Monthly Archives: March 2007

Signing Up for Moderation: Endorsing the Amman Message

Back in 2004, King Abdullah II of Jordan sent three deceptively simple questions to 24 religious scholars representing major trends of thought within Islam: (i) Who is a Muslim?; (ii) Is it permissible to declare another Muslim an apostate?; and (iii) Who has the right to issue non-binding legal verdicts (fatawa)? The immediate context was not only al-Qaeda-type terrorism, but the emerging sectarian conflict in Iraq; however, it should also be recognised that the questions touched too on fundamental issues about the nature of orthodoxy, its self-definition and self-regulation. Their answers, subsequently endorsed by over 500 leading religious scholars in a series of six major conferences, affirmed that there were eight orthodox legal schools, that no-one had the right to declare anyone an apostate on this broad definition, and that all these legal schools had collectively developed substantive criteria upon which a fatwa could be authoritatively issued (and thus the issuing of fatawa could not be the provenance of ignoramuses, fanatics or overweening autodidacts).

Named after the first major conference, held in July 2005, these “three principles of the Amman message” form the basis of global Muslim unity, the grounds for the advancement of peaceful Muslim relations, and an endorsement of the means by which religious scholarship moderates extremism in matters of religious interpretation.

(1) Whosoever is an adherent to one of the four Sunni schools (Madhahib) of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i and Hanbali), the two Shi’i schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Ja`fari and Zaydi), the Ibadi school of Islamic jurisprudence and the Zahiri school of Islamic jurisprudence, is a Muslim. Declaring that person an apostate is impossible and impermissible. Verily his (or her) blood, honour, and property are inviolable. Moreover, in accordance with the Shaykh Al-Azhar’s fatwa, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to the Ash`ari creed or whoever practices real Tasawwuf (Sufism) an apostate. Likewise, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare whosoever subscribes to true Salafi thought an apostate.
Equally, it is neither possible nor permissible to declare as apostates any other group of Muslims who believes in God, Glorified and Exalted be He, and His Messenger (may peace and blessings be upon him), the pillars of faith (Iman), and the five pillars of Islam, and does not deny any necessarily self-evident tenet of religion.

(2) There exists more in common between the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence than there is difference between them. The adherents to the eight schools of Islamic jurisprudence are in agreement as regards the basic principles of Islam. All believe in Allah (God), Glorified and Exalted be He, the One and the Unique; that the Noble Qur’an is the Revealed Word of God preserved and protected by God, Exalted be He, from any change or aberration; and that our master Muhammad, may blessings and peace be upon him, is a Prophet and Messenger unto all mankind. All are in agreement about the five pillars of Islam: the two testaments of faith (shahadatayn); the ritual prayer (salat); almsgiving (zakat); fasting the month of Ramadan (sawm), and the Hajj to the sacred house of God (in Mecca). All are also in agreement about the foundations of belief: belief in Allah (God), His angels, His scriptures, His messengers, and in the Day of Judgment, in Divine Providence in good and in evil. Disagreements between the ‘ulama (scholars) of the eight schools of Islamic jurisprudence are only with respect to the ancillary branches of religion (furu`) and some fundamentals (usul) [of the religion of Islam]. Disagreement with respect to the ancillary branches of religion (furu`) is a mercy. Long ago it was said that variance in opinion among the ‘ulama (scholars) “is a mercy”.

(3) Acknowledgement of the schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Madhahib) within Islam means adhering to a fundamental methodology in the issuance of fatwas: no one may issue a fatwa without the requisite qualifications of knowledge. No one may issue a fatwa without adhering to the methodology of the schools of Islamic jurisprudence. No one may claim to do unlimited Ijtihad and create a new opinion or issue unacceptable fatwas that take Muslims out of the principles and certainties of the Shari`ah and what has been established in respect of its schools of jurisprudence. [1]

It should be noted that it was not only representatives of the eight schools — Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i, Hanbali, Ja`fari, Zahiri, Ibadi and Zaydi — who endorsed this declaration, but, according to one eyewitness account, it was even more inclusive than that:

It was significant that in addition to Iraqi and Iranian mainstream Shi‘a scholars, representatives of the smaller Shi‘a currents—the Isma‘ili followers of the Aga Khan and the Bohra Isma‘ilis, as well as the Shi‘a Zaydis of north Yemen, signed off on this document. [2]

This terribly important reaffirmation, in times of Muslim political fragmentation, “fraternal” bloodshed and disintegrating religious authority, has now emerged from the counsels of the good and the great to be presented to everyone. The entire Amman Message can be read in full here. They are now asking everyone who agrees with this restatement of inclusive orthodoxy to sign up online and endorse it. Major religious and political Muslim leaders of Europe and North America have already endorsed these three principles, in Istanbul in July 2006, alongside a commitment to respect fundamental rights and freedoms and to contribute to the welfare and good of those societies of which they are citizens. [3]

There is now also an effort underway to spread the ethos of these three foundational principles further, which should be supported, through these mooted practical measures:

(1) inter-Islamic treaties;
(2) national and international legislation using the Three Points of the Amman Message to define Islam and forbid takfir;
(3) the use of publishing and the multi-media in all their aspects to spread the Amman Message;
(4) instituting the teaching of the Amman Message in school curricula and university courses worldwide; and
(5) making it part of the training of mosque Imams and … [including it] in their sermons.

