Perspective: Ex-defender of the faith1

Shabbir Akhtar

Shabbir Akhtar, 37, was born in Pakistan to a "traditional Muslim family" At the age of eight be left for England, where be lived first in London and then in a "Muslim ghetto" in Bradford. He attended a state school in the day followed by mosque school, where he studied classical Arabic to enable him to read Islamic texts. At St. Catharine's, Cambridge, he studied philosophy.

A doctorate on Christian existentialism and the role of passion in religious commitment at the University of Alberta, Canada, was followed by a post as race relations officer for Bradford council. But after the Salman Rushdie affair erupted in 1989 Akhtar felt he had to resign.

He wrote a book, Be Careful with Muhammed!, setting out the case against Rushdie and arguing that his Satanic Verses, which had so inflamed fundamentalists, should be withdrawn from sale in Britain. "Not on Islamic grounds but on grounds that in a liberal society there should be respect for the beliefs of minority groups living therein."

Akhtar then worked with several Islamic groups, including those of Kalim Siddiqui and Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens), before accepting a post at the International Islamic University in Malaysia. For the first time he found himself in a society where Muslims were in the majority and in power. Three years later be was beading back to Britain, angered and disillusioned by the religious intolerance be experienced. "I would oppose any place where Islam became a political ideology and got into power - because I have experienced such a society."

I lived in Malaysia for three years in the kind of uncertainty westerners face only in times of war. The five daily calls to prayer are the only predictable events in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. The power cuts are frequent, the traffic jams continuous. Islam is the official religion, but materialism is the ruling creed.

Living in a state where Islam was empowered deepened and darkened my idealistic view of my faith and my people. I had a second childhood in northern industrial England. Here I belonged to a powerless minority and a despised religion. Upon arrival at the International Islamic University. I joined the ruling Muslim majority. Before, when I was in the minority, it was easy to play the moral card.

New lecturers must meet the Saudi-Kurdish rector in his opulent rooms on campus. He invites us to settle down into the comfort and security of dogma. It is us against the world; and the world, especially the western hemisphere, is very wicked. Believers, he tells us, having nothing new to learn, Western-style free inquiry is aimless. Besides, what is the point of free inquiry if God has already revealed to us the whole truth?

I taught philosophy and comparative religion. It is, I think, an abuse of podium in a university directly to encourage students either away from or towards personal religious commitment. But a good teacher should puncture the immature and incoherent religious beliefs of zealous undergraduates. In Islamic universities, students and faculty alike are obsessed with the defence of Islam against western Christian and secular liberal accusation. As a student in Cambridge in the late 1970s, my fellow philosophy students were youthful atheists aggressively dismissive of all religions, particularly Islam, as alien, obscurantist and hyopocritical.

As a lecturer, I could never dismiss religious faith with the sherry party cleverness of my philosophy teachers. They mocked the virgin birth (endorsed by the Koran, too) and the resurrection. They said things like: "You are all old enough to know how babies are born. And remember. Dead people stay dead." A teacher's duty is not to use shock tactics, but rather to refine the simplistic faith of his flock. If some end up losing their faith, along with their virginity, so be it.

I am not so consumed by philosophical zeal as to seek to destroy the simple faith of simple people. But let us not spare university students. In western universities one meets immaturely cynical atheists who cover their walls with portraits of Marx. In Islamic settings we have devout students who have never thought critically about their faith. Despite being formally religious, Muslims are astonishingly reluctant to think about ultimate issues. I asked my senior students to debate the question of the providence of God. Every Friday, prayers rise from thousands of minarets, pleading for Muslim unity, food for the starving, freedom for the oppressed. Nothing happens; nothing changes. Is not the silence of God theologically puzzling? Almost all of them quickly dropped the course I was teaching.

The crucial intellectual defect with my Muslim colleagues in the faculty of revealed knowledge in my view was their total lack of a sense of history. These men accepted the Koran's patently unhistorical claim that there has been in every age since the world began an articulate and developed monotheism. More dangerously, they believed in the myth of an early Islamic utopia, a time of universal freedom, tolerance and moral perfection.

In the West, until recently, there was a similarly romantic view of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Classical antiquity was actually full of brutality and squalor. Islam in its Arab origins was a revolutionary movement with the normal quota of bloodshed, compromise and hypocrisy. Apologists for every defeated civilisation speak of a return to a pure past. Their idealism is not only a factual error about a dead past, but a political tragedy about the living present. The past is paradise because the present is hell.

