Stephen Schwartz, a convert to Islam, makes a momentous announcement in TechCentralStation, via FrontPage:
On March 25, seven American Muslim activists joined me in founding a new, and much-needed platform for moderate Islam in America. Our organization is titled the Center for Islamic Pluralism. We have a website, www.islamicpluralism.org, at which our inaugural press release may be read, and have gained tax-exempt status as a public charity under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Our founders represent the main Muslim communities in America: Sunnis and Shias, born Americans and immigrant Americans, of Arab, Turkish, and south Asian descent, as well as “new Muslims” — Islam eschews the term “convert” — originating in the U.S. and elsewhere in this hemisphere.
We define moderate Islam in the American context as an Islam that finds its proper and equal place as one among the many religions represented in America, with rights neither greater nor lesser than any other.
Moderate Islam recognizes its own history, the need to evolve, and the urgency for an intellectual revival, especially with regard to non-Muslims, women, and political governance. The CIP emphasizes pluralism to signal that it believes not in the tolerance of non-Muslims, but in their true acceptance as fellow believers in the one God, creator of the universe.
In addition, Islamic pluralism defines our approach to intra-Muslim relations. We seek mutual respect and dialogue between Sunnis and Shias, among Sufis, or spiritual Muslims, of both traditions, and full recognition within Islam of those who define themselves as cultural and secular Muslims.
Dialogue is the foundation of our activity. We come to this work with no preconceived program or demands, aside from our commitment to moderation, our loyalty to Western democratic principles, and our firm defense of American citizenship and obedience to American laws.
It’s ironic that a man like Schwartz, who returns requests for dialogue with abuse and haughty refusals to answer, would now be heading up an organization with “dialogue” as its “foundation,” but such are the vagaries of life.
And of course, despite Schwartz’s unwarranted hostility to me, I will be the first to wish his new organization success. I’d rather see millions of Muslims belonging to the CIP than to Al-Qaeda. In fact, I’ll even start the ball rolling on that dialogue with a few questions.
Islamic fundamentalists depend on the warped and distorted Wahhabi interpretation of Qur’an, but the stoning of adulterers appears nowhere in the Book itself. The situation of woman’s rights is advancing in many Muslim countries, and may be improved without contradicting Islamic scripture.
It is true that the Qur’an prescribes lashes for adultery (24:2), but it also says that “if any of your women are guilty of lewdness, take the evidence of four (reliable) witnesses from amongst you against them; and if they testify, confine them to houses until death do claim them, or Allah ordain for them some (other) way” (4:15). The great Qur’anic commentator Ibn Kathir explains: “The early ruling was confinement, until Allah sent down Surat An-Nur (chapter 24) which abrogated that ruling with the ruling for flogging (for fornication) or stoning to death (for adultery).” He says that this is “a matter that is agreed upon.” And indeed, it is the opinion of Ibn Abbas, ‘Ikrimah, Sa’id ibn Jubayr, Al-Hasan, Ata Al-Khurasani, Abu Salih, Qatadah, Zayd bin Aslam and Ad-Dahhak.
None of these are “Wahhabis”: all of them predate Wahhab. How does the CIP plan to respond to Muslims who invoke them to justify the traditional practice?
Schwartz also says:
Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) command us to moderation; we can do no less than to fulfill these high responsibilities in that spirit.
Schwartz in this seems to be calling Muslims back to adherence to the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad. Interestingly, just today, “a group calling itself al Qaeda in Iraq” said that “Terrorizing enemies of God is our faith and religion, which is taught to us by our Koran.” Another Muslim group set about “justifying violent acts through ideological and doctrinal arguments.” I could give hundreds of examples of jihad terrorists pointing to the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad to justify violence. And Schwartz’s all-purpose bogeymen, the Wahhabis, are just today touting Muhammad, apparently just as would Schwartz himself, as “the perfect role model in all situations.” So will the real Muhammad please stand up? How will the CIP respond to jihad terrorists when they invoke Muhammad and the Qur’an?
In another place, Schwartz has decried those who “demand a revision of the Muslim holy book, Qur’an,” and asserted that “Islam needs no Reformation, merely to return to its long-established tradition: pluralistic, spiritual, and committed to the protection and refinement of its civilizational heritage.”
What we got here is more than a failure to communicate: it is a case of dueling traditionalisms. If Schwartz is correct that all Islam needs to do is go back to the books and recover its traditions, what does he make of Muslims who invoke the same tradition to argue for violence? For example, take this article, “The True Meaning of Jihad.” It argues for jihad violence from the Qur’an and Hadith, and then adds this from the Sira:
Moreover some will say that Jihad was only defensive; this is incorrect. A quick study of the Life of the Prophet (SalAllahu Alaihi Wasallam) shows us something different:
“¢ The Battle of Mut”ah was instigated by the Muslims against the Romans the Muslims were 3,000 faced against a Roman army of 200,000.
“¢ The Battle of Hunayn was inevitable shortly of the Muslims had conquered Makkah.
“¢ The Battle of Tabuk was also instigated to finally destroy the Romans.
Clearly this is not the Muhammad that the CIP is calling Muslims to follow. So where are we to find this Good-Joe, Rotarian Muhammad? Not in the earliest biography of him, Ibn Ishaq’s Sira. Not in the Hadith of the Sahih Sittah, the six collections considered most reliable by Muslims. Not in At-Tabari’s history. All these portray a man of violence. So where is CIP’s Muhammad?
Questions like these have led one member of the CIP’s board, Tashbih Sayyid, editor of Pakistan Today, to reconsider his role in the organization. Sayyid explained to me: “I don’t know much about the group as yet. Since I am not participating in the process of evolution or development, I have no idea what the group is actually doing. But my whole life is devoted to one end: to make the Muslims understand that their theology needs to be reformed and reinterpreted. Anybody who thinks that there’s nothing wrong with their theology is either a blind person or an apologist.”
Sayyid continued: “I have to find out if they”re on the same page with me. There are many things in Muslim Scripture that need to be reshaped and reframed and reinterpreted, so that they cannot be used by terrorists to justify homicide bombings and honor killings. I need to talk with Schwartz. If Schwartz believes that there is nothing wrong with Muslim theology, I cannot be part of this group.”
I myself will be very interested to learn the outcome of that conversation.