Of course, it could be pointed out that such declarations are only made when religious orthodoxy no longer holds the centrality it once had, and that, with this marginalisation, some foundational values, such as upholding the inviolability of the faith, life, honour and property of Muslims, are fraying within the umma-politic. Bin Laden affirmed in one of his messages that the 9/11 attacks were conducted without reference to any recognised school of fiqh, and so the problem is not that al-Qaeda is unorthodox but that it refuses to recognise orthodoxy in the first place. [4]

The Islamo-anarchists will no doubt ignore all “fatwas of peace” issued by well-intentioned international conferences and platforms. But they are not the principal audience for this reaffirmation; rather, it is the umma at large. Given the wide assent for these three principles, this can be held, for all practical purposes, to constitute a consensus of the umma, and as such, some have argued that affirming them becomes an individual legal, and not just a moral, obligation (fard `ayn).

Even for those who are reluctant to be seen to endorse a conception of orthodoxy, and hence the age-old role and status of traditional religious scholarship within Islam, ought at least to recognise the basic impetus behind these three principles, which is to reassert basic civilised religious norms in a genuinely inclusive spirit. The declaration is not a panacea for the fragmentation of religious authority in the House of Islam, because the structural causes underlying that process are not going away but are in fact intensifying. Rather, signing up for it is the very least that one can do to avoid a Muslim equivalent of Europe’s early modern “wars of religion”, which appears, at the current juncture, to be a distinct and disastrous possibility.


[1] The second version of the three principles endorsed at the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in June 2006; the first version, which was substantially the same, was endorsed in Amman in July 2005. The second version is available online here:
[2] Abdullah Schleifer, “The Amman Initiative: A Theological Counter-Attack against Terrorism”, Islamica Magazine, 14, 2005, avaiable at:
[3] Topkapi Declaration, July 2006, available at:
[4] Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad (London: Hurst, 2005), 13.

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Between Nation and Umma: Muslim Loyalty in a Globalizing World

It has become commonplace to suspect the loyalties of British Muslims, and all the more so after the London bombs in 2005.* British Muslims are constantly asked to deny their alleged sympathies for terrorism. Their feelings of Islamic solidarity are thought to equal at best indifference or at worst hostility to patriotism. Although there has been a more concerted intellectual and cultural engagement with British Muslims in the last few years, it is unsurprising that, on balance, being under the spotlight of scrutiny has created a polarised reaction. Opinion polls indicate that more Muslims than ever before have considered migrating, [1] and that their feelings about their sense of Britishness appear to be quite divided. [2] This intense examination has provoked a sharp discussion among British Muslims about identity and belonging. Generally, however, public debate has been slow to pick up on the insight that has become almost clichéd in the social sciences, namely, that collective public identities work to either fuse or divide the multiple and contextualized identities that we all carry around with us as part of the complex business of being human. [3]

It is therefore not so surprising that British Muslims seem to face the stark choice of being either “British” or “Muslim”, or, more subtly, being a “British Muslim” in a culturally-approved way. In its bluntest and most unanswerable form, the question being asked today is whether the umma or the nation comes first. It is predictable, then, that the insistence upon an overriding attachment to the umma and its suffering has become central to the sense of self-identity of British Muslims who feel excluded from and marginalized in wider society. This finds expression as a “reductive notion of umma solidarity”, [3a] provoked and shaped by the news cycle in the mass media. This collective identity, hardly rooted in transcendent values, appears as an epiphenomenon of systems of human representation. In such an agonistic maelstrom, arguments about integration, and developing a sense of national identity, are thought either to be self-interested or disloyal to the universalising bond of faith.

Recent Debate on Minority Status among British Muslims

Part of the reason for these perceptions is the legacy of a way of thinking still shaped by the struggle against imperial European nationalisms and the stultifying authoritarianism of secular nationalist governments, particularly in the Arab world. [4] For British Muslims as for minorities elsewhere, the traditional rationale has been a contractarian one, which rationalises compliance to the laws of the land in return for the provision of basic freedoms. [5] European Muslim intellectuals have already embarked upon the re-expression of this traditional legal vision into the calculus of Islamic citizenship in a liberal democracy, [6] mirrored by a shift among Islamist movements in Britain towards civic participation and engagement from the 1980s onwards. [7]