Among my friends were professors blessed with an encyclopaedic intimacy with the Koran, combined with a total ignorance of the Torah and the New Testament. I conducted an advanced class in comparative religion in which students had a chance, for the first time in their lives, to look at copies of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures in their original languages with parallel texts in English. The aim was to get Muslim students to identify and attack the presuppositions that made them feel so uniquely holy and special. Their academic advisers counselled them to drop this class as it "constituted a threat to their faith". Nothing must complicate the sublime simplicity of the true religion. Simplex sigillum veri (the simple is the sign of the true): some conservative Jews and Christians would concur. Narrow-mindedness at least is always ecumenical in scope.

My doctoral work was on the metaphysics and epistemology of Christian dogma. Working on these themes in an Islamic environment readily brought accusation and insinuation. Some said I was secretly a Christian: others hinted I was pro-Jewish, a serious charge since it could lead to instant expulsion from the university. We were a medieval community.

There was continuous and ugly sectarian controversy in the university leaving little time for research and teaching. Virtually everyone accused everyone else of heresy or disbelief. The Koran was quoted by all parties to a dispute, even when the claim was based on common sense. The scripture is plastic to our wishes: it was wise maxims elastic enough to cover the aspirations of all contenders. There are no illegitimate interpretations. What matters is the prestige of the interpreter: a brilliant interpreter can get away with anything. Some granted women certain human rights: others saw in the Koran the most comprehensive charter for keeping women in their place. All were united in their hatred of the West where women's lives are scandalously free.

Although the university is financed by the Malay government, the senate decided that modem Arabic should be a requirement for all students and lecturers. While a reading knowledge of classical Arabic is necessary for scholarly access to the Koran and Islamic literature, modem colloquial Arabic is unnecessary. The official argument was that the adoption of a single spoken tongue would unite the Muslim community worldwide - yet 23 Arab nations speak the same language without any signs of political unity. Iraq and Kuwait are not divided by a language barrier. Surprisingly, the senate's decision was welcomed by the Malays whose own language was dismissed as primitive. The international staff tolerated the ordinance with supine indifference. I condemned it as "Arab linguistic imperialism" and had my reservations minuted. My examination questions were henceforth subject to the rector's approval.

Islam is practised with ritual precision and with perfect reverence for its Arabian dimension. All Malays, including the royal family, look up to Arabs, the white men of the East. The Koran is not theologically Arabian, but it is ritually and behaviouristically Arabian through and through. It promotes Arab interests, sanctifies Arab culture and language, promotes an Arab-centred Islamic brotherhood and vigorously encourages the defence of Arab political rights in the Holy Land. With these privileges granted by God and never questioned by non-Arab Muslims, one can see why Arabs see themselves as patrons rather than mere adherents of Islam. If we allow for Semitic hyperbole in the Koran, Islam may have been meant solely for Arabs: its status as universal religion may be due to a misunderstanding of Arabic idiom.

Most of the literature in the university library was in English: there was virtually nothing of quality being published in the Islamic world. This modern movement of an endless intellectual curiosity about all things is one we owe to western man. In modern analytical philosophy, there is hardly anything in Arabic or any other Islamic tongue. Philosophical discussion is best conducted in English. Owing to the grammatical limitations of Arabic, it is impossible to express most philosophical claims with an acceptable degree of rigour and clarity. Moreover, Arabic is a devotional language lacking the vocabulary requisite for detached discussion of controversial matters.

As the only philosophy department in Malaysia, we were under constant suspicion. One day, the rector declared, without consultation, that philosophy was an unIslamic discipline. All staff were to be transferred within 24 hours to the department of revealed knowledge, their research and teaching were to be Islamicised under dec4pal supervision. I was shocked to see my colleagues praise this decision. I was informed that I was no longer allowed to teach but could research on "a topic that has no implications about the truth of The True Religion". The dean decided that I should be permitted to investigate the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I resigned, no longer a defender of the faith. Freedom is a precondition of profundity: no wonder philosophy has no place in the cultural life of Muslims. Religion is merely ritual without the spiritual introspection that philosophical insight brings. I still like mysticism and even concede the possibility of magic since I am a poet. But I cannot abandon rationalism for more than an hour a day. It is not the task of religion to seek to seduce us from the straight path of reason. Besides, we should be sceptical of any faith whose adherents are eager to offer themselves as models to the world.



1 This article appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on 22 August 1997.


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