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Is There a Moderate Islam?

Posted By Robert Spencer On March 17, 2010 @ 12:06 am In FrontPage | 29 Comments

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Over at the NewsReal blog they’ve been arguing for several days, while I was flying through the air in a tin can, giving a talk, flying elsewhere in another tin can, etc., over whether or not I am right about the non-existence of moderate Islam. And so now it is time for a Marshall McLuhan moment. If you don’t know what I mean by that, watch this clip.

Here’s the latest: “David Swindle’s Complaint is a Diversion,” by John R. Guardiano at NewsReal, March 15. In it, Guardiano takes issue with Swindle, a fellow NewsReal Blog writer, for saying that he “‘viciously’ and ‘harshly’ attacked Robert Spencer” by apparently calling me “ignorant,” “caricaturing,” and “right-wing.” And Guardiano says:

The bottom line is this: Robert Spencer is a big boy and an accomplished scholar. Surely, he can handle a little mild-mannered criticism. I certainly have nothing against him.

In fact, I respect Mr. Spencer and his work, even if I think (as I do) that he is ultimately and profoundly wrong or mistaken about Islam and the war against radical Islam.

And he adds: “My hope is that we can discuss substantive issues without all this Sturm und Drang over hurt and bruised feelings.”

Absolutely, Mr. Guardiano. My feelings are not now and never have been hurt. I appreciate David Swindle’s defense of my work, but I don’t care what anyone calls me, and I’ve been called far worse than anything John Guardiano has said here. If such things bothered me, I would never have lasted so long doing this work publicly, especially given the viciousness, dishonesty, and taste for ad hominems of the Leftist/jihadist attack machine.

Anyway, to the point: does a moderate Islam — by which I mean a version of Islam that does not teach that believers must make war against unbelievers and subjugate them under the rule of Islamic law — exist at all?

Perhaps Mr. Guardiano would take issue with that definition of moderate Islam. He says here:

But the idea that Islam is inherently threatening and irredeemable also isn’t true. This charge, in fact, is a dangerous and malicious lie. In reality, as Dinesh D’Souza observes in his excellent (albeit much misunderstood) book, The Enemy at Home: the Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11:

The Koran, like the Old Testament, has a number of passages recommending peace and others celebrating the massacre of the enemies of God.

D’Souza doesn’t mention, of course, and probably doesn’t know, that the Qur’an’s violent passages are presented as open-ended commands for believers to wage war against unbelievers, while the Old Testament’s violent passages are specific to particular individuals and situations, and are never presented as open-ended commands to all believers.

Nor does D’Souza ever manifest any awareness of the fact that the Qur’an is not simply a book containing passages with different emphases that are more or less up for grabs as to how believers interpret them. In reality, in stark contrast to the Jewish and Christian traditions that have worked to spiritualize in various ways the violent passages of the Bible, the literal understanding of the violent Qur’anic passages has always held sway in Islamic theology — and they have been considered binding. They are also considered to take precedence over the Qur’an’s more tolerant passages.

Don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what Muslim authorities say:

1. Muhammad’s earliest biographer, a pious Muslim named Ibn Ishaq, explains the progression of Qur’anic revelation about warfare. First, he explains, Allah allowed Muslims to wage defensive warfare. But that was not Allah’s last word on the circumstances in which Muslims should fight. Ibn Ishaq explains offensive jihad by invoking a Qur’anic verse: “Then God sent down to him: ‘Fight them so that there be no more seduction,’ i.e. until no believer is seduced from his religion. ‘And the religion is God’s’, i.e. Until God alone is worshipped.”

The Qur’an verse Ibn Ishaq quotes here (2:193) commands much more than defensive warfare: Muslims must fight until “the religion is God’s” – that is, until Allah alone is worshipped. Ibn Ishaq gives no hint that that command died with the seventh century.

Question for John Guardiano: I take it you believe that Ibn Ishaq was wrong, and misunderstood the true, peaceful teachings of the Qur’an and Muhammad?

2. According to a 20th century Chief Justice of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh ‘Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, “at first ‘the fighting’ was forbidden, then it was permitted and after that it was made obligatory.” He also distinguishes two groups Muslims must fight: “(1) against them who start ‘the fighting’ against you (Muslims) . . . (2) and against all those who worship others along with Allah . . . as mentioned in Surat Al-Baqarah (II), Al-Imran (III) and At-Taubah (IX) . . . and other Surahs (Chapters of the Qur’an).”

Question for John Guardiano: I take it you believe that the Chief Justice of Saudi Arabia also was wrong in thinking that warfare against unbelievers was obligatory, and that he misunderstood the Qur’an?

