[I began writing this article during Ramadan but stopped in the middle and finished it off after Eid. The interval has witnessed David Cameron’s speech as well as a Guardian piece on the same topic . This article is split into three sections and although it’s a long read, I concede, please do persevere all the way to the end. I think it’s worth it.]
First of all a few observations
Much as I try to remain focussed during Ramadan it’s simply not a viable proposition when the fasts are almost 19 hours long. My favoured outlet for whiling away the hours is incessant tweeting (mostly inanity) and while perusing the timeline of Britain’s chief “counter-extremism expert” the other week I came across an interesting exchange between him and one of his stalwart supporters. It actually begins with a short statement by the tweeter, @REnlightenment (a non-Muslim) but I will spare that for the second part as that is logically where it is best placed.
Let’s dissect this one step at a time. [A short explanatory note: the discussion was centred on the meaning of the Qur’anic text.]
“Words are sensible signs, necessary for communication of ideas. Man, though he have great variety of thoughts, and such from which others as well as himself might receive profit and delight; yet they are all within his own breast, invisible and hidden from others, nor can of themselves be made to appear. The comfort and advantage of society not being to be had without communication of thoughts, it was necessary that man should find out some external sensible signs, whereof those invisible ideas, which his thoughts are made up of, might be made known to others.” [John Locke – An essay concerning human understanding]
Albeit in the convoluted academic prose of 17th century England, Locke here posits that words are the mechanism by which humans relay the ideas and thoughts of their inner selves to others. Later, in the same tract he discusses one of the necessary features of language if such a purpose is to be realised:
“First, they suppose their words to be marks of the ideas in the minds also of other men, with whom they communicate: for else they should talk in vain, and could not be understood, if the sounds they applied to one idea were such as by the hearer were applied to another, which is to speak two languages. But in this men stand not usually to examine, whether the idea they, and those they discourse with have in their minds be the same: but think it enough that they use the word, as they imagine, in the common acceptation of that language; in which they suppose that the idea they make it a sign of is precisely the same to which the understanding men of that country apply that name.” [Ibid]
Which is a rather dense way of saying that we expect those who hear our words to understand what they mean i.e. that we have both agreed beforehand on what such words signify. If this wasn’t the case it would be impossible to for meaningful communication to actualise.
“At the same time it must be admitted that unless words, to some extent, had fixed meaning discourse would be impossible. Here again, however, it is easy to be too absolute. Words do change their meanings; take, for example, the word “idea”. It is only by a considerable process of education that we learn to give this word something like the meaning which Plato gave to it. It is necessary that the changes in the meanings of words should slower than the changes that the words describe; but is not necessary that there should be no changes in the meanings of words.” [History of Western Philosophy – Bertrand Russell]
Here Russell starts by asserting the necessity of words having fixed meanings for the purpose of meaningful discourse proceeding from there to discuss the change in meanings of words over time. He cites the example of the word “idea” as one that means something very different to us today than it meant to the ancient Greeks (specifically Plato) over 2000 years ago but yet we are nonetheless able to understand its meaning in the idiom in which Plato wrote. Similarly while the meaning of certain Arabic words may have evolved to take on subtleties and connotations absent in the idiom of 7th century Arabia we are nevertheless familiar with the intended meanings in the original context. So in summary words are ultimately tools to convey thoughts and messages – the key is to discern what the words mean as the author intended them.
Bearing the above in mind, the unqualified absurdity of Maajid’s argument becomes all too apparent and scarcely needs highlighting but I’ll do so anyway. According to such an argument there is no objective meaning to any book. Now I know Maajid studied law (and Arabic) at SOAS so I’d like to think he doesn’t think the “sentences and paragraphs” in the various legal tomes he no doubt had to pore over had no objective meaning. Moreover, I doubt such an argument would carry much weight in a court of law – “sorry your honour but that statute the prosecution just cited has no objective meaning so I move for a dismissal.” As @ReEnlightenment correctly asserts we have no problem communicating with each other day to day via tweets, e-mails, newspapers and the like – provided all parties to any such communications are utilising the same language. For example, I trust that you, the reader, are able to comprehend the meaning I intend to convey by these sentences by virtue of your proficiency in the English language. Where the meaning of a word is disputed it doesn’t negate the fact that the sentence carries a coherent meaning merely that the meaning of that sentence is open to a multiplicity of meanings – but any which must be justified by recourse to the normative syntax and lexicon of the language under study.
