Islam for our time?

The Star (South Africa), Mar. 16, 2003 (Book Review)

Islam Explained
by Tahar Ben Jelloun
Jacana R135

How do you explain – particularly to your own impressionable child – that the murderous actions of September 11, 2001 need not be a source of shame among co-religionists?

When the conversation goes like this:

Daddy, am I a Muslim?

Yes, like your parents.

And am I an Arab, too?

Yes, you’re an Arab, even if you don’t speak Arabic.

But you saw on TV, the Muslims, they killed a lot of people. I don’t want to be a Muslim.

Tahar Ben Jelloun is a novelist, essayist, critic and poet of Moroccan origin who has lived in France for more than three decades. He is a winner of the Prix Mahgreb and the Prix Goncourt.

He is also the father of deeply troubled daughters living in a country which prides itself on its attachment to logic.

So, when his child said she didn’t want to be a Muslim, he knew he had to answer some serious questions.

In this little book, Tahar takes those questions further, to explain – as he sees it – the nature of Islam.

I say “as he sees it”, because Tahar is only one voice among many: he writes approvingly of such sages as the North African Ibn-Khaldun (1332-1406); the Afghan Jamal Eddine al-Afghan (died 1897); and the Egyptian Muhammed Abduh (died 1905).

The first warned against “using the mosque for teaching things other than the Koran”. The others encouraged “certain changes of rules and habits in practising religion” – in other words, reforms.

“They said that we should not blindly accept what the ancient teachers laid down as rules for Islamic conduct, that the time when Islam was born was very different from modern times.”

This statement would be unexceptionable in perhaps 95% of the worldwide Christian community, where to be “fundamentalist” is equated with ignorance, backwardness, narrow-mindedness, bigotry, intolerance – and so on.

Unfortunately, this is not necessarily so among a community where too often extremist threats cause the more tolerant to stay quiet.

Tahar says “in Islam, as in other religions, there are things that are eternal and things that are temporary, that is, valid for one time period and not for all times. The problem is that some Muslims say that all of it is eternal and that nothing must change…”

He places himself firmly among the modernisers and writes in a sceptical, open-minded tone attractive to a Western audience.

Tahar chastises the obscurantist Muslims – but omits to say how immensely powerful they are. And there are a few infelicities, such as the ritual condemnation of colonialism and its association with Christianity, without any apparent understanding that Islamic expansion was in its time a colonial force – witness its advance in Europe beyond the Pyrenean passes and to the walls of Vienna.

There is a dig at American’s apparent cultural incuriosity: “A recent study revealed that for every 100 books brought out by American publishers, only three were translations. What other people have written or thought doesn’t really interest them!”

True, but when so much original literature is published in your own language, the need for translations is lessened. The day is long past – a millennium ago – when an Iranian historian quoted by Tahar could write with justification: “The Arabic language is the repository of all the arts of the earth.”

That said, Islam Explained is an attractive little work. It is a cry for understanding which deserves respect.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 17, 2003.
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