Anyone feeling a little desperate to see the connection between Islam and terrorism parsed intelligently will be relieved to read John Azumah’s essay “Challenging Radical Islam.” Published by First Things last January, in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it has, since Paris and San Bernardino, been enjoying a second life thanks to social media. A Ghanian and associate professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary, Azumah uses his scholarly weight to split the difference between less than credible partisan views – Hillary Clinton’s “see no evil” versus Donald Trump’s “tag and release.”
On one hand, Azumah observes, militant groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda justify their aggressive violence and repression of non-Muslims by citing sources whose authority all Muslims accept, including the Qu’ran and contemporary accounts of Muhammad’s personal example. When it comes to interpreting and applying these sources, they refer to the 1,400-year-old precedent set by the first three generations of Muslim leaders. Far from being freakish, this practice represents a well-established tradition of jurisprudence. However, Islam, with 1.6 billion adherents worldwide, also contains other traditions, ones that allow scholars much more room to reason, and individuals much more leave to exercise their own judgment.
See Azumah for the details, including the names of the various jurisprudential schools, and a summary of how the Hanbali school ended up begetting the Islam of Saudi Arabia and the Islam of ISIS. What bears repeating is the point that equating the oldest, strictest, and most literal forms of scriptural interpretation with the most authentic, holds much more logic for sola scriptura evangelical Protestants than for most Muslims. Moreover, says Azumah, the practice, common to militants, of “invoking takfir,” or declaring believing Muslims to be apostates and fair targets for jihad, enjoys no great popularity among any of the schools. As he puts it, “Islam’s own tradition…bears witness against Islamic terrorism today.”
Listing the many Muslim clerics and clerical councils who have denounced ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram on Islamic grounds, Azumah credits this widespread official disapproval with “delegitimizing” jihadism among young Muslims. He also recommends reinforcing that effect by engaging Muslims in “hard conversations.”
“Muslims,” he writes:
are not captives of Islamic traditions with no escape or alternatives. There are competing schools and sects among the faithful. We should not be shy about expressing our judgments as to which are the better and which are the worse traditions. If we withhold those judgments, we fail to engage with Muslims as men and women capable of moral agency. They too have religious consciences. They too care about the truth, and not only about God but about their duties to their neighbors as well. The present generation of Muslims has the right to interpret its authoritative traditions in light of twenty–first-century realities. And we as non-Muslims have a right to interpret them as well, and to speak – frankly with Muslims about our conclusions.
Compared with the implicit alternative of behaving as though it were always 1095, this sounds both humane and practical. But I wish Azumah had named the actors in this drama – the “we” and the “they” – with a little more precision. If “we” are the Western nations, and “they” are Muslims worldwide, then we’d be wise not to let our left hands know what our right hands are doing. The Saudis may be free to swagger around in the open, throwing money toward radical madrassas and universities, but few things, I’ll wager, could deflate the stock of any non-radical equivalent faster than gaining a reputation as a creature or a tool of the West.If we envision this “hard conversation” taking place between Muslims already living in the West and their governments, then we should observe another set of caveats. For one thing, France has already been using state power against radical imams. In response, ISIS has created its own network outside established mosques, where it fishes for those already alienated from Islam’s mainstream. France’s prisons and underworld have furnished it with exactly the type of violent or credulous dimwit likeliest to spill blood without a qualm.
But Azumah sounds more as though he’s talking about unofficial sanctions – peer pressure, if you like, exerted by peers of good will, aimed at pricking Western Islam’s collective conscience. If so, we – by whom I mean conservative Christians like Professor Azumah – may find establishing our goodwill a difficult feat. If I were a Muslim, even a Muslim largely content with my transplanted existence, it would take more than a handshake and the offer of a cruller to make me forget more than a dozen years of cheap shots delivered courtesy of Fox News.
In fact, the danger exists that Muslims living in the West won’t look to First Things contributors or readers for cues on what constitutes twenty-first century reality. Instead, they might look to the left, which has dominated our culture since the 1960s and been a lot friendlier overall. Last June in Religion Dispatches, Reza Aslan and Hasan Minhaj published an open letter calling on fellow Muslims to “embrace” gay marriage. The smarm leaking from the authors must be read to be believed.
But Muslims writing letters to the New York Times demanding that Catholics ordain women or marry same-sex couples remains a remote possibility and would, in any case, be a first-world problem. In the Muslim world itself, clerics and scholars are hard at work cleaning house very much on their own terms and initiative. Last April in the United Arab Emirates, a society called Promoting Peace in Muslim Countries hosted its second forum. Its purpose, in the words of its leader, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, is to reinvigorate the science of legal interpretation in a way that involves “constantly linking between religious texts, the purpose of these texts and the current living reality.”
Along with Azumah’s own phrase “living reality,” the sheikh uses the word “renewal.” We Catholics need only consult our memories of the Second Vatican Council to know where that could lead – to reforms, followed by reforms of the reforms, to backlashes upon backlashes. Even if more Muslims than ever do end up deciding, publicly, to denounce offensive jihad and terror attacks on civilians, non-Muslims seeking the “true face of Islam” shouldn’t expect a single, clear view anytime soon.