Regarding the change in meaning of words let us quickly consider the following two examples:
- “And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead.” [Acts 10:42]
In modern English we use the word “quick” as an adjective to describe something fast moving but back in 1611 it was understood as a synonym for “alive”. Would anybody reasonably read this verse and surmise that God (according to the Bible) has appointed Jesus (as) as the judge of the fast movers and the dead? No because we are aware that in the context in which it was used it signified something different.
- In a similar vein the Elizabethan tragedian, Christopher Marlowe in his Tamburlaine (1590) uses the word “egregious” to mean distinguished or eminent. A mere 21 years later Shakespeare uses it to mean “extraordinarily bad” – the meaning it has retained to this day.
Again, although the word “egregious” means something different today we are perfectly au fait with Marlowe’s intended meaning and that is the salient point.
Quite what Skinner has to do with this discussion I’m not sure and I doubt Maajid has read any of his works. Having been called out on the absurdity of his argument he falls back on the time honoured tactic of obfuscation; I suspect also that he saw it as an opportunity to project an air of erudition and authority, like the poseur that he is. Linguistics is not the same as hermeneutics and Skinner’s linguistic theories have no bearing whatsoever on Qur’anic hermeneutics. Of course if he thinks Skinner’s work has some relevancy to the topic at hand he could have cited some relevant excerpts (verbatim or in paraphrase) but instead he suggests (knowing full well the implausibility of it) that his interlocutor go away and “start [reading] with Skinner”.
Of course the meaning of sentences can sometimes be open to interpretation and this can be due to syntactical ambiguity as well as lexical. Consider for example the following sentences:
- We finally reached the bank.
- John told the woman that Bill was dating.
Sentence (i) is an example of lexical ambiguity as the word ‘bank’ has more than one meaning. In this case the surrounding context will probably provide strong clues as to the intended meaning.
Sentence (ii) is an example of syntactic ambiguity. It could mean that John informed a particular woman of the fact that Bill was currently dating someone. Or it could mean that John conveyed a piece of information to the particular woman that Bill was currently dating. Either are valid interpretations according to the syntax of the English language. Again clues in the surrounding context would likely point to the intended meaning. However, even if it were to remain the case that the sentences were ambiguous after an exhaustive examination of all the relevant indicators it is quite a jump from that to say that we should discard the entire sentence along with any enveloping text or that we impart to it a meaning entirely beyond the ambit of the lexicon and syntactical rules of the English language.
To return to the Qur’an let us consider the following ayah (verse):
“…But if you are ill or on a journey, or any of you comes after answering the call of nature, or you have been in contact with women, and you find no water, then perform Tayammum with clean earth and rub therewith your faces and hands…” [TMQ 5:6]
The Arabic word translated above as “contact” is “lamastum” which in Arabic can connote the act of physical contact (its literal meaning) or alternatively, metaphorically, sexual intercourse. As both meanings would fit the context of the surrounding sentences one would be at liberty (in the absence of any overriding evidences) to choose either meaning – which is exactly why Islamic scholars have differed regarding the juridical ruling that is derived thereof. If, however, someone wants to posit an alternative meaning other than the two I just enumerated they would need to justify it by recourse to the accepted lexicon of the Arabic language – as it stood back in the 7th century. So if somebody were to postulate that “lamastum” meant “singing a melody” they would need to provide justification for such a view and when (as it doesn’t mean that) they couldn’t they would have their opinion rejected.
To move to an example from more recent times consider the 1789 Bill of Rights – the foundational document of American liberal democracy. The meaning and implications of this document has often been argued over, resulting in the US Supreme Court having to adjudicate in several instances. Does anyone as a result seriously contend the Bill of Rights is meaningless and that it should be thrown away as a consequence?
It should be clear by now that the twin ideas that we cannot agree on what the Qur’an means or that we can reinterpret the Qur’an to mean whatever we’d like it to mean are plainly nonsensical. In fact such arguments Maajid Nawaz himself doesn’t buy into as amply demonstrated during his infamous confrontation with a certain Muslim commentator apropos of the hadd punishment for theft. Having quoted the Qu’ranic verse (“Cut off the hand of the thief, male or female, as a recompense for that which they committed…”) – first in its original Arabic followed up by the English rendering – he demanded his interlocutor state unequivocally his opinion on the moral probity of such an ordinance. As he well knew no amount of hermeneutical chicanery can possibly sublimate the literal import of that verse (and many like it) leaving nullification as the only viable alternative. But then of course it’s not so much that one particular ruling that Maajid is taking issue with but rather the underlying concept that Qur’anic injunctions are indefeasible and universally applicable. The problem, however, in acknowledging that the author of the Qur’an isn’t omniscient and infallible or divine is that most Muslims (and as we’ll see below even some non-Muslims) recognise it for what it is – a call to apostasy.
