The Challenge of “Modernizing” Islam, The PipeLineNews Review

Christine Douglass-Williams; pp 295, ©2017, Encounter Books


August 21, 2017 - San Francisco, CA - – In, “ The Challenge of “Modernizing” Islam,” Christine Douglass-Williams has presented us with an interesting read, so let us begin with the phrasing of the title.

The use of the word “modernization” in such a blanket sense, reeks of an assertion which avoids the nasty possibility that “modernizing Islam” may be more than simply “challenging,” i.e., a doable, albeit difficult undertaking. It may be, as it is increasingly seeming to be the case, that the project of “modernizing Islam” is internally contradicted by the belief system itself.

After all it is difficult to argue with a set of precepts so rigid that the prescription for apostasy and heresy is death, often imposed using “cruel and unusual” means.

The first half of the book consists of interviews with eight Muslims living in the West who consider themselves moderates and reformers. All the respondents believe that Islam can be brought into the 21st century and made compatible with classical Western civilization. Ms. Douglass-Williams poses largely the same set of questions to each respondent. These involve, but are not limited to, reconciling parts of the Qur’an and the Hadith with modernity; devising metrics whereby to distinguish moderate Muslims from Islamists, and separating church/mosque and state in an environment where the nature of the Islamic creed suggests that it is essentially a faith-based, supremacist political ideology.

The eight respondents currently live in the West but have roots in Muslim majority nations. They hold Western values and condemn the Islamic practices of female genital mutilation, the death penalty for apostasy, the inequality of women and other troubling issues. Few counter-jihadists would find fault with the political and ethical philosophies these outliers espouse nor with their base desire to make Islam compatible with liberal Western values.

The fault lies not in them or in or how they define Islam, but in the extraordinarily high bar the “moderates,” face in achieving the goal of reformation in the face of the “genuine article.” Sadly, in this sense it seems that we are being presented with wishful thinking rather than a reasonable plan of action that is compatible with Islamic chapter and verse.

The first interview is with Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a physician and ex-Naval officer currently living in Arizona. He will be familiar to many Americans as he is a sought after commentator on television representing a moderate Muslim point of view. When Ms Douglass-Williams asked him whether he is troubled by the generally accepted historical presentation of the Prophet Mohammed's consummation of marriage to Aisha when she was 9 years of age, Jasser asserts that he does not believe it and goes on to say: "Am I deluded? All I can tell you is that is what I was taught."

It is a dismissal, not answer, wishful thinking and hence unconvincing.

Sheikh Dr. Ahmed Subhy Mansour is the founder of the Qur’anic movement in Egypt. He believes in proclaiming that the Qur’an is Islam’s only foundational document, rejecting the Hadith on the grounds that it followed the “revelation” by too long a period in time and was thus subjected to undue and questionable political interpretation.

This does spares him the dilemma of Mohammed and Aisha [sourced from the Hadith] but not much else. He is self-described as a “peaceful Qur’anist.”

But the modernization project still faces huge, seeming insurmountable problems if one is to render Islam “peaceful.”

For exempt, how does Sheikh Mansour plan to deal with the Anfaal chapter [chapter 8] of the Qur’an? Anfaal is the Arabic word for “war booty,” and this chapter of the book deals with the distribution of the spoils of war. As for being a “peaceful Qur’anist,” in essence there are two Qur’ans, or at least two testaments. Yes, Mohammed gave us some benign and peaceful philosophy when he was in Mecca and powerless. It was only when he was driven out of Mecca to Yathrib [renamed Medina by Mohammed] that his philosophy become brutal and warlike, as he gained power and adherents.

The Qur’an clearly states that when two verses appear to contradict each other, the latter, Medinian verses, that take precedence over the former. This is the Muslim concept of abrogation [in Arabic, naskh] and it is these latter violent passages which carry the most authority.

It must be understood that Islam is what it is, and not a Chinese menu. One cannot simply choose one from column A and two from column B. A Muslim can totally rely on the Meccan portion of the Qur’an if he so chooses, but he should do so in the full and certain knowledge that he would then not be practicing normative Islam.

Another contributor, Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a medical doctor, will also have difficulty dealing with Chapter 8. She mentions the many types of jihad - which is literally the Arabic word for “struggle.” This can be a very complex notion, but relying upon the simplistic definition [the self-struggle to stop smoking for example] has the effect of drawing attention away from jihad within Islam which is primarily an act of warfare.

Certainly, jihad’s forms are varied, but it is only death “to extend Allah’s religion,” that promises a path to paradise. And one would hardly expect the distribution of war booty to warrant a mention much less a chapter in the Qur’an if jihad were practiced exclusively or primarily within the spiritual realm. Ahmed mentions that Mohammed described non-combatants [innocents] who were not to take part in war jihad nor be its targets, but neglects to clarify the notion preached by Mohammed in which it is fully understood that only Muslims can be considered innocent. Non-Muslims by definition are guilty of denying Allah and so cannot be without blame.

It is perhaps a lost opportunity that nowhere in Douglass-Williams’ interview of Ahmed is she prompted to configure an effective plan of action to bring about her “modern” conception of Islam.

In the second half of The Challenge of “Modernizing” Islam, the author deals with “Islamophobia,” troublesome Qur’anic texts, and how to identify Islamists - her term for extremists. She believes that moderate Muslims who live in the West will be in the vanguard of reform, as indeed they would be if reform were possible.

An important aside - the author’s use of the words “moderate Muslim'” is questionable since the term has no meaning in the Muslim world. Actually it is a usage often embraced by liberals who prefer to believe that there are no serious impediments to integrating such a powerful alien ideology as Islam into our culture.

Outside the world of politicized language it’s hard to avoid comparisons with the intellectual atmosphere in Europe, pre-World-War II where citizens had become blind [intentionally or otherwise] to the fascist threat. Continuing in this line of reasoning does it sound reasonable to advance the same argument re the Nazism, that it could have somehow through the work of “reformers” and diplomacy become moderated?

And if one follows the basic journalistic technique of “follow the money,” there looms the “rubber chicken circuit/cottage industry” aspect of becoming a “professional moderate” Islamic activist. It is very similar to the experiment in which mice who must make their way through a maze in order to be rewarded with a bit of cheese.

There is indeed grant money to be had here, trading on the meme of moderation, so one is left questioning motivation.

One must also question the applicability of the various Westernized litmus tests around which the book is built, because regardless of what criteria are employed, given the Muslim embrace of taqiyya and kitman [two forms of doctrinally sound deception], how can we trust the sincerity of the answers?

Yes, interrogation in the hands of even a skilled expert is a fine art, but it is not a science.

With this as prologue, the book is nonetheless a good read, being well-constructed and dealing with complex and important issues. At some level one cannot help but sympathize with Western Muslims who truly love their faith but find themselves intellectually and scripturally challenged when trying to rationalize such a rigid creed within societies based upon personal liberty and natural, unalienable rights.

©2017 Cheryl Gatesworth. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.