‘House of Islam’ under siege: brave but flawed book

Ed Husain fails to pick up three contemporary trends in political Islam- Wahhabism, Ikhwan and jihadism

Talmiz Ahmad

Ed Husain came to world attention in 2007 with his book, The Islamist. This book provided a glimpse of how a South Asian Muslim immigrant in London was allured towards extremism and was indoctrinated in jihad. That book had then described the increasing disillusionment of its protagonist with jihadi doctrine and his return home to London.

Ed Husain’s new book, The House of Islam, is an attempt to correct the ignorance and half-truths pertaining to Islam and Muslims, set out the dilemmas, doctrinal, and socio-political, that Muslims confront, and what should be done to address the conflicts that define contemporary scenarios in the Muslim world.

Husain asserts that “there is a global battle underway for the soul of Islam”, mainly because Islam is “being politicised by political anger”. Its wellsprings emerge from pervasive authoritarian rule across West Asia as also Western policies of both buttressing these rulers and initiating violent military interventions against specific potentates to suit short-term interests. These factors have engendered deep emotions of “betrayal, hurt, injustice and humiliation” that have created two deep divides: between the rulers and their people and between the West and the world of Islam.

Husain provides a lucid account of the doctrines and early history of Islam, the shaping of Sharia (jurisprudence) in the schools in the Islamic fold, the Sunni-Shia schism in Islam, and the persona of the average Muslim today. Husain devotes considerable attention to the Sufi tradition in Islam and highlights its significance through the lives and writings of stalwarts such as Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Abdul Qadir Jeelani and, interestingly, Princess Jahanara, the daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan.

Sufis played a major role in the spread of Islam, conquering new lands “with their love, miracles and esoteric teachings, and by living pious lives among the masses”, and have hundreds of millions of followers today. The author correctly points out that, as the Muslim realm expanded under the banner of the new faith, it was moderate and flexible in the enforcement of doctrine, upholding public welfare rather the strict letter of the law.

Again, it generally espoused policies of accommodation and pluralism where other faiths were concerned. This supremacy of Islam, political and civilisational, ended with the rise of Western scientific and industrial prowess and the military superiority this provided western powers. The defeat of Muslim empires was not just military; it was a total defeat – political, economic, intellectual and cultural.

Husain’s assertion that Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab only compiled Koranic verses and Hadith and wrote no commentaries is wrong: he was a great theologian and scholar and authored numerous commentaries on the Koran and Hadith, as even a superficial look at his biography will confirm

The author believes that three currents are influencing Muslim life today. First, Arabisation, the “disproportionate Arab influence on the Muslim world”. Though Arabs constitute only 20 percent of the world’s Muslims, contemporary Muslim affairs – political, economic, religious, social and moral – are being impacted mainly by Gulf Arab culture, promoted by petro-dollars, that is diluting the colour and variety of doctrinal and cultural expression of Islam world-wide.

The second current is Westernisation, the influence of Western secularism and its liberal culture that is undermining traditional belief-systems and cultural norms. The juxtaposition of these two currents has led to “confusion” as the third current. This is the uneasy co-existence of two contradictory world-views in which American sartorial styles, music, eating habits and life-style inhabit the same space as adherence to jihad and wanton attacks on western and domestic targets, demands for a caliphate and calls for the destruction of Israel.

Husain then examines Islamism, Salafi-Wahhabism and jihad, and the doctrinal bases of these precepts that ignite contemporary Muslim violence.

He starts with the South Asian ideologue Abul Aala Maududi, moves rapidly to Hassan al-Banna and the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, quickly links Banna with Muslim extremist violence in the late twentieth century, goes back and briefly looks at the ideologue Sayyid Qutb, goes even further back to the Kharijite extremists of early Islam, and then highlights the recent early twenty-first “moderation” of the Tunisian ideologue Rachid Ghannouchi, all in fifteen breathless pages!