But this tradition of principled and cautious engagement within legal and moral norms was undermined (if never supplanted) in Britain by the global rise of Wahhabism. For the most part, its doctrine of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’ (glossed as “loving or hating for the sake of God”) was understood primarily in theological terms as the rejection of unbelief (kufr) and as loyalty to correct belief (`aqida). It was manifested as a sectarian polemic against the “deviant” Sunni majority, as isolation from a non-believing wider society, and as loyalty to the “rightly-guided” Muslims. In the 1990s, al-wala’ wa’l bara’ gained a harder political edge with the spread of the idea of global jihad, developed by the “Afghan” Arabs in the 1980s, directly inspired by the anarchist movements of 1970s Egypt like al-Takfir wa’l- Hijra and the Jihad Group. In its political form, al-wala’ wa’l-bara’ was linked to the concept of tawhid al-hakimiyya (the unity of governance), relating to the judgement that a Muslim leader who does not rule by the entirety of the Shari`a was an infidel who should be overthrown, by violent means if necessary. Its most infamous method was attacking “the far enemy” (the West and its allies outside of Muslim countries) in order to create the conditions in which Muslim governments could be overthrown. [8] In Britain, the linkage between credal purity and questions of political loyalty was also strengthened by the rising influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir, who emphasised the need to work for the reestablishment of the caliphate as the responsibility of every Muslim, a duty arising out of faith itself, over “unjustified” and disloyal nationalist modalities of engagement.

During the 1990s, a vocal jihadi minority in Britain, all of whom were at some point theologically Salafi in outlook, like Omar Bakri Mohammed, Abu Hamza, Abdullah al-Faisal and Abu Qatada, were able to set the terms of intra-Salafi debate, even if the majority of British Salafis held to a non-political view of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’. [9] After 9/11, however, British Salafism as a whole moved sharply away from al-wala’ wa’l-bara’, in both its theological and political forms, towards engagement, a process led by the largest Salafi grouping, Jam`iyat Ihya’ Minhaj al-Sunna. [9a] Similarly, the pragmatism of young British Muslims has forced Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party), particularly in the last four years, to re-engage with grassroots community issues. Additionally, the Party had begun, even before 7/7 and the subsequent threat of proscription under anti-terrorism legislation, to work co-operatively with other community organisations, toning down their more confrontational style of the early 1990s.

It is the nature of this relationship between theology and our sense of national loyalty and belonging that this essay seeks to explore, as the legacy of the radical 1990s fades away. It aims to ask how, beyond contract and duty, can a sense of national belonging find a rationale within our tradition? This is an admittedly difficult task when coping with cultural disdain, social exclusion and antiterrorism measures. And it will not be enough to envision “multicultural citizenship”, based on commonalities as well as differences and on a genuine cultural interchange of mutual enrichment, without an under-girding sense of “plural Britishness” to provide duty with its motive force. [10]

Debate on Muslim Nationhood in Pre-Partition India

It is helpful to reflect on these issues by returning to an earlier debate in India during the 1930s about nationalism and Islam, as Muslim intellectuals struggled to decide what kind of nation, alongside the related question of what kind of state, should emerge once independence from the British was achieved. Iqbal (1877- 1938), the poet-philosopher, insisted in his mature thinking that the basis of a nation (qaum) could only be credal (mazhab), two notions conjoined together in the terms, umma and millat, which Iqbal equated with religious nation or society.

After a first-hand experience of European nationalism during his doctoral studies, Iqbal was convinced that it could not avoid racism and imperialism as a consequence of turning a natural love of country (vataniyat, or patriotism) into a political ideology (qaumiyat, or nationalism). Interestingly, Iqbal’s sense of Indian patriotism was linked in his poetry to a love of India’s landscape, and not a political allegiance to the imagined history of a discrete territory, as demanded by nationalism. The basis of solidarity would be found instead in religious law, although Iqbal neither conceived of this in the traditional scholastic sense nor in the ideological form later advocated by Mawdudi. [11] Iqbal, in a letter to Nehru in 1936, encapsulates perfectly well the Muslim distrust of nationalism expressed in various ways during the twentieth century:

Nationalism in the sense of love of one’s country and even readiness to die for its honour is a part of a Muslim’s faith: it comes into conflict with Islam only when it begins to play the role of a political concept and claims to be the principal of human solidarity demanding that Islam should recede to the background of a mere private opinion and cease to be a living factor in the national life. [12]

Iqbal did at least have a point about the quasi-metaphysical claims of nationalism. While it has never made sense to talk of “my religion, right or wrong” as one might say of one’s nation — religion being the source of eternal goodness — nonetheless, the badness of nations is usually held to be only temporary. The goodness of nations lies more in intra-historical secular time, as opposed to the transcendence of religion: the obligation and duty towards future unborn nationals, the puritan rigour of nationalist movements, the association of pure patriotism with children, and the essential innocence of the memorialised national dead. [13] In his later poetry, Iqbal contended that the transcendent bond of faith could not find realisation in other more mundane expressions of solidarity; in his poetic vision, he preferred the sky-bound eagle to the earthbound nightingale. [14] The immanentalist claims of the nation to goodness could never be accepted.

