Books Review


By Raymond William Baker, Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2003 ISBN: 0-675-01203-8 Reviewed by: Mohd Asim Siddiqui

The last few decades have seen a battle between the secularists and the conservatives in many Muslim countries. The issue of the slow process of secularization in Muslim countries is a cause of concern for many. Egypt is one such country where this debate involves the common people too. It is also one of the countries facing the problem of terrorism. Often there are two extreme views represented by the secularists and the fundamentalists. The New Islamists– thinkers and intellectuals like Kamal Abul Magd, Yusuf al Qardaway, Fahmy Huwaidy,Shaikh Muhammad al Ghazzaly, Tareq al Bishry and Selim al Awa  belong to neither. They rather represent the centrist Islamic mainstream, or Wassatteyya, and their manifesto titled A Contemporary Islamic Vision, written in 1980 but published in 1991, talks about an Islamic rather than a religious state. They rightly believe that the media and public opinion unnecessarily highlights the extremists’ views on Islam though there is a growing appeal of the centrist mainstream. The New Islamists consider Islam not merely a religion but a civilization and are devoted to the idea of positive and constructive social action.

Raymond William Baker argues that their commitment to constructive social action entails emphasis on educational reforms. Their idea of education attaches a lot of importance to proper upbringing. The New Islamists believe that the problem of terrorism can be tackled by bringing about educational reforms, by “renewing the national struggle against poverty and for justice and progress in order to rekindle genuine faith and a sense of hope”(22). There is a link between education, development and the problem of terrorism. Education is important for the development of the country and the development is needed to free people from their sense of deprivation and desperation which in turn will enable people not to fall prey to the designs of the militant organizations.

Baker’s book highlights the New Islamists’ preference for culture to politics. For them Islam is a matter not merely of religion but of a civilizational choice. They disapprove of both the repressive regime of Egypt and the extremist Islamic response to this repression.” They imagined a third way that looked to a broad and inclusive moderate center built on civilizational grounds (42)”.It can also be noted that their idea of civilization does not exclude non-Muslims. “They”, writes Baker, “articulate an accommodating notion of Islamic civilizational identity that takes for granted a multiplicity of human identifications deriving from geography, history, or religious affiliations (46).”In their view of Islamic civilization, Arabic language has a very important place. Baker quotes Ghazzaly who once pointed out that” if Arabic dies, the Quran will be put in museums, and our national heritage and literature will be lost (41).”

The New Islamists reject the argument put forward by many a Western commentator that Islam is incompatible with rationalism. They believe that it is important to apply reason in all human matters. In fact, it is imperative, they maintain, that reason be applied in those areas of human life where no clear revelation exists. They are very clear about the fact that Islam and science are not in conflict with each other. Qaradawy says that “for us (Muslims) science is religion and religion is science (48).” He identified two causes of the decline of Islamic civilization:  first, poor educational system which does not encourage creativity and independent thinking second, the absence of freedom in not only Egypt but in the entire Muslim world.Unlike some radical Muslim groups, the New Islamists lend their total support to people  seeking careers in banking, finance and information technology sectors.

Baker discusses at length the views of the New Islamists on the controversial issues of the nature of art, the question of artistic liberty and the rights of the self-claimed guardians to oppose what they consider obscene and blasphemous. The New Islamists do not think that music, dance and imaginative writings have no place in Islam. In fact, the New Islamists in one voice condemned the brutal attack on the Nobel Prize winning Egyption writer Naguib Mahfuz by some fundamentalists. The New Islamists’ views on art are related to their belief in the core Islamic values and art for them cannot distance itself from those values. An Islamic community cannot be imagined without art. However, on the question of art also they adopt a centrist position. They do not support either a complete freedom for the artist or the narrow fundamentalist view which considers art a decadence and at best an indulgence. “Speaking for the Wassatteyya, they elaborate in their writings an aesthetic of belonging (59).”

