Thursday, August 02, 2007

Political Islamism v Spiritual Islam

The Need To Study Islam

Sometimes old dogs need to learn new tricks.

I have studied, taught and practiced politics for over half a century. Arab and Islamic issues have at times dominated my perceptions, from the Suez Crisis in 1956 to the current situation in Iraq. Yet inevitably I have viewed such events through the prism of the Western Political Tradition. So the concepts I have invariably used as critical tools have tended to be those of Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy, Social Justice, Fascism and Totalitarianism.

I am not for ditching my basic approach, but I feel a need to try and grasp hold of more of Islam from inside its own tradition. This seems to me to be possible without descending into a form of cultural relativism, which can ditch a belief in basic democratic values.

A practical difficulty in studying Islam is that it is dominated by, to me, difficult Arabic names and concepts. Whilst my experiences as an MP were also limited by the fact that the Constituency I represented has one of the smallest ethnic minority populations of any in Britain. Although it was Constituency casework that pulled me into taking a long term interest in developments in Pakistan.

Where To Start

It is by no means the first book I have read on Islam, but what I feel may be an invaluable feed into the area I am looking for is Ed Husain's recent book
"The Islamist".

The author effectively describes his own move into the world of Political Islamism. His route (away from traditionalist family Islamic influences) is via the Young Muslim Organisation and then Hizb iu-Tahrir. This is a complex world for the outsider and has characteristics of the divided world of Trotskyism which held its fascinations in the era of the Miltant Tendency. It is, however, a more dangerous world, opening up to anti-semitism, homophobia, the domination of women and suicide bombing. It is Ed Husain's personal story which helps the reader to put all these bits and pieces into a clear focus.

Breaking Free

A dramatic incident shakes the writer's commitment to the cause he had played a leading role in. But it takes him time (and counter-experiences) to be able to move firmly onto the alternative ground which he calls "Spiritual Islam".

Whilst his shift is essentially back to the ground his parents stood upon, his personal understanding of his move is given depth by the fact that he has travelled such a complex ideological journey. This is all conveyed meaningfully to the reader.

Towards the end of the book he draws us into key experiences he has in Syria and Saudi Arabia. The former are mainly positive experiences and the latter entirely negative ones. What he says on Syria may pleasantly surprise some.

What is missing?

Ed Husain refers to interesting sounding literature from the camps he moves between. Some of which I will seek to follow up. Unfortunately, his own book lacks some useful technical data. There is no index, no regular footnotes for the references he makes and no reading list drawn from his many references. So I will have to go back to the book to dig out what I need.

There is something even more important that is missing. Whilst we can follow the influences that move him between different interpretations of Islam, he does not provide his intellectual justifications for having a belief in the very existence of Allah.

I find this to be a vacuum as I have also have had an interest in philosophy as well as politics over the past 50 years. As an gentle atheist, this includes an interest in Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Religion. Although again, my approach is dominated by approaches within the Western Philosophical Tradition. Perhaps Ed Husain could think about writing a follow-up book that would cater for such interests. But with an index and proper references please.


Chris Paul said...

Islam - A Short History by the ex-nun and commentator Karen Armstrong is a pretty good primer I think. She has written quite a lot of such texts since this one in 2000. The FT called it: "A thoroughly good guide ... as well as being an excellent antidote to prejudice."

Also have an English translation of The Glorious Quran which can be useful.

For example one of my friends and neighbours widely defined explained his stand offish approach to my dogs. He says he admires them and tells his son this. But he will not touch them or allow his son to or go within dribbling range of them.

He says that dogs are haram (unlcean) and that as strict muslims they would have to change clothes and re-wash themselves if they had contact.

Looking in the Quran on this was useful in so far as it underlined that there's more to it than the book. Dogs are hardly mentioned!

My friend also dresses "like the prophet" with the useful addition of very sharp trainers or designer shoes which is interesting to behold!

Harry Barnes said...

Thanks Chris. I have read Karen Armstrong's "A History of God", so I will look up her book on Islam. I hold a version of the Quran and have read some other relevant bits and pieces on Islam. I have just started the new edition of "What Is Islam?" by Chris Horrie and Peter Chippindale (Virgin Books). It is readable. But as they are wide ranging journalists, I won't take it is gospel! We had regular visits from Muslim constituents because of a long running and complex case I dealt with. Although I did not know it was a problem,we were lucky not to have a dog.

