Book looks at jihad and modernity
By Reuel S. Amdur - The Arab American News | Friday, 07.25.2008, 10:05 PM

Noorani's book hits many of the commonly-made points.  The extremism among some Muslims as a consequence of the creation of Israel and the ongoing depredations of Israel against the Palestinians. The primacy of the greater jihad over the lesser.  The scriptural limitations on the lesser jihad (war), limitations which relate to self-defense only. 


The author, an Indian lawyer and political commentator, is not kind to fatwas, commenting that a fatwa "is a mere legal opinion," and charging that fatwas have often been issued at the behest of authoritarian politicians.  "As with the jihad, so with the fatwa.  It is politics, not religion, which inspires cries of jihad and declaration of fatwas, exposing both to ridicule and Islam to misunderstanding and misrepresentation."

In his review and critique of fundamentalism, Noorani points to such reactionary traits not only in Islam but also in Christianity, Judaism, and other religions as well.  Contrary to the views of fundamentalists and extremists, he argues that Islam "does not provide for the institutions of government, for these vary with time, whereas the fundamentals of the faith are valid for all time."  He beat Tarek Fatah to the punch in referring to "this mirage of the Islamic State." 


Noorani finds justification for human rights and social reform in the Qur'an, and he cites Ashar Ali Engineer as providing a liberation theology for Islam.  In contrast with the idea of alms, "a liberation theologian in a modern industrial society would interpret it to mean creation of a socialistic structure with emphasis on equal distribution of all available resources." 


Perhaps the strongest section of the book is the discussion of the challenge of modernity.  He quotes Soheib Bencheikh, a French mufti, who calls for "a return to the text, and a re-reading with new intelligence, and the culture and concerns of man today."  Thus, the idea of cutting off the hand of a thief is rejected, as another theologian, Maulana Maoududi, argues that such a punishment would only be justified in an Islamic state that had eliminated want.  (The reference to an Islamic state indicates that Maududi does not agree with Noorami about the "mirage.") 


While there are four recognized schools of thought in Sunni Islam, Noorami cites Syed Ahmad Khan who condemned them for proceeding from, as Noorani put it, "an uncritical reliance on hadith, which. . . led to the closing of the gates of ijtihad (reason)."  Noorami charges that the dead weight of traditional Islamic thought has led to little progress since the medieval period, with inadequate attention to the principle of ijtihad. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani complained that for the ulema, the clergy, science stopped with Aristotle, with later scientists such as Galileo and Newton considered to be "infidels." 


Interestingly, Noorani quotes modernistic remarks made by Hoj. Sayyed Muhammad Khatami, the former Iranian president.  Unfortunately, he was not able to make headway with such views in his country because more reactionary ayatollahs had power over him. 


This book gets off to a rather slow start, skipping from writer to writer, especially when discussing the meaning of jihad, but it becomes much more interesting as one goes further into it, especially with the discussion of the challenge of modernity, which may well be the major challenge facing Islam today.

By Reuel S. Amdur - The Arab American News

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