Others were less satisfied than Iqbal with such theoretical musings. Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani (1879-1958), the Rector of the famous seminary at Deoband and one of the leading figures in the struggle for independence, favoured a traditionalist pragmatism on the basis that “politics is not resolved through philosophy”, [15] and he recognised that constitutionalism, pluralism and democracy were the political currency of his day. This did not mean, however, that his stance had no scriptural basis. In his appeal to the Qur’an, Prophetic tradition and Arabic lexicography, Madani makes an authoritative and clear distinction between millat and qaum. Millat refers to religion (din) or religious law (Shari`a) or way of life, regardless of its truth or falsehood, whereas qaum refers to a group of men or a group of men and women, whether they are believers or not, provided that there is a point of commonality between them. This point of commonality may be linguistic, cultural, territorial or based on descent. [16] Similarly umma in scriptural and classical Arabic retains a sense similar to that of qaum, and need not be strictly linked to Abrahamic monotheism, as Iqbal argued. [17] And while the universal bond of Islamic solidarity remains paramount, [18] at the same time, the Covenant of Medina describes the Muhajirun, the Ansar and the Jewish tribes of the Prophet’s City as one nation or community (al-umma al-wahida). [19] Madani argues on this basis that:

The gist of my argument is that the Prophet brought together Muslims and Jews into one “nation” to fight against their enemies. […] Moreover in the covenant the word umma (followers) was used instead of qaum (nation), and it said that Muslims and Jews should be considered as one nation as against those who are not included in the covenant. […] If Muslims cannot form a nation with non-Muslims, if Islam does not permit it…then how was it that the Prophet formed a composite umma with the Jews? […] This proves that muttahida qaum (a nation united) irrespective of people being free to pursue their different religions is possible, and that they too can be considered [part of the] Muslim umma. [20]

Madani’s argument has a powerful resonance for current debates among British Muslims. It does much to provide the rationale for a sense of loyalty and belonging to a multicultural state in the difficult throes of expanding notions of plural Britishness, the frontier of which is currently measured against the Muslim community and the public role of Islam in Britain’s secular liberal democracy. It is the crucial insight that the Qur’an defines qaum and even umma in non-religious terms, and recognises the fact of extra-religious bonds as the basis of political cooperation, which provides the grounds for engaged Islamic multicultural citizenship.

Challenges to Nationalism in a Global Age

This argument is certainly not an abstruse consideration given that, in the recent past, the most widely projected — if neither the wisest nor most common — voices have stood firmly against the idea of loyalty to Britain, even against the sort of loyalty informed by the “critical citizenship” that defines the new generation of British Muslims. At a conference I attended on Islamophobia in 2005, a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir suggested to the largely non-Muslim audience that Muslims had no need “to feel British”. Although I challenged him on that point in the panel discussion, during a private discussion after the event, when he predictably described the argument for patriotism as dangerous, he did more perceptively add that the idea of nationalism was “old hat” in a globalising world.

This is an argument that deserves attention, for many have hailed the imminent passing away of the Westphalian order, or the idea of mutual recognition of the autonomy of sovereign states. Since around 1970 or so, the ideological and practical dominance of neoliberalism (i.e. the doctrine that “market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action”) has unleashed a deterritorializing logic of global capital that is undermining the territorializing logic of nation-states. [21] Even if the largest economies in the world retain some ability to ameliorate the dispersal of global capital, and to order “deregulation” to their advantage, nonetheless, even in a prosperous Britain, the cultural and political after-effects are noticeable. Thus, the proposal to underpin an expanded definition of multicultural liberalism that allows for greater cultural diversity with a more inclusive sense of national belonging faces a serious challenge from several large-scale processes resulting from the reordering of global markets. These include:

(i) The advocacy of a form of cultural globalisation, pushed for by global elites, presented as a “virtuous deracination”, [22] who champion open borders, and are less interested by nationalism and instead argue for new sorts of regional and global reordering, like the simultaneous expansion of the European Union alongside devolution in Scotland and Wales, which has led to a cultural revival of Englishness, the inclusiveness of which is still ambiguous.

(ii) The commodification of cultural meaning communicated through the mass media, placing identities of consumption at the centre and weakening civic and nationalist discourses that are primarily mediated through local and national state institutions.

(iii) The further regulation of private life and civil society by the modern state that, in muddying the classic public-private distinction of liberal society, provokes public contestation from deprivatised identity movements.

(iv) The adverse impact of the “war on terrorism”, the core rhetorical code for US-led military expansion in the Muslim world, and of al-Qaeda type terrorism upon Muslims everywhere, which has become particularly salient in Britain after 7/7 with an intensification of policing, surveillance and media scrutiny.

In the current political climate, the simple restatement of nationhood in a pristine form is devolved disproportionately upon British Muslims, the marginalized objects of suspicion and ridicule. How natural it then seems at this juncture to seek in globalisation the opportunity to soar, eagle-like with Iqbal, above the immanentalist claims of the chauvinistic nation-state, to lay claim to a similar global, political reordering in an Islamic vein. And to argue likewise for the nation-state, albeit of the inclusive and multicultural variety, would constitute an unrealistic resort to nostalgia.

