Originally published in The Islamic Monthly
by Hasan Azad
In the wake of the Paris attacks on November 13, and in the wake of previous (and future?) attacks in the West, “Is Islam violent?” is being posed less and less as a genuine question, and more and more as a rhetorical one, which already assumes the answer: Islam is inherently violent.
The assumption is, of course, that the Other of Islam, “we,” “the West,” and its guiding doctrine of secularism, is/are inherently non-violent. It is telling that comparable questions — “Is secularism violent?” “Is democracy violent?” “Is atheism violent?” (all three of which are constituent elements of the Western imaginary) — cannot be even imagined. Philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) argues that every age is defined by the questions it asks, because each age is defined by certain parameters of thought that permit only certain kinds of questions.
This is the age of (Western) secularism. This is the age of (Western) democracy. This is the age of (Western) atheism. All other modes of being and thinking are necessarily illegitimate. All other modes of being and thinking are necessarily incompatible in this modern world whose parameters are set for us by an ascendant West and its styles and modes of being and thinking. And the parameters decide for us that the West is inherently good and non-violent — or, in keeping with that, any violence that is resorted to by the West is done so out of sheer necessity and for the greater good — and religion, and in particular Islam, is inherently violent.
Part of the myth of religious violence (as William Cavanaugh calls it in his book The Myth of Religious Violence), assumes that religions — especially Islam — are inherently violent.
And yet, to say that religions — or Islam — exist(s) is the same as saying that physics exists, that chemistry exists, that biology exists. They are no more than discursive practices and formations — regimes — of knowledge that constitute individuals, people, organizations and how they interact with one another.
There is an extensive body of literature describing the invention of world religions by colonial projects. At the same time that colonialism arrived in the colonies, it set out to know the people, their “religions,” their “cultures” — thereby actually creating these knowledges. And we know from the French philosopher Michel Foucault that knowledge and power are inseparable, each constituting the other. Thus, where knowledge and categories didn’t exist, Orientalists created them. In British India, for example, Hinduism was invented by Orientalism, and “Islam” was significantly constituted and re-configured by Orientalists as well.
The history of “the West’s” engagement with and constitution of Islam and Muslims is a long one, and has also been extensively documented. What has been less well documented is how Muslims and Islam are constituted in contemporary times by Western power structures and discursive regimes. Islam historically, until today, served as a vitally important foil — the Other — against which the West measured itself. “We are everything they are not.”
What do I mean? I’m thinking of, for example, the War on, or of, Terror (I say the War on, or of, Terror precisely because it is experienced as a War of Terror by many thousands of people — Muslims — around the world. When Afghan carpet weavers are incorporating motifs of drones into their rugs, there is something terribly amiss.) The Middle East Eye reported that, in March, “the Washington DC-based Physicians for Social Responsibility … released a landmark study concluding that the death toll from 10 years of the ‘War on Terror’ since the 9/11 attacks is at least 1.3 million, and could be as high as 2 million. The 97-page report by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctors’ group is the first to tally up the total number of civilian casualties from US-led counter-terrorism interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Of course, this report didn’t even get a passing mention in mainstream news outlets.
None of this is normal.
And yet, that is exactly what the War on, or of, Terror has done. It has normalized war — violence — against primarily civilian populations in the name of some unseen threat of terrorism, ad infinitum, until the end of time.
And Western governments are as much to blame as non-Western governments. Various forms of liberties are being curtailed at home and abroad in the name of the War on/of Terror to silence dissent.
But this isn’t going to be just a diatribe against various governments in the West and the non-West. There is a group called ISIS/ISIL that is doing all sorts of unimaginable things in the name of Islam. As shocking as it may seem for me to make this claim, ISIS/ISIL is not a great aberration. Rather it draws its inspiration from Wahhabism, a fundamentally anti-intellectual tradition.
Ibn Abdul Wahhab lived from 1703 to 1792 and founded the tradition based on the idea that, over the centuries, Islam has been corrupted and changed by so-called Muslims from a religion of pure monotheism to a superstitious culture of saint- and grave-worship. (This is how Wahhabis characterize Sufism, the central dimension of Islam that the vast majority of Muslims throughout Islamic history practiced.)
