Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Illusions of an Islamic State

Illusions of an Islamic State
A book by Tarek Fatah.

The book review by Ali Eteraz follows my comments;

If you are content with the status quo of your knowledge, this book is not for you, but if you’d like to be challenged, check this out.

At the World Muslim Congress, we take the middle path, we analyze and discuss the right wingers as well as the ultra-liberals, but our focus is on moderation and one of the qualities of moderate Muslims is “listening to” and pondering on different points of view. Moderates seldom reject a view outrightly without giving a thought. No one every agrees 100% with the other.

I am delighted to share Ali Eteraz’s review of Tarek Fatah’s book “Illusions of an Islamic State.” I have not read the book yet but I intend to read and hope the following items are included in the book.

- The Madinah pact is an example of separation of Church and State; it was initiated by the Prophet as a head of the City State and had signatures from other communities. If it was a religious government, I seriously doubt he would have taken the initiative or even get the others to go along with the freedom to practice their own religion. He Cherished that value and believed that there is no compulsion in faith, one has to believe in it to accept it.

- Prophet Muhammad’s time was pluralistic and all the work and examples generated were indeed sensitive to people of other faiths. He asked the visiting Christians from Najran to pray in his mosque when the time for prayers was up; he had walked up to a Jewish procession and kissed the Torah Scrolls they were carrying.

- Democracy was guarded by the prophet and the successive rulers of the state at that time. Prophet did not pass the mantle of state administration to the most deserved candidates at the time; his Son-in-Law Ali. Had he done that the administration would have been monarchial, passing on from relative to relative. That was not the case; each successive leader was chosen with consensus. There was campaigning and there were differences, roots of democracy some 1400 years ago as Abdul Aziz Sachedina has noted in his book.

- Prophet in his last sermon added a strong item – he said to the followers, I am leaving this book (Qur’aan) to you to follow, he did not assign an interpreter or established the clergy to be the guardians of the knowledge. As part of the individual responsibility he told his own daughter Fatima that she has to earn her way with God, through her deeds and she ain’t going to get a free pass to paradise because she is the daughter of the prophet.

- The First leader (ok, Caliph) Abu Bakr gave an acceptance speech, that I believe is one of the best examples of giving the people freedom to keep or drop the ruler. “I have been given the authority over you, and I am not the best of you. If I do well, help me; and if I do wrong, set me right. Sincere regard for truth is loyalty and disregard for truth is treachery. The weak amongst you shall be strong with me until I have secured his rights, if God will; and the strong amongst you shall be weak with me until I have wrested from him the rights of others, if God will. Obey me so long as I obey God and His Messenger. But if I disobey God and His Messenger, ye owe me no obedience. Arise for your prayer, God have mercy upon you.
Broad definitions of a few terms;

Right wingers – a broad description would be the literalists, as the evangelicals in the Christian tradition. They do not give depth and essence to the words; it is what appears to them and nothing more.

Moderate Muslims: Majority of the Muslims fall into this category, they get along with all, they do not negate other peoples way of life nor do they have a problem with other faiths and life styles. People know they are Muslims but they do not wear neon signs on their forehead.

Liberals: Want to stretch the guidelines and test it out. Most of the changes we witness today are efforts of this group. They are not content with the status quo, they want to dig and check out the possibilities.

Mike Ghouse

Illusions of an Islamic State
Ali Eteraz
The Huffington Post

Tarek Fatah, a pacifist, a controversial leftist activist and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, recently published a book challenging Islamism, which he refers to as Islam's right-wing. The book is called Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State.

Fatah argues that since Islam's advent, there have been two parallel strains of the religion that are in clash.

The first, "state of Islam" is a person's moral compass; the way Islam governs an individual's personal life. Fatah has no issues with this Islam. In fact, he says that whether one is ultra-conservative or a secular Muslim should be no one else's concern.

In contrast, the second -- "Islamic State" -- occurs when a political entity uses Islam to govern and control society. Fatah has a great problem with this phenomenon, as he believes it connected to terrorism, fundamentalism and subjugation of women. His book is a sustained critique of the historical, political and theological bases upon which the idea of an Islamic state is premised.

As case studies, Fatah looks at Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Palestine, and reveals how in each place Islamist ideas found their genesis, how they were promoted, how they were actualized and how they have fared. He shows how leaders of dubious character have used the utopia of an Islamic state to acquire illegitimate dominance and demand cult-like obedience. The sections on Pakistan -- where Fatah was once a prominent student leader -- and Palestine -- a cause which he has supported since the 60's -- most ably demonstrate Fatah's thesis: the Islamist impulse leads to a retardation of civil society, leads to the subjugation of women, minorities and expression, and foments unnecessary crisis with external groups.

In order to diagnose the Islamist malaise, Fatah engages the intellectual argument upon which the Islamist narrative is built: the assertion that the Islamic state represents the most authentic vision of Islam. Fatah questions this vehemently. He points out that neither Muhammad nor the Quran provide for a political model, an assertion he shares with numerous other Muslim thinkers, including the current Mufti of Egypt (who takes this silence to mean that personal Islam is compatible with liberal democracy).

