Reza Aslan is a doctoral candidate and Robles fellow in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is working on a new book called No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which will be out soon from Random House, and he has adapted part of it for publication in The Chronicle Review of the Chronicle of Higher Education (thanks to all who sent this in). From the looks of this, I know what to expect from the rest of the book.
It is pluralism, not secularism, that defines democracy. A democratic state can be established upon any normative moral framework as long as pluralism remains the source of its legitimacy. Israel is founded upon an exclusivist Jewish moral framework that recognizes all the world’s Jews — regardless of their nationality — as citizens of the state. England continues to maintain a national church whose religious head is also the country’s sovereign. India was, until recently, governed by partisans of the elitist theology of Hindu Awakening (Hindutva), bent on applying their implausible but enormously successful vision of “true Hinduism” to the state. And yet, like the United States, those countries are all considered democracies, not because they are secular but because they are, at least in theory, dedicated to pluralism.
Islam has had a long commitment to religious pluralism. Muhammad’s recognition of Jews and Christians as protected peoples (dhimmi), his belief in a common divine text from which all revealed scriptures are derived (the Umm al-Kitab), and his dream of establishing a single, united Ummah, encompassing all three faiths of Abraham, were startlingly revolutionary ideas in an era in which religion literally created borders between peoples. And despite the ways in which it has been interpreted by militants and fundamentalists who refuse to recognize its historical and cultural context, there are few scriptures in the great religions of the world that can match the reverence with which the Quran speaks of other religious traditions.
“Aslan” means “lion,” as Schwartzie would remind us, and I must admire this young man’s leonine chutzpah in postulating the dhimma as a model of religious pluralism. “The subject peoples,” [i.e., the dhimmis] according to a manual of Islamic law endorsed by Al-Azhar University in Cairo, must “pay the non-Muslim poll tax (jizya)” and “are distinguished from Muslims in dress, wearing a wide cloth belt (zunnar); are not greeted with ‘as-Salamu ‘alaykum’ [the traditional Muslim greeting, ‘Peace be with you’]; must keep to the side of the street; may not build higher than or as high as the Muslims’ buildings, though if they acquire a tall house, it is not razed; are forbidden to openly display wine or pork . . . recite the Torah or Evangel aloud, or make public display of their funerals or feastdays; and are forbidden to build new churches.” (‘Umdat al-Salik, o11.3, 5).
That’s pluralism? You can have it, Reza.
And as for “few scriptures in the great religions of the world that can match the reverence with which the Quran speaks of other religious traditions,” that may be, but it’s pretty slim pickings here as well. The Qur’an, after all, holds Jews and Christians in such reverence that it says they are under the curse of Allah: “The Jews call ‘Uzair [Ezra] a son of Allah, and the Christians call Christ the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouth; (in this) they but imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. Allah’s curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth!” (9:30).
It is true that the Quran does not hold the same respect for polytheistic religions as it does for monotheistic ones.
Right. Instead of conversion, submission as dhimmis, or death, Islamic law offers them only conversion or death. But in practice, they have been accorded dhimmi status, as Aslan notes:
However, that is primarily a consequence of the fact that the Revelation was received during a protracted and bloody war with the “polytheistic” Quraysh, the ruling tribe of Mecca. The truth that is the Quranic designation of “protected peoples” was highly flexible and was routinely tailored to match public policy.
The foundation of Islamic pluralism can be summed up in one indisputable verse: “There can be no compulsion in religion.” That means that the antiquated partitioning of the world into spheres of belief (dar al-Islam) and unbelief (dar al-Harb), which was first developed during the Crusades but which still maintains its grasp on the imaginations of traditionalist theologians, is utterly unjustifiable. It also means that the ideology of those Wahhabists who wish to return Islam to some imaginary ideal of original purity must be once and for all abandoned. Islam is and has always been a religion of diversity. The notion that there was once an original, unadulterated Islam that was shattered into heretical sects and schisms is a historical fiction. Both Shiism and Sufism in all their wonderful manifestations represent trends of thought that have existed from the very beginning of Islam, and both find their inspiration in the words and deeds of the Prophet. God may be One, but Islam most definitely is not.
Wonderful. I am glad to see him rejecting the Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb distinction. I am glad to see him opposing Wahhabism. But to insist that the guiding principle is “there is no compulsion in religion” is not enough. Wahhabis see that verse as abrogated; I trust Aslan has an answer for them based on recognized Islamic theological principles. Alternatively, Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb and others have argued that the verse means only that Muslims must not force others to accept Islam, but that they should wage wars to extend Islamic law over them and subjugate them as dhimmis. I suspect, given his apparently rosy view of the dhimma, that Aslan would have no trouble with this.
Nevertheless, the Islamic vision of human rights is not a prescription for moral relativism. Nor does it imply freedom from ethical restraint. Islam’s quintessentially communal character necessitates that any human-rights policy take into consideration the protection of the community over the autonomy of the individual. And while there may be some circumstances in which Islamic morality may force the rights of the community to prevail over the rights of the individual — for instance, with regard to Quranic commandments forbidding drinking or gambling — those and all other ethical issues must constantly be re-evaluated so as to conform to the will of the community.
In other words, Islamic law will prevail, not some Western model of pluralism. Caveat emptor.