Islam Unknown: Interviews with Muslim Intellectuals on Film

Interpreting History, Spirituality, and Conflict

by Daniel Garrett Volume 17, Issue 9 / September 2013 13 minutes (3040 words)

Islam Unknown, directed by Fons Elders. Icarus Films, 2010.

Is Islam a religion of peace or violence? Islam is a word signifying surrender to god’s will; and one who surrenders is Muslim. The word of god, of Allah, was revealed by the angel Gabriel in Arabic to the seventh-century businessman Muhammad: the Qur’an or Koran. Muhammad, a prophet who preached in Mecca and was mocked, moved to an oasis that became known as the city of the prophet, Medina, where Muhammad was welcomed as a wise judge, becoming a man of power; and Mecca, where many gods were worshipped, was conquered by war rather than faith. Muhammad, whose tomb is in Medina, is called the last messenger or prophet. His message is revered; and sometimes defended and promulgated with arms. Most Muslims, after performing ablutions and while facing Mecca, pray five times a day—at dawn and noon and mid-afternoon and sunset and at the end of the day. There is among Muslims belief in fate as decreed by god, and in a day of judgement; and yet human beings are free to choose good or evil. What is referred to as Islamic laws are usually established spiritual principles and their subsequent interpretation; and it is interpretation that produces both conformity and conflict. The Dutch philosopher Fons Elders interviews eight impressive and prominent intellectuals of the Islamic world, for the multi-part documentary film Islam Unknown: Asma Barlas, Nasr Abu Zayd, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Amna Nusayr, Reza Aslan, Anouar Majid, Omer Ozsoy, and Mehmet Asutay. They may be the heirs to great Islamic philosophers like Al-Kindi and Avicenna, who were true to reason while not giving up belief. Islam Unknown, a documentary of those eight interviews—most conducted at an old Dutch farmhouse, Huize Piranesi—of twenty-six minutes each, available on two disks from the film distributor Icarus Films, is an opportunity to move beyond ignorance and prejudice to thought and understanding. Fons Elders, pale, plump, does ask the participating intellectuals about philosophy and also politics. Is Islam a religion of war or peace? Is it a justification of vengeance? Controversies are acknowledged, but here there is more light than heat. The casual but interested observer of these dialogues has his own questions. Can exacting philosophy and faithful religion coexist? Is religion philosophy as metaphor and story—or merely the realm of ignorance and superstitions? It is difficult to remember that one knew once that Islam has made contributions to civilization in terms of philosophy and literature as well as math and science; and being conversant with the interviewed intellectuals is a great prompt to memory and appreciation. The history of Islam is complicated: a history of insight and cruelty, community and conflict; and it is humbling to realize, once more, that it is difficult to put principles into practice.

Culture is perpetual remembering and perpetual forgetting. Most societies in the ancient world worshipped many gods, calling on them for special favors, sacrificing to them, celebrating them, fearing them. The gods were figures of force and spirit; animated abstractions, complex, mercurial, selfish and generous—and they corresponded to human understanding while being beyond human control. The introduction of the idea of a single, all-powerful god, one without form, was both simplifying and unifying: a complete idea. Is that idea of totality behind other ideas of absolute authority? Judaism, Christianity, and Islam shared the idea of a single god; and yet were possessive of the idea and the power it embodied. The holy land—not only Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem, but other areas of the Middle East where revelations and miracles were said to occur, including Mecca and Medina—has been contested land. The wars fought under the cross by European Christians for control of the holy land, the Crusades of the eleventh through the thirteenth century, featuring eight significant wars, had high ideals and low methods, including moral bartering (forgiveness of sin) and theft, murder, and the persecution of Jews as well as a demonizing view of Muslims. The crusades failed. Yet, the specter of Muslim faith has remained; and the intellectuals that Fons Elders speaks with allude to that long history. While many Americans gave Muslims little thought until the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, attributed to Muslims who believed that they were fighting a battle of both politics and religion (Americans often are not able to tell the difference between a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Sikh), the Europeans in France, Germany, and Italy and the Nordic countries were more aware, if not always more sympathetic. Ignorance and misunderstanding and war make the perspectives of the women and men that Fons Elders speaks with necessary: Asma Barlas, Nasr Abu Zayd, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Amna Nusayr, Reza Aslan, Anouar Majid, Omer Ozsoy, and Mehmet Asutay discuss god’s divinity as embodying all, but how Islam has been seen as opposed to civilization, and they discuss the difference between scriptural revelation and its limited interpretations, the use of religion for political purposes, the importance of individual liberty and dissent as well as of culture and community, social participation rather than assimilation as a democratic goal, morality as a practice, equality between the sexes, real offenses versus ideological offenses, and difference as a source of life, knowledge, and pleasure.

