SL Muslims at the cross roads – 21

8 DummY Muslim MinistersBy Izeth Hussain

I will conclude this series of articles by focusing on two questions: firstly, what is the explanation for the anti-Muslim campaign, and secondly, what should be done about it? But before getting to that I want to make some preliminary clarifications. I have concentrated on the actual bilateral issues that have been bedeviling Sinhalese-Muslim relations. It might seem therefore to some readers that I have left huge lacunae about matters that have been seriously prejudicing those relations. There is for instance the ill-treatment, sometimes amounting to enslavement, of our housemaids in the Arab world. There could be some amount of exaggeration about that ill-treatment: if it were uniformly ghastly our housemaids would not continue to go there in huge numbers. Then there are the restrictions placed on the practice of non-Islamic religions in Saudi Arabia. In the vast majority of the Muslim countries there are no such restrictions, and therefore they don’t constitute much of a problem for our Buddhists abroad. The principle to be asserted is this: our Muslims should not be held accountable for what is done by Muslims abroad, because if they were it would become impossible to deal effectively with Sinhalese-Muslim bilateral problems.


There is also the problem of the negative images of Islam that are widely prevalent in the world today, which can be expected to impact negatively on Sinhalese-Muslim relations. I have dealt adequately enough with the problem of Muslim extremism, which I have argued is a fringe aberrant form of Islam that is not to be confused with the mainstream orthodox Islam that prevails in the greater part of the Islamic world. But I have not explained what is meant by mainstream orthodox Islam, nor its variant of liberal modernizing Islam. That would require in-depth treatment which would be out of place in the present series of articles which have the limited pragmatic purpose of clearing up bilateral Sinhalese-Muslim issues.


However as those negative images do in fact seem to be impacting very negatively on Sinhalese-Muslim relations – thanks to the BBS campaign – I will here provide a few indications about mainstream Islam and its liberal variant so that the interested reader can turn to the internet for more information about them. Orthodox Islam is really an interpretation just as are the orthodox and other versions of all the other great world religions. It does not consist only of the Koranic texts as is widely believed but of the Sunna – the Way – which includes in addition to the Koran the hadiths – that is the sayings and actions of the Prophet. Orthodox Islam recognizes six books of the hadiths, four schools of the Sharia, and Asharite theology and can be said to have attained its final form more than five centuries after the death of the Prophet. Consequently the BBS and other denigrators of Islam who tendentiously quote only some Koranic texts to project a negative image of Islam are wide of the mark. Some Koranic texts are regarded as conjunctural, meaning that they are valid only in relation to the occasions that gave rise to them, while the core Koranic texts have an eternal validity. Some texts are regarded as abrogated, on which – when I come to write an in-depth article – I hope to quote among others from Relire le Coran (1993) by Jacques Berque, one of the foremost Islamologists of the last century. Anyway, orthodox Islam claimed to get at the eternal core of Islam, and it was that form of Islam which – while it was in the process of formulation – inspired great civilizational achievements. It has also inspired in our time Weeramantry’s Islamic Jurisprudence which projects a very positive image of Islam. Anyone consulting Weeramantry’s text will find that its version of Islam is a universe away from the BBS’ image of Islam.


The liberal modernizing version of Islam began with the work of the great reformer Jamaldin al-Afghani in the late nineteenth century. One of its representative figures was the great poet Iqbal, and one of its classic texts was The Spirit of Islam by Ameer Ali, who was the first Indian on Britain’s Privy Council. It is the liberal modernizing current set off by Afghani that can be expected to prevail in the contemporary Islamic world. It is a significant fact, as I have pointed out earlier, that at the time that President Sakorzy was moving to ban the burqa only two thousand females wore it out of a French Muslim population of five million. Most of those five million, removed from the constraints of their traditional societies, were happily adjusting to modernity. Another significant fact is that when some years ago Afghani’s bones were disinterred and reburied in Afghanistan, the American Ambassador there was present on the occasion and paid him a glowing tribute. The significance is that the enlightened elements in the West see in liberal Islam the real future of the Muslims.


Some readers might think that I am being disingenuous in ignoring a well-known negative feature of Islam, which is a peculiar recalcitrance to change, as I want to twist reality to fit an entirely positive image of contemporary Islam. The recalcitrance to change is certainly there as shown for instance by the travails of the ‘Arab Spring’, indicating that the transition to democracy in the Islamic world will prove to be much more difficult than elsewhere. There is more than one theory to explain this recalcitrance to change. Montgomery Watt, one of the leading Islamologists of the last century, has argued that the reason is that Islam was bred in a desert environment in which to stray from the beaten path could prove to be fatal. Therefore, in religious matters, to stray from the Sunna, the Way, could also be fatal, and from that arises a general Islamic recalcitrance to change. But would that be true of Islamic countries outside the desert regions? The answer to that could be that it is precisely in the Arab countries that the transition to democracy is proving to be most difficult, unlike for instance in Malaysia and Indonesia. But, then, Watt’s theory would not fit the whole of the Islamic world which in general has certainly shown a peculiar recalcitrance to change. For instance the Muslims in the lush tropical island of Sri Lanka resisted taking to secular education for decades. I believe that it would be fruitful to take Watt’s monocausal theory together with that of the theologian Don Cupitt: Islam is the most heteronomous of all the world religions, as it leaves the least room for the autonomous self-determining individual, and therefore there is at the core of Islam conservatism and recalcitrance to change.


The fundamental challenge facing the Islamic world today is to move from orthodox Islam to what might be called liberal Islam, in which connection the recalcitrance to change acquires particular importance. That change is inevitable, as I can illustrate from the details of changes that have been taking place among the Sri Lankan Muslims from the 1930s onwards. The fundamental challenge is not the one posed by the rise of Muslin extremism, which is a result – as I have argued earlier – of the transition to modernity. That Muslim extremism has acquired a peculiar virulence because of very special circumstances, notably the Saudi oil billions and the promotion of Wahabism/Salafism. That point can be convincingly illustrated from the spectacular rise of the Islamic State. How did a group of young fanatics score spectacular military victories with lightning speed, and establish within just a few months a State with territory as large as that of the United Kingdom? Furthermore, it is a State that no one dares take on with ground troops, even though the desire to extinguish it is universal, inclusive of the Islamic world. None of that would have been possible, even thinkable, without big money backing the original group of fanatics, and that money certainly came from the oil-rich Arab kingdoms. A core group of fighters required military training, which was almost certainly provided by Westerners. It is known that the weapons were American and were freely supplied by Saudi Arabia. If not for those very special circumstances the Islamic State would never have been established. It is the product of those very special circumstances and not of something that is inherent in Islam as the BBS and the Islamophobes would want us to believe.