However Fatah goes further and shows that it was not Muhammad's intent to establish an Islamic state. Fatah's argument is novel. He says that if Muhammad had wanted to establish an Islamic state, then when he took over Mecca he would have provided for an Islamic constitution; after all, for ten years Muhammad was the de facto ruler of the city-state of Medina and there he had sought a constitution. Fatah argues that the lack of a political document in Mecca, taken in conjunction with one of Muhammad's assertions in his last sermon -- "I have completed the religion for you" -- means that Mecca was not an Islamic state, just a state ruled by a man named Muhammad where Muslims were free to establish a personal relationship with God based on their individual judgment on what constituted piety.

Fatah then delves into the lives of the Four Caliphs that followed Muhammad, painstakingly detailing how the idea of an Islamic state slowly came to prominence - not as a result of the Prophet's Companions fulfilling some religious obligation, but as a way to dominate their political opponents. Here again Fatah demonstrates ingenuity. He reveals that the title that Abu Bakr, the first caliph, took for himself, was not "Caliph of God" as later day caliphs, sultans and kings took on, but something akin to "Representative of Muhammad." Fatah believes that this fact undermines the Islamist idea of linking political power with God; after all, Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, Muhammad's closest friend, a figure that Islamists purportedly follow, didn't even take such a dramatic step. Fatah also notes that the second caliph, Umar, also celebrated among Islamists, also didn't take the mantle "Caliph of God." It wasn't until the third caliph, Usman, that the term became acceptable.

Fatah ends up taking his analysis of Muslim states all the way to the end of the Abbasid Empire in the 13th century. Along the way his basic assertion is corroborated repeatedly. The states that Muslims were running were just political entities, and weren't focused on their Islamic flavor. Had that been the case, then these formative states wouldn't have made a distinction between Muslims as they did. Fatah wonders, for example, how Islamists can assert that the early Muslims lived in an Islamic state when there were classes of Muslims who had to pay the jizya (minority tax), or classes of Muslims that couldn't legally marry Arab women, or classes of Muslims based on when they had converted to Islam? If these previous states were truly Islamic states, then they wouldn't have made distinctions between Muslims -- which they readily did.

There is, Fatah believes, only one conclusion to be drawn from this: the historical Islamic states were not organized around Islam, but ethnicity (Arab over non-Arab), power (vis a vis Persians and Byzantines), and expansion (both through conflict and conversion).

In other words, Fatah concludes, the Islamist idea of an Islamic state is just a mirage. It is neither corroborated in the original sources of Islam -- the Quran and the Prophet's practice -- nor in the actual practice of the first generations of Islam.

Fatah's ideas represent a formidable intellectual challenge to Islamism.

I did, however, find some shortcomings in this book. While the first half of the book -- focusing on the case studies -- reads easily, the discussion about Muhammad and his companions becomes incredibly dense. The conclusions aren't always fleshed out and have to be inferred.

In addition, throughout the book, the sourcing is shoddy and inconsistent. On reading many assertions, I found myself wishing there were better footnotes. This is especially important when the discussion shifts to the contentious historical narrative.

Also, the book attempts an interesting synthesis -- by bringing together Sunni and Shia sources, using both to illuminate the discussion. This approach can be successful, such as when Ayatollah Modarresi used both the Sunni and Shia account to look at the history of Quranic compilation. However, the two pronged critique also has its down-side because of the historical enmity between Sunni and Shia, and the vast amount of polemics that infect this area of Islamic scholarship.

Further, throughout the book, one issue I kept wondering about was whether Fatah advocated opposing Islamists to such an extent that he would accept a secular dictator over democratically elected Islamists. There is no conclusive answer to this, but at one point in his life Fatah did consider General Nasser of Egypt his hero, which is troubling. He also seems to suggest that in Palestine, Abbas' Fatah Organization is presumptively better than Hamas because the former is secular and the latter is Islamist -- whereas experience suggests that Abbas' secularism hasn't made him any less violent.

In addition, the book contains a passing reference to the idea that anyone who calls himself a Muslim is a Muslim. Secular Muslims often like to stress this point but I have never understood why. If religion doesn't matter to you in the public sphere, then you aren't all that likely to be publicly affirming your Muslim identity anyway; so why bother with this point?
Finally, there is the figure of Fatah himself. Formerly a Marxist leader and activist for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, ever since his arrival in Canada he has had a love-hate relationship with the Muslim communities. He has accused CAIR, ISNA, MSA and ICNA of being shadow-Islamists, which has earned him little love. His own efforts to create a North-America-wide Muslim group called Progressive Muslim Union of North America, were a failure largely because many progressive Muslims, like Muqtedar Khan and Omid Safi, were put off by Fatah's confrontational style and left the group. Further, even as he fought against Sharia in the Canadian legal system, he had a public falling out with Irshad Manji (though he thanks her in the acknowledgments). In other words, there are few Muslim figures who generate negative vibes from both the conservative and liberal side of Islam and Fatah is one of them.