ModernityBlog said...

whilst I think it's right and proper to understand other people's beliefs so not to necessarily or unwontedly offend them, I think there's two issues here, the local and global

locally, we should be appreciative of the community's sensitivities and some of the underlying reasons

globally, it's far too easy to see 1.6 muslim as an homogenous lump rather than the varied diversity that really comprises them, countires, region, cities, town and countryside, and how much of their politics may be couched in Islamic terms but is really about bread-and-butter issues if we could but see past the jargon

I read a bit on Islam a few years back, I'll see what I have upstairs and make a list, if you like?

Harry Barnes said...

Modernityblog, I agree with your approach and like the look of your blog. References to works which show the diversity of Islamic thought and how "bread and butter" issues find an outlet via its expressions, would be particularly welcome. As would references to secular style responses which have developed out of these traditions.

ModernityBlog said...


my blog, er well, very kind of you, but if I'm honest, it is more my ramblings at 3am than any thing of substance.

My comments in another blogs a more representative for my views but thinking about your previous point, not only would works on Islam be required, for your approach, but some quality secular histories of each country to provide an overview, eg. we can not fully understand the creation of Pakistan (or Saudi Arabia) in terms of Islam, without the wider picture, but equally completely excluding the aspect of Islam in any discussion of those countries creations would be false or incomplete

Cheers, MB

PS:you wrote elsewhere that you submission to the Iraq commission as in the wrong format? was it RTF, Works or wordperfect? seems strange that civil servants could not use one of the many file filters, which allow the conversion of document between formats, to read it?

Harry Barnes said...

modernityblog - as my political understandings were shaped in the era of the Cold War (even though I took wider interests) I feel a need to look at differing mind sets in the areas we have been discussing.

The Iraq Commission wasn't an official body, but was run by a think tank in association with Channel 4. My submission went with a covering e-mail (twice as I revised it), but was not acknowledged. These were the instructions for submissions but I am PC illiterate -

At least I alerted Labour Friends of Iraq about the approaching closing date and they passed this on to Abdullah Muhsin of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers. You will see that there submissions are the first two listed - and probably the last received. I just feel that a "Commission" properly covering the issue should have known to invite Abdullah to be interviewed.

ModernityBlog said...

ahh, understood, sorry I had thought it was merely a minor technical issue, silly me

if you can, and you probably do, best to always put a read receipt on any email, it can help if they go astray

Graeme said...

I found Karen Armstrong's Islam a little bit disappointing, though I likely expected too much of it. It is exactly what it says it is: a history. It doesn't deal with Islamic theology in any real depth, and this becomes somewhat of a problem later on, when Armstrong discusses how, for example, the Taliban stray from Islam. She may very well be right, but she doesn't give the reader any analytical tools with which to assess her claims. Basically, the book works well if you want to put Islam in a historical context, but it didn't really work for me as a single volume introduction to Islam.

Harry Barnes said...

Graeme;I have a similiar view of her book "A History of God" which also (of course) has a section on Islam. I almost completed the Horrie and Chippendale book I referred to. But I left it at my son's house in London, by mistake -along with some notes I made about it. It is rather like a gazetteer of Islamic Sects and Islamic Nations (57 countries covered in 116 pages), plus a chronology and an intitial section explaining what Islam is.

In some ways it is exactly what I was after as a tool to pursue matters further. But it is seriously flawed. The writers are not specialists in their topic. The section explaining Islam as a coherent single form of religion is contradicted by what follows, which shows its considerable variety. Errors creep in when they deal with those nations I know something about.

There is also little about those aspects of spiritual Islam which (as with Christianity) can have an appeal to humanists, even when we reject the surrounding doctrine.

But when I get it back, I will use it as an avenue for Googling and searching out their references. Unfortunately, this probably reflects the limits of their own avenues of research.

Bigmo said...

