Preaching Islamic moderation
Two Canadian authors warn against fundamentalist excesses
Aisha Sherazi, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Sunday, May 18, 2008
Chasing a Mirage: The tragic Illusion of an Islamic State
By Tarek Fatah
John Wiley & Sons Canada, $31.95
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Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest
By Farzana Hassan
McFarland & Company, $35.82
It was the summer of 1994. I sat in the office of the imam in London's Regent's Park mosque, and read my "shahada" or declaration of faith. I excitedly accepted Islam as my faith, and promised to worship one God and attest that Muhammad (peace be unto him) was His messenger. The imam who witnessed this declaration told me something I shall never forget. "Islam as a religion is perfect. But some Muslim people can be terrible!"
How wise his words turned out to be. In years to come I was even to see some Muslims carry out atrocities in the name of God. The imam advised me to seek good company and steer away from those who would lead me astray.
Two new books by Canadian writers Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan reminded me of that time in my life and of the crucial question, what exactly does being "led astray" mean? How does the way we interpret faith affect how we practise it?
Many Muslims believe Islam to be a way of life that encompasses all aspects of their lives. Fatah's book Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, is a hard-hitting book that challenges Muslims to dispose of the dream of establishing a formal, political Islamic state that governs using Islamic principles and laws. Instead, he urges Muslims to seek a "state of Islam" within themselves, in more of a spiritual sense, and adopt a secular approach to everyday life.
Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, takes the reader on a journey that reflects on how modern attempts to establish a so-called Islamic state have failed.
See RELIGION on PAGE B2
Books cite the dangers of being led astray
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Fatah cites Pakistan (his birthplace and where he was jailed twice for his left-wing views as a student) and its failures to become the Islamic country it set out to be. Its failure to become a democracy (an Islamic principle) was the opening chapter in a long history of political turmoil and tragedy. He also analyses the deep-set hypocrisies within the Islamic regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran where racial and tribal allegiances take precedence over piety. In addition, he tackles the topic of Palestine and acknowledges that Muslims collectively must clean up their own house before pointing the finger at anyone else. He suggests how the Palestinian people can gain back some of their lost land by using Israeli contravention of UN Security Council resolutions as the basis for future peace talks, rather than by calls for an Islamist state.
Fatah's book goes on to challenge many ideas about what numerous Muslims call the golden era of Islam that followed the death of Muhammad. His historical analyses help the reader understand why he feels that Muslims never truly regained political or religious momentum after that tragic event. Fatah is deeply concerned that democratic principles were abandoned following the prophet's death, and the power struggle that ensued paved the way for the racial and tribal conflicts that still plague Muslims. Despite the bleak picture he paints, he also highlights the strengths of individual leaders and instances where justice was served.
Fatah argues that the only viable route is to separate religion from political affairs and, judging from the recent religious schools debate, I suspect most people in Ontario would agree with him. However, while providing a detailed historical perspective about why an Islamic State has not worked thus far, Fatah's book falls short of providing solutions. Although many of his criticisms are justified, he doesn't really help the reader grasp how people should assimilate into western society. Immigrants from all backgrounds often feel that their cultural and religious habits define them as people. How does one help them adopt secularism comfortably?
In the third part of his book, Fatah tackles modern issues such as jihadism, the hijab or veil, Sharia law and the overall Islamist Agenda (Fatah's term for Muslims who advocate Islam as a political creed, not just a religion) in the west. Here, sadly, he fails to write in a manner that will unite the secular and what he terms the Islamist sections of the Muslim community in the west. He points the finger at numerous organizations as being Islamist. However, rather than build bridges to those who could help him with his cause, I suspect he alienates many fellow Muslims with his accusatory style.
While Fatah's book appeals to a broad range of readers, Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest, the latest book by Farzana Hassan, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, is probably more of interest to readers attracted to theological discussion. The book is well-researched and written, and uses numerous sources to compare and contrast Islam and Christianity and trace the origins of apocalyptic prophecy in both religions.
Hassan's book also deals with how religious fundamentalism can be used to push an end-agenda, marshalling prophetic scripture and other accounts to attain final religious supremacy. She warns how dangerous it can be to interpret such texts literally.
Perhaps the most poignant part of Hassan's book is when she parallels Christian and Islamic prophecies about the end of the world with what is happening globally today. She rightly points out that radical factions of both faiths claim to be the "good" that will triumph over the "evil."
Which brings me to my initial point. If interpretation is everything in faith, how do we know we are on the right track and not being led astray? Having read both books, I came to the conclusion that no matter on what path God has guided us and through whom, He has provided us with common values, such as compassion, love, truth, respect and justice. Though God is the ground from which these stem, faith chrystallizes into organized religion, which can produce bitter fruits and devastating results if we don't remind ourselves of the root values that were sent to us all.
I thoroughly enjoyed both books, which challenge the heart as well as the mind, despite the fact that I didn't agree with everything Tarek Fatah or Farzana Hassan say, nor with all of their own interpretations.
As a Muslim reader, I was reminded that I am free to choose a path for myself. I am also free to disagree with some fundamentalist views, and agree with others when the right kind of fundamentals are advocated. When we all come back to our basic common values, I think we will be closer to grasping the answers to why we are here, and closer to each other.
Aisha Sherazi, former principal of Abraar Elementary School in Ottawa, is a freelance writer. Access her blog at ottawacitizen.com/blogs.
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