“Muslim intellectual elites lost the control over a pluralistic governance of Islam”

Reinhard Schulze is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Bern, Switzerland. His book A Modern History of the Islamic World got excellent reviews. The author has been praised for “avoiding Orientalism”, and for the ability to tell “a coherent and compelling story”. A scholar of Islam and Islamism, he gave me this interview, that was included in an article centred on religion, violence and freedom of expression. (Read more…)

Isaiah’s vision of Jesus riding a donkey and Muhammad riding a camel, al-Biruni, al-Athar al-Baqiyya ‘an al-Qurun al-Khaliyya (Chronology of Ancient Nations), Tabriz, Iran, 1307-8. © Edinburgh University Library | tarekfatah.com

Isaiah’s vision of Jesus riding a donkey and Muhammad riding a camel, al-Biruni, al-Athar al-Baqiyya ‘an al-Qurun al-Khaliyya (Chronology of Ancient Nations), Tabriz, Iran, 1307-8
© Edinburgh University Library | tarekfatah.com

The “Islamic world” has been under severe criticism since the 9/11 attacks and more recently the ones against a school in Pakistan and the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in France. Countless Muslim scholars and believers condemned these actions and their perpetrators, clearly distinguishing between terrorism and religion, but they always find themselves in a position of having to apologize. Their voices have not been heard. Why?

The simple reason is, that the Western non-Muslim public still expects that there should be something like an ex cathedra-opinion representing the totality of Islam.

The public considers these voices as individual statements that do not exercise any influence upon the Muslim communities. In addition, many of the voices of Muslim scholars and thinkers are framed in a language that does not met with the expectations of the non-Muslim public. And finally, the public often does not consider these statements to have any relevance.

The Koran, the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament have been presented (and used) as “war manuals”. Are they books that justify killings “in the name of God”?

Taken these texts as they are it is extremely difficult to use them as ‘war manuals’. They always have to be complemented by other exegetic texts or traditions in order to establish a discourse on justifying war. Here the Muslim jurists heavily relied on the Prophetic tradition and on ‘common law’.

The rules derived from that corpus constituted what Muslim jurists called siyar (warfare). They mainly describe the legal frame of justified warfare.

In Christianity Augustinus [also known as Saint Augustine] justified war also by using earlier traditions Cicero. Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont 1096 defined a Holy War stating that killing in war is a religious act, in order to achieve indulgence of all sins and sin penalties.

Finally Thomas Aquino and Gratian codified the concept of a bellum sanctum. This again shows that all religious texts may be used to justify war.

Beheadings and limb amputations are still punishments performed in Saudi Arabia, women continue to be stoned to death for adultery in Nigeria, and in Iran gays risk to be buried alive in the desert… The so-called “Islamic State” has just set on fire a Jordanian pilot, generating a theological controversy over this “sentence”: was it was or not forbidden by Prophet Muhammad? While the brutal murder of the pilot generated an overwhelming condemnation, the attack on Charlie Hebdo divided the Muslim community, some of their members justifying that Muhammad’s representations are “blasphemous” in any form and even more as in “insulting cartoons”. What is your assessment regarding both cases?

The killing of the Jordan pilot Mu’adh Kasasbeh was seen as a result of a new dynamic of transnational violence in the Islamic world. The Charlie Hebdo-killing happened in Paris outside the nearer reach of a Muslim public.

Though nearly all important Islamic institutions condemned and deplored the Paris shootings they reviewed it as part either of a western home grown terrorism or of a murderous attack of al-Qa’ida on ‘the West’ (or both).

Kasasbeh’s killing, however, took place within the frame of an Arab Middle Eastern setting, acted out by terrorists grown ‘on the spot’. Thus the Arab public considers to be directly hit by the IS-terrorism and perceives IS [the so-called ‘Islamic State’] as a real threat.

Ka‘ba, al-Darir, Siyer-i Nebi (The Biography of the Prophet), Istanbul, Ottoman lands, 1595-96. © Istanbul Topkapi Palace Library | tarekfatah.com/

Ka‘ba, al-Darir, Siyer-i Nebi (The Biography of the Prophet), Istanbul, Ottoman lands, 1595-96
© Topkapi Palace Library | tarekfatah.com

You have been emphasizing the need of Muslims to ask themselves what they are doing with their Islam, but as Islam is not monolithic and does not have a clerical body to define a single interpretation of the sacred texts, how can this reflection be prepared?

First of all, Muslim intellectual elites should recognize that they have a responsibility not for the terrorists’ killings, but for the fact that they lost the hegemony or control over a pluralistic governance of Islam.

