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Zuhdi Jasser, M.D.: Islam’s Luther—or its Don Quixote?

The most high-profile and articulate proponent of “moderate” Islam on the American scene today is Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, an Arizona physician, U.S. Navy veteran and–based on a recent hour-long phone interview—all-around nice guy.  Dr. Jasser appears regularly on TV and radio shows spanning the political spectrum, from MSNBC’s “Hardball” to Fox New Channel’s “The Glenn Back Show” where he condemns jihadists and argues that the world’s second-largest faith has been perverted by Bin Ladin and his ilk.   Jasser founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which has approximately the same membership (1500) as the Islamist apologist Council on American Islamic Relations (1700)—but of which only about 13% is Muslim.  Unfortunately, there are good reasons why AIFD attracts so few Muslims and why Dr. Jasser’s organization, despite its popularity on both ends of the media political spectrum, may prove to be the Don Quixote of the anti-Islamist struggle.

Jasser appeals to both history and theology to support his position.  He is a strong proponent of an American-style separation of mosque and state, which he sees as “the only solution to the Islamist problem.”  Jasser correctly traces the genesis of that idea back to its roots in the inter-Christian conflicts that waged from the Protestant Reformation to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and the English Revolution—but some key misunderstandings of this Christian history cast doubts on his efforts to apply that Western model to the Islamic world.  For example, he states that the Protestant Reformation was led “by laypeople who overthrew the theocrats.”  On the contrary, the leaders of the Reformation were mostly clerics:  Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Tyndale, etc.  There was huge popular support for the Reformation, but religious elites ran the show.  And the “theocrats” were not really overthrown; rather, their ranks were simply broadened to include non-Catholic polities (Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican).  

This history matters, because Dr. Jasser hopes that Islam can be reformed by the laity, and he thinks Islamic societies can thereby quantum leap from shari`a to mosque-state separation.  But he’s putting the Enlightenment cart before the Reformation horse.  In the West, before the eighteenth century layman Voltaire could argue that it’s acceptable to belong to NO denomination, the sixteenth century pastor Luther had to break the monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church and allow other brands of the faith to exist.  With the exception of Turkey, the Islamic world is still in need of religious reformation—tolerance of competing brands of Islam other than the majority Sunni sect—before  it can move on to the mosque-state secularization of its own enlightenment.

Continuing this historical analogy, Dr. Jasser sees his AIFD as “Protestant” and the Islamists—with their hierarchies of authority and establishment status—as “Catholic.”  He also includes the mystics of Islam, the Sufis, within this establishment fold, going against the current (largely correct) conventional wisdom that Sufis are an “antidote” (in Stephen Schwartz’s term)  to Islamism and jihadism.  While it is true, however, that Sunnism, like Catholicism, is the largest branch of its respective faith, Jasser’s analogy is off-base because it understates the true root of all Islamic extremism and violence:  a literal interpretation of the Qur’an which stems from the renunciation by Sunni scholars, over a millennium ago, of the doctrine known as ijtihad, “independent reasoning” in Qur’anic exegesis.

The renunciation of ijtihad has allowed any violence-prone Sunnis the theological cover of arguing, for example, that “behead the unbelievers” (Sura Muhammad:3ff; Sura al-Anfal:12) must be taken literally.  Islam is thus quite unlike Christianity, where allegorical and other non-literal interpretations of the Bible have long been tolerated within the three major branches:  Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy (while literalists do predominate within the evangelical/fundamentalist Protestant ranks, they are a minority—albeit a large one—within the world’s 2+billion Christian membership).  In Christianity the largest branch, Catholicism (1+ billion), is decidedly non-literalist in approaching the Bible—whereas in Islam Sunnism is, au contraire,  officially and firmly literalist in reading the Qur’an.  It is this very Qur’anic literalism and its attendant black-and-white, us-versus-them world view (beloved of the many engineers among Sunni Islamist ranks, as Jasser points out)—not size or institutionalization per se—that really drives Islamic-based violence and terrorism.

Non-literalism does exist in Islam, but mainly in sects such as the Ismai’ilis ( Sevener Shi`is, differing from the Twelver Shi`is of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon), the Barelwis of India and Pakistan, the Zaydis (Fiver Shi`is) of Yemen and the Ibadis of Oman, and in some of the Sufi orders.  Ironically, given Iran’s current antipathy toward the U.S., even the Twelver Shi`is and their glowering ayatollahs hold more chance of Islamic reformation than do the Sunnis, because in Twelver Shi`ism ijtihad has never been prohibited.  And while this has allowed for negative developments such as Khomeini’s theocratic vilayet-i faqih (literally “rule of the jurisprudent”),  it could equally well allow for more positive rulings in the future—like perhaps a fatwa that decapitating non-Muslims is meant to be understood in a rhetorical, not bloody, sense. 

