectuals who were assassinated by
fundamentalists], Mahmoud Taha [a Sudanese
intellectual who was executed by Hassan Al-Turabi],
Ahmad Al-Baghdadi [a Kuwaiti intellectual who was
jailed for his views], and others?... How will Arab
enlightenment burst forth if the blood of the
intellectual reformists is not spilled for its

What Can Be Said In the U.S. Cannot Be Said in the
Arab Countries

Egyptian author Ayman Al-Samiri attacked Al-Nabulsi
for these statements, and pointed out that Al-Nabulsi,
writing from the U.S., could not be compared to
reformists living in the Middle East:

"Why do you wage holy war from Denver, Colorado? Why
don't you return to Al-Karak, Al-Mafraq, or Al-Zarqaa
[in Jordan], and voice your opinions from there? Why
don't you make Nablus [in the PA], Falluja, or Al-Qaim
[in Iraq] your permanent residence, and publish your
reformist communiqués from there?..."[22]

'Adel Hazin, who lives in the U.S. and writes for the
reformist website, also rejected
Al-Nabulsi's statements, and addressed him directly in
an article:

"Sayyed Al-Qimni's honesty is sheer courage,
Al-Nablusi. You and I live in the U.S. and benefit
from the protection of the American police, while
Sayyed Al-Qimni lives in Egypt, where the police and
the politicians conspire with the terrorists...

"Al-Qimni's decision to quit writing... is not a
disgrace to him, but rather to us, and to our
governments which have relinquished their social
obligation towards us."[23]


* A. Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 208, "Accusing
Muslim Intellectuals of Apostasy," February 18, 2005:

May 24, 2004.,
May 5, 2005.,
April 19, 2005.

[3] Eventually, following many expressions of
solidarity from reformist Arab circles, Al-Baghdadi
resumed writing. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 889,
"Progressive Kuwaiti Intellectual Ahmad Al-Baghdadi
Requests Political Asylum in the West," April 8, 2005:

May 21, 2005.

[5], May
13, 2005.

[6] For example, following the May 2003 terrorist
attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, Al-Ghanushi wrote
an article justifying the attacks, claiming that they
were acts of extremism directed against a greater
extremism - governmental, cultural, and secular. In
addition, on February 6, 1991, Al-Ghanushi wrote in
the Palestinian paper Majallat Al-Islam:

"The greatest danger, on which we should focus all our
efforts, is the American imperialist progress towards
the heart of our nation. Any collaboration and
solidarity [with the Americans], or loyalty [to them]
must be denounced. These are all grave religious sins
and unforgivable acts of national treason... We will
fight them, and it will be a campaign of all [forces
of] heresy against all [forces of] faith. We will
eliminate all evil, and then a new world will emerge,
and a new stage in Muslim civilization [will
(, May 13,

[7], June 6, 2005.

[8] On the petition, see:

[9], May 14, 2005.

[10] Some questioned the authenticity of the threats
and claimed that Al-Qimni was seeking empathy and
attention for personal reasons. The attorney of the
Islamist groups in Egypt, Muntasir Al-Zayat, claimed
there was no truth to the claim of threats, since the
Islamist movements in Egypt had changed their strategy
and renounced violence. He added that the movements'
current weakness did not allow them to consider
assassinating authors and intellectuals. Al-Sharq
Al-Awsat (London), July 17, 2005.

[11] According to the Jihad's statement, Hilal was
murdered by Islamist elements, who declared that they
would document future acts of this kind in order to
instill fear in the public, and that, to the same end,
they were planning to videotape and broadcast
Al-Qimni's assassination. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London),
July 28, 2005.

[12], May
18, 2005.

May 16, 2005.

[14] Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia (Morocco), May 21, 2005.

[15] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), July 28, 2005.

[16] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), July 20, 2005.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 21, 2005.

[18], July 17, 2005.

[19] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), July 19, 2005.

[20], July 17, 2005.

[21] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), July 19, 2005.

[22], July 20, 2005.

[23], July 17, 2005.

Diambil dari situs MEMRI

Tulisan ini dimuat pada November 23, 2005

On Pluralism, Intolerance, and the Quran

By Ali S. Asani [1]

“Infuse your heart with mercy, love and kindness
for your subjects…either they are your brothers
in religion or your equals in creation.”

Excerpt from a letter by the Muslim Caliph Ali b. Abi
Talib (d. 661) to Malik al-Ashtar on the latter’s
appointment as governor of Egypt

As a Muslim involved in teaching and scholarship on
the Islamic tradition, I have received many
invitations over the past several weeks to speak about
the role that religion and religious ideas may or may
not have played in the horrific events of September
11, 2001. Non-Muslim audiences have wanted to know how
Islam, a religion whose very name signifies peace to
many Muslims, could be used to promote violence and
hatred for America and the “West”? Why, many in these
audiences, wonder are some Muslims and some
governments in Muslim nations anti-American,
antagonistic to America and the “West,” willing to
condone or even applaud the loss of innocent American
lives? For their part, Muslims I have spoken to have
similar concerns. Why, many of them wonder, are some
Americans and Europeans and some American and
“Western” policies anti-Islamic, antagonistic to
Muslim interests, and heedless to the loss of innocent
Muslim lives? In an atmosphere rampant with
stereotypes about the “other,” I have been engaged in
providing audiences with historical and religious
perspectives on the complex factors that have created
such deep and profound misunderstandings among Muslims
and non-Muslims alike. While I have participated in
many public forums, this has also been a time of
reflection for me personally as, indeed, for many
Muslims who are bewildered by the bizarre and
repugnant behavior of individuals who committed these
acts allegedly in the name of God.

The paradox of a religious tradition being used to
promote harmony and tolerance on the one hand, and
justify war and intolerance on the other, is not
unique to Islam. History shows us that all religions,
particularly their scriptures, have been interpreted
by believers to justify a wide range of contradictory
political, social, and cultural goals. The Quran, the
scripture believed by Muslims to have been revealed by
God to Muhammad, Prophet of Islam, is no exception.
With regard to the issue of peace and violence, my
contention is that the Quran essentially espouses a
pluralist worldview, one that promotes peace and
harmony among nations and peoples. Through the
centuries, however, it has been subjected to
anti-pluralist, or exclusivist, interpretations in
order to advance hegemonic goals, both political and
religious. It is within the framework of this
dichotomy between a pluralist Quran and anti-pluralist
interpretations that we can best understand the
conflicting and contradictory uses of Quranic texts.