Surprisingly, there is no reference to the role played by the “global jihad” in Afghanistan, sponsored by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the 1980s, in providing the organisation, leadership, weaponry, training, battle-field experience and, above all, doctrinal justification, for jihad.

Husain’s discussion of what he calls “Salafi-Wahhabism” is replete with errors of fact and understanding. He conflates modern Salafism with Wahhabism, blames Saudi Arabia for the influence of this ‘baneful’ ideology, sees no difference between Wahhabism and jihadism, and finally loses all scholarly restraint by demanding that “Salafi-Wahhabism must be brought to an end” before it takes hold in other capitals.

Husain has got it all wrong. Contemporary political Islam has three distinct expressions all of which are avowedly ‘Salafi’: Wahhabism, the informing doctrine of Saudi Arabia, is quietist in that politics and is the sole prerogative of the ruler. The second strand is represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, which espouses political activism, reflects diverse belief-systems, and, within an Islamic framework, can accommodate modern-day democratic politics. Neither Wahhabism nor the Brotherhood countenance violence as part of their belief-system.

Jihadism, also called “Salafi-Jihadism”, insists that, in the prevailing political circumstances, the Islamist order can and should be attained only through violence, which is divinely sanctioned. Its intellectual moorings originate, not in the literature of Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, but in the writings of Maududi, Qutb, and, more recently, Abdullah Azzam, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the ideologue of ISIS, Turki bin Al Ali. None of them is part of mainstream Islamic doctrine and all of them draw conclusions from earlier commentaries in terms that suit their political posture and their actions.

The Saudi social-moral order has little to do with Wahhabi doctrine; it is based on pre-Islamic Najdi tribal norms. Wahhabism is primarily used to provide legitimacy for royal rule and the justification to exercise coercive authority in the state in the name of Islam

Now, the errors. No, Puritans have not ceased to exist as a movement in the west; they are represented today by the various fundamentalist ‘Millenialist’ movements that emerged in 19th century US, whose adherents today constitute the majority among American Protestants.

The Saudi social-moral order has little to do with Wahhabi doctrine; it is based on pre-Islamic Najdi tribal norms. Wahhabism is primarily used to provide legitimacy for royal rule and the justification to exercise coercive authority in the state in the name of Islam.

Husain’s assertion that Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab only compiled Koranic verses and Hadith and wrote no commentaries is wrong: he was a great theologian and scholar and authored numerous commentaries on the Koran and Hadith, as even a superficial look at his biography will confirm. Husain’s description of the inclusion of Mecca and Medina in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as an “occupation” reflects prejudice of the author and absence of scholarly balance.

Finally, Husain’s view that the ISIS is a contemporary version of the early Kharijites makes little historical sense. While both are extremist movements and not amenable to compromise, the ISIS is the product of the unique political circumstances prevailing in Iraq during the Saddam era and later the US occupation.

The ‘way forward’, Husain offers, to “heal the rifts and rancour in the Islamic world” consists of: creating a “Middle East Union”, implementing a “Muslim Marshall Plan”, and expelling violent extremists from the Muslim fold. None of these prescriptions has any basis in reality. Given the deep divides in West Asia and the visceral animosities that animate the principal powers, a political union is a remote prospect.

Again, who will oust the jihadis from the Muslim fold when state powers have themselves used extremists to further their political interests – in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Iraq, Syria and Yemen?

More seriously, Husain seems ambivalent about democracy in the Arab world: while he insists that the “ordinary Arab’s feeling of powerlessness needs to end” and emphasises the need to “open up pluralist political spaces and wider economic participation”, he also criticises western governments for calling for “secular, liberal, democratic” forms of government that do not allow for “global grey zones” or other forms of consensual or tribal forms of government.

Ed Husain has made a brave attempt to explain Islam and contemporary Muslim politics and society to the lay reader. But, despite his earlier studies and personal experiences, the effort surprisingly is misleading, misdirected and deeply flawed in important respects, so that it produces confusion rather than clarity.

The author is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia and writes extensively on Islam, jihad and West Asian politics

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