How Muslims Are Losing Their Way


On December 30th, a year ago, Dr. Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoys essay, ғHow Islam Lost its Way, had enough shock value to make its way into The Washington Post.  This essay has since become a cause celebre in Muslim circles as part of the problem in combating extremism.  This think-piece, with its otherwise well-taken arguments on why the Muslim civilization collapsed, falls into three semantic traps that renders its overall message deeply hostile to classical American thought.

Secular Humanism

First, Dr. Hoodbhoy undercuts everything he intends to say by his conclusion: ԓWe have but one choice, the path of secular humanism.  He apparently is unaware that secular humanism is a powerful and well-articulated movement dating back to its first public manifesto seventy years ago.  This founding manifesto, and a second up-date shortly after the Second World War, attacked all religion as contrary to reason and called for the elimination of religion from public life.

This is thoroughly un-American, because almost all of AmericaԒs founders were deeply spiritual and based their entire Great American Experiment in republican governance on the pervasive influence of religion in both private and public life.  By religion they understood a sense of awareness of the divine and of every persons and communityҒs responsibility to reflect in public life the divine wisdom evident in both natural law and revelation, which Muslim scholars term, respectively, the sunnatu Allahi and wahy. 

What amounts to a culture war by secular humanism against religion in America did not begin until about the time of the American Civil War in the mid-19th century.  Until then, there were almost no atheists anywhere on earth.  The idea of human community without religion was inconceivable.  The secularist movement in its various manifestations, which culminated in such perversions of Christianity as Communism and Nazism and in the perversion of Judaism by the extremes of secular Zionism, proclaimed the death of God and undying enmity to the traditionalist movement that gave rise to the American Revolution.

Thomas Jefferson, the prime author of Americas Declaration of Independence, building on the intellectual brilliance of Edmund Burke, who led the minority Whig Party in 18th-century England, was perhaps the most profound leader of this traditionalist movement.  It inspired everything that has come to be known as uniquely American, but in fact is common to both classical America and classical Islam. 

Traditionalists, in American idiom, are those who were committed to reviving the best of the past in order to build a better future.  Jefferson defined them as those who are ғenlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence [the term then used for God], which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.

Jefferson taught that people can remain free only if they are properly educated.  Education means above all the development of character based on virtue.  And, he insisted, lasting commitment by an entire people to virtue is possible only through religion.

He insisted also that religion can survive only if it results from free choice, which is why freedom of religion necessarily forbids the establishment of any single religion.  This principle was enshrined in the second clause of the first of the amendments that established the normative principles underlying the American constitution.

Secular and Democratic State

Second, Dr. Hoodbuoy, asserts that, ԓMuslims need a secular and democratic state that respects religious freedom and human dignity and is founded on the principle that power belongs to the people.  In American idiom, a secular state, and, in fact, in the parlance of established political science, any ԓstate, as distinct from a polity, or government, or system of governance, denies the higher authority of God and thereby elevates man to the level of a false god.  This idea of absolute sovereignty in man was also AmericaԒs founders definition of a ғdemocracy.  The Founders all condemned democracy, because they considered that this term referred to the rule of the people as in the French revolution.  The leaders of the French Revolution attacked all authority except their own by manipulating the masses in an orgy of violence.

The entire thrust of the American constitution was to prevent mob rule by designing a system of representative government subject to the ultimate sovereignty of God.  They had a realistic and pragmatic view of human nature, contrary to the secular utopians who caused world-wide havoc in the 20th century and the ԓreligious utopians among the Muslims who threaten to cause more such havoc today.  Instead of the utopiansԒ flawed vision of human nature and their own claimed infallibility, the American Founders expressed their constrained vision of human nature in a movement known as constitutionalism. 

The essence of this movement, which derived originally from ancient Greece and Rome and developed in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, required government by law and under law, separation of powers, separation of Church and State (but not of religion and public life), and limited popular participation.  This is the definition of a republic, which differs from a democracy most importantly in that it recognizes that no person and no group of people, whether by contract or otherwise, are sovereign, because ultimate sovereignty belongs to the Creator of the universe.

A republic may base its system of representive governance in a technical sense on majority rule, and in this sense may be democratic.  The purpose of majority rule is to counter the consolidation of power in elites, because as Lord Acton said, ғPower corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  In a republic, as conceived by AmericaԒs founders, the legislators themselves are not to become an irresponsible elite, nor to permit the executive branch of government to do so, because they are bound to make laws that reflect the human rights and responsibilities given to persons and groups by their Creator.  The judiciary, in turn, is bound to apply such laws, but to overrule the legislators if they deny human rights by concentrating power and corrupting public life.  This is what the separation of powers is all about.

Majority rule therefore in a republic is a technique of governance.  It is not an absolute and ultimate value, as so many hyphenated, progressiveӔ Muslims, including perhaps Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, seem to contend.

Islam Does Not Exist!

Thirdly, and most seriously of all, Dr. Hoodbhoy makes the grievous error of religious relativism when he implies that any religion consists of its adherents actions, and that therefore Islam does not exist.  This epistemological error is precisely why extremists of other faiths attack Islam on the basis of actions by a loud but fringe minority.

Dr. Hoodbhoy writes: ғFor nearly four months now, leaders of the Muslim community in the United States, and even President Bush, have routinely asserted that Islam is a religion of peace that was hijacked by fanatics on September 11th.  These two assertions are simply untrue.  First, Islam like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or any other religion is not about peace.  Nor is it about war.  Every religion is about absolute belief in its own superiority and the divine right to impose its version of truth upon others. օ There is no true Islamђ.

Certainly, some of the most severe human conflicts have always resulted from arrogant claims that only oneԒs own religion contains truth and that all other faith traditions are illegitimate.  This exclusivist attitude is condemned in the Quran, as well as by the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, more than in any other religion.

The QurҒan is explicit in condemning those Christians and Jews who have a disease in their hearts,Ӕ but the same would apply to Muslims.  The Quran also warns against taking any Christian or Jew as a guardian.  The QurҒanic term is wali, which is one of the names or attributes of Allah, but is often erroneously translated merely as friend.Ӕ 

The generic definition of Muslims is trifold, namely, all those of whatever faith tradition who believe in God and in His judgement and practice good works.  Those who believe [in the QurӒan] and those who follow the Jewish [scriptures] and the Christians and the Sabians and who believe in God and the last day and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve Surah al Baqara 2:62.  And, ԓUnto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life.  And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community; but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you.  Compete, then, with one another in doing good works! Surah al MaԒida 5:48.

To claim that there is no true Islam, even the Islam that exists in other religions, is tantamount to saying that there is and can be no truth at all, and that the deep-seated human instinct to search for truth, love, and justice is nothing but a fraud and a deception. 

If this were true, then the secular humanists would be right that peace requires the elimination of all religion.  Is this what Dr. Hoodbhoy is advocating when he calls for reintroducing the extremist insistence by the Mutazilites of old that human reason trumps divine revelation.  Is this what he means when he attacks the great unifier of reason and revelation, Abdul Hamid al Ghazali, who was one of IslamҒs greatest thinkers and spiritual guides and is condemned nowadays by the Wahhabi extremists as an innovator,Ӕ by calling him a backward Arab clericӔ?