First, I would like to provide some sense of how I
became aware of the Quran’s teachings on pluralism. I
was born and raised in Kenya, East Africa, in a devout
Muslim family of South Asian ancestry. My ancestors
had migrated to Africa from India over 200 years
before. The society in which I grew up was a colonial
one, under British rule. It was marked by racial and
religious diversity, but also by strict racial
segregation. The idiom of British imperialism in this
part of Africa was racial, dividing society into three
distinct classes: the European, or “white,” ruling
class; the Asian, or trading and clerical class (in
Kenya, the term “Asian” denotes a person of South
Asian ancestry); and the African, or “black,” class
which mostly provided labor. Thus, I grew up in an
environment deeply aware of racial differences as well
as tensions between classes. I was also keenly aware
of religious diversity. Among the Asians, I knew that
not all followed the same religion: there were Hindus,
Sikhs, Jains, Muslims, all of whom were further
divided into subgroups, such as the Arya Samaj, the
Visha Oshwal, the Shia, and the Sunni. Among the
Africans, I knew that there were many different tribes
who spoke different languages and that were on
occasion antagonistic to one another. I was also aware
that some Africans were Muslims, others were
Christians of various persuasions, and still others
practiced what were termed “traditional African
religions.” About the Europeans I knew very little,
since they mostly kept to themselves and I had no
occasion to interact with them.

When I was nine or ten years old and wondering about
racial and religious diversity, I recall asking my
father, a devout Muslim, “Why didn’t Allah make human
beings all the same? Why did Allah make us all
different?” In response to my question, he quoted a
verse from the Quran : “O humankind We [God] have
created you male and female, and made you into
communities and tribes, so that you may know one
another. Surely the noblest amongst you in the sight
of God is the most godfearing of you. God is
All-knowing and All-Aware” (Quran 49:13). This verse
from the Quran formed the first teaching I received as
a child on the subject of pluralism. Now, many years
later, as I reflect on it and its meaning, I believe
it is clear that from the perspective of the Quran,
which forms the core of the Islamic tradition, the
divine purpose underlying human diversity is to foster
knowledge and understanding, to promote harmony and
co-operation among peoples. God did not create
diversity for it to become a source of tensions,
divisions and polarization in society. Indeed, whether
humans recognize it or not, human diversity is a sign
of divine genius. The verse also envisages a world in
which people, regardless of their differences, are
united by their devotion to God. These sentiments are,
in fact, echoed in another Quranic verse, in which God
addresses humankind and affirms the principle of unity
in diversity: “Surely this community of yours is one
community, and I am your Lord; so worship me” (Quran
21:92). The emphasis on the universality of God’s
message is emphasized in the Quran’s fundamental
teaching that God has revealed His message to all
peoples and to all cultures; not a single people or
nation has been forgotten (Quran 35:24). Although
humans may have misinterpreted that message to suit
their needs in creating conflicting traditions, all
religions, at their core, have sprung from the same
divine source and inspiration.

The idea that God’s message is universal, but its
manifestations plural, provides the basic underpinning
to the manner in which the Quran relates itself and
the faith that it preaches with the religious
traditions that preceded it in the Middle East, namely
Judaism and Christianity. Far from denying the
validity of these predecessor traditions, the Quran
repeatedly affirms their essential truth,
acknowledging that their message comes from one and
the same God, and that it (the Quran) is only the
latest of God’s revelations to affirm and confirm the
revelations that preceded it. Characteristic of this
affirmative and pluralistic stance is the following
command to believers: “Say: we believe in God and
what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to
Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and in
what was given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from
their Lord. We make no distinction between one and
another among them and to Him [God] do we submit”
(Quran, 3:84).

Quranic beliefs in the truth of the Judaic and
Christian traditions are also encapsulated in another
term: the ahl al-kitab or People of the Book. This is
the umbrella term in the Quran to refer to
communities, or peoples, who have received revelation
in the form of scripture. It is commonly used to refer
to the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The pluralistic
nature of this term is evident in the use of the noun
Book in the singular rather than in plural, meant to
emphasize that the Jews, Christians and Muslims follow
one and the same Book, not various conflicting
scriptures. The Old and New Testaments and the Quran
are seen as being plural, earthly manifestations of
the one heavenly Scripture in which God has inscribed
the Divine word. Significantly, the Quran does not
claim that it abrogates the scriptures revealed before
it. On the contrary, it affirms their validity. In
one verse addressed to the Prophet Muhammad, God
advises him “And if you [Muhammad] are in doubt
concerning that which We [God] reveal to you, then
question those who read the scripture [that was
revealed] before you” (Quran 10:94). Another verse
addressed to the Muslim faithful says, “And argue not
with the People of the Book unless it be in a way that
is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say
we believe in that which has been revealed to us and
to you; and our God and your God is one and unto Him
we submit” (Quran 29:46).

While the concept of the People of the Book was
originally coined to refer to the major monotheistic
traditions in the Arabian milieu, there were attempts
to expand the term theologically to include other
groups such as the Zoroastrians in Iran and Hindus and
Buddhists in India as the Islamic tradition spread
outside the Middle East and Muslims encountered other
religious traditions. In seventeenth century India,
Dara Shikoh, a prince from the ruling Mughal dynasty,
who was strongly influenced by the pluralistic
teachings within Islamic traditions of mysticism,
considered the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, to be
the “storehouse of monotheism” and claimed that they
were the kitab maknun, or “hidden scripture,”
referred to in the Quran (Quran 56:77-80). Hence, he
personally translated these Sanskrit texts into
Persian and urged that it was the duty of every
faithful Muslim to read them. Admittedly, not all
Muslims were comfortable with the broadening of the
term “People of the Book” to include religious
scriptures and traditions not mentioned specifically
by name in the Quran, but the fact remains that these
types of interpretations were made possible by the
pluralistic nature of the Quranic worldview.

With such a universalist perspective, it goes without
saying that the Quran does not deny the salvific value
of the Judaic or the Christian traditions. Salvation,
according to the Quran, will be granted to any person
who submits to the one God, to anyone who is a
submitter to Divine Will (the literal meaning of the
word muslim). Indeed, Islamic scripture regards
Abraham, the patriarch, and all the other prophets of
the Judaeo-Christian tradition, including Moses and
Jesus, as being muslim in the true sense of the word.
Typically, the third chapter of the Quran contains the
following verses: “Some of the People of the Book are
a nation upstanding: they recite the Signs of God all
night long, and they prostrate themselves in
adoration. They believe in God and the Last Day; they
enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and they
hasten to do good works. They are in the ranks of the
righteous.” (Quran 3:113-114). Repeatedly, the Quran
declares that on the Day of Judgment all human beings
will be judged on their moral performance,
irrespective of their formal religious affiliation.

The Quran’s endorsement of religiously and culturally
plural societies and the recognition of the salvific
value of other monotheistic religions greatly
affected the treatment of religious minorities in
Muslim lands throughout history. While there have been
instances when religious minorities were grudgingly
tolerated in Muslim societies, rather than being
respected in the true spirit of pluralism, the Quranic
endorsement of a pluralistic ethos explains why
violent forms of anti-Semitism generated by
exclusivist Christian theology in medieval and modern
Europe, and the associated harsh treatment of Jewish
populations culminating eventually in the Holocaust,
never occurred in regions under Muslim rule.