Well thank God it finally clicked in someone. Of course the Qur’an has meaning and of course many (most) of its verses have a very clear meaning. What these so-called “progressive Muslims” are actually saying – though they don’t have the courage to frame it in such terms – is that they simply don’t like what the Qur’an says. For them the Qur’an contains some pretty repugnant material (@REnlightenment uses somewhat more robust language) which they’d rather do away with yet to simply strike it out would mean acknowledging that the Qur’an was not inerrant and consequently not of divine provenance. The re-interpretative route has failed to convince either Muslims (as to its coherence and validity) or non-Muslims (as to its efficacy or coherence) and an increasing number on both sides are coming out in vocal opposition to such absurdity. The tenor and the basis of the debate have shifted and necessarily so.
When Maajid gave his first major interview (to BBC Newsnight back in September 2007) post resignation from Hizb ut-Tahrir he cast his decision to leave as a rediscovering of traditional Islam. His very first post is in fact still available to view here: http://maajidnawaz.blogspot.co.uk/2007/08/evaluating-hizbut-tahrirs-theo.html
Forward three years to 2010 and Maajid participated in an Intelligence Squared debate (alongside the American Muslim activist, Zeba Khan) against Douglas Murray and the infamous asylum application fraudster and ex-Muslim, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The subject of the debate was “Islam is a religion of peace” and it ended in a humiliating defeat for Maajid and his co-panellist, Zeba:
[For those interested enough to watch it, it can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rh34Xsq7D_A ]
Now I mention this event because it marked a milestone in the evolution of Maajid’s thinking. The spectacular defeat – at the hands of two Islam haters –of his “contextualisation/interpretative” argument finally awakened him to its fundamental, inescapable flaw: that the problem lay not with interpretation or contextualisation but rather with the texts (Qur’an and hadith) in of themselves, specifically the idea that they represented a perfectly preserved, miraculous, inerrant message from an omniscient God with universal, timeless relevance. Such an idea is, of course, the quintessence of Islam and bereft of it, the term becomes meaningless. He wrote in his autobiography that leaving Islamism was akin to peeling away an onion one layer at a time and that this process would take him some time. Well clearly as this point he finally peeled away the last layer but to his surprise, and contra his earlier pronouncements, what lay at the core wasn’t some 20th century amalgam of Marxism and Zahirism [an extinct extreme literalist school of Islamic jurisprudence] but rather a 1400 years old tradition anchored in normative readings of the Qur’an and Hadith backed up by a well-defined, coherent, consistent interpretative methodology. Islamism was, after all, Islam – the very same “traditional Islam” he claims as the inspiration for propelling his departure from Hizb ut-Tahrir. Although in his arrogance he still cannot bring himself to concede the point, today he avers that Islamism is an interpretation of Islam – not that it has nothing to do with, or was a perversion of, Islam, as he previously maintained.
Once you come to terms with the fact that Islam itself (i.e. the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad (saw) as encapsulated in the canonical hadith collections) is “the problem” then apostasy becomes the only logical option. While people like Ayaan Hirsi, Ali Rizvi, Taslima Nasreen etc. have been honest about their abandonment of Islam adopting such a position would be problematic for Maajid Nawaz at the current time. His sales pitch after all, is that he is uniquely placed to bring about the endogenous reform of Islam the West is clamouring for, by virtue of still being a Muslim. Nobody in the Muslim community is persuaded by the arguments of embittered ex-Muslims; much like divorcees generally tend to disregard personality critiques from their ex-spouses. So for the time being he must maintain this façade of “Muslimhood” although in recent months it has assumed such absurd proportions that I honestly question for how much longer he can continue the charade.
Over the past (approximately) 18 months we have been “treated” to his tweeting of offensive (yes, really) cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), part of a satirical publication whose dedicated purpose is to debase, insult and mock two of Islam’s greatest Prophets (peace be upon them). We witnessed his endorsement of an ex-Muslim’s book that calls for Muslims to abandon the most fundamental tenets of Islam and whose author is on record as saying that Islam – going to pains to insist that she was referring to Islam the faith not some concept of “Islamism” or “radical Islam” – must be defeated. We have had him retweeting articles urging Muslims to abandon the concept of scriptural inerrancy – as part of a debate “Muslims need to engage in” [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ali-a-rizvi/an-open-letter-to-moderat_b_5930764.html]. The same author persistently mocks the idea of “moderate Muslims” asking whether it is possible to be against rape and murder yet simultaneously hold sacred a book that (allegedly) sanctions such behaviour. We’ve seen a prominent atheist author, mistake him for a fellow atheist, which despite his ardent denials is telling in of itself. If we accept that one’s rhetoric and demeanour are reflective of the beliefs and thoughts we carry then clearly after her interaction with Maajid, Taslima Nasreen came away with the distinct impression that he was an atheist. We’ve see him invited as a speaker at a humanist convention where he comfortably shares a panel with the likes of Maryam Namazie, another individual who’s repeatedly made clear her contempt for Islam. We’ve discovered that he has been guided in his thoughts and opinion on the Qur’an and Hadith by Tom Holland – whose book “In the shadow of the Sword” dismisses the notion of Islam being a divinely revealed faith, casting the hadith collections as (mostly) 8th century fabrications (as Nick Cohen, another of the Maajid’s bosom buddies, gleefully contends – the book “dismisses” Islam’s “founding myths”).