The Search for a Cosmopolitan Modus Vivendi

In responding to this, it is better to reiterate that it is political judgements that are at stake, to return to Madani’s point about the nature of politics, rather than credal or metaphysical nostrums. Thus any political adjudication might begin with the observation that globalisation represents a continuity with empire and nationalism in the organisation of power and capital on a larger and more intensive scale. Ordinary folk organised at a more local and smaller scale struggle to keep up, and part of this struggle has been to seek proper opportunity and equity within the nation-state. Cosmopolitans, whether of liberal or Muslim stripe, in their critique of nationalist chauvinism have missed “the extent to which nationalism not only expresses solidarity or belonging but provides a rhetoric for demanding growth and equality”. [23] Therefore the precautionary assessment is that the nation-state still represents the best vehicle for keeping up with capital and power. After all in any new attempt at global unification, it is the larger states of the world that would seek to set the rules. Furthermore, extreme liberal cosmopolitans in their critique of so-called backward tradition (Islam is the favoured target) miss the supreme importance of rootedness, manifested as a search for roots, in that very tradition and in communal social relations at a time of rapid change in which the vulnerable, the dispossessed and marginalized are at the mercy of the new rules. Without this rootedness, no voice of autonomy can be formed to stand against this large-scale integration, for the alternative is a final colonization of the non-Western imagination and mind. [24]

For cosmopolitanism to be rooted, it must recognise the “moral status of those who are political strangers” [25] whose lives may encompasses values and meanings very different from our own without recourse to granting them rights as cultureless instances of a universal humanity. Unlike either relativism or universalism, cosmopolitanism recognises that while there might be universal values that allow for the possibility of intercultural exchange, there is no single way of life that is universally valid. In other words, cosmopolitanism recognises the challenge of a continuous tension between two ideals: “universal concern” (e.g. against torture) and “respect for legitimate difference”. [26] But, as critics have pointed out, cosmopolitanism places a higher value upon peaceful coexistence than upon a universally applicable order of enforceable rights. It does nothing to find an ideological resolution for diametrically opposed premises. It is not a more sophisticated manifesto for “liberalism on safari”, but simply describes a modus vivendi. [27]

The Qur’an itself recognises that diversity is part of the Divine intent, and that human beings are bound to live in political orders smaller than the entire species (11:118-119) and that the modalities of “knowing one another” as “diverse nations and tribes” is a criterion of “righteousness” (49:13). If the basis of the common national bond admits to arbitrariness (how many suffered for the idea that every nation must find resolution as a state), the state on a smaller scale encapsulates “the many circles narrower than the human horizon that are the appropriate spheres of moral concern”. [28] In other words, cosmopolitianism is a political arrangement for peaceful relations between competing truth-claims both within and between polities, even if in metaphysical terms, the Islamic commitment to pluralism is “non-reductive” and not relativist. [29] Yet it is still also the case that in our tradition, “wisdom is the lost property of the believer”, [30] to be sought wherever it is found, thus implying a moral commitment to a global conversation dedicated to mutual enrichment as well as peaceable relations.

Thus the argument returns to the point that the multicultural state invested in a form of rooted cosmopolitanism remains preferable to the deterritorializing and detraditionalizing logic of universalising and abstracted (Western) cultural globalisation, which seems less likely to ensure “mutually assured [cultural] diversity”in the twenty-first century. [31] The challenge therefore lies ahead for British Muslims to find, as did Madani in his day, a new Covenant of Medina for a composite nationalism, the united nation (al-umma al-wahida) of our times.


* First published in Islam21, 40, January 2006, 6-11, and reproduced here with very minor amendments.
[1] 63 per cent of respondents in a Guardian/ICM poll, 26 July 2005.
[2] In a Telegraph/YouGov poll (23 July 2005) British Muslims described their feelings for their country as “very loyal” (46 per cent), “fairly loyal” (33 per cent) and “little or no loyalty at all” (18 per cent).
[3] E.g., P. Werbner, Imagined Diasporas Among Manchester Muslims (Oxford: James Curray, 2002), Chapter 2.
[3a] I owe this phrase to Professor Tariq Modood, personal email correspondence.
[4] A. El-Affendi, “On the State, Democracy and Pluralism” in S. Taji-Farouki and B. M. Nafi (eds.), Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), 172-194.
[5] For a recent restatement of this see Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, “Muslims Living in Non-Muslim Lands” (1999), available at and elsewhere.
[6] Most notably T. Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[7] A perceptive overview is provided by S. McLoughlin, “The State, ‘new’ Muslim leaderships and Islam as a ‘resource’ for public engagement in Britain” in J. Cesari and S. McLoughlin (eds.) European Muslims and the Secular State (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 55-69.
[8] The majority of contemporary jihadis have preferred, unlike al-Qaeda, to operate within national confines see Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why the Jihad Went Global (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[9] J. Birt, “Wahhabism in the United Kingdom: Manifestations and Reactions” in Madawi al- Rasheed (ed.) Transnational Connections and the Arab Gulf (London: Routledge, 2005), 168-184.
[9a] A process, however, that is far from complete as a recent documentary, “Dispatches: Undercover Mosque” (Channel 4, 15 January 2007) showed.
[10] T. Modood, Multicultural Politics: Racism, Ethnicity and Muslims in Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005). This is also not to ignore the crucial point made that loyalty and belonging only become possible in an environment of acceptance and inclusion see M. S. Seddon, D. Hussain and N. Malik (eds.) British Muslims: Loyalty and Belonging (Markfield: Islamic Foundation, 2003) and their other collection, British Muslims between Assimilation and Segregation: Historical, Legal and Social Realities (Markfield: Islamic Foundation, 2004).
[11] F. Shaikh, “Millat and Mazhab : Rethinking Iqbal’s Political Vision” in M. Hasan and A. Roy (eds.), Living Together Separately: Cultural India in History and Politics (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), 366-388.
[12] Ibid., 378.
[13] B. R. Anderson, “The Goodness of Nations” in P. van der Veer and H. Lehmann (eds.) Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia (Princeton: University Press, 1999), 197-203.
[14] Shaikh, 378-380.
[15] B. D. Metcalf, “Reinventing Islamic Politics in Interwar India: The Clergy Commitment to ‘Composite Nationalism’” in Hasan and Roy (eds.), 389-403, quotation at 399.
[16] H. A. Madani, Composite Nationalism and Islam [Muttahida Qaumiyat aur Islam] , translated by A. H. Hussain and H. Imam (Delhi: Manohar, 2005 [1938]), 76-77, 79-80.
[17] Ibid., 85-90.
[18] Ibid., 90-96, 102-106.
[19] A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1990 [1955]), 232.
[20] Madani, 114.
[21] D. Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) and his A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[22] C. Calhoun, “Is it time to be postnational?” in S. May, T. Modood and J. Squires (eds.), Ethnicity, Nationalism and Minority Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 231-256, quotation at 246.
[23] Calhoun, 238.
[24] Z. Sardar, Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture (London: Pluto, 1998), 13.
[25] K. A. Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 219.
[26] K. A. Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: Norton, 2006).
[27] J. Gray, “Easier Said Than Done”, The Nation , 30 January 2006, available at
[28] Appiah, Ethics of Identity , 246.
[29] M. Legenhausen, “A Muslim’s Non-Reductive Religious Pluralism” in R. Boase (ed.) Islam and Global Dialogue: Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 51-73.
[30] Tirmidhi 2611, Ibn Majah 4159.
[31] Z. Sardar, Beyond Difference: Cultural Relations in the Twenty First Century (London: British Council, 2004).

