Muslims & Reform
by Godfrey H. Jansen.
Harper & Row. 224 pp. $8.95.
Islam, like Judaism, is both a faith and a way of life, and as with Judaism, the way of life has in recent times been severely reduced by the pressures and allure of modernity. In both religions, an orthodox minority clings to the traditional way of life, making as few changes as possible; others give it up altogether; and in between, still others attempt to reform it and reconcile it with the requirements of modern living.
For no apparent reason, Godfrey H. Jansen refers to the efforts of the last-named group, the Muslim reformers, as “militant Islam”; most of this book analyzes the consequences of their “willingness to rethink Islam in modern terms.” Accordingly, its title notwithstanding, Militant Islam ignores Muslim military efforts (such as those under way in Afghanistan and the Philippines); the fundamentalist Islamic movement led by the Ayatollah Khomeini; extremist groups (strongest in Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia); and the recent attempt by Muslim leaders to mold the Muslim world into a bloc. Jansen dwells instead on the
sincere attempt by leaders, some of them men of religion, some of them religious laymen for whom religion is a living, vital faith, to remodel their public and private life—politics, economics, law, social mores—according to the precepts of their faith.
Before dealing with reform Islam today, Jansen takes up two preliminary subjects, the religion of Islam and the challenge to it by Europe and modernity. To begin with, he outlines the basic precepts of Islam and describes some of its most powerful features, such as the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, “the largest multinational gathering of human beings on the face of the earth today”; the “simplicity and practicality and adaptability” of Islam; and the Sufi (mystical) brotherhoods which, according to him, have performed three crucial tasks in recent centuries:
They prevented Islam from becoming a cold and formal doctrine, keeping it alive as an intimate, compassionate faith; they were mainly responsible for spreading the faith in east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa; and they were among the foremost leaders in Islam’s military and political battles against the encroaching power of the Christian West.
The challenge of the Christian West and Muslim responses to it make up the second preliminary topic. Activities by Christian missionaries and direct European political control over Muslim lands have long been recognized as threats to Muslim culture. But more than these, Jansen argues, it was the colonialist elimination of Islam from the classroom that imperiled the faith. This policy was most consistently pursued in Algeria, where the French had some success in eradicating the Arabic language and emasculating Islam.
European challenges forced Muslims to reconsider some aspects of their religion, but, Jansen holds, “Islam does not as yet seem to have found an answer to the overall challenge of Western civilization and modernization.” This failure follows from the fact that until recently most Muslim leaders were either secular nationalists, interested in Islam only to exploit it for political purposes (Bhutto and Sadat come to mind), or ulema (Muslim men of religion) who had too little experience of the modern world to come to terms with it.
Of late, however, efforts to rethink Islam have increased; the last part of the book explores these. The reformist groups who are the heroes of Militant Islam include the Muslim Brethren in Egypt, al-Maududi’s Jama’at-i Islami in Pakistan, and “with reservations, the Libya of Colonel Qaddafi,” as well as others in Morocco, Jordan, Iran, and Indonesia:
These men and groups, though Westernized are not Westernizers but modernizers; though Islamic believers, they are not fundamentalists but reformers. . . . What unifies them is an attempt to make Islam, which is indubitably alive today, relevant to the special needs of today.
Jansen sympathetically reviews the activities and doctrines of these groups and takes it upon himself to convince Western readers that their efforts are “laudable or at least understandable.”
Jansen packs a great deal of information into two hundred pages; indeed, the wealth of detail, ranging across the full extent of the Muslim world, is the most valuable aspect of the book. Yet the abundance of information cannot be relied upon; serious mistakes and dubious assertions occur every few pages. Two examples: “inter-Muslim wars have been surprisingly few,” a bizarre statement coming from anyone who has so much as leafed through a book on the history of Muslims. Or, listing Muslim military reverses before 1500, Jansen ignores the Mongol catastrophe of the 13th century, when a majority of Muslims came under alien rule, with incalculable consequences for Islam.