I, personally, don't agree with many of Fatah's positions -- having criticized him in the past.

I, personally, come from the contingent of activists who thought that Fatah did create some of the tension that led to the downfall of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America (I say that as an observer as I was not a member). Unlike him, I don't think Islamic finance as practiced by Western banks strengthens Islamists, rather it forces the entire scheme to be more beholden to international regulation. Unlike him, I don't find any thing particularly threatening about the free and consensual wearing of the hijab. Unlike him, I believe that the theologian Ghazali and segments of Islamic traditionalism are not natural allies of Islamism (of clericalism, certainly).

Having said that, I think this book is a positive contribution to the discussion about contemporary Islam and certainly a valuable addition to the voices that are critically looking at Islam's right-wing. Fatah speaks about Islamic leaders with familiarity and respect, while engaging their ideas critically. He comes from the left so has vehemently opposed American interventionism for decades -- he says he writes to wake up his Muslim brethren, not attack them. He deconstructs Islamic history to separate it from the political reading that dictators, tyrants and fundamentalists have given it. Fatah writes well, has novel ideas, participates in the Islamic tradition, and he is clearly passionate about his private practice of Islam (he has made the hajj twice). Agree with him or not, I don't think there is any other public intellectual in the North American arena -- Muslim or other -- who could have written this book.

Get your copy of:
Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State
• Hardcover: 432 pages
• Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
• ISBN-10: 0470841168
• ISBN-13: 978-0470841167

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quraan burning

Planned Muslim Response to Qur'an Burning by Pastor Jones on September 11 in Mulberry, Florida

August 19, 2013| Dallas, Texas

Mike Ghouse
Text/Talk: (214) 325-1916

Mirza A Beg
(205) 454-8797


We as Muslims plan to respond to pastor Terry Jones' planned burning of 3000 copies of Quran on September 11, 2013 in positive terms.

Our response - we will reclaim the standard of behavior practiced by the Prophet concerning “scurrilous and hostile criticism of the Qur’an” (Muhammad Asad Translation Note 31, verse 41:34). It was "To overcome evil with good is good, and to resist evil by evil is evil." It is also strongly enjoined in the Qur’an in the same verse 41:34, “Good and evil deeds are not equal. Repel evil with what is better; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend.”

God willing Muslims will follow the divine guidance and pray for the restoration of Goodwill, and on that day many Muslim organizations will go on a “blood drive” to save lives and serve humanity with kindness.

We invite fellow Americans of all faiths, races, and ethnicities to join us to rededicate the pledge, “One nation under God”, and to build a cohesive America where no American has to live in apprehension, discomfort or fear of fellow Americans. This event is a substitute for our 10th Annual Unity Day Celebration ( held in Dallas, but now it will be at Mulberry, Florida.

Unwittingly Pastor Jones has done us a favor by invigorating us by his decision to burn nearly 3000 copies Quran on September 11, 2013. Obviously he is not satisfied by the notoriety he garnered by burning one Qur'an last year.

As Muslims and citizens we honor the free speech guaranteed in our constitution. We have no intentions to criticize, condemn or oppose Pastor Terry Jones' freedom of expression. Instead, we will be donating blood and praying for goodness to permeate in our society.

We plan to follow Jesus Christ (pbuh), a revered prophet in Islam as well as Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – that of mitigating the conflicts and nurturing good will for the common good of the society.

We hope, this event and the message will remind Muslims elsewhere in the world as well, that violence is not the way. Muslims, who react violently to senseless provocation, should realize that, violence causes more violence, and besmirches the name of the religion that we hold so dear. We believe that Prophet Muhammad was a mercy to the mankind, and we ought to practice what we believe and preach. We must not insult Islam by the negative reactions of a few.

We can only hope it will bring about a change in the attitude of the followers of Pastor Jones, and in the behavior of those Muslims who reacted violently the last time Pastor sought notoriety – We hope this small step towards a bridge to peaceful coexistence would propel us towards building a cohesive society.

Like most Americans a majority of Muslims quietly go about their own business, but it is time to speak up and take positive action instead of negative reaction. May this message of peace and goodwill reverberate and reach many shores.

Lastly, we appreciate the Citizens of Mulberry, Florida, Honorable Mayor George Hatch, City Commissioners, police and Fire Chiefs for handing this situation very well. This will add a ‘feather of peace’ in the City’s reputation. We hope Mulberry will be a catalyst in showing the way in handling conflict with dignity and peace.

We thank the Media for giving value to the work towards peace rather than conflict.


Thank you.


The people in Dallas are making an effort to understand and clean their own hearts first, when we are free from bias, it would be easy to share that with others. Islam teaches us in so many ways to "respect the otherness of others" and it is time we find simple practical ways of doing it.