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Orhan Pamuk's "Snow": Between Confinement and Freedom

Orhan Pamuk is not only the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (2006), but his difficult novels are widely read in his home country of Turkey for perhaps two reasons: they take the pulse of the country’s concerns and they attempt to do this by rescuing literary narrative from the grip of politics. Pamuk’s seventh novel Snow is his first work set in contemporary Turkey, and it is arguably the most insightful fictional commentary on the post-9/11 world that has been written so far, precisely because it does not mention the attacks at all, but contextualises the underlying issues brilliantly.

The plot revolves around the return to Turkey, after twelve years, of an exiled poet, Ka, for his mother’s funeral. He is a rootless figure. Never inspired by the traditional faith of his childhood, Ka has abandoned the idealistic leftist politics of his youth, seeing only how the authoritarian, violent state smashed young people’s idealism. Notwithstanding his retreat from politics to art, in Germany, Ka becomes an isolated figure, who is misunderstood or ignored by the locals, who has lost his muse, and has stopped writing poems. Once in Turkey, he takes up a journalistic assignment to discover why the “headscarf girls”, banned from the local schools in the dilapidated border town of Kars, have taken to committing suicide. (He also has another purpose: to hook up romantically with an old friend, Ipek.)

Once Ka gets to Kars, a bigger story develops, as the town turns in on itself when three days of heavy snow isolate it. All the divisions and tensions between old disillusioned leftists, Kemalists, the military, the virtually omnipresent intelligence services (the “MIT”), the press, the Sufis, Kurds, Armenians and the Islamists are there, and they are about to boil over into violence. But, unlike in Istanbul, where everyone lives separately in “tribes”, in Kars everyone stills knows and mixes with each other, and these divisions get played out within families. And it is worth pointing out that none of main protagonists come across as cardboard cut-out caricatures either.

The forces of the state believe that a wanted Islamist terrorist named “Blue” is behind the religious agitation in the city. The Islamists are poised to win the municipal elections. Ka witnesses the assassination of a local school head (for upholding the ban on hijabs) by a young Islamist in a cafe. The Islamist violence and terror is real enough, but it pales into insignificance beside the manipulation and torture of the intelligence services, and the even more brutal and open violence of the military and the police force. The chief villain in Snow is not “Blue”, but the murky and sadistic figure of Z. Demirkol, head of the local intelligence service, whose runs MIT in Kars with the efficiency of the former East Germany’s Stasi. Everybody suspects somebody else, and there is no such thing as a private meeting.

With Kars temporarily snowbound and unaccountable, the forces of repression take their chance to smash the Islamists with searing brutality. Demirkol’s puppet is the has-been theatrical star, Sunay Zaim (famed for his resemblance to Ataturk), whose performance of the play My Fatherland or My Headscarf at the city’s main theatre becomes the pretext for bloody suppression, with soldiers killing the religious high-school kids in the audience who have come in support of the “headscarf girls”.