The book also takes note of the New Islamists’ strong criticism of the Taliban’s destruction of idols belonging to the pre-Islamic period. They consider the idols not as objects of worship but  as artistic artifacts and  symbols of the rich legacy of Afghanistan. They refer to the Quran saying that the holy book makes a distinction between statues” as artistic creations and idols as objects of worship (79).”Like many others they too find it very difficult to have any dialogue with Taliban leadership. They believe that the Taliban are not educated enough to grasp the finer points of Islam and certainly not competent enough to issue fatwas.

An important feature of Islam without Fear is the comprehensive discussion of a number of religio-political issues in Islam which is very relevant in the present atmosphere of attack and counter attack. The New Islamists’ devotion to a moderate view and a rejection of the Taliban-like stance is even more evident in their views on the need to practice ijtihad, the right way of reading the Quran, the relative importance of Shariah and Fiqh, the rights of women in Islam and the place of non-Muslims in  the Islamic community. Muhammad al Ghazzaly rightly believes that “the danger comes from the half-educated and half-religious” and as a result the detractors of Islam use the superficial, half-baked  and wrongly interpreted ideas of the militants to mount an attack on the so called retrograde nature of Islam. Stressing the need of ijtihad, he points out (in the words of Baker) that “since both Quran and Sunnah are texts that may have unspoken meanings that are not accessible to literal readings alone, both the necessity of interpretation and the acceptance of differences that interpretation will unavoidably generate are an inherent element of Islam and one that is to be cherished (92).” Baker also discusses the New Islamists’ devotion to the principle of absolute equality between men and women.

The New Islamists, argues Baker in this book, have tried to remove many misunderstandings about Islam. They are critical of the fact that often a fragment of a text is taken out of its context. Sometimes implied meaning of the text is more important than the obvious one. Thus Qaradawy is of the opinion that “God wanted some of his provisions to be clearly stated and others left unspoken…even among the specified texts, He wanted some to be clear-cut and others somewhat vague, so that minds would practice ijtihad to deduce their meaning (105).”  On one occasion Kamal Abul Magd said that “what is not addressed by texts exceeds that which is addressed (112).”The New Islamists also emphasize the social responsibilities of the members of society and this means that  personal excesses in religious practice–performing innumerable pilgrimages, abstaining from work for months together for religious reasons, paying handsomely to build mosques but not schools , clinics and factories et cetera– have no place in the Islamic community. The New Islamists’ criticism of the absolutist approach of the fundamentalists and their tolerance of difference make their work extremely important in our age of discord and suspicion.

It is a fact that democracy has failed to find roots in most of the Muslim countries. The chapter titled” Struggling for Islamic Survival” is devoted to the New Islamists’ support to the cause of democracy and pluralism and to their concrete contribution to the political processes in Egypt, particularly the success of the Wassat Party in mobilizing public opinion in favour of a moderate centrist view of Islam. They also look for the Western models of democracy for guidance. They rightly believe that justice is the most important value in Islam and that it can be best ensured in a democracy. Thus, notes Awa, “democracy is the best way to choose among rulers since human beings have so far found nothing better than direct elections (180).” The Islamic institution of Shura points to the Islamic idea of democracy. Also the rights of women and non-Muslims are very honestly supported by the New Islamists.

The book also discusses the response of the New Islamists to international issues confronting Islam. Their call for a defensive jihad in Iraq resulted from their sense of disgust after the American forces attacked civilian centers and the places of worship. They realize that the world today is dominated by the United States of America but in their opinion it does not establish American superiority in all spheres. They remain convinced of the strengths of the Islamic civilization.

Islam without fear shows the writer’s deep understanding of the Egyptian culture and politics. A very remarkable feature of the book is the writer’s sympathy for his subject. He appears to fully relate to and identify with his subject. The book is free from any prejudiced opinions about Islam though one wishes that the writer had avoided the unnecessary repetition of some points in the book.


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