Archive for September 2007
Verse 18 of Sura 39 of the Qur’an says:
“Those who listen to the Word (the Qur’an) and follow the best meaning in it: those are the ones whom Allah has guided and those are the ones endowed with understanding.”
Or, in Muhammad Asad’s translation:
Those “who listen closely to all that is said, and follow the best of it: it is they whom God has graced with His guidance, and it is they who are truly endowed with insight!”
Muhammad Asad’s translation is wonderful both for the language and for the erudite and open minded notes which take on board classical Islamic scholarship as well as modern intellectual currents. (Asad, born Leopold Weiss, was a fascinating figure. Perhaps I’ll dedicate a posting to him one day). Here is his note on this verse:
I’m a Muslim in that I feel allegiance to the Muslims as a people. It’s not a blind patriotism. I don’t feel allegiance to any particular sect, doctrine or government. As a member of this cultural group (or groups), somebody who lives with and sympathises with and loves many believing Muslims and their overwhelmingly warm and humane culture, I recognise that the Qur’an is the source text that is crucial to us. We do with it what we can. The range of what we’ve done throughout history is astounding.
There is the Islam of the Sultan and the Islam of the Sufi. The Sultan’s rulebook religion, the god-idol that fits into the human mind. And the Sufi’s tradition of peaceful wandering, of poverty, of shrines and poetry, of Qawwali songs and intoxication. It is the latter that attracts me, the Sufi’s but not the Sultan’s Islam. The Islam of Hallaj, not of the authorities who mutilated and murdered him.
If you ask which Islam is inspired by the Qur’an, I must reply that both are.
I am Marxist enough to believe that religions are for the most part products of the material conditions from which they arise. Islam arose from a culture of Beduin raiding and enforced tribal consensus, and yet managed to move beyond this to something new, still pointing further to possibilities for future development. I believe it is possible, but by no means inevitable, for Muslims of the present and future to make an Islamic society better than the society made by the Prophet’s companions.
Amis is at it again. In an essay in the London Times he’s had another rabid go at Islamism. (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article2424020.ece) Previously he has told us that the battle of ideas in the Muslim world is over, and that extremism and literalism have won, everywhere. He’s also told us that a doorkeeper at the Aqsa mosque wanted to kill his mother. His evidence? He just knew it to be so.
We should be thankful, perhaps, that there has been a slight development in his position. This time Amis is able to distinguish, just, between Islamists with a comprehensible agenda like Nasrallah and Ismail Hanniyeh on the one hand and nihilists like Bin Laden on the other. He even begins to recognise that, in Wahhabi-nihilist violence, “what we are witnessing is not spiritual certainty so much as spiritual insecurity and spiritual doubt.” Perhaps there’s hope for him. He may be a rancid Islamophobe and a fiction writer crippled by the contempt in which he holds his characters, but to his credit he has opposed the idiocy of the Iraq war, and he is clearly a clever man. It may be that continually spewing venom about Muslims onto paper will lead eventually to a nuanced perspective on the Muslim world.
But it’s more likely that his commitment to Zionism will stop this happening. His latest essay mocks the third world Arabs for being defeated by little Israel. (But last summer’s war with Hizbullah suggests that the age of defeat is coming to an end.) Amis scorns the Arab world for calling the 1948 catastrophe a catastrophe (nakba), and implies that the ethnic cleansing and occupation of Palestine doesn’t matter, because little Israel covers only 0.6% of Arab land. I’m not sure what he means by Israel here, if the 0.6% of Arab land refers to the borders determined by an imperial United Nations in 1947, or the land captured in 1948, or all of the land now controlled by Israel. The point is that 100% of Palestine has gone. If Amis wants to ignore Palestine and see this in terms of the Arab world, we could ask what percentage of the Anglo-Saxon world is covered by Greater London. The Anglo-Saxon world covers the deserts of Australia and the prairies of Canada, and I’m sure that Greater London makes up less than 0.6% of it. So I presume that if invaders drove out the population of London and made it their exclusive ethnic property, supposedly for all eternity, Amis would not consider this to be a catastrophe. He would sneer at Londoners and their sympathisers for calling it a catastrophe. Of course, London is important not for the amount of space it takes up but for its cultural and economic power. Palestine is holy land for Muslims and Christians too, and is central to Arab history. It is one of the few fertile areas in the Arab world, and it bridges Syria and Egypt.
Peter W. Galbraith writes that Iraq is an artificial creation made up of different ethnic groups. This is true, but Iraq is not alone in its artificiality. All states are artificial in that they have been created by historical process and human machination, not by God or nature, and all contain different ethnic groups. More specifically, the centralised nation state in the Middle East (and Africa and much of Asia) is always artificial because the very concept of the nation state is an import from 19th Century Europe. The borders of every Arab state were determined, suddenly, by imperialism, and not by the long processes of war, negotiation and ideological mythmaking that drew borders in Europe. It is this imperialist division of the Arabs which has led to various forms of pan-Arab nationalism.
The definition of ‘Arab’ has expanded over the last hundred and fifty years from describing tribal nomads as opposed to townsmen, to describing the people of the Arabian peninsula, and then to describe all from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf who share the heritage of the Arabic language.
The Ba’ath Party went so far as to find religious significance in ‘Arab,’ as is evident from the slogan ‘One Arab Nation bearing an Eternal Message.’ The ‘risala’ or message is what Arabs would previously have assumed to be the revelation of the Prophet (more often called Messenger in Arabic) Muhammad. The word used for ‘nation’ is ‘umma’ – a word previously used to denote the international Muslim community. In fact, Ba’athism should be seen as one of the twentieth century’s many attempts to compensate for the collapse of traditional religion (Nazism, Zionism, Stalinism, contemporary Wahhabism and hedonist consumerism are others).