Recently at an event in Amsterdam he stated it is possible to be an “atheist Muslim”. I can only laugh at the credulity of the audience who lap up such nonsense simply by virtue of it emanating from a brown skinned individual with a “Muslim name”. Is it possible to be a “Communist Capitalist”, I wonder? Has anyone ever argued that communism is simply what communists make of it so that one day communism might come to mean free market, laissez-faire economics incorporating private ownership of the means of production? For sure many of those who in the past were communists have indeed come to adopt such ideas but, and here’s the kicker, they are no longer “communists” and would readily admit to that. I’m sure the intended parallel isn’t lost on you.
So what have you got for your money?
The short answer is nothing and that despite receiving millions of pounds in subventions (much of it taxpayers’). How many Muslims have been put off joining ISIS or AQ affiliates by Maajid Nawaz? Has the UK witnessed an increase or decrease in “extremism” in the past 7 years? How many Muslims are signing up to the “reformed Islam” of Mr Nawaz and his cohorts? Not very many is the answer – in fact I’d hazard a guess, next to none. All of which is hardly surprising given that Maajid Nawaz’s “think-tank” has next to no traction in the Muslim mainstream. Spending your time completely detached from the community amongst whom you claim to want to affect change is hardly a recipe for success and while I agree that it was high time many of these self-appointed Muslim community “representatives” were sidelined as intermediaries by the government, replacing them with an individual the community near universally reviles doesn’t bode well for the future. Maajid’s propinquity to personalities (some mentioned above) and organisations that espouse a clear anti-Islamic/Muslim agenda is hugely disquieting and the Prime Minister’s endorsement of him even more so.
So what do those who fund him get for their money then? A man who jets across Europe and the US attending countless, symposiums and “high level meetings” where he lectures (mostly) rich, privileged white non-Muslims about the dangers of “Islamism” and his completely unattainable vision for Islam – to rapturous applause no doubt and much back slapping. Oh and also this:
Maajid Nawaz is a narcissist. An arriviste so puffed with hubris it appears he actually believes the nonsense he peddles. So whether he’s name dropping the prominent “Islamists” he once associated with, celebrities or TV personalities he hobnobs with, or the government ministers he now has access to, one thing remains constant – it’s all about him. [http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/aug/02/maajid-nawaz-how-a-former-islamist-became-david-camerons-anti-extremism-adviser].
To his inveterate supporters I have nothing to say, except: on your heads be it. His campaign has, far from “de-radicalising” anyone, actually disposed more young Muslims to join groups such as Islamic State. Presented with a dichotomous choice of Maajid’s “Islam” and IS’ brand I suspect most young Muslims would plump for the latter – for reasons already discussed above.
To the majority of non-Muslims who, largely as a result of an incessant tide of anti-Muslim demagoguery from sections of the media and certain writers in particular, feel uneasy about aspects of Islam and the intentions of the Muslim community here in Britain, I say: talk to us. Talk to those of us who will speak to you frankly and candidly. For sure, some of what you hear you might find unpalatable but unless we have this free and frank exchange of thoughts the divisions in our society are only going to exacerbate. I personally don’t think the problems are so great and definitely not insurmountable given the necessary political will.
To those in power and authority I ask that you pause and reflect on your current strategy. Look back at the mistakes of Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s and ask yourself if a repeat of such a scenario is really what you want to push Britain towards. Abolish the detested PREVENT strategy and instead engage with the community at the grassroots level. Yes, ignore the self-serving sycophantic “community representatives” such as the MCB but also ignore the likes of Maajid Nawaz, Sara Khan and others of their ilk. If it means sending teams to canvass opinion direct from the streets of Muslim majority localities then so be it. There are also organisations that you may not like but with whom you would be well advised to engage in direct dialogue with (e.g. CAGE).
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon sayyidina Muhammad. Ameen.