From the earliest periods of Muslim history we have
examples of a great deal of respect for the rights of
non-Muslims under Muslim rule. For instance, the
fourth Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661) instructed
his governor in Egypt to show mercy, love and kindness
for all subjects under his rule, including non-Muslims
whom he declared to be “your equals in creation.” Such
tolerance is later reflected in the policies of the
Arab dynasties of Spain, the Fatimids in North Africa,
and the Turkish Ottomans in the Middle East granting
maximum individual and group autonomy to those
adhering to a religious tradition other than Islam.
We can also cite the example of the Mughal Emperor
Akbar (d. 1605), who -- much to the dismay of the
religious right wing of his time -- promoted
tolerance among the various traditions that compose
the Indian religious landscape.

How can a scripture that celebrates pluralism be the
source of the intolerance and hatred that a few
contemporary Muslim groups show towards the West? How
can a scripture that declares “Let there be no
compulsion in religion” be invoked by those who wish
to forcibly enforce their religious views onto others,
Muslim and non-Muslim alike? How can a scripture that
instructs Muslims to regard the People of the Book as
among the righteous be used to declare that Christians
and Jews are infidels? The answers to these questions
can be traced to the emergence of an unfortunate mode
of Quranic interpretation that is exclusivist in

A complex and intricately connected set of factors
have given rise to this exclusivist discourse. Here I
would briefly like to mention two: the doctrine of
supersession and the religious legitimation of
political hegemony. Supersession is the idea that
Islam, as the latest of the monotheistic revelations,
supersedes all revelations that preceded it. It
postulates that since Islam is the successor to the
Judaic and Christian traditions, it is the latest and
most complete form of revelation. Moreover, since
Muhammad was the last of approximately 124,000
prophets sent to humanity by God, he was, therefore,
the bearer of the God’s revelation in its most perfect
form. According to this doctrine, the Quranic
revelation superseded, or abrogated, all preceding
scriptures. As God’s last revelation, the Quran alone
had validity until the end of time. Thus, the
possibility of attaining salvation through religions
other than Islam, if admitted at all, was at best

Such exclusivist conceptions were helpful in fostering
a sense of communal identity among adherents of a new
religious community, eventually becoming an important
means of forging solidarity among various Arab tribes
who had previously been engaged in petty rivalries and
wars. In the eighth and ninth centuries, this social
and political solidarity became the backbone of the
early Arab Muslim empire, for it provided “an
effective basis for aggression against those who did
not share this solidarity with the community of
believers.” [4] It is within this context that
political concepts such as dar al-islam (territories
under Muslim suzeranity) and dar al-harb (territories
under non-Muslim control) became prominent, although
they have no real basis in the Quran. In the same
vein, the notion of jihad was reinterpreted to justify
imperial goals. Literally, this term, which is fraught
with definitional ambiguities, means “struggle” in the
Arabic language. It was initially interpreted at the
time of the Prophet Muhammad to be an ethical and
moral struggle against an individual’s base instincts,
or a defensive struggle by the early Muslims against
religious persecution : “Leave is given to those who
fight because they are wronged – surely God is able to
help them – who were expelled from their habitations
without right, except that they say “Our Lord is God.”
(Quran 22:39-40) “And fight (struggle) in the way of
God with those who fight with you, but aggress not:
God loves not the aggressors.” (Quran 2:190). Under
the influence of the political realities of later
centuries, which witnessed an expansion of Arab rule,
what was clearly a reference in the Quran to a moral
struggle, or an armed struggle in the face of
provocation and aggression, came to be interpreted as
a general military offensive against nonbelievers and
as a means of legitimizing political dominion. [5]

To be sure, the religious justification for promoting
imperialistic interests had to be sought in the Quran,
the very text that forbade compulsion in religious
matters and contained verses of an ecumenical nature
recognizing not only the authenticity of other
monotheistic traditions, but the essential equality of
all prophets sent by God. For this purpose, as
Abdulaziz Sachedina has so ably demonstrated, several
Muslim exegetes devised terminological and
methodological strategies to mold the exegesis of the
sacred text to provide a convincing prop for
absolutist ends. The principal means by which the
exclusivists were able to promote their view was
through the declaration that the many verses calling
for pluralism, commanding Muslims to build bridges of
understanding with non-Muslims, had been abrogated by
other verses that call for fighting the infidel. The
verses in question were revealed after war broke out
in the seventh century between the small, beleaguered
Muslim community and its powerful pagan Arab,
Christian, and Jewish adversaries. Typical of these
verses is the following: “Then when the sacred months
are drawn away, slay the idolators wherever you find
them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait
for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent
and perform the prayer and pay zakat [the alms tax],
let them go their way. Surely God is forgiving and
merciful” (Quran 9:5). Another verse, revealed when
certain Jewish and Christian groups betrayed the
Muslim cause and joined in the military assault by the
pagan Arabs against the Prophet Muhammad and the
Muslim community, cautioned against taking Jews and
Christians as close political allies (Quran 5:51). It
is only by completely disregarding the original
historical contexts of revelation of such verses and
using them to engage in a large-scale abrogation of
contradictory verses that the exclusivist Muslim
exegetes have been able to counteract the pluralist
ethos that so thoroughly pervades the Quran.

Historically, exclusivist interpretations of the Quran
have been used to justify dominion over other Muslims,
specifically those whose interpretation of the faith
and religious practices were perceived as deviating
from the norms established by exclusivists. During the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several areas of
the Muslim world witnessed the rise of movements
which, in response to what was perceived a general
moral laxity and decline, attempted to “purify” Islam.
The leaders of these movements targeted a whole range
of practices and beliefs among fellow Muslims which,
in their eyes, constituted evidence of religious
backsliding. In particular, Sufi forms of Islam were
attacked as not deriving from “authentic” Islam. In
certain cases, these attacks took on a military
character and “jihads” were launched against fellow
Muslims with the intention of forcibly imposing upon
them those interpretations of Islam favored by the

The most dramatic and influential of these movements
was the so-called Wahhabi movement in Arabia. Named
after the reformer, Abd al-Wahhab, who died in 1791,
this puritanical movement acquired an explosive energy
after its founder allied himself with a petty Arab
chieftain, Muhammad Ibn Saud. Abd al-Wahhab was
influenced in his thought by the writings of a
controversial fourteenth century thinker, Ibn
Taiymiyyah (d. 1328), whose exclusivist and literalist
interpretations of the Quran led him to declare that
the descendants of the Mongols were infidels,
notwithstanding their public profession of belief in
Islam. To propagate their particular brand of Islam,
the Wahhabis attacked fellow Muslims whose practices
they considered “un-Islamic.” Targetting in
particular popular expressions of Sufi practice as
well as Shii Muslims, the Wahhabis steadily expanded
their power over Central and Western Arabia until they
were able to effect the political unification of the
peninsula into the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Once
established, the Wahhabi authorities instituted a
religious police force, which, among its other
functions, compels Muslims to perform ritual prayer at
the appropriate times of the day in direct
contradication to the Quran’s commandment, “Let there
be no compulsion in religion.” Not surprisingly, this
movement considered Jews and Christians to be
infidels. To this day, Saudi Arabia’s state version of
Islam is founded on an exclusivist interpretation of
the Quran, intolerant of both interreligious and
intrareligious plurality. Through the use of millions
of petrodollars, the Saudis’ exclusivist
interpretation of Islam has been exported all over the
Muslim world, much to the dismay of the pluralists.

