Abdulaziz Sachedina is a man with a mission. He is determined to demonstrate that when it comes to the West’s relations with Islam, there need be no “clash of civilizations.” Properly understood, Islam is compatible with—indeed, is positively conducive to—democratic pluralism, religious tolerance, and respect for human rights.
The author bravely and forthrightly acknowledges that Islam as it actually exists too often exhibits the very inverse of these qualities. But that Islam he dismisses as ossified and false. Authentic Islam has been lost. Professor Sachedina proposes nothing less than to rediscover Islam as it existed in the days of the Prophet. Having done so, he intends to “reinterpret it, reconstruct it, and make it relevant to the present.”
The basis for this rediscovery and reinterpretation lies in sacred scripture. A “meticulous sifting of the Koranic exegetical materials, both classical and contemporary,” the author believes, holds the potential of revealing “various (and subtle) possibilities of interpretation.” Only through such a “creative reappropriation”—one that revives “the original pluralism of the Koran”—will it become possible for Islam to “abide with otherness” in the modern world.
This is, to put it mildly, an ambitious project, requiring considerable erudition but also considerable courage. (For his temerity in even suggesting the need for Islamic reform, Sachedina, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, became the target of a fatwa intended to silence him.) Of particular note, it is a project that the author undertakes as much on behalf of the West as on behalf of Islam itself—for only through Islam can the West resolve the contradictions with which it finds itself beset. “Among world religions,” he writes,
Islam provides the sole coherent worldview of any political significance, and consequently it serves as the only vital external perspective on the modern project of a secular world order. It is, probably, the only thoroughly religious critique of the international public order with its secularist and liberal presuppositions . . . . [Islam] stands out as the only monotheistic tradition that can help deepen the West’s self-understanding in its liberal project of a public international order. (Emphasis added.)
This is, to say the least, a very large claim and—to a believer who is not a Muslim—a somewhat off-putting one.
Still, in the aftermath of September 11, with the United States engaged in a “war against terror” that is more accurately a war against militant, radical Islam, any plausible argument that holds out the prospect of a more benign alternative merits respectful consideration.
The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism is short, dense, and bone dry—all but impossible, despite its fewer than 140 pages of actual text, to wade through in a single sitting. Its methodology is akin to that of a legal brief. In marshaling evidence in support of his hypothesis, the author invites attention to specific and carefully selected scriptural passages, some of them ambiguous on their face, and then explains how, if correctly deciphered, they actually testify to a (once) pluralistic and tolerant Islam. Anticipating the arguments of skeptics, he cites other passages, seemingly unambiguous in expressing illiberal sentiments, and explains how their actual meaning is other than might seem.
A case in point is the author’s contention that the Koran “accepts religious pluralism as given, and even necessary.” Sachedina bases this contention on the passage that states
The people were one community ( umma ); then God sent forth the Prophets, good tidings to bear and warning, and He sent down with them the Book, that he might decide the people touching their differences. (K. 2:213)
Acknowledging that the verb in the first sentence is in the past tense, Sachedina points out that in the original Arabic it can also, legitimately, be rendered in the present. Hence, he argues, the Koran finds that still today the people are “one nation.” This in turn constitutes, he believes, an injunction on behalf of religious pluralism, since intolerance would violate the Koranic prescription for oneness.
Elsewhere, however, the Koran contradicts this reading of K. 2:213 in no uncertain terms—or at least it appears to do so.Whoso desires another religion than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him; in the next world he shall be among the losers. (K. 3:85)Other interpreters of the Koran have sought to resolve such apparent inconsistencies by explaining that later passages abrogate or supersede earlier ones. Thus, K. 3:85 might trump K. 2:213. Sachedina finds no legitimate basis for this practice. To remove the apparent contradiction, he instead reinterprets K. 3:85 so as to remove its sting. In this passage, he explains, “Islam” actually refers not to a specific religion but to the general human obligation to “submit” (in Arabic, islam) to God. According to Sachedina, the Koran is, as it were, agnostic on the manner of submission (at least for adherents of the Abrahamic tradition); it is adamant only that those refusing to do so at all are destined to end up losers in the world to come.
And so the author proceeds, finding in the Koran evidence, convincing in his view, that authentic Islam is friendly to human rights and freedom of conscience, compatible with democracy, and prone not to war and violence but to the quest for justice and peace.
