For The Inquirer

I first read Cliff Reed's 'Consider the Real Islam' article in The Inquirer (3 January 2015) with a sense of disappointment, and this was before any desire to say, strongly, "Je Suis Charlie", and stand up for the right for critical freedom in all its aspects. His was just the phenomenologist's description of a religion that amounts to selective revision, as if there is a real, peaceful, communal, Islam, and a false, extreme and violent Islam.
Why has it taken so long, then, for Muslims in general to condemn the outpourings of violence from extremes in the last decades? Where were most of them at the time of the Satanic Verses controversy, when Shia Iran condemned literature, or indeed when Wahabi Islam exported its narrow version of Islam to so many Western mosques it funded and thus laid a future of terrorism among some of these hotheads?
Islam was either born in territorial expansion through war with 'the other' or (without archaeological evidence for its Arabian origins) began in the Near East after violent Arabian expansion. If we are to believe the stories of origins in Arabia, then apparently the early perfection of religion identified a disloyal opposition and fought it, and continued to raid camel trains across the desert. It was all about 'being one of us' and degrees of toleration for others. There were about six Qur'ans around the early Islamic empire until the one version: fundamentalism was solved by insisting on the one language; the revelations in it in time order start by general benign visions and end up organising a community with a more bellicose manner, but the whole book is arranged into a (dis)order determined not by time or themes but but by the size of its suras. It is often learnt by rote and yet not understood. We are told the Qur'an is perfect in every word, dot and comma, but it can't even describe the Christian Trinity properly alongside many other errors. And the notion of Abraham setting up the Ka'ba that was later lost to Paganism - with a water miracle too - is mythic on the level of the Christian nativity. The same can be said of the Night Journey.
Settled Islam developed a wondrous base for maths, science, toleration and civilisation, but slowly the ulama clericalised and the open learning and democratic vision of the ummah narrowed. Still, a reason why Eastern Europe was able to pluralise early and show a vision of later Western society, including Unitarian and Socinian institutions prior to resurgant Catholic intolerance, was the influence and impact of Islam to its east. When it receded, Christian intolerance was restored.
But at the same time Islam has always had a tendency to violence. Take 1844, for example, and the killings in Karbala and later on over the expected coming of the Hidden Twelfth Imam: the Babi expression of that and Baha'i Faith were born in the faction fighting of the two groups exiled to Palestine and Cyprus in order to keep the peace. Once again came claims to final and perfect written revelations, this time in the context of emerging into the West in the nineteenth century.
The 'real Islam' has developed a chip on its shoulder ever since the Western Renaissance, Reformation and secularisation. Imagine you have a religion that claims it is the final and perfect revelation over all other corrupted ones, and yet it is playing second division to them in a resurgent West in terms of development. You find that you are colonised, pick the losers in international conflicts, have insensitive borders created for you, and end up with a succession of secular, corrupt and violent tinpot dictators. The Ottomon Empire was corrupt and failing, and the successors have been a mess. Israel found space to be established, and has since led to a general reversal of political tolerance for Judaism as it demonstrates its own eye-for-an-eye intolerance. Only Tunisia has ended up benefitting from the Arab Spring.
The aim of Islam is to make every nation Islamic. The attitude to the West is muddled because, able to tolerate Islam, including at times of stress like these, the West lies somewhere between the House of Islam and the House of War. If we didn't, a violent Jihad would be more generally arguable.
What is happening now is sinking the reputation of Islam, and it is only Muslims, really, who will rescue this reputation, and ultimately by a long needed reformation: a self-critical reformation (using itijad) that has not so far happened. The most likely place for beginning such a reformation is from the Western university, but Western academic Muslims are regarded with some suspicion as revisionists by the more conservative clerical ulama. Many academics are exiles, coming from Pakistan for example.
So the Real Islam is a both-and, and Islam and history can explain why it has produced violence. It is up to Muslims to determine that these other Muslims are unislamic. This does not mean apologise. Articles by others claiming a real (peaceful) Islam hardly help because, in the end, they appear to be inadequate and superficial and lack explanation for events, even if they stretch out a hand to a community in confusion.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful