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Islamism's false narrative

A new book challenges the idea that Islamists are the authentic representatives of the earliest Muslims

Ali Eteraz

Islamism is the idea that the laws of a nation-state should be subservient to a historical interpretation of Islamic law. It is a dangerous idea not just because it seeks to justify archaic punishments and create inequality between the citizens of a state, but because it is gaining currency every day.

While all Muslims aren't Islamists, all Islamists are Muslims, and among the latter, Islamism is predicated upon the belief that it is the most accurate vision of Islam. The rationale Islamists give is that the Prophet Muhammad and the first generations of Muslims, referred to as Pious Predecessors - salaf as-salihoon in Arabic - were, functionally speaking, Islamists themselves.

This is, in many ways, a powerful narrative. Its potency lies in the fact that the moment a Muslim questions it, he or she is called a sell-out. When rebuked like this, average Muslims, unwilling to be depicted as critical of the first generations of believers, immediately run away. This ability to stifle criticism is a large reason that over the span of the 20th century, Islamism went nearly unchallenged among Muslims.

Yet, what if the Islamist narrative about the Pious Predecessors is demonstrably wrong? What if the kind of ideas - of religious supremacy, subjugating women, maligning minorities, creating unequal legal schemes - that Islamists retroactively heap upon the first generations of Muslims are lies?

A short but probing new book by Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, entitled The First Muslims: History and Memory, convincingly argues that the Islamist depiction of the Pious Predecessors is incorrect.

Even more damning for Islamists, Afsaruddin says in the conclusion of her book: "It is quite clear that those whom we call 'modernists' today are in fact much closer to the salaf as-salih in their world view, as reflected in the early sources." In fact, she goes on to call the modernists "the true salafis". In other words, under the standards that Islamists themselves set, they fall short.

Afsaruddin's argument is well developed and thorough, laced with myriad examples of the ways in which the Islamist narrative is more fiction than fact.

Her best example is in the area of women's rights, where she shows that the Islamist view of women isn't based on how the salaf women actually lived, but on how 13th, 14th, and 15th century Islamic scholars misleadingly depicted the first generation of Muslim women.

In an exhaustive demonstration, Afsaruddin shows how the 15th century scholar Ibn Hajar "editorialised" and engaged in a "reconstruction" of a number of the Muslim women from the 7th century, so they would come off as passive, docile and submissive as opposed to how they were really: active, involved in the public sphere, and independent.

Afsaruddin gives similar examples in the area of governance, relationship to the poor and disadvantaged and relationships with non-Muslims. In the area of governance, four examples in particular jumped out at me.

The first is when she shows that the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar, did not believe they were in charge of a divine state - a fact that should bring pause to the Islamists who have no moral qualms about ignoring this fact.

The second is when she shows that Abu Bakr's ridda war wasn't against apostates as Islamists pretend, but against tribes that no longer wanted to pay the tax that they used to pay to Muhammad. This would mean that the first war the Arabs fought after the death of Muhammad wasn't a war of religion.

The third is when she shows that the fourth caliph, Ali, set a precedent for universal welfare - which bolsters the modernist position that nation-states ought not to discriminate between citizens.

The fourth example relates to Quran verse 4:59, which has been used by Islamists for authoritarian purposes. In full, the verse reads: "Obey God and the messenger, and those in authority among you." Islamists, however, subtly change the latter part of the verse so that it reads, "those in authority over you." This change from "among" to "over" allows Islamists to use the Quran to assert themselves as politically superior to other Muslims. Afsaruddin points out that the salaf as-salih, whom the Islamists purportedly follow, didn't understand 4:59 like that. She takes the reader back to the earliest exegetes - who were themselves Pious Predecessors - and shows that they read the verse without a reference to political power. It's a very effective dismemberment of the Islamist claim.

I recommend this book to anyone seeking to gain a deeper insight into Islamism. However, a few caveats:

While the book is short enough to be read by a lay reader, don't forget that it is written by an academic, writing technically. This means that the first half of the book contains the facts and the second half contains the application of the facts to the circumstances. We're not accustomed to reading books like this so it takes a bit of getting used to. I found bouncing back and forth very effective, and fairly easy.

Also, although I am not an academic I did find the referencing a little thin. I refer, for example, to Afsaruddin's citation to Martin Lings' biography of Muhammad. Anyone who has read Lings knows that his is a devotional, not an academic work, and has little place in a study such as this. This is, on the whole, a forgivable error because I didn't notice Afsaruddin citing Lings for any unique or unknown propositions.

Another place I would have liked to see better referencing would have been in the section on Islamists and modernists. I think the discussion would have been stronger had it occurred in real time, rather than at a somewhat theoretical level.

Still, these criticisms are negligible in light of the larger importance of the book.

In conclusion, The First Muslims is a probing and incisive work about one of the most important and most contested group of people in Islamic history. The way the salaf as-salihoon relate to the ongoing battle of ideas between secularists, liberals, modernists, traditionalists and Islamists in Islam makes this book even more relevant and timely. One of its primary contributions is to demonstrate that the Islamist narrative isn't just worthy of opposition on moral grounds, but is also lacking empirically.

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