In recent times, the exclusivist views have also been
heavily promoted by the so-called fundamentalist
groups in the Muslim world. [6] The reasons for the
rise of such groups are complex. Broadly speaking,
these movements are a reaction against modernity,
westernization, economic deprivation, global
domination by western powers (particularly the United
States), and support by such powers for repressive
regimes in predominantly Muslim lands. The failure of
borrowed ideologies, such as capitalism, communism, or
socialism, to deliver economic and social justice in
many Muslim countries has created exclusivist groups
seeking a “pure” and “authentic” language in which to
criticize the failed modern Muslim state, a state
which has marginalized, or displaced, traditional
religious authorities in a bid to maximize political
power. The search for a solution to the myriad of
political, social, and economic problems confronting
Muslims has led these exclusivist groups to use Islam
as a political ideology for the state: “Islam is the
solution.” The commitment of such groups to understand
Islam in a “pure” monolithic form, to engage in
revisionist history, and to read religious texts in an
exclusivist manner that denies any plurality of
interpretations, has unleashed a struggle in the
Muslim world between them and those who uphold the
pluralist teachings of the Quran. An important
dimension of the struggle between the exclusivists and
the pluralists is the debate over the role and status
of women in Muslim societies, for exclusivists tend to
be anti-egalitarian in their interpretations of gender

For Muslims to participate in a multireligious and
multicultural world of the twenty-first century, it is
essential that they fully embrace Quranic teachings on
pluralism. Exclusivist interpretations of the Quran
that are premised on the hegemony of Islam over
non-Islam and promote the use of a rhetoric of hate
and violence to attain such goals are outdated in a
global society in which relations between different
peoples are best fostered on the basis of equality and
mutual respect -- a basic principle underlying the
Quranic worldview. Since in several key Muslim
nations, the exclusivist message has been propagated
by madrasas, or religious schools, sponsored by
exclusivist groups or the state itself, a key to the
outcome of the struggle between pluralism and
exclusivism in the Islamic tradition lies in the
re-education of Muslim peoples about the pluralism
which lies at the heart of the Quran. Without this
pluralist education, they will continue to rely on the
monolithic interpretations of scholars and demagogues
to access the Quran. Only by raising levels of
religious literacy in the Islamic world will Muslims
become aware of the centrality of Quranic teachings
concerning “religious and cultural pluralism as a
divinely ordained principle of coexistence among human
societies.” [7]

As a pluralist Muslim who is American, I am struck by
the resonance between the pluralism espoused in the
Quran and that in the constitution and civic culture
of the United States. Contrary to what some may claim,
one can be fully American and Muslim simultaneously.
While it is true that there are certain American
foreign policies relating to Muslim peoples and
nations -- including partisanship for illiberal
Israeli policies and support for an intolerant Saudi
state, as well as exclusivist Muslim groups -- that I
believe call for critical inquiry and for reappraisal,
I also believe that my questioning of these U.S.
policies must be coupled with my challenging of
intolerant and textually dubious exclusivist
interpretations within my religious tradition. For in
the end, a struggle against the flaws of the “other”
-- whether that other is “the West” or “Islam” -- is
worthwhile only if it is coupled with a struggle
against the flaws within one’s own traditions. In the
necessary work of struggling (jihad) against such
errors, one should not lose sight of how much there is
to be proud of in those traditions. As one who is
proud both of Islam and of my adopted country, and is
inspired by the consonance of their pluralism, I close
with words from the Quran that also resonate in the
American collective consciousness: “In God We Trust”
(Quran 7: 89).

Published in THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, volume 71, no. 1
(winter 2002), pp. 52-60.

© Ali S. Asan

[1] Ali S. Asani is Professor of the Practice of
Indo-Muslim Languages and Cultures at Harvard. His
books include Celebrating Muhammad: Images of the
Prophet in Popular Muslim Poetry; The Bujh Niranjan:
An Ismaili Mystical Poem; and Al-Ummah: A Handbook for
an Identity Development Program for North American
Muslim Youth.

[2] My understanding of the conflict between pluralist
and exclusivist strands within the Islamic tradition
has been greatly influenced by Abdulaziz Sachedina’s
pioneering study, The Islamic Roots of Democratic
Pluralism (Oxford, 2001). I am indebted to my
colleague Roy Mottahedeh whose article “Towards an
Islamic Theology of Toleration,” Islamic Law Reform
and Human Rights, ed. T. Lindholm and K. Vogt (Oslo,
1992) I found helpful. I would also like to thank
Michael Currier and Wayne Eastman for their comments
on various drafts of this essay.

[3] Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Islamic Roots of
Democratic Pluralism, p. 28.

[4] Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Islamic Roots of
Democratic Pluralism, p. 29.

[5] For the theological debates on the term jihad in
early Islam, see Roy Mottahedeh and Ridwan Al-Sayyid,
“The Idea of Jihad in Islam before the Crusades,” The
Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the
Muslim World, ed. A. Laiou and R. Mottahedeh
(Washington, DC 2001).

[6] Although I recognize that the term
“fundamentalist” is academically not an accurate term
to describe these groups, nevertheless I use it here
because of its broad acceptance in popular discourse.

[7] Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Islamic Roots of
Democratic Pluralism, p. 13.

Diambil dari

Islam Confronts Its Demons

By Max Rodenbeck


The Malady of Islam
by Abdelwahab Meddeb, translated from the French by
Pierre Joris and Ann Reid, Basic, 241 pp., $24.00

Shaping the Current Islamic Reformation
edited by B.A. Roberson, London: Frank Cass, 262 pp.,
£49.94; $20.56 (paper)

Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the
Contemporary World by Carl W. Ernst.
University of North Carolina Press, 244 pp., $24.95

Tolerance and Coercion in Islam: Interfaith Relations
in the Muslim Traditionby Yohanan Friedmann.
Cambridge University Press, 232 pp., $65.00

The Future of Political Islam by Graham E. Fuller.
Palgrave Macmillan, 227 pp., $29.95; $16.95 (paper)

Islam Without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists
by Raymond William Baker. Harvard University Press,
309 pp., $29.95

Islam and Democracy in the Middle East
edited by Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel
Brumberg. Johns Hopkins University Press, 322 pp., $45.00;
$17.95 (paper)

Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender, and Pluralism
edited by Omid Safi. Oneworld, 351 pp., $25.95 (paper)

Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out
edited by Ibn Warraq. Prometheus, 471 pp., $28.00


"And once again wars of religions are ready to
devastate Europe. Boheman, leader and agent of a new
sect of "purified" Christianity, has just been
arrested in Sweden, and the most disastrous plans were
found among his papers. The sect to which he belonged
is said to want nothing less than to render itself
master of all the potentates of Europe and their
subjects. In Arabia new sectarians are emerging and
want to purify the religion of Mahomet. In China even
worse troubles, still and always motivated by
religion, are tearing apart the inside of that vast
empire. As always it is gods that are the cause of all
—Diary of the Marquis de Sade, quoted by Abdelwahab
Meddeb in The Malady of Islam

Why has Islam, unlike its close cousins Christianity
and Judaism, not undergone a reformation? The question
may sound reasonable. Yet often as not, those who pose
it forget that in the Christian case, at least,
reformation was a painfully long procedure. They tend
to neglect the gory episodes, and the intricate
debates about doctrine, and think instead of the end
result that Westerners live with today, something that
the Moroccan philosopher Abdou Filali-Ansary aptly
calls a state of "disenchantment" with pure religious
dogma in favor of the ethical principles that underlie
it, such that "faith becomes a matter of individual
choice and commitment, not an obligation imposed on
the community."[1] And that, of course, is as much a
product of the Enlightenment as of the Reformation.