They will have to deal with the fact that ultra-religious forms of self-empowerment destroys the hitherto common hierarchical order of Islamic public which had privileged educated Muslim scholars and which had prevented that certain small sects could justify their ‘Islamicity’ without being controlled by a critical public discourse.

Having recognized that the coherence of the modern, yet old system of Islamic authority is vanishing Muslim intellectuals will have to struggle for winning back a discursive authority over the Islamic frame.

As this problem in principle is also relevant to Christian and Jewish institutions (churches, communities etc.), Muslim thinkers and public figures should not be left alone but integrated into a general debate on how to deal with the current disintegration of religious traditions.

There is an “urgent need of memory,” you said, evoking the 1960’s “when there was a free debate about the historical context of Islam in the Arab-Muslim world”. You blame states, like Nasser’s Egypt and Assad’s Syria, for giving too much public power to mosques and conservative preachers mosques, forcing to exile the freethinkers and fomenting a void that was fulfilled by Wahhabism. What can be done to revert this scenario?

The ‘Arab Spring’ was a starting point. For the first time sense nearly 50 years, the youth generation in many Arab countries tried to establish a new societal autonomy. The core meaning of their protest was to restore the hegemony of the civil society over the state.

As part of this aspiration the protest milieu created a new pluralistic and critical public, which allowed the free expression and exchange of ideas and ideals, and even ideas that hitherto had been banned from the national public.

I for example think of the TV late night show of the Egyptian comedian Bassem Yusuf (November 2011 – June 2014). It is bitter to watch the breakdown of the enthusiasm, which was mainly due to the etatist and conservative world’s view of the parental generation, which put “law and order” first.

The social void created by the etatist elites during the last thirty years can only be filled by a policy which focusses on social integration offering freedom, choice, social security and schemes of life worthy to live.

As we know, the justification of those values, which certify social integration and social solidarity, can also be based on religious world’s views.

Here Islam comes in again. Muslim intellectuals also will be confronted with the problem how to justify such a civic, pluralistic and democratic social order. And they will have to accept the fact that as a religious justification does not legitimize any form of discursive hegemony, non-religious forms of justification of these values can claim an equal validity.

The Prophet Muhammad receives revelations at Mount Hira, al-Darir, Siyer-i Nebi (The Biography of the Prophet), Istanbul, Ottoman lands, 1595-1596. © Istanbul Topkapi Palace Library | tarekfatah.com

The Prophet Muhammad receives revelations at Mount Hira, al-Darir, Siyer-i Nebi (The Biography of the Prophet), Istanbul, Ottoman lands, 1595-1596
© Topkapi Palace Library | tarekfatah.com

You do not appreciate the role of the Internet and the virtual debates in a “reform process”. But they have been a tool for many Muslims to denounce human rights violations in their own countries or, for instance, to assume themselves publicly as atheists. What would be the proper way to conduct the so-called Islamic exegesis? “The moral success of Islam depend on the education of elites and their capacity to find a consensus inside the societies,” you said. How do you envisage that endeavor?

Indeed, the Internet has a Janus-faced character. On the one hand, it has freed information from the control of states or governments; on the other hand, it has created a landscape of possibilities for self-empowerment, which is not framed anymore by a qualified intellectualism or a qualified world of knowledge. But one cannot, of course turn back the hands of time.

The post-modern forms of information distribution and consumption do exist also within the Islamic context. Yet it would be desirable that the intellectual standard of education, which also valorizes criticism and creativity, is brought back to the Islamic realm.

As long as Islam is considered just a set of traditions to be learnt there will be not effort to use Islam as a mean for justifying rational criticism.

Here again, the state comes in: as long as the state elites mistrust ‘their societies’ they will consider Islam as a fixed set of established traditions. But if the state elites take the responsibility to represent an ‘open society’ (Karl Popper) they will create a new educational realm which will be part of the socialization of the young generation and which will offer to them symbolic and cultural capital upon which they can build their plans of life.

As long as a teacher or an academic earns less than a taxi driver, these positions will not be attractive enough to earnestly work on the Islamic traditions.

The Prophet Muhammad sits with the Abrahamic prophets in Jerusalem, anonymous, Mi‘rajnama (Book of Ascension), Tabriz, ca. 1317-1330. © Istanbul Topkapi Palace Library | /tarekfatah.com

The Prophet Muhammad sits with the Abrahamic prophets in Jerusalem, anonymous, Mi‘rajnama (Book of Ascension), Tabriz, ca. 1317-1330
© Topkapi Palace Library | /tarekfatah.com

In your interview to the French newspaper Le Temps there are three statements that I found very interesting. Can you, please, clarify each one of them:

A) Jihad was an imported concept after the XIX century, following the standards of European ideas of that period”.

