From the New York Times, with thanks to Uncle Jeff:
CAIRO, Dec. 9 – Muhammad Shahrour, a layman who writes extensively about Islam, sits in his engineering office in Damascus, Syria, arguing that Muslims will untangle their faith from the increasingly gory violence committed in its name only by reappraising their sacred texts.
First, Mr. Shahrour brazenly tackles the Koran. The entire ninth chapter, The Sura of Repentance, he says, describes a failed attempt by the Prophet Muhammad to form a state on the Arabian Peninsula. He believes that as the source of most of the verses used to validate extremist attacks, with lines like “slay the pagans where you find them,” the chapter should be isolated to its original context.
“The state which he built died, but his message is still alive,” says Mr. Shahrour, a soft-spoken, 65-year-old Syrian civil engineer with thinning gray hair. “So we have to differentiate between the religion and state politics. When you take the political Islam, you see only killing, assassination, poisoning, intrigue, conspiracy and civil war, but Islam as a message is very human, sensible and just.”
Interesting. So I suppose he would set aside sura 9 as a guide for contemporary Muslims. But how will he prevent it from being taken up again by those who think that conditions are sufficiently analogous to those of the time when it was written?
Mr. Shahrour and a dozen or so like-minded intellectuals from across the Arab and Islamic worlds provoked bedlam when they presented their call for a reinterpretation of holy texts after a Cairo seminar entitled “Islam and Reform” earlier this fall.
“Liars! Liars!” someone screamed at a news conference infiltrated by Islamic scholars and others from the hard-core faithful who shouted and lunged at the panelists to a degree that no journalist could ask a question. “You are all Zionists! You are all infidels!”
This is what Shahrour gets for “brazenly” tackling the Qur’an.
The long-simmering internal debate over political violence in Islamic cultures is swelling, with seminars like that one and a raft of newspaper columns breaking previous taboos by suggesting that the problem lies in the way Islam is being interpreted. On Saturday in Morocco, a major conference, attended by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, will focus on increasing democracy and liberal principles in the Muslim world.
On one side of the discussion sit mostly secular intellectuals horrified by the gore joined by those ordinary Muslims dismayed by the ever more bloody image of Islam around the world. They are determined to find a way to wrestle the faith back from extremists.
Interesting: seven paragraphs into the article, the Times implicitly acknowledges, as if everyone knows it, that the extremists are not a “tiny minority,” and are not as discredited as the Times would have had us believe on many other occasions, but are in control of the interpretation of Islam, such that the faith must be “wrestled back” from them. Funny thing: whenever I point that out, I get called an “Islamophobe.” Will the American Islamic apologetics industry now label the Times “Islamophobic”?
Basically the liberals seek to dilute what they criticize as the clerical monopoly on disseminating interpretations of the sacred texts.
Arrayed against them are powerful religious institutions like Al Azhar University, prominent clerics and a whole different class of scholars who argue that Islam is under assault by the West. Fighting back with any means possible is the sole defense available to a weaker victim, they say.
Al-Azhar is arrayed against them? Now wait a minute, Grey Lady: I thought you wanted us to believe that Al-Azhar “has sought to advise Muslims around the world that those who kill in the name of Islam are nothing more than heretics,” and that, in the words of a sheikh whom you quoted approvingly and gave the last word on the place: “Al Azhar is the only institution in the world that has learned the moderate Islam and taught it in a moderate way without fanaticism, and without abiding by the teachings of a school that promotes rigidity or violence.”
The debate, which can be heard in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, is driven primarily by carnage in Iraq. The hellish stream of images of American soldiers attacking mosques and other targets are juxtaposed with those of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading civilian victims on his home videos as a Koranic verse including the line “Smite at their necks” scrolls underneath.
That would be 47:4, and its existence, along with that of many other verses, is what will make any reform prohibitively difficult. Which is not to say that the attempt should not be made, but it must involve a complete rejection of literalism. Even that, however, is highly unlikely:
Asked about those who say the problem lies deep within restrictive interpretations of Islam itself, Sheik Mais grimaced and exclaimed, “Take refuge in God!” summing up the viewpoint of most Islamic scholars.
You cannot divide Islam into pieces, he says. You have to take it as a whole.
But whose whole, the would-be reformists respond, lamenting what one Saudi writer calls “fatwa chaos.” A important difficulty under Sunni Islam, as opposed to, say, the Shiite branch predominant in Iran or the Catholic Church, is that there is no central authority to issue ultimate rulings on doctrinal questions.
Those in the liberal trend believe that Islam, now entering its 15th century, needs to undergo a wholesale re-examination of its basic principles. Toward that end, the Cairo conference this fall recommended reviewing the roots of Islamic heritage, especially the Prophet’s sayings, ending the monopoly that certain religious institutions hold over interpreting such texts and confronting all extremist religious currents.
Those taking part were harshly accused of dabbling in a realm that belongs solely to the clergy, with the grand sheik of Al Azhar, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, Egypt’s most senior religious scholar, labeling them a “group of outcasts.”
But Mr. Shahrour says he and an increasing number of intellectuals cannot be deterred by clerical opposition.
He describes as ridiculously archaic some Hadith, or sayings, attributed to Muhammad – all assembled in nine bulky volumes some 100 years after his death and now the last word on how the faithful should live.
“It is like this now because for centuries Muslims have been told that Islam was spread by the sword, that all Arab countries and even Spain were captured by the sword and we are proud of that,” he said. “In the minds of ordinary people, people on the street, the religion of Islam is the religion of the sword. This is the culture, and we have to change it.”
Interesting again: if non-Muslims point out that Islam was spread by the sword, Islamic apologists call them names. But now we hear in the Times that for centuries Muslims have been told that. The maddening thing is that after this small spell of truth-telling, the Times will be back to its old dhimmi tricks tomorrow.