Frankness, Sadness and Hope
By Alan Race

“We can only see into each other’s souls if we take the trouble – and sometimes the risk – to visit each other” (p. 252).
I intend to adopt this sentence from Journey Into Islam as my motto for all future inter-religious work. Of course, we visit each other in mental as well as physical geography, but it is the former that represents the greatest challenge to our inherited defensivenesses – as Akbar Ahmed knows well.
The celebrated anthropologist enlisted a small number of research assistants and traveled into the Islamic world – covering the Middle East, Far East and South Asia – to discover the souls(s) of those who adhere to the second most populous global religion. The result is a marvelous, moving, sobering, troubling, and compelling insight into a religion which is scarcely out of the media limelight.
It is intended as a work in cultural anthropology, but that dry categorization does not march the rich reward that awaits the reader. For a narrative that weaves together – seamlessly and with apparent ease – travelogue discovery, historical overview, personal memories, present impressions, reflective carefulness, analytic sharpness and much more besides, is bound to excite the imagination. There is also a frankness in acknowledging the polarization which pertains between “Islam and the West”, together with a streak of sadness at the decline in subtlety and adaptability of the intellectual potential of Islam. But the book ends by reaching after hope in the face of current world trends.
Frankness, sadness and hope – these are the themes which came through to this reviewer.
Part of the frankness is the sheer breadth of Islam and the diversity of its cultural embeddedness that that the book portrays. This is largely unknown to audiences in the West, for whom Islam has become synonymous with terrorism and rage, at least in the popular mind. For this reason alone this book should be obligatory reading for every Islam media correspondent. But the project itself – a journey into Islam, viewed not so much as a religion with a holy text and schools of exegesis, but as a people with human passions and expectations of God and the world – has helped us to see why we are where we are in our reckoning with one another.
The research group met with ordinary citizens, shapers of society such as educational and political leaders, and religious scholars of influence and power. They discovered anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and anger at the denial of access to the goods of globalization. But underneath it all was the feeling that Islam itself was hugely misunderstood, misconstrued, maligned and therefore placed under attack. This was the real grievance of Muslims and it is sobering for westerners to know it as such. The challenge of Islam is not that it is simply “another“ religion in competition with “other religions” but that it determines everything from domestic behaviors to political governance. The task of comprehension is in the end a theological and dialogical one, however crucially important the sociology and anthropology is along the way.
How to comprehend the mass of data that the researchers collected? Akbar Ahmed adopted a simple but effective typology, involving three models based metaphorically on three towns in India. Ajmer, as home to the shrine of the mystical Moin-uddin Chisti, the founder of the Chisti order, stands for an Islam which is Sufi in orientation, and therefore inwardly spiritual in religious disposition. Aligarh, the home of a University modeled in the nineteenth century after Cambridge in England, stands for an Islam which has made its accommodation to the western values of democracy and ideas of liberty without losing its own essential identity. Deoband, home to a whole school of Islamic persuasion based on orthodox lines, stands for the conservative Islamic mainstream, but which has sometimes been dubbed as “puritan”. (The Deoband model has become synonymous with figures such as Osama bin Laden). These models are less watertight descriptions than heuristic devices to aid comprehension. Akbar Ahmed successfully uses them in the illumination of a complex global Islamic geography and history.
Clearly the author favors the Aligarh model, but is also receptive to a strong dose of Ajmer for spiritual encouragement. Aligarh represents his own background and training and it is what he has spent his lifetime advocating. Through the operation of the concept of ijtihad (independent interpretation), believes Ahmed, there is no reason why Islam should not evolve in concert with cultural change. But if Aligarh conjures up a modernist Islam, it is also a source of sadness for Ahmed. For it is the Deoband model which is in the ascendant right now and it is hardening in reaction to the American exercise of power since 9/11. The Ajmer model remains too other-worldly to be of political use, and Aligarh had become “enfeebled” through the failure of the Jinnah vision for Pakistan and a perceived subservience to western aspirations. In his bid to promote the Aligarh model, Ahmed says of himself towards the end of the project from 2006 onwards: “I felt like a warrior in the midst of the fray who knew the odds were against him but never quite realized that his side had already lost the war” (p. 192).