Those who know Islamic history have even better reason
to find the question puzzling. The fact is that since
its inception fourteen centuries ago, Islam has
undergone bursts of reformation. Like other religions,
it has splintered into myriad sects and sub-sects,
each claiming to be the properly "reformed" variant of
the faith. The biggest division is that between Sunnis
and Shias, which, although its origins lie in the
conflict over succession to the Prophet Muhammad's
rule, soon took on doctrinal dimensions that grew
increasingly hard to resolve. But while Shiism
continued up until the nineteenth century to sprout
esoteric offshoots (such as the Alawites in Syria or
the Bahai in Iran), the much larger Sunni branch has
maintained a surface unity, even as vying factions
within it have periodically laid claim to being truer
believers than their rivals.

Within Sunni Islam, reformers have always chosen one
of two paths. Followers of the first trend might be
described as literalists, meaning they have sought a
return to the letter of Islam's founding texts,
namely, the Koran, the hadiths, or recorded sayings of
the Prophet, and the sunna, or recorded doings of the
Prophet. The other trend could be called
proto-humanist, meaning that they have sought to break
free of the texts, reinterpreting them or filtering
them in search of a presumed essence that may be more
appropriate to temporal or spiritual needs.

Such attempts at reform through more flexible
interpretation have often proved shallow and
short-lived. A good example is the Mu'tazelite
movement of eighth- and ninth-century Iraq, whose
ideas of free will, rationalism, and the need to
understand the Koran within its historical context
were ultimately rejected by the Muslim mainstream as
too dangerous a departure. Their analytical methods
remained influential, however, as did those of other
Greek-inspired Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna
and Averroes, whose liberalizing notions were, in the
end, similarly dismissed by more powerful orthodox
schools. Sufism, with its emphasis on spiritual
content rather than ritual form, was an early but
enduring application of such efforts to exalt
individual appreciation of the faith over legalistic

Appealing more to elites than to the masses, and
lacking a defined program or coherent leadership, such
reformist currents never captured the political
initiative that would have enabled them to sustain
themselves. Subtly, however, their skepticism has
periodically challenged the rigidity of institutional
Islam. That influence could be seen, for example, in
the enlightened manners of Muslim Spain, in the
relative tolerance shown to non-Muslim subjects by the
Ottoman Turks, or in the playful, ribald
subversiveness that characterizes much of medieval
Islamic literature. The more relaxed and eclectic
variants of the faith practiced today in places such
as Indonesia, West Africa, and the major cities of the
Middle East also bear the stamp of a more
outward-looking take on the faith.

More often than not, though, "reform" in Islam has
pushed in the other direction, toward the reassertion
of the primacy of founding texts and early theologians
over later accretions or interpretations. Such
atavistic literalism derives particular power from the
fact that the Koran itself is generally understood by
Muslims to be the unaltered word of God. Charging
others with having strayed from God's evident commands
is thus a potent political instrument. At the same
time, reversion to the historical model of early Islam
necessitates a recasting of the faith as an
aggressive, expansionary force that must struggle for
survival amid a sea of enemies, whether these be
infidels or Muslim "hypocrites." At times when the
faith has seemed to be in peril, such as during the
terrible Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and
fifteenth centuries, this worldview was adopted as a
matter of instinct.

Puritan reformers have repeatedly used this
double-barreled power—the sword and the book, so to
speak—to launch jihad-minded movements, such as the
Almoravid and Almohad dynasties that swept across
Morocco and Spain from the eleventh to thirteenth
centuries, or the dynasty founded by Saladin, which
not only defeated the Christian Crusaders but also
effectively stamped out Shia influence in Egypt and
the Levant. Other examples include the Wahhabists, who
rose in central Arabia in the late eighteenth century
and still exercise power in Saudi Arabia today, and
the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Although such movements have been geographically
disparate, periodic purges by them have had the
cumulative effect of reducing the accepted Sunni canon
to a narrow range of sources and interpretations. As
an Arabic phrase puts it, they have "closed the door
of ijtihad," or speculative reasoning, enabling
traditionalist scholars to posit a utopian vision of
Islam as a closed system that only awaits firm
application by a just ruler. In other words, this type
of "reform" has repeatedly marched the faith into a
philosophical cul-de-sac.

Twenty-five years into Islam's fifteenth century, the
faith is again in a state of unusual ferment. Its many
would-be reformers are again pushing in opposite
directions. Across the extremely broad Islamic
spectrum, the same essential split can be found
between humanists and literalists, or, to frame the
rivalry in a more modern way, between what the Dutch
historian Rudolph Peters has categorized as those who
would subordinate Islam to "progress" and those who
would subordinate progress to "Islam."[2]

Quotation marks are appropriate, because the very
breadth of the Islamic spectrum renders difficult the
adoption of a common vocabulary. In the wake of an
imperialist age that saw nine in ten Muslims fall
under non-Muslim rule, old meanings have strayed onto
new territory, and new realities have subtly altered
understandings of what many Muslims (and all too many
Western scholars) still take to be fixed concepts. In
particular, the frequent imposition of Western
political ideas—of "democracy" and "republic," for
example—onto self-consciously Islamic terminology has
created a species of verbiage that lends itself to
easy distortion.

At the same time, the political setting of this Muslim
century has lent itself to a certain overheating of
the debate. To put the problem simply, the world looks
rather threatening as seen from the Muslim
perspective. It is not merely a question of the legacy
of colonialism, or of the fighting taking place on
what Samuel Huntington describes as the present
"bloody borders" of Islam—what most Muslims view as
liberation conflicts in places such as Kashmir,
Chechnya, Bosnia, Palestine, and now, some would say,
Iraq. Like many smaller religious communities that
have turned inward, traditional Islam feels itself
mortally challenged by a dominant global culture that
is ebulliently hedonistic and irreverent.

