Salman Rushdie calls for “Islamic Reformation”

In a London Times opinion piece Aug. 11, “Muslims unite! A new Reformation will bring your faith into the modern era,” author Salman Rushdie begins by applauding Sir Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, for admitting that “our own children” had perpetrated the 7-7 London bombings. Rushdie writes “it was the first time in my memory that a British Muslim had accepted his community’s responsibility for outrages committed by its members. Instead of blaming US foreign policy or ‘Islamophobia’, Sacranie described the bombings as a ‘profound challenge’ for the Muslim community.” But Rushdie notes that this is the same Sacranie who, in 1989, said that “Death is perhaps too easy” for the author of The Satanic Verses (i.e. Rushdie, then facing a fatwa ordering his assassination by Iranian mullahs). Rushdie protests Tony Blair’s decision to knight Sacranie and treat him as the acceptable face of “moderate” Islam, calling the move “either a sign of his Government’s penchant for religious appeasement or a demonstration of how limited Mr Blair’s options really are.”

Sacranie recently stated, “There is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist. This is deeply offensive.” But his organization boycotted a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in London earlier this year. “If Sir Iqbal Sacranie is the best Mr Blair can offer in the way of a good Muslim, we have a problem,” Rushdie writes.

For Rushdie, this illustrates the error of Blair’s strategy of “relying on traditional, but essentially orthodox, Muslims to help to eradicate Islamist radicalism. Traditional Islam is a broad church that certainly includes millions of tolerant, civilised men and women, but also encompasses many whose views on women’s rights are antediluvian, who think of homosexuality as ungodly, who have little time for real freedom of expression, who routinely express anti-Semitic views, and who, in the case of the Muslim diaspora, are — it has to be said — in many ways at odds with the (Christian, Hindu, non-believing or Jewish) cultures among which they live.”

Unlike Christopher Hitchens, Rushdie doesn’t refuse to talk about Iraq in the context of the London bombings:

The deeper alienations that lead to terrorism may have their roots in these young men’s objections to events in Iraq or elsewhere, but the closed communities of some traditional Western Muslims are places in which young men’s alienations can easily deepen. What is needed is a move beyond tradition — nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the jihadi ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows of the closed communities to let in much-needed fresh air.

Rushdie calls for “a new scholarship to replace the literalist diktats and narrow dogmatisms that plague present-day Muslim thinking”, for Muslims “to study the revelation of their religion as an event inside history, not supernaturally above it.”

It should be a matter of intense interest to all Muslims that Islam is the only religion whose birth was recorded historically, its origins uniquely grounded not in legend but in fact. The Koran was revealed at a time of great change in the Arab world, the 7th-century shift from a matriarchal nomadic culture to an urban patriarchal system. Muhammad, as an orphan, personally suffered the difficulties of this transformation, and it is possible to read the Koran as a plea for the old matriarchal values in the new patriarchal world, a conservative plea that became revolutionary because of its appeal to all those whom the new system disenfranchised, the poor, the powerless, and, yes, the orphans.

Muhammad was also a successful merchant and heard, on his travels, the Nestorian Christians’ desert versions of Bible stories which the Koran mirrors closely (Christ, in the Koran, is born in an oasis, under a palm tree). It ought to be fascinating to Muslims everywhere to see how deeply their beloved book is a product of its place and time, and in how many ways it reflects the Prophet’s own experiences.

However, few Muslims have been permitted to study their religious book in this way. The insistence within Islam that the Koranic text is the infallible, uncreated word of God renders analytical scholarly discourse all but impossible. Why would God be influenced by the socioeconomics of 7th-century Arabia, after all? Why would the Messenger’s personal circumstances have anything to do with the Message?

The traditionalists’ refusal of history plays right into the hands of the literalist Islamofascists, allowing them to imprison Islam in their iron certainties and unchanging absolutes. If, however, the Koran were seen as a historical document, then it would be legitimate to reinterpret it to suit the new conditions of successive new ages… The Islamic Reformation has to begin here, with an acceptance that all ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to altered realities.

He closes with a personal challenge: “Will Sir Iqbal Sacranie and his ilk agree that Islam must be modernised? That would indeed make them part of the solution. Otherwise, they’re just the ‘traditional’ part of the problem.”

Interestingly, the title of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (set in the contemporary world) comes from the story that verses 19-23 of the Koran’s Surah 53, which condemn the worship of three traditional goddesses of ancient Arabia (Lat, Uzza and Manat), had actually originally approved of the goddess figures as transmitters of the divine—but were later repudiated as having been dictated to the Prophet by Satan. This story certainly has its origins in how early Islam negotiated the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy.

(Accounts are online at the dissident Islamic website and Answering Islam—which claims to be a “Christian-Muslim dialogue,” but seems to be much more partial to Christianity. The orthodox Islamic sites generally do not address the question.)

The Egyptian feminist scholar Nawal El Saadawi faced apostasy charges in her own country in 2001 for arguing that that Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) had pre-Islamic roots. The Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, was certainly revered before the time of Mohammed, and the Black Stone it contains was associated with goddess-worship—as even moderate but fairly orthodox sites such as will admit.

See our last post on the politics of Islamic extremism.

  1. S Verses
    I’m reading the book, almost done. What an artistic triumph. I’m no literary scholar, and I’m sure this has already been written about, but the book itself seems to presage Khomeini’s fatwa. There’s even a character named “Salman,” although I think Rushdie might be represented by Ba’al, the satiric poet. Far out.

    1. A glutton for punishment?
      And his forthcoming Shalimar the Clown, set in contemporary Kashmir, seems to take the issue of Islamic terrorism head-on, according to the previews. The man’s sure got cojones.