The great central metaphor in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is embedded in the title, and the novel’s deeper themes are connected with it. Ka, like Kafka’s K, is either a witness to events, or occasionally a catalyst for them, rather than a protagonist. He finds love, trauma and inspiration in Kars: all of the town’s profoundest hopes and fears surface violently when snow (in Turkish, “kar”) blocks all ways in and out. Ka, having no traditional faith, having abandoned his youthful political idealism and bereft of poetic inspiration, finds, in the tumult of snowbound Kars, his muse — in the antinomies of religion and atheism, authoritarianism and freedom, aesthetics and politics, love and duty. Finding inspiration, nineteen poems are “dictated” to Ka during his short stay, which he attempts to map through the use of a snowflake diagram, in the years after those three strife-filled days in the town. His poems narrate a complex individuality, irreducible to mere labels, aligned on the axes of logic, imagination and memory in his snowflake diagram. Snow is thus a double metaphor: it stands for both confinement and freedom, and, through Ka’s alternation between these two poles, this doubleness is played out as the dramatic tension between personhood and politics.

Yet it is Ka’s seemingly ambiguous, cipher-like indecisiveness that does much to cause distrust among many in Kars, when, after getting dragged into the town’s political crisis, a local paper accuses him of being a spy. He doesn’t want to take sides, and thus reduce his art to political propaganda. His newfound “faith”, expressed through his rebirth as a poet, is not enough:

“Before I got here, I hadn’t written a poem in years,” he [Ka] said. “But since coming to Kars, all the roads on which poetry travels here have reopened. I attribute this to the love of God I’ve felt here.”

“I don’t want to destroy your illusions, but your love of God comes out of Western romantic novels,” said Blue. “In a place like this, if you worship God as a European, you’re bound to be a laughingstock. Then you cannot even believe you believe. You don’t belong to this country; you’re not even a Turk anymore. First try to be like everyone else, then try to believe in God.”

Ka is similarly berated for his naivety in protesting state violence: it is merely a European vice, an idealistic liberal pretence. Sunay berates him on this score:

“No one who’s even slightly Westernised can breathe freely in this country unless they have a secular army protecting them, and no one needs this protection more than intellectuals who think they are better than everyone else and look down on the people – if it weren’t for the army, the fanatics would be turning their rusty knives on the lot of them and their painted women, chopping them all into little pieces. But what do these upstarts do in return? They cling to their little European ways and turn up their affected little noses at the very soldiers who guarantee their freedom.”

As one reviewer has astutely noted, everyone has a double in Pamuk’s writing. Ka’s “double” is Sunay, who stages a “postmodern” military coup in Kars, who puts his “art” in the service of the state, instigating the imprisonment, torture or killing of Kurds and Islamists in the town. Sunay embraces politics as the culmination of his art, to serve the fatherland, while Ka embraces its contradictions creatively but runs from its practical consequences. Most of all, this running away is a refusal to be labelled as a Europhile, a naive liberal, an Islamist sympathizer, a spy and informant, and so on — all the things he is, in the end, accused of because of his wish not to take sides, but to live for art and love. In the short-circuiting of politics, art becomes escapism, and so, offering no solutions, finds no vindication in the blood and repression of Kars.

What elevates Snow is its pitless observation. No one escapes — the old left, the Islamists, the brutal secular state — not even Ka and the bourgeois liberal intellectualism he represents, represented also by the narrator of Ka’s story in Snow, Orhan (perhaps a sly reference to Pamuk himself). The manuscript containing Ka’s nineteen poems is lost, melting away like a disintegrating snowflake, and Orhan, who has come to write about Ka’s life, finds that the poet was generally disliked and distrusted. Even Orhan gets a reprimand:

“If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.”

“But no one believes everything they read in a novel,” I [Orhan] said.

“Oh yes, they do believe it,” he cried. “If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathise with the way we are and even love us.”

As Pamuk’s translator Maureen Freely remarks, Snow‘s only real heroes are the long suffering people of Kars who merely get by, surviving the rhetoric and machinations of middle class elites, secular or religious, European or Turkish, and the presumptions that they make in their claims over the “silent majority”. This leaves us with a book that nobody on any side of the great rhetoric about a “clash of civilisations” would feel comfortable with. This book champions no slogans or caucuses, and it is this pointed lack of advocacy is what makes Snow such a fine and subtle novel that should be heard above the polemical din that defines our times.

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Where some Dads go wrong…

An eighteenth-century French nursery rhyme “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”, set to music similar to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (the lyrics of which were written later on), has some timeless wisdom to impart to fathers the world over, above and beyond the immediate context of a child’s sweet tooth:

Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman,
Ce qui cause mon tourment?
Papa veut que je raisonne,
Comme une grande personne;
Moi, je dis que les bonbons
Valent mieux que la raison.

Ah! Let me tell you, Mother,
What’s the cause of my torment?
Papa wants me to reason
Like a grown-up.
Me, I say that sweets have
Greater value than reason.

What a loss to shackle this sweetness of chldren with dull reason too early and too soon! Without children’s play, imagination and storytelling, their lives (and ours) would remain disenchanted.

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Wisdom and the Universal Library

Would it be feasible to imagine a convincing universal library, one that contained not only every book in existence, but every possible book? Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the Argentinian writer famous for exploring philosophical conundrums through short stories and fictive essays, once did so in his parable “The Library of Babel” (1941). Well before the age of the internet, Borges, once the director of the National Library of Argentina, “imagined paradise as a kind of library”, a yearning that is reflected in this story.

