Islam, the faith of some two hundred million souls, has a long and well-documented history of pluralism and tolerance, and indeed, learning. But in recent decades, the faith has been hijacked by the punitive and literalist proclivities of the Salafis, condoned, coopted and championed by the conservative, corrupt, brutal, patriarchal and misogynistic autocracies of Saudi Arab and other Gulf States and ostensibly Islamic states like Iran. If ever there were exemplars for the “religion of peace”, and followers of a “merciful and compassionate” God, these are certainly not. To borrow another faith’s noun, theirs’ is in so many ways a gospel of bondage.
[This, by the way, is a book review and not a theological critique. I neither profess nor profane, although my personal opinions might occasionally intrude. I admit to a sound but not specialist familiarity with and knowledge of Islam and Muslims, and a wide but not expert knowledge of the Middle East]
In The House of Islam – a global history offers the potential for a softer, kinder, spiritual Islam. Author Ed Husain, British-born of Indian heritage, wears his Sufi heart on his sleeve. “Preoccupied with spiritual awareness and depth, Sufi Islam transcends the performative trappings of superficial appearances such as beards and head-coverings, fixation with the simplistic binaries of haram and halal (what is forbidden and not forbidden in Islam) and the state’s imposition of sharia law.”
Little wonder that in many rooms in the House of Islam, Sufis are suspect, sanctioned and silenced – often brutally. As are many “heterogeneous” offshoots of this one true faith, including for many, more than two hundred million Shiah.
It is the authoritarian, mediaeval Salafi-Wahhabi Arabian Peninsula theology and culture that has become commonly adopted as a marker of Muslim authenticity and has assumed the status of the ideal religious identity – notwithstanding the historical preeminence of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad as centres of Muslim learning – and even though Arabs constitute a numerical minority in the Muslim world.
This “Arabization” and indeed, “Saudification” of Islam has colonized, distorted and, indeed, contorted and corrupted the spiritual message of Islam, and with the concurrent attractions and challenges of westernization, has, in Husain’s words, “disoriented the traditional Muslim equilibrium”, and brought forth jihadi abominations like al-Qaeda and Da’ish.
With the spread of ultra-conservative Salafi theology in many parts of the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, Muslims are expected to dress in accordance with “modest” traditional Arabic attire and women are under pressure to wear the headscarf and other more extreme coverings – the latter never sanctioned by either Qur’an or Hadith writ. The writ runs deeper than outward appearance, as exemplified by the subordinate status of women in most Muslim societies. Moreover, Arab and non-Arab Muslims are also expected to abandon their pre-Islamic history and culture – derided as remnants from pre-Islamic ignorance. In its most extreme manifestation, this saw the destruction of humanity’s priceless heritage at Palmyra and Nineveh. Some salafis call for the razing of Egypt’s pyramids.
Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, multitudes have returned there, helped in no small part by their more atavistic coreligionists who see salvation, wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a medieval ethos and lifestyle of some golden age of faith which most scholars maintain never existed.
Islamists are intolerant of anything resembling a free exchange of ideas and information – the very concept of democracy is haram as the Prophet and his successors never thought of it – and possess a cultural antipathy, and iconoclastic rage for all things western, including, in some places, western education (the derivation of the name ’Boko Haram’ for Nigeria’s ISIS franchise). The fundamentalist mindset in all its patriarchal intolerance, prejudice and misogyny is itself often embraced by the ignorant and the uneducated, the downcast and dispossessed, the bitter and the bigoted.
Husain points out that “not every Salafi is a jihadi, but every jihadi is a Salafi. Today’s jihadism, violating all the ethics of Islam, is nothing more than the continuation of the puritanism of the Salafi-Wahhabis“, which originated from the Saudi kingdom – guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most revered cities. There is no space for plurality and doubt in Salafi theology, rooted as it is in the discourse of yaqeen (certainty) and the propagation of an authoritarian one-dimensional piety.
This said, there are many more Muslim-majority states such as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and Tunisia – countries that were conceived as secular states, and have largely remained secular or quasi-secular) , and indeed, have and made considerable democratic breakthroughs via the ballot box. Indonesia (the most populous Muslim-majority country) and Malaysia (one of the most industrialised Muslim-majority countries) are not located in the Arab Middle East. And yet, as events in Turkey and Indonesia have shown, the lure of radical Islam and its cultural and moral strictures is an attractive one to would-be authoritarians and to governments fearful of rising populist and nationalist tides.
And herein lies another portend. Just as the Muslim world has its share of religious and political extremists, so do an alarming number of Western democracies that are dominated by populists and ethno-nationalists who often do not hesitate to use religion as a blunt instrument of groupthink. I am thinking here of Russia and its Othodox Church, and of Polish Catholicism, but even ostensibly democratic USA and Israel are subject to the overweening influence of powerful evangelical and Haredim interest groups that endeavour to stamp their moral code on the more temporal majority. As radical British playwright Dennis Potter once remarked, “religion is the wound, not the bandage”.
