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Today the House of Islam occupies a space somewhere between the old world and the new, say a current and a former muslim, and choices must be made. Ian Harris reports.
In the wake of the Christchurch and Colombo massacres, Islam has assumed a new prominence in the consciousness of New Zealanders.
In different ways, those events highlight a pathological evil that has cut short too many lives among people of diverse faiths, here and overseas.
Abroad, most of those victims have been Muslims slain by Muslims, for Islam is no more a monolithic mass than any other religion. Views within it range from seeing the core of their faith as peace and spiritual serenity, to encouraging violence in pursuit of a fundamentalist and political vision of the place of Islam in today's world.
The problem is that both emphases can be justified by appealing to verses in the Qur'an and hadith (the sayings and doings of Muhammad compiled after he died).
Is each verse of equal weight and immutable? Or is the text open to fresh interpretations as societies evolve?
Two writers steeped in Islamic experience look closely at these questions and come to similar conclusions. Both were born into devout Muslim families, both embraced an extremist version of Islam in their youth, both now think that modern Muslims must be free to reappraise aspects of their religion in light of the modern world. And both, significantly, live in the West. Their musings would not be tolerated in countries where ultra-conservative clerics hold the whip hand.
Ed Husain, author of The House of Islam, was born in England and remains committed to Islam. He attributes this to the gentle, spiritual depth of his Indian parents. Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali lived for a time in Mecca, studied and became an MP in the Netherlands, felt compelled to leave the faith and now teaches at Harvard and Stanford Universities in the US. Her experiences led her to write Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. She has had numerous death threats.
I see neither as bent on destroying the faith. Though strongly critical of some interpretations, they are basically constructive. They plead for changes that would restore the spirit of Islam's golden era in the Middle Ages, when scholars enjoyed a freedom to analyse, explore and critique in a generally tolerant environment, and Islam flourished.
But the heavy hand of theocratic conformity throttled that back, and over the past seven decades Saudi Arabia has spent $US200 billion spreading a narrow, aggressive and politically-oriented puritanism as the only true expression of Islam. The effects have been felt through the Muslim world.
Today, Ali sees three major groupings contending for the soul of Islam. She calls them Mecca Muslims, Medina Muslims and Modifying Muslims.
Mecca Muslims are by far the majority. For about 10 years from 610CE, Muhammad was intent on inviting polytheists around Mecca to abandon their idols and worship only Allah. The earliest chapters of the Qur'an reflect this. Mecca Muslims are loyal to this peaceful emphasis, worship devoutly, and do not promote violence.
Yet, says Ali, they have a problem, especially in the West, since certain of their beliefs sit awkwardly with modernity. ``Trapped between two worlds of belief and experience, these Muslims are engaged in a daily struggle to adhere to Islam in the context of a secular and pluralistic society that challenges their values and beliefs at every turn.''
Some try to wall off outside influences, and permit only an Islamic education for their children.
Medina Muslims look rather to the time when Muhammad and his followers assumed political authority and took up arms to defend and extend the new faith. Those who refused to submit to Allah were attacked or downgraded to second-class citizenship. The religion expanded by conquest.
Today's extremists find inspiration in verses in the Qur'an that reflect this shift.
``They envision a regime based on sharia, Islamic religious law,'' says Ali. ``They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original 7th-century version. What is more, they take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else ... They preach jihad and glorify death through martyrdom'' - as with al Qaeda, Islamic State and Boko Haram.
Husain acknowledges the deep emotions of hurt, betrayal and humiliation that blundering Western intrusions into the Islamic world have caused, but objects to the Medina Muslims' ``political hijacking'' of his religion.
As a Modifying Muslim, he challenges the majority to disown, even oust these ``theological brigands'' and work instead to rekindle the openness, tolerance and freedom of their faith's glory days.
How enriched the world would be if that were to happen!
Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.