12/16/2004

Signs of Life

"Where are the moderate muslims?"

The question comes up often in conversations about Islam; usually the question is rhetorical and carries the implication that there are no moderate Muslims. This is obviously false, but Islamist moderates don't often make a point of drawing attention to themselves, and can you blame them?

Still, some are brave enough to raise their voices. A New York Times piece entitled "Muslim Scholars Increasingly Debate Unholy War" introduces the reader to Muhammad Shahrour, a layman who writes extensively about Islam and has the courage to suggest that Islam needs to change.

First, Mr. Shahrour brazenly tackles the Koran. The entire ninth chapter, The Sura of Repentance, he says, describes a failed attempt by the Prophet Muhammad to form a state on the Arabian Peninsula. He believes that as the source of most of the verses used to validate extremist attacks, with lines like "slay the pagans where you find them," the chapter should be isolated to its original context.

"The state which he built died, but his message is still alive," says Mr. Shahrour, a soft-spoken, 65-year-old Syrian civil engineer with thinning gray hair. "So we have to differentiate between the religion and state politics. When you take the political Islam, you see only killing, assassination, poisoning, intrigue, conspiracy and civil war, but Islam as a message is very human, sensible and just."

Mr. Shahrour and a dozen or so like-minded intellectuals from across the Arab and Islamic worlds provoked bedlam when they presented their call for a reinterpretation of holy texts after a Cairo seminar entitled "Islam and Reform" earlier this fall.

"Liars! Liars!" someone screamed at a news conference infiltrated by Islamic scholars and others from the hard-core faithful who shouted and lunged at the panelists to a degree that no journalist could ask a question. "You are all Zionists! You are all infidels!"
The article's most memorable quote comes from a Ibrahim Said, a pastry deliveryman in Cairo.
"Resistance was never like this - to kidnap someone and decapitate him in front of everyone. This is haram," he went on, using the Arabic word for something forbidden or shameful, and then quotes the Koran on his own. " 'Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves.' That means nothing will change unless we change ourselves first."
The article is about a five minute read and is an encouraging reminder that Muslims are not an America-hating hive-mind.