Academic Lily Rahim notes in he review, published below, that this calls for a systematic analysis of the economic, socio-political, structural and institutional factors that have fueled the ascendancy of all forms of extremism, intolerance and exclusion, often rooted in authoritarian beliefs and systems. And that is a huge, multifaceted project, taking in the economic and social inequality that persists in countries rich and poor, the gap between the few ‘haves’ and the many ‘have-nots’, the power imbalances between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’, the pernicious rise of sectarianism and ethnocentrism, the mirage of ‘manifest destiny’, and the historical habit of the strong to bomb the weak and the poor to blazes.
Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and co-religionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris and Brussels, Istanbul and Baghdad, Jakarta and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan, the longest war in the 21st Century, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to what Rudyard Kipling called these “savage wars of peace” a forlorn hope.
“In many respects, the House of Islam is a microcosm of The House of Human History”.
Two other reviews of Ed Husain’s informative and illuminating boo follow.
The House of Islam by Ed Husain review – a powerful corrective
Of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims a very large number – perhaps a majority – observed the Ramadan fast last month. This doesn’t simply mean abstaining from food and water during the hours of daylight (as well as sex and cigarettes), but in many cases involves a deliberate reappraisal of one’s relation to God and the world, with more prayers and philanthropy and less shopping.
Of all the obligations that define Islam, Ramadan arouses perhaps the most irritation among some outsiders. A practice that places such a strain on the body is surely an affront to reason. Nor does it seem to make economic sense for workers to be tired and unproductive while declining to perform their allotted roles as consumers with credit ratings. And yet the west has absorbed Ramadan, if uneasily, with supermarket promotions for dates (the Prophet’s favoured breakfast), school assemblies on the subject and “What is Ramadan?” features even in the Sun.
Knowledge about Islam may have improved, but the speed with which relations are changing between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between Muslims, necessitates a constant reassessment of different worldviews and the way they interrelate. Isis’s defeat in Mesopotamia has not led to any meaningful dialogue between cultures. On the contrary, with Gaza aflame, the Iran nuclear accord uprooted and Sunni-Shia tensions at an all-time high, the prospects for detente have rarely been bleaker.
It’s an illustration of the insincerity of many world leaders that more than 250 French public figures, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and three former prime ministers, recently demanded that Qur’anic verses endorsing the killing of non-Muslims be “struck down” – just as the Second Vatican Council expurgated elements of Catholic doctrine in the early 1960s. This meretricious proposal affects to assume that Islam is a centralised religion like Catholicism (it isn’t), that the Qur’an can be snipped and remain the Qur’an (it can’t), and that because they recognise the same holy book the Islam of the jihadi is the same as that of the Sufi or the Europeanised Muslim with his Qur’an on the top shelf and his bottle of burgundy on the bottom. When will someone put these contradictions of text, practice and culture into terms accessible to the layperson? Who will speak across the divides?
Enter Ed Husain. A Briton of Indian parentage, a Muslim whose bestselling book, The Islamist described his temporary embrace of the values of global jihad in the 90s, Husain retained his religious faith even after he became a government adviser on deradicalisation. Since then he has lived off the fat of the neoliberal establishment that ran the world before the age of Trump, working for Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation as well as several other well‑heeled thinktanks on both sides of the Atlantic. The anti-extremism organisation he co-founded in 2007, Quilliam, is considered by many to be hopelessly compromised by its support for government efforts to squeeze Muslims into the corset of “British” values.
Husain’s politics and the company he keeps may be questioned, but they evidently haven’t stopped him from thinking productively about Islam as a force for good in the world. An account of the compassion, reason and wonderment that Islam has exhibited for much of its history, this book is a powerful corrective to the widespread perception, fostered by jihadis and Islamophobes alike, that it’s a belief system for misanthropes.
Ever since its inception Islam’s ethos had been contested, but a disastrous turn came with rejection of the printing press and the triumph of scholasticism over independent reasoning, exacerbated by a morale-sapping struggle against European expansionism in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Husain rightly says that the root of much Muslim confusion is a sense that a glorious past has soured into defeat and humiliation, but fallen prestige is hardly the monopoly of Muslims. The West has also lost ground, particularly its white males; dealing with changes in status is a part of being human. In general, Husain is too apt to view Muslims and their dignity as qualitatively different from those of other people. His modern politics can also be sketchy. With justification he criticises Saudi Arabia for its promotion of bigotry – less understandable is his soft spot for the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan – less a paragon of generous Islam than thuggish majoritarianism. His insistence that Muslim nations accommodate the tiny Jewish state in their midst is common sense but a suggestion of a Middle Eastern union including Israel reads somewhat grotesquely in the light of the recent carnage in Gaza.
