A battle that concerns us all

Ed Husain argues in his new book “The House of Islam” that the key struggle of our time is within Islam itself

Books
Ahmad Bamba: “The only weapons I will use to fight my enemies are pen and ink”

“Currently, there is a global battle under way for the soul of Islam. Why? What and where are the battle lines? Who will win? And how does this affect the West?” While much ink has been spilled on the topic of a supposed “clash of civilisations” between the West and the Muslim world, Ed Husain thinks that the key struggle of our time is within Islam itself. The battle lines in this struggle, as he describes it in his new book The House of Islam, are clearly demarcated. On the one side stand the radical Islamists, who adhere to the puritanical and exclusivist theology of Salafism or Wahhabism (the Saudi version of Salafism), and seek to establish a harsh version of God’s rule upon earth through jihad. On the other stand traditional, conservative Muslims, who, if they are Sunnis, adhere to the rationally-minded Ash’ari school of theology, take their knowledge of the sharia from one of the four traditional schools of law (and are perfectly comfortable with the existence of the other three), and practise a form of piety heavily influenced by Sufism, the spiritual or mystical dimension of Islam, just as most Muslims did in the age of the Ottoman and Mughal empires.

Those who know Husain’s autobiography The Islamist (2007) will know that he has stood at one time or another on both sides of this divide. As a teenager he joined the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, whose principal goal is to establish a global caliphate, before he saw the light and returned to the Sufi-inspired Islam of his Bengali parents. Together with Maajid Nawaz, another former Hizb-ut-Tahrir member (whose own memoir Radical is a complementary and equally engaging account of the radicalisation process), he founded the prominent UK-based anti-extremist organisation Quilliam, and has since consistently argued for a peaceful, open-minded form of Islam that is compatible with the West.

Of course, Husain’s neat depiction of the Islamic battle of ideas is something of an oversimplification. As the Russian scholar of Sufism Alexander Knysh has demonstrated, Sufis and Salafis do not neatly correspond to peace-loving mystics and militant jihadists. Husain himself dwells upon the Sufi affiliations of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, historically the most prominent Islamist organisation in the Arab world  and which has often been linked to jihadist violence. Yet, at a low-resolution level (to use a term now being popularised by Jordan Peterson), Husain’s dichotomy is a helpful one. The world would certainly be a much better place if those young Muslims who were attracted to IS or Hizb-ut-Tahrir instead found meaning and spiritual succour in the Qadiri, Naqshbandi or Chishti Sufi orders, or devoted themselves to the study of Hanafi or Shafi‘i jurisprudence or Ash’arite theology.
While the book seems to be aimed at a non-Muslim Western readership (and certainly there is much for non-Muslims to learn about Islam in its various forms here), its impact would probably be greatest if it were read by Muslims wanting to think critically about their religion. Husain is good both at exposing the hypocrisy, historical ignorance, and lack of intellectual sophistication of the radical Islamists, and at drawing attention to those figures from Islamic history who might help young Muslims negotiate the challenges of living religiously in the modern world. To this end he cites medieval Muslims who are still read widely both in the Muslim world and the modern West, like the great Persian poets Omar Khayyam, Rumi and Hafez and the illustrious Andalusian thinkers Ibn Hazm, Averroes and Ibn ‘Arabi, as well as less famous figures like Ahmad Bamba, an influential pacifist Sufi sheikh of colonial West Africa, whom Husain quotes on the true meaning of jihad:

The only weapons I will use to fight my enemies are the qalam [pen] and the ink I use to write qasa’id [poems] in the glory of the Elect, the Prophet Mohamed.

 In keeping with Bamba’s attitude towards the French colonisers, Husain does not absolve the West of responsibility for the vicissitudes of the modern Middle East or the tragedy of Partition, and he is critical of the secular West’s excessive individualism and moral relativism. Yet he is nonetheless confident in asserting his own identity as both British and Muslim, argues strongly and from an Islamic basis against anti-Semitism and for Muslim accommodation with Israel, and, taking Western education as a model, advocates renewed emphasis on the value of the humanities and critical thinking in Muslim education. Similarly, he lauds those early Muslims who recognised the inherent equality of the sexes. “They were not busy defining their identity based on opposing the modern West,” he tells us, but rather based their views and conduct on the Koran and the example of the Prophet.

Such arguments, which can speak directly to Muslim readers, are probably more worthwhile than the eye-catching, top-down scheme proposed in the book’s conclusion: the creation of a Middle East Union (MEU) on the model of the EU, and funded by a “Muslim Marshall Plan”. This is an idea apparently born of Husain’s rather idealistic view of the Ottoman Empire and his corresponding belief that the nation-state model is an artificial imposition on the Middle East. Yet he fails to account for the problem that supranational political and economic unions tend to suffer from a democratic deficit. As Bruce Abramson argued in the April edition of Standpoint, the recent historical record of supranational political ideologies in the Middle East is not a strong one, for movements built on such ideologies have tended to entrench power in the hands of ethnic or political elites. Husain’s concluding proposal, however, that Salafi-jihadi extremists should be excommunicated from the Sunni Muslim community (“the takfir of the Takfiris”), is much more in keeping with the rest of the book’s emphasis on the need for Muslims to take sides in the Islamic battle of ideas. Given that this is a battle that concerns us all, let us hope that it will be won by Husain and those who share his views.