According to Wahhabism, 14 centuries of science, arts, literature, philosophy, religious and non-religious scholarship — all aspects of Islamic civilization, or any civilization for that matter — are fundamentally corrupt and must be done away with. Anything not explicitly sanctioned by the Prophet of Islam is considered an innovation (bida) that must be purified — far too often by violently removing it from the face of the earth.
The Saudi royal family, which goes back to Muhammad Ibn Saud (d.1765), a tribal chief of Diriyyah (near present day Riyadh), struck a deal with Abdul Wahhab, who would be given sponsorship in lands under Ibn Saud’s rule while also giving religious legitimacy to Ibn Saud’s political authority.
Wahhabis then went into towns and cities and summarily put to the sword anyone who did not affirm their doctrine. Noted scholar of Islam, Khaled Abou El Fadl, in his book The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists writes: “Historical sources describe horrendous massacres committed by Wahhabi forces in the eighteenth century all across Arabia.” The Saud-Wahhab alliance became the cornerstone of the present Saudi kingdom, established in 1932 with the long-term support of the British, who had wanted to gain a foothold in Arabia and destroy the Ottoman caliphate (both had been achieved by then).
Fast forward to the present. ISIS/ISIL has been systematically butchering Christians despite their designation in the Quran as “People of the Book” (also accorded to Jews). ISIS/ISIL Wahhabis argue that the Jews and Christians whom God refers to in the Quran are not the same as Jews and Christians today. Christians today worship Jesus and Mary. They are therefore idolaters. And idolaters must either become Muslim or they must die.
This is nonsense. In the Prophet’s lifetime, and in the lifetimes of his companions who took over the first Islamic State after his death, Muslims signed treaties with Jews and Christians, and their lives and property were considered inviolable.
In the name of purifying Islam of “idols,” the Saudi government has been systematically demolishing major sites of Islamic heritage in Mecca and Medina, such as the graves of important Islamic personages. There has also long been serious talk of destroying the Prophet’s tomb, which according to Wahhabi doctrine would constitute an “idol,” but they haven’t yet done so, no doubt over fear of major backlash from Muslims worldwide. In these sites’ place, the government has been erecting enormous monuments to the grossest forms of materialism. Mecca — Islam’s holiest city — today stands as a surrealist Muslim vision of Islamic-Vegas.
With mirror-image zeal, ISIS/ISIL has been demolishing major sites of religious and cultural significance. Although it doesn’t have the money to erect its own idols to capitalism and consumerism, there has been some speculation that what money ISIS does have — and it is not insignificant — has been coming from Saudi coffers. According to an analysis by The Atlantic, U.S. lawmakers encouraged officials in Riyadh to arm Syrian rebels.
Describing the “signs” of the end of times, the Prophet Muhammad once said:
"There will come a time for my people when nothing of the Qur'an will remain except its outward form, and nothing of Islam will remain except its name - and they will call themselves by this name. Even though they will be people furthest away from it."
ISIS is the black-and-white, blood-soaked face of a religion with no historical or intellectual substance, one that bears no resemblance to the Islam it’s trying to replace or the Islam it’s seeking to recreate. At the very least, then, we may hope and pray (and act in our individual and collective ways) that — as with all things — ISIS too will pass.
“Is Islam Violent?” (which is set to be the defining question of our times) is rooted in a worldview whereby secularism/the West is seen as inherently conducive to people’s wellbeing, while Islam is seen as inherently antithetical to it. The West — which sees itself as the beacon of democracy and secularism — supports dictatorial regimes that have Wahhabism as their state policy. At the same time, the highest ranks in ISIS/ISIL belong to former members of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’ath party. In other words, the vacuum created in Iraq by the U.S.-led offensive from 2003 to 2011 in effect created the very conditions for ISIS/ISIL to erupt from the bosom of a devastated region.