For all that, Husain has written a valuable book, full of suggestions for Islam’s implementation from a position of magnanimity and love. Then the confidence will return.
• The House of Islam: A Global History is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £21.25 (RRP £25) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
In The House of Islam, Ed Husain affirms the centrality of the pluralist foundations and principles of Islam. Pluralism has also been rooted in Husain’s “lived reality”. His book opens powerfully, with Husain affirming his plural identity: “I am a Westerner and an observant Muslim. Caught between two worlds, I have learnt to dovetail the two facets of my identity. This book is a reflection of that inner bridge between Islam and the West”.
Yet, as the inflections of this superbly written book suggest, Husain’s “inner bridge” extends beyond “Islam and the West” and incorporates “the West” (Britain where he was born and raised), Islam (his faith) and India, his ancestral homeland.
Husain’s Indian heritage comes across in his whimsical ruminations of Mughal Sufi history, in particular the riveting narrative of Jahanara Begum – the complex and colourful Sufi-inspired daughter of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (1592–1666), who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife.
Hussain’s Sufi proclivities are apparent in the chapter “Who is a Sufi”, arguably one of the most engaging chapters. Husain describes the Sufi as one who “seeks only to please God, and does so in secret as often as possible”, grapples with “the heart and soul of Islam” and strives towards “maintaining equilibrium while swimming in deep oceans of spiritual awareness, and the ways in which the human ego could be crushed”.
Preoccupied with spiritual awareness and depth, Sufi Islam transcends the performative trappings of superficial appearances such as beards and head-coverings, fixation with the simplistic binaries of haram and halal (what is forbidden and not forbidden in Islam) and the state’s imposition of sharia law.
In contrast to the rigid, punitive and literalist tendencies of Salafi Islam, as promoted by the conservative monarchies in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and supposed Islamic states such as Iran, Sufi Islam’s leanings are inclusive, compassionate and speak to the complex yearnings of the human soul.
Husain’s considerable insights on the house of Islam, made up of more than 1.5 billion Muslims, have been shaped by his lived incarnations as an Islamist, Salafist and current abode in mystical Sufi Islam. His destiny within Sufi Islam culminated after many years of study under the guidance of Islamic scholars and living in the Middle East.
Enriched by these experiences, Husain notes that he has the “rare privilege of being an insider both in the West and in the Muslim World”. Yet, it could also be deduced that his acute insights have been cultivated by his status as an “outsider” in both the West and the Arab Middle East – stemming from his minority Indian ethnicity in both domains.
The House of Islam is understandably concerned with authoritarian and Salafi-Wahhabi Gulf Arab theology and culture that has become commonly adopted as a marker of Muslim authenticity. This peculiarity has assumed the status of the ideal religious identity – even though Arabs constitute a numerical minority in the Muslim world.
Husain insightfully asserts that Arabisation as well as Westernisation has “disoriented the traditional Muslim equilibrium”, as manifested by the rise of Salafi jihadi groups such as Isis and al-Qaeda.
Husain reminds us of the paradox of the current Salafi dominance by noting that in the 1790s, Salafis were not even considered Muslims by the chief qadi (cleric) of Mecca; indeed, for several years Salafis were kept away from the holy cities and The Haj.
He highlights the theological ties between Salafi Islam and jihadi Islamists, such as Isis and al-Qaeda, by pointing out that “not every Salafi is a jihadi, but every jihadi is a Salafi…. Today’s jihadism, violating all the ethics of Islam, is nothing more than the continuation of the puritanism of the Salafi-Wahhabis”, which originated from the Saudi kingdom – guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s most revered cities.
There is no space for plurality and doubt in Salafi theology, rooted as it is in the discourse of yaqeen (certainty) and the propagation of an authoritarian one-dimensional piety.
The House of Islam is a valuable read, particularly for those with some understanding of Islam and the Muslim world. Husain is a gifted writer and perceptive observer particularly of the Arab Middle East.
Instead of pointing to Israel as a source of emulation for the Muslim world, Husain could well have highlighted these consolidating democracies. All three countries boast a vibrant civil society, coalition governments based on power-sharing and political systems based on secular constitutionalism.
Despite the penetrating insights in The House of Islam, Husain’s narrative of the myriad hurdles confronting the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and Israel’s role in this struggle, is somewhat disappointing.
Just as the Muslim world has its share of religious and political extremists, so does Israel and an alarming number of Western democracies that are dominated by populists and ethno-nationalists. This calls for a systematic analysis of the economic, socio-political, structural and institutional factors that have fuelled the ascendency of all forms of extremism, intolerance and exclusion, often rooted in authoritarian beliefs and systems. In many respects, the House of Islam is a microcosm of The House of Human History.
Lily Rahim is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, where she teaches Political Islam and Southeast Asian Politics. Her more recent books include Muslim Secular Democracy and The Politics of Islamism. Ed Husain is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival (mwf.com.au).