For this reviewer—not a specialist in Islam—Sachedina’s brief qualifies as suggestive but falls well short of compelling. But even giving the author the benefit of the doubt one bumps up against the inevitable question: So what? Even if we stipulate that this one academic’s imaginative remapping of the Koran ought to invalidate contrary readings, it would remain the height of folly to expect large-scale change in actually existing Islam to result anytime soon. The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism offers readers a vision of the ideal. But their concern is with the real—not theory but practice, not theology as it should be but the Islamic world as it is.
In a sense, Sachedina occupies a position comparable to that of an honest defender of socialism. Socialism, of course, had many dishonest defenders—those who turned a blind eye to the hideous deformities of the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China while proclaiming that each offered a path to utopia. But socialism had honest defenders as well—those who entertained no illusions about Stalin or Mao but who clung to the dream of a humane and democratic alternative to capitalism. These were decent, well-intentioned, even admirable people. But they were given to wishful thinking that in the end did not prove especially useful.
A radically different approach to bridging the divide between the West and Islam—one that de-emphasizes theological rigor in favor of human agency—can be found in John Kiser’s compulsively readable and deeply moving account of The Monks of Tibhirine.
Located in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, Tibhirine is an obscure and impoverished village that from 1938 until 1996 was also the site of a Trappist monastery, Notre Dame de l’Atlas. The monks who founded and sustained this small monastic community were Frenchmen. The Algerians inhabiting the village and surrounding countryside were almost all Muslims. At its core, the story that Kiser tells is of the relationship between the two—in particular of the efforts by the Trappists to live in solidarity with the people of Tibhirine and, in so doing, to find common ground between Christianity and Islam.
Yet The Monks of Tibhirine is much more than that. Into its complex tapestry, Kiser, an independent scholar, has woven insights regarding the decline (as well as the persistence) of European religiosity. He provides a concise account of Algeria’s tortured history, both under French rule and since independence. He describes the travails of Algeria’s small and struggling Christian community. And he details the origins and conduct of the civil war that ravaged Algeria through the 1990s. That conflict, triggered when the government in Algiers canceled elections that seemed likely to deliver political power to Islamic radicals, killed untold thousands and by 1996 culminated in the kidnapping and brutal murder of seven of Tibhirine’s monks and the shuttering of their monastery.
Kiser does not claim to have identified the perpetrators of this atrocity, which remains shrouded in mystery. It seems fair to say that he views that mystery as incidental. The identity of the killers matters less than the manner in which this handful of implacably determined French monks bore witness to Christ as they poured out their lives on behalf of their Muslim neighbors.
Through a series of fully realized portraits, Kiser introduces the reader to each of his Trappist protagonists. They are a varied lot: independent spirits, not without quirks and foibles, some gruff, some cranky, some fearful, all in the end courageous. Above them all looms the charismatic figure of Christian de Chergé, the ex-soldier who during France’s war to keep Algeria under its heel fell in love with the country and its people. A relentless seeker after divine truth, equal parts wild romantic and brilliant intellectual, he reaches the end of a lengthy spiritual journey by becoming the prior of Notre Dame de l’Atlas. He would be its last. (See his last testament in FT, August/September 1996.)
It is de Chergé—responding to his conviction that “Muslims sing the same song, only in a different key”—who prods and cajoles his fellows into ever greater openness toward Islam. It is de Chergé who insists that, whatever the obstacles and hazards involved, the Gospels were summoning them to take not just the first step, but the second and the third. As Christians living in Algeria, this had become their calling. It was “not a matter of reciprocity,” he observed. “The love of Jesus was gratuitous. It did not wait for a response.” And it did not require or expect repayment. For the monks of Tibhirine, singing in harmony with their Muslim brothers entailed a certain willingness to stray beyond the strict confines of theological convention. However this may discomfit defenders of orthodoxy, the men of Notre Dame de l’Atlas who suffered martyrdom for their cause command the utmost respect.
The riches contained within this book are many and varied. Chief among them may be the heightened appreciation that it offers for the rigor and the allure of monasticism. Living apart from the world, the inhabitants of Notre Dame de l’Atlas still engaged the world around them in a way that was both intimate and profound. Subordinating themselves to a rule of discipline and austerity, they found astonishing freedom. Committed to lives of prayer and contemplation, they became men of action, summoned to achieve greatness and exhibit bravery under conditions of enormous duress. Life in what most of us call “the real world” appears pale by comparison.
To be informed about what Islam (perhaps) once was and someday (perhaps) could be again, consult Sachedina. For a stirring, inspirational, and uplifting reminder that man was after all made in God’s image, read Kiser.
Andrew J. Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston University.