So is it Islam that is really violent? Or is it our Western idea of how people in other countries must live to serve our interests at home that is violent?
Originally published in Religion Dispatches
by Hasan Azad
The latest gruesome video released by ISIS showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff, just thirteen days after the execution of James Foley, is a stark reminder – if such reminders are necessary – of the blood-thirsty brutality of ISIS.
ISIS’s flag is black and white, the perfect colors for a group that seeks to implement “Islam,” which it sets against a world of disbelief (kufr). Christians, who’ve been living amongst Muslims for over fourteen centuries (though members of ISIS are anything but historians) must either convert to Islam, pay the tax (jizya), or die.
It appears, though, that Christians are being killed despite having paid the jizya, which historically ensured that non-Muslims were protected by the State, and were free to practice their religion. If CNN reports are to be believed, Christian men are being beheaded, as are children, and the women are being taken as wives by ISIS members. If such reports are true, these acts are in major contravention of the most basic precepts of Islamic rule. But then again we are dealing with a group that draws its inspiration from Wahhabism, a fundamentally anti-intellectual tradition.
Taking its name from its founder Ibn Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792), Wahhabism is based on the idea that Islam has been corrupted over the centuries; that Islam has been changed by so-called Muslims from a religion of pure monotheism, to a superstitious culture of saint- and grave-worship. (Which is how Sufism, the central dimension of Islam, practiced by the vast majority of Muslims through the longue durée of Islamic history, is characterized by Wahhabis.)
Wahhabism asserts that the fourteen centuries of science, arts, literature, philosophy, religious scholarship, and non-religious scholarship – all aspects of Islamic civilization, or any civilization for that matter – are fundamentally corrupt and must be done away with. Anything that has not been explicitly sanctioned by the Prophet of Islam is considered an innovation (bida) destined for hell that therefore must be purified – far too often by violently removing it from the face of the earth.
The Saudi royal family, which goes back to Muhammad Ibn Saud (d.1765), a tribal chief of Diriyyah (near present day Riyadh), struck a deal with Abdul Wahhab. Abdul Wahhab would be given sponsorship in lands under Ibn Saud’s rule, while Abdul Wahhab would give religious legitimacy to Ibn Saud’s political authority.
The Wahhabi conquest of Arabia that followed saw Wahhabis going into towns and cities and summarily putting to the sword anyone who did not affirm the Wahhabi doctrine. “Historical sources describe horrendous massacres committed by Wahhabi forces in the eighteenth century all across Arabia,” writes noted scholar of Islam, Khaled Abou El-Fadl, in his book The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. Ibn Saud and Abdul Wahhab’s alliance eventually became the cornerstone of the present Saudi kingdom, established in 1932 with the long-term support of the British, who had wanted to gain a foothold in Arabia, and to destroy the Ottoman caliphate (both of which had been achieved by then).
Fast forward to the present. ISIS is systematically butchering Christians despite their Quranic designation as “People of the Book” – a special status also accorded to Jews. The argument that Wahhabis of ISIS’s stripe put forward is: The Jews and Christians that God refers to in the Quran are not the same as Jews and Christians today. Christians today worship Jesus and Mary. They are therefore idolaters. And idolaters must either become Muslim or they must die.
This is terrible nonsense. In the Prophet’s own lifetime, and in the lifetimes of his companions who took over the first Islamic State following his death, Muslims signed treaties with Jews and Christians, and their lives and property were considered inviolable.
ISIS is also butchering Shias and Yazidis. The Wahhabi position is that The Shia are not really Muslims, they venerate Ali (the Prophet’s son-in-law) while undermining the Prophet, so off with their heads!
As for the second group, they are considered devil-worshippers, so it’s perfectly fine to let them die of thirst on the mountains. What a tragic reversal of history. Early on in his career, the Prophet and his young community were forced out of Mecca by the imposition of economic and social sanctions by the Quraysh (the mortal enemies of Islam) and they had to live in conditions of virtual starvation for three years in a gorge. It was hoped that they would just die of hunger and thirst.