These Sunni and Shia clerics follow sectarian Islam that relies on hadiths for 95% of its jurisprudence. Hadiths were "compiled" 2 to 3 centuries after the prophet. They are the "supposed" deeds and speeches of the prophet that the clerics use to "explain" the Koran. Each sects have hadiths that refutes the other. Both claim that their hadiths have been rigorously "authenticated". Even if they had to carry out this "authentication" process 2 to 3 centuries after the events. They rely on orally transmitted narrations they claim was "carefully passed down" through the ages. The prophet never left behind him any hadiths. The only text the prophet and the 4 caliphs left behind and spread was the Koran.

The Koran gave COMPLETE freedom for everyone.

The Quran(Koran) Concerning other monotheist faiths:

Not all of them are alike; a party of the people of the Scripture stand for the right, they recite the Verses of God during the hours of the night, prostrating themselves in prayer. They believe in God and the Last Day; they enjoin good and forbid wrong; and they hasten in good works; and they are among the righteous. And whatever good they do, nothing will be rejected of them; for God knows well those who are God fearing. 3:113-115

And there are, certainly, among the people of the Scripture, those who believe in God and in that which has been revealed to you, and in that which has been revealed to them, humbling themselves before God. They do not sell the Verses of God for a little price, for them is a reward with their Lord. Surely, God is Swift in account. 3:199

Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve . 2:62

Say: "O people of the Scripture : Come to a word that is just between us and you, that we worship none but God, and that we associate no partners with Him, and that none of us shall take others as lords besides God. 3:64

And they say: "None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian." Those are their (vain) desires. Say: "Produce your proof if ye are truthful."Nay,-whoever submits His whole self to God and is a doer of good,- He will get his reward with his Lord; on such shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. The Jews say: "The Christians have naught (to stand) upon; and the Christians say: "The Jews have naught (To stand) upon." Yet they study the (same) Book. Like unto their word is what those say who know not; but God will judge between them in their quarrel on the Day of Judgment. 2.111-113

If any do deeds of righteousness,- be they male or female - and have faith, they will enter Heaven, and not the least injustice will be done to them 4.124

The Quran(Koran) Concerning who we fight or don't:

As for such who do not fight you on account of faith, or drive you forth from your homelands, God does not forbid you to show them kindness and to deal with them with equity, for God loves those who act equitably. God only forbids you to turn in friendship towards such as fight against you because of faith and drive you forth from your homelands or aid in driving you forth. As for those from among you who turn towards them for alliance, it is they who are wrongdoers. 60:8-9

Permission (to fight) is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged, and verily, God has indeed the power to aid them. Those who have been driven from their homelands in defiance of right for no other reason than their saying, ‘Our Lord is God.’ 22:39-40

The Quran(Koran) Concerning freedom:

2:256 There is no compulsion in religion, for the right way is clearly from the wrong way. Whoever therefore rejects the forces of evil and believes in God, he has taken hold of a support most unfailing, which shall never give way, for God is All Hearing and Knowing.

16:82 But if they turn away from you, your only duty is a clear delivery of the Message .

6:107 Yet if God had so willed, they would not have ascribed Divinity to aught besides Him; hence, We have not made you their keeper, nor are you a guardian over them.

4:79-80 Say:'Whatever good betides you is from God and whatever evil betides you is from your own self and that We have sent you to mankind only as a messenger and all sufficing is God as witness. Whoso obeys the Messenger, he indeed obeys God. And for those who turn away, We have not sent you as a keeper."

11:28 He (Noah) said "O my people! think over it! If I act upon a clear direction from my Lord who has bestowed on me from Himself the Merciful talent of seeing the right way, a way which you cannot see for yourself, does it follow that we can force you to take the right path when you definitely decline to take it?°

17:53-54 And tell my servants that they should speak in a most kindly manner. Verily, Satan is always ready to stir up discord between men; for verily; Satan is mans foe .... Hence, We have not sent you with power to determine their Faith.

21:107-109 (O Prophet?) 'We have not sent you except to be a mercy to all mankind:" Declare, "Verily, what is revealed to me is this, your God is the only One God, so is it not up to you to bow down to Him?' But if they turn away then say, "I have delivered the Truth in a manner clear to one and all, and I know not whether the promised hour is near or far."

22:67 To every people have We appointed ceremonial rites which they observe; therefore, let them not wrangle over this matter with you, but bid them to turn to your Lord. You indeed are rightly guided. But if they still dispute you in this matter, `God best knows what you do."

