Book Review

  • Issue 10 / April - June 1995



    Subverting Islam The Role Of Orientalist Centres

    M. A. Rahim

    This is a forceful polemic alerting the Muslim community to a present danger. The feeling of danger, the description of it, the attitude towards it, and the means suggested for dealing with it, are all expressed in the language of the Qur'an, often in direct quotation. That is the best reason for taking up this book. But one feels in it also the weight of the author's long years of active commitment to the teaching of Islam - in his native Egypt, in Algeria, in Nigeria, in the United Kingdom, and (most recently) in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi authorities expelled him because he spoke publicly about their financial and political support for Orientalists and missionaries whose published work denigrates Islam.

    The Qur'an is read by Muslims as an act of worship and also for consolation on occasions of crisis. Both very proper purposes Dr Ghorab shows how it can also be used for guidance, as a means of analyzing and understanding major current events. Specifically, he applies the verses about Muslim relations with non-Muslims (2.109; 2.120; 3.64; 4.138-40; 5.51; 45. 18-19; 47.22-9; 61.8; 59.14), and some ahadith on the same subject, to carry out a convincing 'institutional analysis' of a new kind of centre for Western scholarship about Islam. (Some necessary background knowledge about the old kind is supplied in a compact sketch in chapter 1.)

    The need for these new centres was felt at the beginning of the 1980s when the revival of Islam entered the news as the revival of an ancient threat to the values and interests of the West. What is new about these centres is (a) that Muslim scholars work together with non-Muslims to do research on Islam and to produce materials for the teaching of Islam; and (b) that they are housed in prestigious Western universities as 'affiliates' but funded almost entirely by Muslims (individuals and governments). In this context 'Islam' is a subject area that includes matters of faith and creed, law and formative history: in other words, research work at these centres is not confined to patterns on rugs or inscriptions on coins; it touches on the very essentials.

    What is wrong with Muslims and non-Muslims working together? Any moderate Muslim is bound to hope that these new 'centres for Islamic studies' or for 'Christian-Muslim dialogue' represent, at last, a willingness on the part of Western scholars to reciprocate the courtesies and respect generally accorded to them by Muslim scholars, to open their minds to the influence of Muslim perspectives about Islam. As Dr Ghorab demonstrates, these are false hopes. Indeed, the danger is, as he sees it, that Western hostility to Islam and the effort to weaken the Muslims' commitment to the establishment of an Islamic order in their lives, can be more effectively pursued with the participation, and using the resources, of Muslims themselves.

    The main aim of institutional analysis is not to disclose hidden conspiracies or conspirators: that, if it happens is an accidental by-product. The proper aim of such analysis is to show how power is disposed and managed across different structures in order to achieve particular outcomes. Dr Ghorab gives specific analysis of one UK institution and names particular individuals involved in its establishment, financial support and so on. The concrete detail, the naming of names, is regrettable but unavoidable - how else make the general argument convincing and realistic? In a careful account of the academic journal produced by this UK institution, the author distinguishes the journal as an institution from the individual contributions in it. As the product of a Western academic institution, the journal is procedurally and practically constrained to take the usual Western academic line about Islam. He shows very clearly that, even if the individuals writing in the journal intend the very opposite of what the journal as an institution is intended to achieve, it is the journal, not the well-meaning individual Muslim contributor, that will win most of the time. (Anyone familiar with super-power manipulations of the United Nations will understand the distinction between well-meaning individuals and well-phrased moral principles, and what the institution really achieves.)

    In the colonial era, Western-backed individuals and institutions in Muslim countries were easily recognized as such and rejected by the mass of Muslims. The individual Muslims, engaged in these new centres, whatever their intentions (and they may be good), are less easy to distinguish. Moreover, their working alongside non-Muslims gives legitimacy to Western assumptions about Islam and to Western intentions for the reform of Islam. Why does it matter so much to keep a clear line between Western scholarship about Islam and Muslim scholarship?

    Muslims do differ with other Muslims on issues having to do with faith, law, history, etc. But they differ within a shared framework: the differences they have with non- Muslims are worlds apart. Dr Ghorab lists the minimum conditions for Muslim study of Islam:

    (1) To study Islam as a revealed religion (this means to study it as the truth from Allah whose authority is not to be challenged but to be understood and, therefore, confessed intelligently. (2) To take Islam from its own original and authentic sources (i.e. the Qur'an and Sunnah). (3) To take it as knowledge and practice ... [i.e. not as academic pastime for libraries or museums. (4) To take it from qualified Muslim scholars. The qualifications in question are iman (faith), 'ilm (knowledge) and taqwa (fear of Allah).

    He then contrasts these with the minimum conditions for Western study of islam:

    (I) Western scholars must not accept that Islam is a revealed religion. Their work will be condemned if they regard the Qur'an as the Word of Allah. (2) They must not take Islam from its own sources... they must specifically look outside those sources to get a true' picture... Orientalists regard Qur'an and Sunnah as the least reliable (sources), and others must be preferred in cases of conflict. (3)They must not under any circumstances promote Islam as a way of life or even of belief. It must be seen as a thing of the past... (4) They must not have a personal commitment to Islam... Any Muslims... working in a Western academic environment must learn to suspend their beliefs while they study Islam.

    It would be an injustice to Dr Ghorab not to make clear what he makes clear: non-Muslims cannot be expected to support or help the cause of Islam, and they have a clear right to set up institutions and to work for their own objectives and according to their own methodologies. But, by the command of the Qur'an, it is not right for Muslims to be allied to, or to be financing, those objectives and methodologies. There is an easily understood space between a positive, respectful tolerance and the kind of alliance or allegiance which concedes to non- Muslims the upper hand in the affairs of Muslims.

    Dr Ghorab's argument does not end negatively, saying only what is wrong, what not to do. He writes:

    ÔÇŽ.it does not suffice to only know what is wrong and feel badly about it. It is a part of Muslim conscience to take the next necessary steps - to proclaim and publish that which is wrong so that..., the will begins to form in the community to do something about it.... The further duty is to put right that which is wrong that means sitting down with like- minded Muslims to discuss, and then establish, ways of getting the appropriate education to Muslims, of giving them access to Islamic perspectives on Islamic history and civilization.

    Dr Ghorab goes on to make practical suggestions on how to proceed, step by step to set up institutions which, though small and lacking funds and prestige, would have the merit and reward of respecting and protecting Qur'an and Sunnah.

    As indicated above, names are named in this book - something regrettable but unavoidable. But there is a duty in this regard which the author has fallen short of. Firstly, the institutional campaign against Muslims is only a part of a wider strategy of news and information management in the West. The book could have pointed this out - consider, for example, how carefully and subtly the mood of the non-Muslim public in the West has been handled on the war in Bosnia. There are many perspectives, not only the Islamic, which are not aired, and therefore left to choke. Muslims, as Muslims, owe a wide sympathy to fellow human beings, all of whom must be regarded as Muslims of the future. Secondly, the author needs to have discussed what is to be done with the particular institution and individuals named in the book: are they only to be shunned and criticized? Is it not also a part of defending the Sunnah to reserve final judgement to leave room for some level of contact to be kept going, in other words, to maintain hope for them? Criticism of what is wrong is a duty; but it is also a duty to put that criticism (so far as possible) in the form of practicable counsel, not rejection.

    Share/Bookmark

    comments powered by Disqus
´╗┐