If these words reflect the sadness of the loss of all that the Aligarh model once promised, there is also a more upbeat side to Ahmed’s determination. The personal investment he exhibits in the desire both to educate the western world about Islamic habits of mind and to remind the Muslim world of their own treasures of spirituality and intellectual subtlety is palpable. In other words, the level of personal investment in communicating these necessities is high, and it forms part of the attractiveness of the book’s narrative. No-one will fail to benefit from engaging with it. If you want to know about the internal struggle for the definition of Islam, or how the Western relationship with Iran has taken the shape it has, or what is stirring among some women’s circles, then read this book.
What then of hope? The researchers found this: “Throughout our journey, each and every discussion led directly or indirectly to events that took place far away in America on September 11, 2001, and to the passions generated by that day.” Which raises the question for me: is 9/11 the fulcrum on which our inter-religious and inter-civilizational discussions should be balanced or has 9/11 hi-jacked our long-nurtured dialogue of mutual knowing and accountability? These were not the questions behind this journey into Islam. But the task of mutual knowing and accountability need to become the largest part of the solution to the issues aroused by terrorism in the name of Islam. Colonial history cannot be unpicked but it can be understood, as can the rise of so-called Islamic militancy. There is responsibility for both sides to face: the West for its crass “war on terror” and Islam for the perversion of extremist faith germinating in its midst. This is the book’s hope, that the dialogue that needs to ensue will bear the right fruit for longer term aims than dealing with the immediacy of 9/11 alone. As with all hope, however, there is no inevitability about the outcome.
But the Akbar patience and perseverance does pay off, and this is hope backed up by evidence. The beginning of the book opens with the icy words, from one of the chief ideologues of the Deoband model, that the actions of bin Laden, the Taliban and others are justified in Islam even if they result in the deaths of women and children, that is, the innocent. Calmly delivered as though they were obvious to all right-thinking Muslims, these sentiments represented the antithesis of all that Ahmed holds dear about Islam. By the end of the book, however, Ahmed is telling us that the Deoband ideologue, is now translating Ahmed’s earlier book, Islam Under Siege (2003), into Urdu and is advocating a less embittered approach to the West. His motivation was the professor’s enthusiasm for communicating Islam to westerners, but the hope is that a more dialogical future might prevail.
Beyond this unexpected conversion, the book promotes hope by recounting the gathering in Washington’s National Cathedral, when Ahmed was hosted by the Episcopal Bishop, John Chane, and honored with a special service celebrating his award as Professor of the Year 2004, an occasion which was attended also by the head of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, Senior Rabbi Bruce Lastig. In such a context, imbued with liturgical exuberance, hope inevitably takes on an aspirational quality. But it is no less significant for that. It is part of liturgy’s role to promote hope, especially as the verdict of how our current polarizations might get resolved remains wide open.
Earlier I hinted that there was a theological task to undertake at the heart of the dialogue. If there is a missing dimension to Ahmed’s otherwise absorbing discussion, for me this would be it. The globalizing future, which we are now entering, asks not only mutual understanding of each of us, as though comprehending our differences was sufficient, but also mutual adjustment to one another. Part of the inspiration for religiously-motivated violence in our world lies in the exclusivity and sense of superiority accorded to our several traditions. Without tackling these issues our attempts at dialogical rapprochement, it seems to me, will falter. But in these regions there be dragons. Can we bear to face the dragons together as the next step in dialogue? Sensitivities to religious difference as an anthropological and cultural issue alone can take us only so far.
Akbar Ahmed embodies in his person that hope which challenges both Western and Islamic leaders alike. For some in the Islamic world he may already be tainted with too much modernity and for some in the Western world his unwillingness to apply the language of “reform” to Islam might not go quite far enough. But it is the patient hours of conversation, listening and sifting which resides in the background pages of this book that deserve both our applause and emulation. Akbar Ahmed is a man on a mission, an advocate for a different kind of world than what pertains at present. We need more of such visionaries.
I shall be referring to this book again and again.
Journey Into Islam
the crisis of globalization
Akbar Ahmed
Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2007, 323 pp., hbk., $28.95,
ISBN-13: 978-0-8157-0132-3

 


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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