24.54. Say: "Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger. but if ye turn away, he is only responsible for the duty placed on him and ye for that placed on you. If ye obey him, ye shall be on right guidance. The Messenger's duty is only to preach the clear (Message).

88:21 22; And so, exhort them your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel them to believe.

48:28 He it is Who has sent forth His Messenger with the Guidance and the Religion of Truth, to the end that tie make it prevail over every religion, and none can bear witness to the Truth as God does.

36:16 17 (Three Messengers to their people) Said, "Our Sustainer knows that we have indeed been sent unto you, but we are not bound to more than clearly deliver the Message entrusted to us.'

39:41 Assuredly, We have sent down the Book to you in right form for the good of man. Whoso guided himself by it does so to his own advantage, and whoso turns away from it does so at his own loss. You certainly are not their keeper.

42:6 48 And whoso takes for patrons others besides God, over them does God keep a watch. Mark, you are not a keeper over them. But if they turn aside from you (do not get disheartened), for We have not sent you to be a keeper over them; your task is but to preach ....

64:12 Obey God then and obey the Messenger, but if you turn away (no blame shall attach to our Messenger), for the duty of Our Messenger is just to deliver the message.

67:25 26 And they ask, "When shall the promise be fulfilled if you speak the Truth?" Say, "The knowledge of it is verily with God alone, and verily I am but a plain warner."

The Quran(Koran) concerning justice:

"And among His signs are the creation of the heaven and earth, and the variation in your language and your colors; verily in that are signs for those who know" (30:22).

"Satan seeks only to cast among you enmity and hate"(5:91).

O you who believe! Stand out for justice, as witnesses to God, and even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be rich or poor. An-Nisaa’ 4:134

"O you who believe! Be the maintainers of justice and bearers of witness for God's sake though it be against your own self, parents and relatives" (4:135).

"O you mankind! We have created you from a single pair of male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you know each other. Verily the most honored in the sight of God is the one who is most righteous" (49:13).

O you who believe! Stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety and fear God, for God is well acquainted with all that you do. 5:8

And thus We made of you a justly balanced community that you might bear witness to humankind and the Apostle might bear witness over you. 2:143

O you who believe, observe your duty to God with right observance, and die not except in a state of submission (to Him). And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of God, and do not separate, and remember God's favor unto you: how you were enemies and He put love between your hearts so that you became as brothers by His grace: and how you were upon the brink of a fire and He saved you from it. Thus God makes clear His revelations unto you so that you may be guided" (3:102-103).

"The believers are nothing else other than brothers, Thus make peace between your brethren and observe your duty to God that you may haply receive His mercy" (49: 1 0).

The Quran(Koran) Concerning propagation:

Invite (all humankind) to the path of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation and argue with them in the most kindly manner, for, indeed, your Lord knows best as to who strays from His path, and best who are the right-guided. (16:125)

Had your Lord so willed, all those who live on earth would surely have attained faith, will you then compel people, against their will, to believe? 10:99

And We have not sent you, but as mercy to all the worlds. 21:107

Islam is peace!

Harry Barnes said...

Mohamed; thank you for your comments and for your quotations from The Quran, which you set out under five specific and helpful topic headings.

I hold a translation of The Quran by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. I have had an initial read above of the passages you supply and I will return to them to give them more careful consideration.

I have been in contact with someone from Baghdad who uses the link name "Mohammed" and runs this blog -
But I imagine that he is a differenr person to yourself.

Plato said...

Thank you Mohamed for the very nice list of quotations from the Quran.

Unfortunately the way the Quran is interpreted makes Islam not a religion of peace but a religion of violence and hatred. Consider the quote 2:256 "There is no compulsion in religion." Why then were Christian aid workers arrested for distributing Christian bibles in Afghanistan under the Taliban? Is there any "Islamic" country (i.e. members of the OIC, that allows the establishment of Buddhist or Christian bookstores or more generally, is there any Islamic country that allows people to promote non official faiths or atheism? Yes, the practice of Islamic countries is "no compulsion in religion" but only if you keep your non official beliefs to yourself. No compulsion of religion and no freedom of religion is the policy of Islamic countries! The OIC web site condemns lots of things, like cartoons but does not condemn the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri because he directed a movie written by a Muslim woman that was critical of some Islamic practices.