Asma Barlas, the daughter of an encouraging military officer and a member of a supportive family, the daughter of intellectuals, the warm, somewhat humorous Pakistani woman was supported in her ambition by her family. She is the author of Believing Women in Islam. Asma Barlas is interviewed by Fons Elders in a park, at the time of a conference of Islamic feminists that she attends, though Barlas resists calling herself a feminist. (Although the prophet Muhammad was thought to be in sympathy with women—encouraging fair treatment in marriage and making some allowances for divorce—Barlas refuses to cite holy text as a corroboration of feminism.) Barlas is concerned about the ongoing misrepresentation of Islam in the West, and the inclination of westerners to see Islam as being outside of civilization. Barlas observes that the western assumption in criticizing Islam is not only a function of free speech but a way of establishing values and enforcing power. Asma Barlas sees god as uncreated, and without gender. She, after identifying the Qur’an or Koran as the word of god, and allowing that it is open to multiple readings, rejects blasphemy or insult as being a basis from which westerners can engage Muslims. Barlas believes in social participation, but sees assimilation as cultural genocide, the abandonment of who and what one is. The observer wonders about correspondences and tensions between Islamic and western customs, and between the individual and the community. Is it possible to reconcile different values? Asma Barlas, for one thing, thinks that equality between men and women is possible within the Qur’an, the word of god as received and recited by the prophet, while acknowledging that Muslim tradition has interpreted women as sexually tempting, dangerous to men: making a distinction between the book itself and the culture that embraces and interprets it. Human interpretation is finite, limited, while god is infinite, embracing and transcending multiplicity.

Asma Barlas

The rotund Egyptian thinker Nasr Abu Zayd, whose first name Nasr means victory and whose last name is sometimes spelled Zaid, sees Islam from a social and historical perspective. Aware of how the past is idealized, Zayd notes that religion has been used for very practical purposes. Whereas the Qur’an or Koran may be divine revelation, its interpretation is not and has been shaped by culture and time, particularly the time in which the book was written. Islam has been used as an organizing tool by the West and against the West, which was seen by Muslims to embody both admirable knowledge and threatening might. Under colonialism, Islam was seen by westerners as an essential identity, rather than merely one facet of a complex human identity. Nasr Abu Zayd makes a point of the distinctions to be made among divinity and spirituality and history. Zayd clarifies that the Qur’an is god speaking to men in a human language, and that the meaning of the message is open to interpretation. (Shari’a or Sharia is opinion, not law, he insists.) Truth is like water, Zayd says, without color or shape, taking the form of its vessel.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is interested in justice, peace, and the acceptance of others; and he left his home in the Sudan after an inspiring and respected teacher, someone who helped him reconcile his spiritual and social concerns, was executed in public for heresy. A Sufi, part of a mystical and persuasive Islamic tradition that emphasizes intuition and love, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a handsome African, says that his is a quest for meaning and self-connection, wanting to unite the spiritual and material aspects of self. He wants to be fully present, not distracted by the past or the future. He grants that Shari’a or Sharia, a human interpretation, is a discipline that can be a way or door, a beginning rather than a destination; and thinks that a fatwa—such as that imposed on Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini—is a function of power rather than piety. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im thinks that the possibilities for apostasy and for belief are intertwined: one can be a Muslim by choice and conviction. He claims that a state, or political nation, is not recognized in the Qur’an, which speaks to individuals; and he thinks that a secular state neither promotes nor represses religion, but is neutral. Yet, one wonders how much of this is quibbling over definitions: words such as church and temple and mosque signify community, bonds of principle and power in primitive times and even now. Is there a community that is not political? Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im thinks an Islamic state is a post-colonial idea, but that public policy in society must be discussed in terms of fact and logic, in terms of civic reason. One must examine social conditions and cultural practices. The role of women, for instance, has been limited by cultural tradition rather than by the divine revelation found in the Qur’an. No one is to be coerced.

Interviewed in her Cairo apartment after baking bread, Amna Nusayr is an Egyptian woman whose lifelong love of learning has been a pleasure and a personal liberation; and she claims to love all people, but is aware of political conflict and social injustices that must be resisted. She attended primary school and an American missionary school before university, something that was rare for a girl, as usually the fates of girls were tied to marriage. Amna Nusayr would like to see more and better discourse between Europe and the Middle East. Nusayr has a healthy regard for all the prophets, whether they appear in the Islamic, Judaic, or Christian tradition. Of course, much of the world used to observe the worship of many gods, while the Jews worshipped only one: and some people see Judaism as providing the foundation of both Christianity and Islam. For most Muslims, there is only one god and Allah is the name of god, though he has ninety-nine attributes of beauty, glory, and virtue; and Muhammad is god’s messenger. The enemy, according to Amna Nusayr, is that who takes or threatens life or family, not simply someone whose religion is different. Nusayr identifies fundamentalism as the connection of religion and politics, with politics wearing the mask of religion; and one thinks of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group begun in 1928 Egypt that saw Islam as a way of life that could influence the economy and politics—and has been known to call for jihad, a form of struggle that can be spiritual or political or both—and a group that was one of the few organized enough to make a strong play for power following the fall of the country’s longtime president, Mubarak. Nusayr says that the choice—among individuals and nations—is often between power and peace, before noting that Arabs—in Palestine—were made to pay for the twentieth century’s second world war and the suffering of the Jews. “The chosen people is a divisive concept,” Amna Nusayr says. Difference is the source of life; and homogeneity leads to stagnation, death.