The Saudi government has, in the name of purifying Islam of “idols,” systematically been demolishing major sites of Islamic heritage throughout Mecca and Medina, such as the graves of vitally important Islamic personages. (Although they haven’t yet been able to do so, no doubt from fear of a major backlash from Muslims across the globe, there has long been serious talk of destroying the Prophet’s tomb – again, because, according to Wahhabi doctrine, it constitutes an “idol.”) In their place, the Saudi government has been erecting enormous monuments to the grossest form of materialism.
With mirror image zeal, ISIS has been demolishing major sites of religious importance, including the Prophet Seth’s shrine. Although it doesn’t have the money to erect its own idols to capitalism and consumerism, what money ISIS does have – and it is not insignificant – appears to be coming from Saudi coffers.
Describing the “signs” of the end of times, the Prophet said:
There will come a time for my people when nothing of the Quran will remain except its outward form, and nothing of Islam will remain except its name – and they will call themselves by this name, even though they will be people furthest from it.
ISIS is the black and white, blood-soaked face of a fallen Islam with no historical or intellectual substance; an Islam that bears no resemblance to the Islam it’s trying to replace, or the Islam that it’s seeking to recreate. At the very least, then, we may hope and pray (and act in our individual and collective ways) that – as with all things – ISIS too will pass.
by Hasan Azad
Originally published in Al Jazeera
What do the Islamic State, Boko Haram and the Taliban all have in common? Extremism? Caliphatism? Violence? All these things are merely incidental to these groups. What is essential to them is that they are all thoroughly modern formations. So what do I mean by this, given that they tend to strike us as the very antithesis of modernity?
First of all, it is crucial to ask ourselves what it is that we understand by modernity. We assume that modernity means reason, science, freedom, justice, racial, gender, and sexual equality. These are the assumptions. They are the ideals that are projected by a strident western discourse, where the West is seen as their progenitor and purveyor.
Perhaps it will strike the reader as a little odd if I say that these ideals are far from being realised within the West. That there are massive inequalities of sexualities, of genders and of races in the West. That western freedom, whether political, economic or consumerist, comes at the expense of the freedom of people living in non-western countries.
And this lack of freedom runs far and deep, reaching into the history of how non-European people were made to think during colonial times. For example, any serious study of the history of colonialism and its educational projects in its colonies reveals the extent to which Europe reconfigured indigenous modes of knowing with its own mode of thinking - a manner of thinking which has its roots in the Enlightenment, with its own idiosyncratic means of reasoning.
This reasoning - which is riddled with inner contradictions and inconsistencies - is placed over the rest of the world as a hegemonic narrative (discourse is French philosopher Michel Foucault's choice of word), according to which the rest of the world's rationality is measured.
But what does all of this have to do with the violence of our above-mentioned groups? Surely violence is violence and I'm certainly not arguing for a relativistic understanding of what constitutes right and wrong in the name of an idiosyncratic logic?
My argument rests on two central areas of discussion, which have to be carefully reflected upon: 1) the colonial reconfiguration of the institution of sharia and 2) the inherent conditions of the modern state.
The historic institution of sharia
Renowned historian of sharia Wael Hallaq, has perhaps definitively described the far-reaching changes brought about by colonialism to the historic institution of sharia - an institution that was fundamentally rooted in the people, and was profoundly ethical in nature.
The historic sharia was not punitive. It is important to appreciate the history of sharia because the efforts of modern groups at establishing an Islamic state revolve around the desire to implement sharia. Hence, much of their violence may be traced back to their understanding of what sharia entails, both now and under the aegis of a dream Islamic state.
The purpose of premodern sharia was to bring about communal cohesion, through local qadis or judges - who were not affiliated with the state in any way - and their mediation between and for aggrieved parties. In premodern times, the punishments we are now conditioned to instantly associate with sharia were rarely, if ever, carried out.
To repeat, sharia was a fundamentally ethical institution, whose central purpose was the maintenance of social harmony, based on love and trust within and between communities and towards God.
