[“Lasting Peace”, Poster, 1988 by Mohammad Khazaie]

by Ebrahim Moosa

No one has seen “Islam” in its transparent glory to really judge it. But what we have seen are Muslims: good Muslims and bad Muslims; ugly Muslims and pretty Muslims; just Muslims and unjust Muslims; Muslims who are oppressors, racists, bigots, misogynists, and criminals as well as Muslims who are compassionate, liberators, seekers of an end to racism and sexism, and those who aspire to global justice and equity. Therefore it is not uncommon to encounter Muslims saying, “You have to separate between Islam and Muslims”; “Islam is great, with every epithet of perfection.” The general rhetoric would be: “Islam is a religion of peace, it is Muslims who are bad.” But can one ever imagine Islam without Muslims? While the rhetoric that pleads for a separation between “Islam” and “Muslims” implicitly endorses my claim that it is actually Muslims who embody Islam, it is often employed in order to defend “Islam,” as if the tradition is in need of protection in the first place. More harmful than being part of an apologetic move, such rhetoric absolves Muslims from responsibility for what they do in the “name” of Islam. For every time Muslims perform an act and claim that it has religious sanction and cite their scriptural authority, one cannot deny them their claim when they insist that what they did was a religiously mandated act. If they do harm in the name of Islam, then other Muslims are required to take the religious justification of violence seriously, and contest their discursive use of Islam.

The truth is that our only understanding of Islam is what Muslims know it is. Even if one understands the Kantian notion of the thing in and of itself, the artifact is known to us only through the knowledge we have of it as human beings. Thus, whatever Islam is in its ideal formation, the version we know of it is only the imperfect and flawed one we have as imperfect beings. The heavenly attempt to make sure we get the closest version to perfection of Islam was undertaken via prophecy. From then onwards, we require neither a divine incarnation to make sure we remain perfect nor an infallible authority to tie our fee to the chains of authority.

Often authoritarian interpretations of Islam argue that entrenched practices and beliefs are not mere constructions, but that they are indeed practices that have consistently been replicated in Muslim societies over centuries. If one makes a claim that Muslims have prayed five times a day, paid their taxes according to a set formula designed by the first believers, outlawed certain trade practices, and followed an ethics of war according to uniform and non-negotiable norms, then the burden is to prove the validity of such claims.

In order to find such proof, one is at the mercy of history and its contingencies and perils. Surely it will not be difficult to prove that Muslims believed in the obligation of five daily prayers. But it will be inordinately difficult to prove that they prayed in an identical manner. For among different Muslim schools of law and doctors of interpretation there are major differences in the practice of rituals themselves. If for the Shafi’i school reciting the chapter called the “Opening” is an obligation in every ritual prayer including congregational prayers, then in the Hanafi law school for a follower to recite any liturgical passage in a congregational prayer comes close to invalidating his or her prayers. While all schools of law acknowledge five daily prayers, the Sunni schools insist that each prayer must be performed in its appointed time slot. The Shi’i law schools permit the noon prayer to be joined with the afternoon prayer and for the evening prayer to be joined with the night prayers in two time slots on a regular basis. Some Sunni law schools offer such concessions only when a person is traveling. Certain trade practices may be perfectly legitimate in the eyes of one law school while in the view of another they may be totally invalid or forbidden.

So any claim that an unbroken chain of practices serves as the incontrovertible evidence for an authentic and unchangeable tradition, as some Muslims claim, can only be a figment of the imagination. For any such assertion can rest only on ideological fictions or specious generalizations, not on the ground of history of or even idealism, for that matter. It is only when one begins to compare the practices of Muslims over time, and then dares to confront the details of such practices, that one encounters the complexity of traditions. Once one becomes aware of the historical processes by which human communities take shape, then the emphasis on the authority of a text or the authority of some infallible person or coercive capacity of consensus evaporates like mist in the rays of the sun.

Surely, what threatens the inscrutable authority of authoritarians is history. Any serious and close study of the Muslim tradition will unmistakably vaporize claims of uniformity and absolute obedience to authorities. To their utter disbelief, protagonists of authoritarianism will discover that Muslim societies in the past, as in the present, have always been diverse, differentiated, dynamic but also in a state of contestation as all organic human social formations naturally are. The false utopias of ideal and perfect Muslim societies in the past, widely touted by ideologues of authoritarianism, will not survive the scrutiny of history.

[Excerpt from Ebrahim Moosa, “The Debts and Burdens of Critical Islam,” in Omid Safi, editor, Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, pp. 111-144. Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2003.]