Reza Aslan, a rather cherubic and cheerfully youthful scholar, is an Iranian who studied religion and society, and authored No God but God and also How to Win a Cosmic War. Reza Aslan draws a distinction between religion as creed and religion as practice, identifying Christianity with creed and Islam with practice. (Aslan declares that a holy war is between nations and can be won, but a cosmic war occurs in the imagination and cannot end or be won.) Reza Aslan points to the priorities of Islam, most of which concern Islamic practice: fasting, pilgrimage, prayers, alms, and belief in one god. Islam, like Judaism, has been cited as other, as different from Europe; making it something that Europe can be defined against, a revealer of ideal attributes by contrast. Although Islam is seen as rigid in western media, Reza Aslan thinks it malleable and that its malleability is why it has become a global religion: Muslims live in the Middle East and Africa, in India and Pakistan, in Russia and the Balkans and elsewhere in the world, increasingly in the West. The religion has been spread by believers and merchants, soldiers and teachers. Islam has been a tool for the protection of personal and cultural identity also; and allows for identification or connection beyond national borders. Yet the grievances of Muslims or Arabs are used as the raw material with which identities are constructed: local grievances are connected to general complaints, for an indictment against the western world. It is interesting that Aslan thinks America has been more welcoming to Muslims than Europe, more open to cultural difference. Reza Aslan, who likes the idea of divine unity, of everything as part of creation, notes that Sharia is an ideal practice that does not exist in the world. It is hard not to think of the invoking of Sharia to justify social practice as hope, delusion, or charlatanism.

Heretics are useful in society, creative, though often punished by the state or orthodoxy, says the Moroccan thinker Anouar Majid, the writer of We Are All Moors and also A Call for Heresy, a man who affirms cultural pluralism. Nations always have attacked the other, says Anouar Majid, explaining that national identity is tribal, not universal; and Islam has borne a historical relation to Europe, and has been seen as an existential threat not for decades but for centuries. Anouar Majid notes that in Spain in 1448 there was an obsession with the purity of Spanish blood, with racist standards: the binding of race and faith and state, and the expelling of the Moors from Spain, and later the rise of Hitler, are all part of a continuum. (Majid says nothing of the Arab invasion of Spain centuries before, under the spiritual banner of Islam, in year 711, part of a multi-directional plan of conquest.) Anouar Majid reminds us that Jews and Muslims were close in terms of place and culture, until the creation of the modern state of Israel. Majid advises that history and religion must be kept separate for the evolution of workable solutions in the world.

God is to be recognized in nature, daily life, and scriptures, says the slim, slickly suited Turkish man Omer Ozsoy, who iterates that god is unlimited but man limited. Omer Ozsoy and Fons Elders sit on a sofa and speak in German, both claiming their German is faulty. Ozsoy says what he thinks: god breathed his spirit into humans, and thus humans contain divine spirit within their flesh; but conflicts exist among people as they have not fulfilled their potential for wisdom, peace, or love. For survival and peace, protected must be life, property, reason, future generations, and faith. The Qur’an contains stories of conflicts too; and that is true to the contentious time in which it was composed: on the way to peace, there may be war; and the book must be read with consideration to history rather than as a modern text. There were fights also among the prophet Muhammad’s descendants: and the Sunni and Shi’i (or Shia) conflicts go back hundreds of years, due to differing allegiances to personages and concepts of social justice, with the Sunnis appearing communal and the Shi’i more authoritarian. Religious freedom must be respected, provided it does not impinge on the rights of others. Omer Ozsoy says that Muslims must give up the image of an immoral Europe, and Europe must give up its image of irrational Islam.

Ozsoy & Fons

Mehmet Asutay, who was a boy in a rural Turkish village before moving to the cosmopolitan Istanbul, studied political economy before becoming interested in moral economy. He is aware of how societies are constructed by elites, and he is committed to social justice. Mehmet Asutay thinks of pluralism as more than democratic participation or social tolerance, but as a genuine regard for cultural difference: key may be accepting that individuals are equal in the sight of god and in relation to god; and equal to each other in society. Asutay, like other Islamic thinkers, recalls that Europe has defined itself against Islam and the Islamic presence; and that recent anxiety about cultural difference and allegiance—with customary Muslim dress in France and Germany becoming controversial—is merely the latest form of contestation. Where is the freedom in public space? Moral economy? Selfish mass consumption and the divorce of finance from productivity are part of the recent global financial crisis, Asutay says. We must consider our effect on other people. The ideas of Asutay and the other Islamic thinkers do not get the kind of attention that the harsh statements of clerics or the violent acts of extremists receive, but these intellectuals offer insight and hope and thus should not be quickly or easily dismissed.

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(Article submitted July 10, 2013)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 17, Issue 9 / September 2013 Blu-ray/DVD middle-eastern cinema