These simple examples do not prove a general statement about Islam and, of course, the OIC does not represent Islam, but you have to admit that Islam has many violent adherents who attack others for expressing their beliefs.

The vast majority of people in the world, therefore, whether they are monotheists, polytheists, or atheists, cannot think of Islam as a religion of peace.

purpleXed said...

In wake of promising prospects for capitalizing through a hiss-and-sell approach perhaps Ed Hussain’s attention may be invited to other possibilities to oblige eager admirers with possible sequels to his recent book, The Islamist:

The Alarmist
The Sensationalist
How To Whistle Blow your way to fame and fortune: A User's Guide

Harry Barnes said...

Plato: I fully appreciate that Mohamed's quotations from the Quran were selected to establish his particular case and that alternative selections can be used to provide the type of worrying picture you paint.

But do we not need to encourage elements in Islam as shown here? -

There are many Islamic approaches in the 57 or so varieties of nations dominated by such ideas. The Young Turks attempted to take the old Ottoman Empire along secular and Western lines and this approach has had its spin offs.

I am however perplexed by perplexed.

Plato said...

Harry, Mohamed:

Harry, thank you for the web site reference,, which has a very nice list of secular principles that might be followed by any subgroup of the the secular society.

Personally, I am an atheist who believes in the importance of a secular public square in order to have a thriving society. It seems that God rewards secular societies.

The web site, however, does not appear to be very active and I would bet that not a single Islamic cleric giving advice on the Internet would support those principles.

Except, perhaps, as a strategy to gain political power.

The Koran does, as Mohamed points out, take a kinder view of Christians and Jews. But about Christians and Jews and atheists that criticize the Koran?

Many Muslims would be content to leave their fate up to God. But most Muslims would probably be just as happy if they were banished form their societies of killed!

And, Harry, you may have noticed that the Young Turks are inching back to theocracy. This is perhaps inevitable in any country or within any group that holds a text as perfect and above human criticism. The most successful societies have gotten away from that!

I say God loves atheists above all others and especially favored is the secular public square!

To answer your question more directly - Yes we do need to incur age secularists of all stripes, not just Muslims.

Azarmehr said...

That was a very fair summation of the book Harry.

Plateau said...

"But do we not need to encourage elements in Islam as shown here? -"

Hello Harry, I just discovered your blog. Very interesting post. I have not read Ed Husain's book, but I do appreciate the message you're sending in the above quote.

On the other hand, politics and Islam have become, mostly, inseparable & interwoven over the last 1400 years.

A large part of any religion is based on the character and deeds of its messenger (prophet). It is known that Mohammad when in Mecca took a quietist approach. But, after his move to Medina, he was a political ruler and led an army - he was radical and an activist.

In my view, it will be very difficult to transform Islam into a purely "spiritual" religion, because it is not. Additionally, any reform can only be done by prominent Islamic clerics themselves. Unfortunately, even more "moderate and spiritual" Islamic clerics acknowledge the political and violent elements that are part of Islam, and even mentioned in parts of the Quran (Koran).

About the Quran (Koran) & the Hadiths: I accept that the Hadiths were written approx. 2 centuries after Mohammad's death. They are a set of instructions that are often preached and followed. As a result, over the ensuing centuries, Islam has become a very prescriptive religion; many Muslims expect "the how to", not simply "the what" - therefore, leaving little room for personal decision making based on general guiding principles.

Equally, the Quran (Koran) itself could not have been compiled and constructed during Mohammad's lifetime. Bear in mind Mohammad was illiterate and bedouin Arabs were unlettered. The compilation, as far as I am aware, began by Abu Bakr many years after Mohammad's death, and continued by the other 3 Caliphs.

My questions: 1) Does the Quran as we know it today carry the original words as presumably revealed to Mohammad? If yes, then based on what original documentation by Mohammad or his so-called "scribe"?

The Arabic language (even the current and sophisticated Saudi version did not exist during Mohammad or the Caliphs' lifetime)

2) Has the Quran not been changed and re-written even since the death of the last Caliph?

Lastly, I say that the Quran in most parts is so codified that can the message it is sending can be interpreted any way one sees fit.

I have a blog at about Iran, not necessarily about the Koran :-)