The Agony of a 21st-Century Muslim

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Author: Ziauddin Sardar
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,293 words

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[(review date 17 February 2003) In the following review, Sardar compares Islam Explained to Barnaby Rogerson's The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography and Asma Barlas's "Believing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Koran, discussing how each work portrays modern Islamic culture.]

It is not easy to be a Muslim. Believers like me live on the edge, constantly having to justify our very existence. As the French Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun discovered, the situation became infinitely worse after the events of 11 September 2001. Having watched the spectacle unfold on television, his daughter declared that she did not want to be a Muslim: "Muslims are bad; they killed a lot of people." The loving father explained that the attacks on America were the work of "fanatics" and "crazy people". They did not represent Islam.

But what is Islam, the children ask. So Ben Jelloun here sets out to explain Islam to his children [in Islam Explained]. "Once upon a time, very, very long ago," he begins, "a little boy was born in Mecca." He traces the life of the Prophet Muhammad, describing the tenets of Islam in a simple, graceful style. Adults often assume that children are incapable of grasping the complexity of life, an assumption that has led Ben Jelloun to keep things simple. In doing so, he evades the biggest problem of all, which is the self-delusion that we Muslims have turned into a fine art--the reality that much of the agony of being a Muslim in the 21st century is self-inflicted.

Ben Jelloun's simplistic but compassionate interpretation of Islam is far removed from the Islam of the Taliban or the Revolutionary Guards in Iran. It is the Islam conventionally invoked by the liberal defenders of the faith, who believe that, as Muslims, it is their duty to present a more humane, tolerant Islam.

In truth, while humane representations of Islam ease our conscience, they do little to address the problems within Islam itself. The problem with all varieties of Islam as it is practised today, not as it is envisaged by liberals, is that it has lost its humanity. Our religion has become a monster that devours all that is most humane and open-minded. Instead of retreating to an imagined liberal utopia, we Muslims need to ask some tough questions about our faith. What, for example, makes so many pious Muslims such nasty and intolerant individuals? Why is it that every time a country enforces the shariah--the so-called Islamic law--it retreats into medieval barbarity? Why do Muslims still insist on treating women as though they were an inferior race, sent to earth only to deprave and spread corruption?

Not surprisingly, Ben Jelloun's children do not ask such questions. And the answers will not bring much comfort for any kind of Muslim, child or adult, liberal or otherwise.

It is easy to dismiss the followers of all the non-liberal verities of Islam as fanatics and fundamentalists. It is much harder and much more painful to see...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053121