Jasser, however, insists that “Islamic reform must come from within the Sunni world,” not from Shi`is or sects.  He dislikes the Twelver Shi`i “respect for genetics” (all Shi`is, particularly Twelvers, believe the only legitimate rulers of the Muslim world should be those men descended from Muhammad through his son-in-law and cousin Ali) and the “borderline Muslim” nature of other sects.  But as long as ijtihad is officially off the table for mainstream (Sunni) Islam, the best hope for an Islamic reformation and a follow-on enlightenment is found in these very sects which, all told, comprise perhaps 7-8% of the world’s Muslims, or about 100 million people—twice as many if the Twelver Shi`i ranks  are included.  Luther started with far fewer Christians.

Dr. Jasser’s well-meaning quest is, in essence, an attempt to resurrect the doctrine of the Mu`tazilah, a group in early Islamic history which held that reason was as important as revelation, that the Qur’an was a created (not co-eternal with Allah) book and that humans had free will.  However, Mu`tazilism was disenfranchised and discredited within Sunnism by the tenth century CE, and although there have been sporadic attempts since to revive it—especially among Westernized Muslims, of whom Jasser is just the latest and most articulate—the doctrine died out in Islam’s largest branch.  Yet Mu`tazili ideas survive today in sects such as the Zaydis and the Ibadis—another reason that we should place our hope for Islamic reformation there, rather than in the Sunni world.

While his view of religious history might leave something to be desired, Jasser’s courage is never in doubt—as, for example when he takes on the established Sunni  doctrine of naskh, or “abrogation,” which holds that the later-revealed suras or “chapters” of the Qur’an trump earlier, more pacific ones.  Thus, Sura al-Tawbah [9]:5, which states “when the sacred months have passed, kill the polytheists wherever you find them—capture, besiege, ambush them,” is held by the consensus of Sunni clerics to overrule Sura al-Baqarah [2]:256 and its famous injuction “let there be no compulsion in religion.”  Jasser can argue this because he believes that the true chronological order of the Qur’anic chapters is not known, and it should be understood and read not as a time-stamped set of rules but rather as an “anthology” of Allah’s revelations to Muhammad.  He also disagrees with the Sunni religious consensus—exemplified today by the likes of the influential Qatar-based cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi—that Islam is a matter of collective interpretation; Jasser maintains that individuals are permitted, indeed required, to interpret the Qur’an for themselves and live accordingly. 

But there is a major problem with this very American and, indeed, Protestant approach to the Qur’an:  practically no Muslim follows it at this stage in history.

It is impossible not to wish Dr. Zuhdi Jasser well in his efforts to—as another reform-minded Muslim, Irshad Manji puts it—“take back Islam from the guys with beards.”  But while Jasser’s approach resonates with both conservative and liberal media in this country, as well as with many government officials, his neo-Mu`tazili approach has a major flaw:  it strikes very few chords among Muslims themselves, either here or overseas.  Understandably Jasser, raised a Sunni in Syria, hopes his co-religionists might adopt his atypical, Western Muslim view—but why waste time tilting at Sunni windmills when that battle has long since been won among Islam’s sects?  His Sunni-centrism notwithstanding, the Obama administration would be far better off with Dr. Jasser representing America to the Islamic world than with its current ambassador to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Rashad Hussain—who apparently sympathizes with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood and sees Islam as more misunderstood than in need of reform.

An Ambassador Jasser, armed with the imprimatur of the U.S., would quite likely find a receptive audience for his views not at the OIC but among truly moderate Muslim leaders such as the Aga Khan, imam of the world’s Isma’ilis; Hisham Kabbani, American-based shaykh of the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi order; and Muhammad Tahir al-Qadri, the UK-based Barelwi cleric who recently issued an anti-terrorism fatwa.  These men, religious leaders all, represent venerable Islamic intellectual and religious traditions in which the Qur’an, while not yet the province of individual interpretation, can be read other than literally.  If Jasser could win allies to his view among these groups, he might very well transform from Islam’s Don Quixote to its Luther—and pave the way for, eventually, its Voltaire.