Borges’ library is eternal and infinite in size, composed of hexagonal rooms, each one housing the necessities of human survival and 640 books arranged on 20 shelves in a completely random order. The books contain all possible combinations of a full stop (N. Amer., ‘period’), a comma, the space and twenty-two letters of the alphabet. Much of the library is gibberish, or perhaps the gibberish is some secret unfathomable language. But at the same time, for the human-librarians whose existence is defined by the library, the hope persists that amidst all the gibberish:

Everything is there: the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary of this gospel, the commentary on the commentary of this gospel, the veridical account of your death, a version of each book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books. [1]

With the discovery of this proposition, orthodoxies and heresies appear among the librarians. Some go in search of the future inscribed in the library. But hope wanes in the infinitude of the library and some argue that searches be given up in favour of the random shuffling of letters and words to produce canonical works by chance. Others think the priority is to destroy useless books (a futile gesture as countless imperfect facsimiles exist that differ by only one character). One persistent hope is the discovery of a book that is the key to all other books, the perfect compendium, housed in a crimson hexagon, which must exist as it is possible that it exist in the universal library.

It seems that six decades after Borges imagined the universal library and futility of discovering the perfect key that would order all human knowledge, the technology to so inventorise this prodigious legacy of human thought and speculation has arrived.

Currently no one knows how many books there are in the world. WorldCat, the largest catalogue, has 32 million titles from more than 25,000 libraries around the world. But the race is now on to digitize texts and to make keyword searches of this ever-expanding digital library available online. Several projects are already underway, one of the largest being Carnegie Mellon University, which has already scanned one and half million books. However, the clear front-runner, at present, is Google, which aims at the very least to scan a number of book-texts equivalent to WorldCat within the next ten years. The scale of this ambition fits Google’s corporate mission “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, and Google Books is regarded by the company as “Google’s moon shot”. [2] The obvious motive for such a huge undertaking is set out by Google’s vice-president, Marissa Mayer:

Google has become known for providing access to all of the world’s knowledge, and if we provide access to books we are going to get much higher-quality and much more reliable information. We are moving up the food chain. [3]

So the technology is available, and, in the grander scheme of things, this looks like a hugely exciting and worthwhile prospect, but one that may stumble not for technical but for legal reasons around copyright. With respect to copyright, there are broadly three categories of books:

(1) Twenty per cent of all books are in the public domain: they have either passed out of copyright or were never originally copyrighted.
(2) Ten per cent of all books are copyrighted and in print.
(3) Seventy per cent of all books are copyrighted, or have an unclear copyright status, and are out of print.

Category One presents no legal problems whatsoever, and Google has agreements with major universities and public libraries to digitize this with the quid pro quo of providing the digital archiving and preservation of their back catalogue for them. Category Two has been the subject of commercial agreements between Google (or Amazon for instance) and its publisher partners to provide another form of searchable advertising for the 175,000 or so books that are published every year, from which Google does get advertising revenue. Publishers understand too that browsing online leads to buying if surfers find a book in print on a topic they are interested in. Usually on Google Books, the title page, contents, index and part or all of the introductory chapter are displayed in full, while the rest of the book is word searchable.

The real problem lies with Category Three, which has become the subject of an ongoing legal dispute in the United States between Google and some its partner publishers. The publishers argue that Google has infringed copyright by scanning in the entire texts of books within Category Three. Google’s counter-argument is that the company only makes “snippets” available, lawful under fair usage rights available to all researchers, that are the product of a keyword search. Thus web research is analogous, in Google’s eyes, to book research. Searchability of texts is not the same as making entire texts available. (And it should be noted that Google does not put advertising on search pages for books from Categories One and Three, which it has obtained from libraries and not from publishers.) The stately progress of the federal legal process means, however, that this case might not be heard until early 2008, thereby increasing the chance of an out-of-court settlement. It is to be hoped that whether the outcome emerges from a settlement or from a courtroom verdict, it is one that favours access to learning over profit.

So if the gamut of human bookish learning does eventually become available online, what would Borges have made of it all? Besides the delights of instant searchability, cutting out the drudgery of wading through the dross, Borges would perhaps have thought that the key to human understanding lay not within the perfect compendium but in the hermeneutical relationship between the reader and the text.

A sheikh once recalled that when he used to visit the home of his teacher, they would meet in his voluminous library. In his early student days, the sheikh hoped to find a book that would be the key to unlocking all the others. The teacher reminded him that it was, of course, a dialogical process, that if we read books that change us, then we see new meanings and attain deeper levels of understanding in what we read (even from books we have read before). In other words, the perfect compendium lies not within a universal library but within the wisdom of the human subject, illuminated by an integration of learning, reflection, experience and imagination. To express it as a counterfactual, books read us differently as we go through a process of transformation.


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”, Fictions, trans. by Anthony Kerrigan (London, 1991 [1965]), 72-80, quote at 75-76.
[2] Jeffrey Toobin, “Google’s Moon Shot”, New Yorker, 5 February 2007, available online at
[3] Ibid.

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