Modern history receives equally cavalier treatment. How can “every single Muslim state” except Egypt be the sworn enemy of Israel when Turkey maintains diplomatic relations with Israel and numerous black African Muslim states did so too until pressured by the Arabs to break them off? How can Palestine be an exception to the general pattern of Muslim leaders’ spearheading the struggle against Europeans when Hajj Amin al-Husaini, Mufti of Jerusalem and head of the Supreme Muslim Council from 1922 to 1937, was for long the preeminent Arab leader against Jews and the British? The ulema, we are told, “are a respected body of men in every Muslim country except Turkey and possibly Afghanistan and South Yemen”; what, then, of Albania and Guinea, both two-thirds Muslim, in one of which the ulema have been utterly eliminated and in the other repressed far more severely than in Turkey?
On a lesser level but also distressing, the author persistently mistranslates Arabic words; perhaps the most amusing is “the Society of the Muslim Brothers,” which comes out in his Arabic as “the Magazine of the Muslim Brothers.” Dozens of minor factual and typographical errors dot the book’s pages, further eroding confidence in Jansen’s reliability.
While the preceding are merely errors of fact, Jansen’s more general pronouncements on Islam are even more untrustworthy. The statement that “all Muslim monarchies, whatever their pretensions to religiosity, have been totally unIslamic” implies that Islam requires a republic and forbids the passing on of political power within a family. Not only is this nonsense for Sunni Islam (which has no rules for choosing a leader), but it ignores the fact that some Shi is believe in divine kingship (as in Yemen until 1962) and their religious doctrines require monarchism.
A final preposterous statement: in order to modernize Islam, Jansen says that Muslims must cast out the dogma that “every single word of the Qur’an is of divine inspiration.” Yet the several attempts to do just this (mostly notably by Taha Hussein in Egypt, an incident of which Jansen apparently has not heard) have met with thundering rejection, and for good reason. The truth of the Qur’an cannot be called into question by Muslims in the way that Jews and Christians question the Bible. The Qur’an is more than the Bible; it is the ultimate fact of Islam, comparable to the Covenant in Judaism or Jesus in Christianity—the element without which there simply is no religion. The Qur’an is Islam. Calling it into question strikes at the roots of the faith, something no believer can tolerate.
Jansen persistently asks Westerners to understand Islam, yet he approves of Muslim intolerance toward the West. While he derides as an “atavistic stereotype” the 19th-century European image of “licentious Turks lolling in the harem with their odalisques,” he condones the equally shallow Muslim view of the West “as a source of decadence and muddled values.”
Perhaps most indicative of the disturbing and unsatisfactory nature of this book is the passage in which Jansen urges that writers on Islam declare their interest. He calls for this because he suspects that scholars who favor Israel (he specifically mentions Bernard Lewis) are not objective when it comes to Islam. Their alleged mischief is all the greater because nothing external gives them away:
The Arab authors, of course, stand out because of their names, and their works tend to be taken automatically as being partisan and propagandist. Such is not the case with the Israeli or pro-Israeli writer: their [sic] works are accepted as the product of objective scholarship, which in very many cases, they are not.
Aside from the obnoxious assumption that pro-Israel sentiment implies a bias against Islam, this argument reads most strangely in the light of the following facts: Godfrey H. Jansen is a citizen of India and a Muslim. He is undoubtedly aware that his name makes him appear British and Christian, and surely he knows that his book would be taken differently if his identity were revealed, yet he does nothing to advise the reader of it. In view of the passage quoted above, Jansen’s silence borders on duplicity.
Absorbed with efforts to reconcile Islam with modernity, Jansen ignores the really significant new trends in Islam: Muslim militancy against non-Muslims (as in Chad, Lebanon, Eritrea, the Ogaden, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Thailand, the Philippines, as well as against Israel and India) and Muslim militancy against Western cultural influences in order wholly to reestablish the Muslim way of life (a movement exemplified by the Ayatollah Khomeini). A book on the recent changes in the Muslim world would indeed merit the title Mititant Islam, but this is regrettably not the book Jansen has written.