So what are we witnessing today? As a result of the colonial dismantling of the historic institutions of sharia - which included the waqfs or endowments and the madrassa or religious schools - and their replacement with European legal codes, sharia ceased to be studied and practised in the manner it had been for centuries previously.
Imagine modern medicine trying to function without multi-billion dollar investment in research, the institutions of doctors, nurses and hospitals, all working at various levels, with hundreds of thousands of women and men being trained in modern medical logic and methodology each year. Without all of this, the very institution of modern medicine would be reduced to little more than quackery. What remains of the institution of sharia?
In addition to the dismantling of the financial institutions that supported the study and cultivation of sharia, like any vibrant branch of knowledge, the tradition of Muslim parents sending their brightest children to madrassa, in order to become Islamic legal scholars is a thing of the past.
And although it is not the case that all who do study sharia today are dunces, the long history of serious intellectual engagement by amply capable people has been affected by the colonial displacement of traditional learning by modern Western education. Hence the now proverbial emphasis on the brightest in the Muslim world becoming doctors and engineers. Incidentally, it appears that a large proportion of our would-be Islamists have engineering degrees.
Sharia and the modern state
The modern state has become the most normalised and natural of political formations, and yet there is hardly anything natural or inevitable about it. It came about due to a cluster of historic events in Europe - not least of which was diplomacy between European powers competing for the wealth of the colonies. The modern state has particular form-properties, as described by Hallaq in his Impossible State, the centralisation of the law being one of its most far-reaching aspects.
When sharia is reconfigured according to the logic of the modern state - remember that the sharia was never centralised in premodern times - then it follows a one-size-for-all logic. Under the conditions of the modern state, people's thinking about the sharia itself becomes that of do's and don'ts, and, most significantly, of punishment.
Thus sharia becomes a system of punishment where the most extreme punishments are meted out, or are dreamed of being meted out, en masse, with no sense of differentiation and contextualisation, as was the case with the premodern sharia, and this is true whether the law is implemented by a sophisticated state apparatus in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Brunei, or by the Islamic State group - formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - Boko Haram and the Taliban, who use a more ad hoc method.
It is for this reason that Hallaq argues that the Islamic state is a contradiction in terms. An Islamic order, as exemplified by the premodern sharia described above, is fundamentally ethical; while the modern state is only incidentally moral, if not in fact amoral or immoral.
And this, therefore, is my point. These groups are not primitive barbarians seeking to return to a primeval age - despite their wanting to return to what we now know is a fictitious past. They are fundamentally modern, and they are products of modernity. Therefore their thinking is inescapably modern and post-colonial - in the sense of being unconsciously inflected by the history of colonialism - even though we struggle to find any family resemblances between them and ourselves. They are, in the words of political theorist Roxanne Euben, the "enemy in the mirror".
That is, there are aspects of ourselves within them, and aspects of them within us. Though, whether we choose to see this and seek to readdress things accordingly is another matter entirely.
Originally published in The Huffington Post
by Hasan Azad
My friend Sim is a strapping young man in his 20s. He is fitter than I could ever dream of becoming. Sim has run in the New York marathon for two years in a row, and hopes to run in many more to come. When you meet Sim you’re immediately struck by the warmth of his smile. Opinions are unanimous, Sim has a heart of gold — and the good looks to go with it!
Sim was recently flying back to New York from visiting with his parents in Texas, when the chipper middle-aged Texan lady sitting next to him asked in the most disarmingly matter-of-fact manner that only Texans are capable of, “You’re not a Muslim are you?” A question possibly prompted by Sim’s full-length beard and turban. When he responded, “No, I’m Sikh,” the woman was visibly relieved, so much so she hugged Sim (short for Simran, in case you’re wondering), adding “I’m so glad you’re not a Muslim. They want to take over America with ‘Siran’!” Simran, being the gentleman that he is, smiled politely, but later revealed to me that he had no idea how to respond to the exchange. And it’s true, it wasn’t a “simple” exchange that had occurred, which could or should be explained away as another example (and aren’t there so many?) of unwitting Texan folk who can’t tell the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim.