3. The great medieval scholar Ibn Qayyim (1292-1350) outlines the stages of the Muhammad’s prophetic career: “For thirteen years after the beginning of his Messengership, he called people to God through preaching, without fighting or Jizyah, and was commanded to restrain himself and to practice patience and forbearance. Then he was commanded to migrate, and later permission was given to fight. Then he was commanded to fight those who fought him, and to restrain himself from those who did not make war with him. Later he was commanded to fight the polytheists until God’s religion was fully established.”

The idea that one must fight the “polytheists” until “God’s religion was fully established” was understood throughout Islamic history as referring to a responsibility Muslims had as an umma to wage war against unbelievers until Sharia was established over them. This was the impetus for the jihadist incursions into North Africa, Europe, Persia, India and elsewhere. Question for John Guardiano: I take it you think that all that was wrong, and was based on a mistaken understanding of the Qur’an and Islam?

4. Al-Suyuti says that the Verse of the Sword (9:5) abrogates no less than 124 more peaceful and tolerant verses of the Qur’an. Tafsir al-Jalalayn asserts that the Qur’an’s ninth sura “was sent down when security was removed by the sword.” Ibn Kathir declares that Qur’an 9:5 “abrogated every agreement of peace between the Prophet and any idolater, every treaty, and every term….No idolater had any more treaty or promise of safety ever since Surah Bara’ah [the ninth sura] was revealed.” Ibn Juzayy agrees: the Verse of the Sword’s purpose is “abrogating every peace treaty in the Qur’an.”

None of them say that the Verse of the Sword applies only to the seventh century.

Question for John Guardiano: I take it that you believe that all these Islamic scholars misunderstood the Qur’an and formulated Islamic teaching incorrectly as a result?

5. A Shafi’i manual of Islamic law that in 1991 was certified by the highest authority in Sunni Islam, Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community.” This manual, ‘Umdat al-Salik (available in English as Reliance of the Traveller), spends a considerable amount of time explaining jihad as “war against non-Muslims.” It spells out the nature of this warfare in quite specific terms: “the caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians . . . until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax.” It adds a comment by a Jordanian jurist that corresponds to Muhammad’s instructions to call the unbelievers to Islam before fighting them: the caliph wages this war only “provided that he has first invited [Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians] to enter Islam in faith and practice, and if they will not, then invited them to enter the social order of Islam by paying the non-Muslim poll tax (jizya) . . . while remaining in their ancestral religions.” Also, it says if there is no caliph, Muslims must still wage jihad.

Question for John Guardiano: I take it you believe that the imams of Al-Azhar were wrong and misunderstood Islam when they certified this book as a reliable guide to the true teachings of Sunni Islam?

But perhaps Mr. Guardiano will dislike those questions, for he goes on to say this:

This is not to say that Islam is a religion of peace. Rather it is to say that Islam is far more rich and complicated than the simple caricature of Islam created by vehement right-wing critics like Robert Spencer at Jihad Watch, Andrew McCarthy at National Review Online, and yes, my colleague here at NewsReal Blog, John L. Work. [...]

A better approach would be to follow the counsel of Islamic scholar Daniel Pipes. Pipes urges Western leaders to encourage and promote moderate Islamic thinking and scholarship. This to help promote a moderate reformation of Islam.

But to follow this approach, you first have to believe that Islam has an inherent truth which is worth explicating and developing. I believe that it does; my right-wing critics believe otherwise; and therein lies the crux of our dispute.

Islam has an “inherent truth”? I can’t see anyone but a believer in Islam affirming that, so Mr. Guardiano and I do indeed part company on that one. But in any case, he seems to be saying that Islam is not a religion of peace, but that he thinks it can change, and that I think it cannot change. Actually, I have never said that it cannot change, but any realistic appraisal of the prospects for Islamic reform has to take into account such impediments to change as the content of the Qur’an and Sunnah, its traditional interpretation by the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the death penalty for those who engage in heresy or innovation, and the closure of the gate of ijtihad.

For example, Guardiano quotes Daniel Pipes invoking the Sudanese reformer Mahmud Muhammad Taha, but fails to add that Taha was executed for heresy. In fact, all of the quotations he uses from Pipes show Pipes arguing that moderate Islam can exist, not that it exists now. Guardiano also apparently doesn’t know that Pipes has said: “Robert Spencer and I have discussed the perceived differences in our view of Islam. He and I concluded that, although we have different emphases – he deals more with scriptures, I more with history – we have no disagreements.”

Anyway, I hope Mr. Guardiano can handle a little mild-mannered criticism, and look forward to his substantive response to these points.


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