Books Review

AGAINST ISLAMIC EXTREMISM : THE WRITINGS OF MUHAMMAD SA’IDAL-‘ASHMAWY.

Ediited by Cardyne Flucher-Lobban. University Press of Florida, 1998, 131 p. Reviewed by: Asmer Beg

This book is a collection of al-‘Ashmawy’s writings originally drafted for lectures presented in different parts of the world. He sees an important need for the creation of a new politics in the Middle East, tempered with a humanist vision that would embrace the region’s multiple social and religious traditions. He talks of a humanism based on Islamic faith and the other great faiths that have grown out of the Middle East. His vision of Islam is not for Muslims alone but for the whole humanity.

Sa’idal-Ashmawy says that any form of Islamic government has the potential to degenerate into corruption, because of its claim to religious legitimacy. He adds that Islam actually does not need reform and is adequate in its pure form. However, there is no first society today, Islamic or otherwise, and the days of a pristine Islam faded dramatically after the first four of the rightly grinded caliphs (p. 13).

He argues that the core of Islam manifested through the Shari’a as interpreted by the ulema over the centuries has taken the form of a rigid and prescriptive system that is not characteristic of earlier Islamic through in its formative period. The world of today and its ever changing conditions require flexibility and not rigidity.

Ashmawy’s is one of the stronger voices against extremism. He bases his analysis in Islamic theology. His critique emanates from the humanistic core of Islam.

In this world, Ashmawy calls for an Islam reformation, which he defines as a renewal of the Islamic mind, its ethical code and its instriptions. But for which Muslims would be left out from the international community. He says that today Islam has been incorrectly transformed from a faith for all humanity into a political ideology. It has become a source for nationalism and finally for divisiveness. This contradicts the universalist spirit of Islam. It needs to be challenged by the humanism that is at the core of Islamic faith (p. 29). His vision sees the inter-connectedness among the Abrahamic faiths and their critical need for coexistence in the modern era.

Taking a close look at the development of Islam, Judaism and Christianity he argues that the ethical principles, the religious experience and the philosophical contract are almost the same in all these faiths, except for some differences owing to time, place and context. People who follow these religions have a belief that the ethical principles of the religion they follow are only for their community. Although the right attitude would be to acknowledge that all the faithful are one community and that humanity is one. There is then one religion with many paths – paths which never out across, but integrate with each other. We require each one of them. Ashmawy were gives a framework with a humanistic base for the cooperation and coexistence among all the sorts doctrines and paths of these three religions cultures.

Ashmawy maintains that no verse in the Quran ordains for Muslims any special kind of government. It were the divine will, it would have been spelt out in detail in the Quran. Nor are these forms of government mentioned in the prophetic tradition. The clear conclusion to be drawn is that systems of political power and leadership are socially and historically conditioned structures, which ought to be developed according to the needs of the people and the spirit of the age and in keeping with the demands of Islamic ethics, justice, equality, humanity and mercy (p. 78).

He offers a liberal doctrine of Islam. He tries to explain the liberal meaning of words and the Quranic verses in their historical context. He says that the true meaning of shari’a, is ‘the path’. Islamic law or Sharia means jurisprudence, which is man made and not sacred and to confuse this is to give a sacred character to what are mere human opinions.

Ashmawy nicely brings out the difference between the spiritual and material meanings of jihad, which is actually a defensive concept. He adds that the prophet said that the most important and difficult jihad was ethical, moral and spiritual, to discipline oneself.

He gives a proposal for reform in Islam, with a call for a revival of the Islamic mind, ethics and human rights and an integration of these with contemporary civilization so that we can share effectively in developing civilization instead of merely consuming it (p. 121). He places man in history and says that religious ideas evolve and move through history. He argues that not tall legal rules mentioned in the Quran are permanent. The example given is that of slavery and slave harems. Although mentioned in the Quran, they were not abrogated, but they are not applied today.

This work is an original contribution of one of Egypts’ leading intellectuals. Here Ashmawy sets out to oppose extremist political activism in the name of Islam and calls for a Islam based on humanism. However, in the name of reason and causality he dismisses outright the utility of the contributions of theologians like Ashari and Al-Ghazzali in today’s world. It is one of the rare occasions in this took when he appears to be intolerant of ideas, which might come in the way of his proposed reforms.

However, scholars who are interested in listening to a secularist voice as regards Islamic extremism will find this book an interesting provocative read.

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