This touches the history of the jihad I cannot recount the whole story here, so I just want to point at some issues:

The early koranic tradition clearly saw the “struggle following the pass of God” as part of an apocalyptic aspiration to regain the sanctuary of Mecca. Semantically it was an opposite concept of hijra “emigration”. That is why in the Koran references to jihad and hijra are often put in a complementary form (“those who emigrated and struggled”). With the occupation of Mecca 630, this basic meaning of jihad became obsolete.

Muslim jurists of the 8th and 9th century preserved the notion jihad and derived its rules from the Prophetic traditions. It remained, however, a rather abstract concept and was seldom applied to justify actual forms of militant fighting. Mostly, it was used to legitimize fighting other Muslim communities (for example, by the Khawarij, later the Muwahhidun in the Maghreb).

Even during the crusades, Muslim elites did not use the term to define their fighting with the Christian conquerors. This fact was deeply deplored by some orthodox preachers in Egypt and Syria who criticized that no Muslim ruler ever called their fighting jihad.

From the early modernity on, jihad was just another term for ‘war’. That is why after the establishment of Cabinet governments in the Muslim world (18th/19th century) a war ministry was usually and simply called ‘ministry of jihad“’’. At that time, the term had lost all religious connotations. Symbolically, jihad referred to ‘a justified war’.

Puritan movements (for example, Wahhabi in Arabia, ahl-I hadith in India) continued to use the term jihad to interpret their wars against their enemies as a ‘war against idolatries’ (jihad), again addressing mainly Muslim communities (and Sikhs).

In the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire reactivated the religious connotation of jihad in a nationalist sense: Now, jihad was the “holy war” to defend the Ottoman nation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, German advisors to the Ottoman government (Max von Oppenheim and others) urged the Ottomans to use jihad as a mean to mobilize non-Ottoman subjects in the European colonies to rise against the Powers [in the I World War]. For this they heavily stressed the Islamic religious idea and translated jihad as “holy war”.

Since this 1990s jihad was again reinterpreted by preachers like Azzam who maintained that jihad is part of the Islamic cult and that only jihad can establish the Islamicity of Muslims.

The Prophet Muhammad enthroned, surmounted by angels, and surrounded by his companions, Firdawsi, Shahnama (Book of Kings), probably Shiraz, Iran, early 14th century. © Freer/Sackler Museum of Asian Art | Smithsonian Institution | tarekfatah.com

The Prophet Muhammad enthroned, surmounted by angels, and surrounded by his companions, Firdawsi, Shahnama (Book of Kings), probably Shiraz, Iran, early 14th century
© Freer | Sackler Museum of Asian Art | Smithsonian Institution | tarekfatah.com

B) Sharia, a concept that engender a lot of fear in Western countries with Muslim communities, “is only the jurists’ interpretation of what can be the rule in certain societies and eras; an intellectual product but not a divine law”.

In the 9th and 10th century, Muslim jurists tentatively assembled their rulings under the umbrella term Sharia. For them it was evident that Sharia was nothing but the totality of their own interpretations of the religious and social order and oft its rules.

They never claimed that the Sharia is God’s law on earth. Early puritan (and nominalist) scholars like Ibn Taymiya stated that as the Sharia should be based on a more or less literal interpretation of the Koran and the Prophetic tradition the Sharia should come close to what God wants.

C) It is not possible an “Islamic democracy” even if some Muslim scholars admit a kind of “German secularism” that safeguard the respect of rule of law and of religion.

Democracy is an order of society, not of religion. Though some authors maintain that there were “democratic religions” (sometimes referring to American Baptists) and even that democracy needs religion (Brendan Sweetman) it is clear that no religion is inherently a liberal or democratic religion.

In fact, however, there seems to be a consensus among secularists (not laicists) that religion has to right to justify democracy by claiming that religion offers a positive genealogy of values closely linked to the democratic order.

In a secular order such claims are considered to be instrumental in order to certify social integration, though quite a lot of secularists stress that this validity claim is ahistorical.

The same, of course, is true for any claim for an “Islamic democracy”. Thus a democracy cannot be either Christian or Islamic per se, but can only be justified by referring to Christian or Islamic genealogies.

Professor Dr. Reinhard Schulze © wissenschaftsrat.de

Professor Dr. Reinhard Schulze, author of A Modern History of the Islamic World
© wissenschaftsrat.de

Part of his email interview was included in an article published in the Portuguese news magazine ALÉM-MAR, March 2015 edition

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.