Fear being a fertile theme for politicians, Muslim
politics has grown to be dominated by the language of
resistance, whose physical manifestations range from
disturbingly romanticized "martyrdom operations" to
the defiant wearing of the headscarf. In the words of
Muhammad Charfi, a Tunisian liberal, Muslim
educational systems now tend to present Islam as
"irreducibly opposed to other kinds of
self-identification or of social and political
organization, and as commanding certain specific
attitudes regarding political and social matters." It
has become as much an -ism as a religious faith.

Yet much of the new, exclusivist Islamist discourse
rests on tenuous grounds. The notion of an Islamic
state, for instance, has become something of a
touchstone for movements that promote Islam as central
to political identity, such as Egypt's Muslim
Brotherhood or the Ayatollah Kho-meini's adherents in
Iran. But as Carl Ernst points out in Following
Muhammad, his thoughtful and finely balanced primer on
contemporary Islam, the simple use of a label does not
resolve the question of whether it is Islam that is to
define the state or the state that is to define Islam.
Judging from the experience of revolutionary Iran,
Ernst concludes that in effect, a small, unelected
group of conservative scholars determines what is to
be "Islamic" about the Iranian state.

Similarly, proponents of a politically powerful Islam
commonly assert that the application of Islamic law,
or sharia, should be the defining characteristic of an
Islamic state. Yet there is disagreement about what
sharia actually means. Many Islamists, influenced,
perhaps unwittingly, by European models of law, seem
to believe that it is a sort of all-embracing
rulebook, not unlike France's Napoleonic code. But
sharia was never a comprehensive system. It simply
implied a "way," a path, a striving to apply God's
will, as interpreted by scholars following at least
five different major schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

Seeing sharia as a blanket solution to modern problems
also involves a dangerous measure of forgetfulness.
Even before they were colonized by European powers,
Muslim countries such as Tunisia and Egypt freely
chose to adopt Western-style statutes, in recognition
of the modern world's essential need for
predictability in the application of law. As do most
Muslim countries now, they limited the scope of sharia
to the few matters covered by specific Koranic
injunctions, such as laws regarding inheritance. And
then there are those, such as the Egyptian judge Said
Ashmawi, who assert that sharia should simply be
understood as any law made by Muslims.

Jihad has become a similarly vexed concept. In
Professor Ernst's apt definition, jihad simply means a
quest for virtue, and it is certainly in this sense
that all but a small minority of Muslims practice it.
Terrorism in the name of Islam has, inevitably, made
the word fearful to non-Muslims. Yet the idea that
jihad should be synonymous with holy war has infected
not only Western understanding but also some strains
of Muslim thought. Militant Web sites with evocative
names such as 'Azf al Rusas ("The Music of the
Bullet") promote the notion that fighting the infidel
is a primal duty of every Muslim, to the exclusion of
virtually all else. And leaders such as Osama bin
Laden have turned this understanding of jihad into a
furious passion play.

Obviously, there is much more to the Islamist lexicon
than these few words, but the selection offers a
glimpse of the complexities involved in trying to
modernize it. This complexity is something of which
ordinary, practicing Muslims, convinced only that
their faith is good and right, remain but dimly aware.
The idea, popular in the West and among Westernized
Muslims, that Islam suffers currently from a malady—to
borrow a phrase from the Moroccan critic Abdelwahab
Meddeb—or that it is in need of fixing, simply does
not occur to the pious faithful.

The fact is that, stripped of its current, politically
charged character, the religious populism that is
sweeping the Muslim world might not appear so very
different from kindred evolutions in Western history.
America's Second Great Awakening in the early
nineteenth century, for example, generated fervid
revival meetings not unlike the mass prayers now
common in the Muslim world. Celebrity evangelists,
lushly bearded fellows with quavering voices and
piercing eyes, were of a kind with the tele-sheikhs
whose sermonizing takes up 40 percent of Saudi
Arabia's airtime. Ostentatious piety became the norm
in much of the US. Just as Riyadh's censors scour
imported magazines today, the prim ladies of
Cincinnati in the 1820s painted over an advertisement
for the public rose garden that showed a girl holding
a bouquet, because the bare flesh of her ankles
showed. Christian missionary societies were not so
different from Saudi charities that profess to sponsor
the Call.

Even the misbegotten ventures of some American
revivalists, such as John Brown's brief but bloody
holy war against slavery, suffered from the same
doomed zeal as today's jihadist extremism. And in the
same way that the exposing of Christian moral excess
—think of The Scarlet Letter, for example—propelled
many to question their faith, the horror of what some
Muslims do in the name of Islam is generating renewed
doubts among their fellows.


Such, then, is the background to the current debate on
reform, a debate which, as noted ominously by Graham
Fuller, an ex-CIA analyst whose excellent survey of
political Islam is notably free of either cant or
apologetics, may only just be warming up. To clarify
the reformist spectrum, we can identify, at one end,
the blinkered frenzy of al- Qaeda, and at the far
opposite end, a growing number of Muslims who
question, and in some cases reject, the fundamental
tenets of belief. The great mass of Muslims stand,
with increasing discomfort, in the middle, repelled by
the violence of some coreligionists, but also fearful
that Islam risks dissolving—as it may be argued that
the faith of many nominal Christians also
dissolved—into a mix of vestigial folklore and
personal belief.

It may sound odd to classify a terrorist group as
reformist, but a radical remake of the faith is indeed
the underlying intention of bin Laden and his
followers. Attacking America and its allies is merely
a tactic, intended to provoke a backlash strong enough
to alert Muslims to the supposed truth of their
predicament, and so rally them to purge the faith of
all that is alien to its essence.[3] Promoting a clash
of civilizations is merely stage one. The more
difficult part, as the radicals see it, is convincing
fellow Muslims to reject the modern world absolutely
(including such aberrations as democracy), topple
their own insidiously secularizing quisling
governments, and return to the pure path. It is this
latter part of his project that bin Laden shares with
a wider radical and reactionary trend, which is
sometimes referred to as Salafist (derived from the
Arabic salaf, meaning forebears, i.e., returning to
the way of the founding fathers of Islam).

The imagined political destination of this path is the
recreation of a pan-Islamic caliphate, such as existed
for a few short years after the Prophet's death. (The
question of who is to fill the office of caliph has
been left conveniently vague by bin Laden and the
other extreme radicals.) Reaching this goal would
necessitate the elimination of such impurities as
Shiism, Sufism, and so on, and the imposition of a
supranational, tribal identification with Islam. So
far as personal behavior is concerned, the
ultra-radicals would like to see the Salafist version
of Islam applied in detailed, prescriptive form. There
would be hand-chopping for theft, and death by stoning
for adultery. But there would also be a thicket of
lesser rules to regulate everything from how to greet
an infidel (a Muslim may respond to but not initiate
hellos)[4] to how to bury the dead (in unmarked