Admittedly, there is the initial (perhaps inevitable) surface explanation: Muslim men and Sikh men look so alike. It’s very easy to mistake one for the other. And we cannot forget the terrible repercussions of such misapprehensions (as with the murder of Balbir Singh four days after 9/11 by “a patriotic American”; and the mass shooting at a Sikh temple just in August of this year).
But then a little beyond the surface explanation lies something much more disconcerting. What if Simran had been a Muslim? What would the chipper Texan woman’s response have been then? “Oh, you’re Muslim! You Muslims want to take over America with ‘Siran’!” Perhaps there wouldn’t have been any verbal response, but just a worried sucking-in-of-air and pursing-of-lips, followed by a deathly silence? However, what could be said for certain is that a hug would not have been forthcoming!
So what does this all mean? What does it mean for an average, middle-aged lady from Texas to embrace a Sikh man, and at the same time declare Muslims to be hell-bent on taking over America with “Siran”? It perhaps doesn’t require an opinion piece to reveal that a hug is a universal sign of affection, conveying for Simran all kinds of meaning: “You’re one of us!” “You’re not one of them!” “I’m so sorry that I could even think that you were Muslim!” “I’m so embarrassed!” “I’m so relieved!” (“And you’re so very handsome!”)
But what are we to make of this mythical “Siran”? Is it a simple case of the Texan lady’s mixing of Iran with a dash of S-haria? A terrible brew of Syria and Iran? Perhaps we will never know. What “Siran” does convey though is the fear of the Other, the unknown Other. So much so that we don’t even know its proper name. What we do know, however (that is, the camp who doesn’t know who “Siran” is), is that it is the ne’er-do-well (dare we say “evil”?), evil power that is behind Muslim plots to take over America, the country that symbolizes for so many the principles of freedom, liberty and civilization. The Other, by definition, is not one of us. He, she, it is everything that we are not. The Other is against freedom, against liberty, against civilization.
And this is where the true problem lies as far as Muslims, real flesh-and-blood Muslims of America, the Millions of Muslim Americans who identify with a faith tradition of 1.5 billion flesh-and-blood Muslims who have chosen to make virtually every corner of the world their home: they are part of the intricate, complex, beautiful, exasperating, wondrous, paradoxical, loving (enter your choicest adjectives here) tapestry of humanity. To seek to cut them out is fundamentally impossible. But even to imagine cutting them out by turning to medieval notions of “us” vs. “them” (which was to a degree possible during the middle ages, but certainly not in this age of the global village), is to cut out a portion of our own humanity. We are who we are, in the truest deepest sense, as a result of our coming to know each other — in the truest, deepest sense.
So, without lingering further on the unconscious media-garbled fears that the Texan lady may have been channeling, I’d like to conclude with two observations: One of the greatest problems facing humanity today is the glut of misinformation and half-truths that so many media outlets rely on for their revenue (not to mention political and big business interests that rely on the same misinformation for their own ends).
The second observation is more of a dream (which is not entirely divorced from reality, as it has, on occasion, been known to happen). When chipper, but somewhat ill-informed, Texans meet men (or women) whom they think are Muslim, and upon inquiry find out that they are indeed Muslim, rather than inwardly recoiling (or even outwardly manifesting their horror) at the prospect of coming face-to-face with a Muslim, they seek to go beyond themselves. That is, they attempt to go beyond the limiting identities that they have assumed for themselves in such situations (American/Western, as opposed to non-Western; modern, as opposed to anti-modern; freedom loving, as opposed to freedom hating, and so forth). In so doing they reach out to the Muslim, human, person sitting across from them and begin: “You’re Muslim! I’ve heard so much about Muslims, but I’ve always wanted speak to a Muslim in the flesh-and-blood! Perhaps this is my lucky day?”
A conversation ensues...
We continue to have the audacity to believe that there is something redemptive and transformative about a genuine human-to-human encounter, that the recognition of our mutual humanity can cut through echoes of hatred and prejudice.