This "reform" agenda has met with a certain amount of
success. Like-minded groups, often of a violent,
jihadist bent, have sprouted from Algeria to the
Philippines. They have proved particularly strong in
regions of conflict, such as Iraq's Sunni Triangle and
Pakistan's Northwest Frontier. Yet in places where
their fighting message has run its course, recruitment
has fallen off rapidly, both in response to the
ugliness of their methods and, ultimately, to the
radical utopianism of their aims. Countries such as
Afghanistan, Algeria, and Egypt have already passed,
with varying degrees of pain, through the historical
gauntlet of extremist militancy. The experience was
brutalizing, but although some violence persists
there, it is no longer a mortal threat to the weary
social order. Even Saudi Arabia, where members of the
ruling establishment retain strong ties to Salafism,
is experiencing a growing wave of public impatience
with their excessive zeal. The more enduring influence
of such radicals can be seen, perhaps, in the shift to
more virulent styles of rhetoric and more strident
ways of marking a distinct Islamic identity. Even
government-salaried clerics in Saudi Arabia, for
example, have taken to referring to America as "the
enemy." Yet these things, too, may prove to be passing

Closer to the Muslim center are those who make use of
fundamentalist rhetoric (the Islamic state,
"resistance" to perceived Western hegemony) in pursuit
of more realistic goals. This is a very broad trend,
and one that has succeeded in mobilizing popular
activism in many countries. It embraces much of the
institutional clergy, who see it as a vehicle for
regaining lost prestige, as well as intellectual
flotsam from the left: professional oppositionists who
have found a neoconservative refuge in Islamism. It
also includes mainstream Islamist political parties
such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, or the Islamist
"Reform" parties of Morocco, Algeria, and Yemen.

In general, the centrist-fundamentalist idea of reform
has less to do with stripping down religious doctrine,
or overthrowing governments, than with superimposing
"Islamic" forms upon existing structures. It is these
groups that speak of "Islamizing" economics,
governance, education, culture, and so on. Islamists
in Kuwait, for example, have succeeded in segregating
sexes in the national university. In less coercive
fashion, Muslim financial institutions now offer a
range of "Islamic" alternatives for saving, lending,
and in- vestment. The centrist fundamentalists say
they would like to have democracy, but within a frame
that protects Islamic values. Underlying all this is a
vague notion that Islam is not merely a faith but an
all-embracing social system. What it lacks is simply a
means of getting state power.

Some Western observers of Islam credit the followers
of this trend with being modernizers. In the view of
Raymond Baker, for example, the cultural authenticity
of what he terms the New Islamists, combined with
their relative political moderation, marks them as the
wave of the Muslim future. Yet Baker's own book, Islam
Without Fear, which concentrates on the centrist trend
in Egyptian Islamism, is largely a summary of ideas
that are decades old. In some contexts, it is true,
the view of the centrist fundamentalist on such issues
as the right of women to education and jobs might look
modern. More often, though, Egypt's Islamist centrists
seem to be engaged in an elaborate effort to ascribe a
cultural particularism to what are really universal
precepts and fashions.

This effort may well bear political fruit. In the Arab
world, especially, the level of public disgust with
existing governments is extremely high. The
appropriation of Islamic symbols by opposition
movements makes them very difficult for discredited
state leaders to challenge. Moreover, the
jacket-and-tie-wearing, "capital-friendly" figureheads
of this trend have little animus against the West, so
long as specific issues are excluded, namely,
Palestine and the Bush administration's perceived
neo-imperialist intent. That said, the centrist
fundamentalists also like to make use of the West as a
construct against which to posit "Islamic" values: the
West is materialist, aggressive, morally loose; we are
spiritual, peaceful, chaste.

To be fair, however, this trend embraces a range of
shades, including some, for example, who oppose the
veiling or segregation of women, and some who assert
that charging fixed interest on loans is not
necessarily equivalent to usury, and therefore need
not be abolished by "Islamic" states. It is also true
that the centrist fundamentalists' critique of more
extreme radicals has been particularly effective at
curtailing their influence. As Baker notes, long
before September 11, Muhammad al-Ghazali, a widely
revered Egyptian sheikh, was ridiculing extremists as
"men in long beards...who would drive the country
backwards by their preoccupation with issues
irrelevant to life on earth." Under the influence of
such contempt, a slow tide of radicals has moved
toward the Muslim mainstream, including the
once-militant Gamaa Islamiya group in Egypt (whose
members were responsible for a rash of terrorist
attacks in the 1980s and 1990s), and, more recently,
many Salafist intellectuals in Saudi Arabia.
Malaysia's ruling party trounced radical Islamist
rivals in recent elections, by itself adopting a
milder-mannered Islamist platform.

Yet what Baker describes as the "clear and compelling"
answers that these more moderate Islamists offer to
contemporary issues often prove, on closer inspection,
to be fudges. The application of Islam "rightly
understood," along with democracy "within an Islamic
civilizational framework," he says, would "provide the
twin engines of the long-term process of cultural and
social transformation." But who and what are to define
this understanding, and this "framework"—hallowed
Islamic texts, or modern-day Muslims? The New
Islamists extol the value of empirical science, but
squirm at the mention of Darwin. They favor freedom of
expression, but only so long as it promotes "an
aesthetic of belonging" to Islam.[6] For all the
veneer of liberalism, such reservations begin to echo
the style of a traditional sheikh: yes, music is
permissible, but on the condition that it does not
make you want to dance (as was declared in a fatwa
once issued by a senior Egyptian sheikh).

In other words, what this "centrist" trend represents
is not modernism itself, but a transitional phase, a
kind of regrouping in order to confront the
implications of modernism. The more authentic Muslim
modernists are those who have already taken a step
across the historical threshold toward an enlightened
skepticism of the whole Islamic tradition. There are
many Muslim intellectuals who have done this, some of
them contributors to the collection Islam and
Democracy in the Middle East. They cannot yet be
called a school, and they currently carry little
political weight—excluding, perhaps, the reformist
camp in Iran, which is, incidentally, the only Muslim
country where core philosophical issues are loudly

Yet this trend, which might be termed progressive, is
intellectually far more dynamic than the
centrist-fundamentalist or Salafist movements. It is
particularly active on the peripheries of the Muslim
world, in countries such as Morocco and Indonesia, and
among the twenty-million-strong Muslim diaspora in the
West—among them millions of Algerians in France, Turks
in Germany, Pakistanis in England, and Iranians and
Palestinians in the US. This may reflect the fact that
these are places with access to different ways of
seeing and thinking, and also places where the
traditional Islamic worldview is challenged by the
simple fact of the religion's minority status.

Different conceptions of science and methods of
interpretation, and perhaps also a certain distance
from the Arabic language, allow for a more critical
view of the Koran's text. It is not surprising that
Nasr Abu Zeid, a linguistics professor who applies his
discipline to the Koran, was hounded out of Egypt by
Islamists, and now teaches in Holland. His crime was
to have suggested that some parts of the holy book
might better be understood as allegories, rather than
literal fact. In the eyes of traditionalists, such
ideas are not merely blasphemous, but represent a foot
in the door for a potential fifth column of

The Egyptian thinker Gamal al-Banna may be a more
typical example of the progressive trend. Ironically,
he happens to be the brother of Hassan al-Banna, who
founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 and was
assassinated in 1949. Though raised in the same
traditional environment, the younger al-Banna has long
been sharply critical of the Brotherhood, accusing it
of intellectual poverty and political opportunism.
Rather than shun secularism, as they and many of
Raymond Baker's New Islamists tend to do, he argues
that the lack of a structured "church" in Sunni Islam
should actually make the faith more capable of a
flexible and pertinent understanding of the modern
world. Among his dozens of published works is a
three-volume study of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence.
He summed up his argument in a recent interview. "We
are not here as Muslims to put ourselves in the
service of fiqh, but to put fiqh in the service of
life," he said.[8]

Other leading intellectuals of this tendency include
Harun Nasution, an Indonesian scholar who has tried to
reintroduce relatively open-minded Mu'tazelite ideas
of eighth- and ninth-century Iraq, the liberal Iranian
thinker Abdel Karim Soroush, the Moroccan philosopher
Muhammad Abed al-Jabri, and the Tunisian historian
Abdelmajid Charfi.[9] All have put forward critiques
of present-day Islamism that derive their intellectual
force from a firm grounding in traditional Islamic
scholarship. Their prescription is essentially to
strip Muslim thought of ahistorical dogmatism, and to
embrace the full range of modern paths to
philosophical inquiry. Instead of seeing such
receptiveness to modern thought as submission or
defeat, they argue that there is no reason why Islam
should not provide an ethical basis for freedom.


Abdou Filali-Ansary's three contributions to the
collection Islam and Democracy in the Middle East are
a particularly cogent and forceful exposition of such
views. Concluding a survey of enlightened Muslim
thought, he suggests a solution to Islam's discomfort
with modernism:
The realization that not a system of social
and political regulation frees up space for cultures
and nations—in the modern sense of these words—to lay
the foundations of collective identity. This opens the
way, in turn, to acceptance of a convergence with
other religious traditions and universalistic

As the experience of Nasr Abu Zeid and others has
shown, progressive Muslims remain easy targets for the
traditionalists who have gained power over educational
and religious institutions. Yet the dissident strain
in Islam appears to be growing. It may be a
micro-phenomenon, but there have been notable cases in
recent years of Salafist radicals crossing the full
spectrum of Muslim doctrines toward liberalism. In his
memoir Earth Is Prettier Than Heaven, Khaled al-Birri,
a former member of Egypt's Gama'at Islamiya, recounts
his recruitment, violent activism, and subsequent
disillusionment with radicalism.[10] The Saudi
columnist Mansour an-Nogaidan, who once torched a
Riyadh video store in an act of youthful zeal, now
professes admiration for Martin Luther rather than
Osama bin Laden. "Religion has grown into a
Frankenstein," he told me in a recent interview. "Our
current religious thought has nothing to offer without
a complete rethinking."[11]

Yet the full shock of progressivist argument has yet
to be felt in the Muslim heartlands, largely because
much of it appears in English and French, and has yet
to be translated into Arabic, say, or Urdu. Even the
most mild-mannered of Egypt's New Islamists, for
instance, would find it difficult to stomach the
contention of Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, who teaches
at Swarthmore, that traditional Islam's disapproval of
homosexuality is largely the result of erroneous

His essay is one of sixteen contributions, most from
American Muslim academics, to the volume Progressive
Muslims on Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. Taken
together, these voices represent a sort of cri de
coeur for more tolerant, life-affirming
interpretations of the faith. The same passionate
exasperation, topped with a tinge of nostalgia and a
whiff of Gauloises, emerges from The Malady of Islam,
by the Franco-Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb.
Though packed with erudition, his howl at the
perceived loss of beauty in Islamic civilization is
marred by fashionable Gallic disdain for the
supposedly equally dire plague of Americanization
engulfing the earth.[12]

Which brings us full circle to an even rarer new
species of Muslim, those who have abandoned the faith
altogether. Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out is
probably the first book of its kind—a compendium of
testimonies from former Muslims about the reasons for
their estrangement from the Islamic faith itself. This
is, obviously, a dangerous venture. The agreed penalty
for apostasy in sharia is death. Not surprisingly, the
editor of this volume uses a pseudonym, and most of
the contents were sent long-distance to the Internet
site he runs,

The personal stories recounted in Leaving Islam range
from the tragic to the trite. More useful are sections
that trace the long and illustrious history of Muslim
doubt, including this verse by the tenth-century
Syrian poet Abul 'Ala al Ma'arri:
We mortals are composed of two great schools
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.

The question is not whether Islam is to be reformed.
The question is which of these schools will do the

[1] See Abdou Filali-Ansary, "Muslims and Democracy,"
in Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, edited by
Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg.

[2] "From Jurists' Law to Statute Law or What Happens
When Shari'a Is Codified," in Shaping the Current
Islamic Reformation, edited by B.A. Roberson.

[3] A statement from al-Qaeda following the Madrid
bombings clarified this intent. It said the
organization hoped George Bush would win reelection,
"because he acts with force rather than wisdom or
shrewdness, and it is his religious fanaticism that
will rouse our (Islamic) nation, as has been shown.
Being targeted by an enemy is what will wake us from
our slumber." Quoted on the Arabic news Web site "Bayaan lil qa'ida yuhhammal tawqi'
kataib abu hafss al massri," March 17, 2004.

[4] A thorough investigation of the jurisprudence upon
which such ideas are based can be found in Yohanan
Friedmann's Tolerance and Coercion in Islam:
Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition. While
Friedmann's scholarship is unimpeachable, his focus on
early Islamic practices may leave the unwary with the
impression that Islam is basically an intolerant
faith. As practiced in most times and places, this has
been less true of Islam than of, say, Christianity.
Until reforms introduced this year, however, Saudi
schools promoted this brusque sectarian etiquette of

[5] A survey conducted in February 2004 by the Pew
Research Center found that 65 percent of Pakistanis
and 55 percent of Jordanians had a favorable view of
Osama bin Laden. But it is probably safe to say that
while many Muslims admire the rebel figure who stands
up to the superpowers, far fewer are aware of his
longer-term political project.

[6] Sheikh Ghazali, for instance, refrained from
clearly condemning the assassins of the Egyptian
secularist Farag Foda when asked to do so at their

[7] See Max Rodenbeck, "Witch Hunt in Egypt," The New
York Review, November 16, 2000.

[8] Quoted in the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat, February
28, 2004, p. 16. Some of Gamal al-Banna's ideas can be
found in English on his Web site: www

[9] A fuller listing of liberal Islamic thinkers can
be found at

[10] Ad-dunya ajmal min al-janna (Beirut: Dar
an-Nahar, 2001).

[11] Interview, Riyadh, February 13, 2004. See also
Elizabeth Rubin, "The Jihadi Who Kept Asking Why," The
New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2004.

[12] A less scholarly expression of dismay can be
found in Irshad Manji's The Trouble With Islam: A
Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith (St. Martin's,

New York Review of Book, Volume 51, Number 7 · April 29, 2004