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The Future of Islam

Anthony McRoy

John Esposito
Oxford University Press, 234pp, ISBN 9780195165210

John Esposito is one of the most prominent and respected scholars of Islam in the world today, hugely admired by Muslim academics themselves. Anything he writes is worth reading. He also has the gift of presenting issues in a popular, lucid way, and The Future of Islam is a classic example of this. The governing theme of the book is Islamic reform, an issue much raised since 9/11. Many look at despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, and insist on the need for reform. The book explores what this entails, and its challenges.
Esposito examines diversity within Islam, both ethnically and in terms of attitude, with an accent on how Muslims in the West see themselves.

Surprisingly, US Muslims are much happier and more optimistic about their future than European Muslims. US Muslims are also highly educated.

Ordinarily, then, it looks as though US Muslims are living the American dream. Although Esposito does not explicitly say so, the probability is that, given their increasing numbers, education and incomes, in a few years they will become a significant lobbying force in American political life, with obvious consequences for US Middle East policy.

That this is not yet the case is shown by the last presidential election, where Obama was at pains to stress that he was not a Muslim; clearly the US public is not yet ready for a Muslim President. Esposito lists a number of neo-conservatives and others whose attitude towards Muslims is, to say the least, negative. Their methods include 'unsubstantiated charges and claims', taking 'quotes out of context', and 'recycling the same charges' by mutual quoting. Esposito shows that even 'non-Muslim academics, journalists, and policymakers' who speak out against such 'bigotry and disinformation' are 'targeted and attacked as unpatriotic, anti-Semitic apologists for Islam or supporters of suicide bombers.' It seems McCarthyism is still alive in America; only its victims have changed. Esposito includes some evangelical Christians among those ranks of new McCarthyites. He also deals with the old chestnut that Muslims have not condemned 9/11, by listing all the main leaders and groups who did just that.

Where many conservative Christians will differ with Esposito is in his presentation of the current idea of the 'Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition', which the exclusive nature of evangelicalism cannot accept. Also, Esposito misses a point in responding to Muslim complaints during the Danish cartoon crisis that they cannot reciprocate to Jewish and Christian prophets, 'because they are also ours': anyone visiting an Islamic missionary website or meeting will quickly hear the vilest calumnies against the apostle Paul - hopefully Esposito will address this in future.

Another major criticism I would offer is in Esposito's presentation of jihad. He quotes the tradition about 'the greater jihad', i.e. the struggle against inward personal evil, in contrast to the 'lesser' military jihad without observing that this is a non-canonical idea in Sunni, as opposed to Shia Islam. He also seems to depict jihad as purely defensive, yet there are many prophetic traditions referring to 'conquest', as well as Shari'ah rulings dealing with 'offensive' jihad.

One can also look to historical examples of offensive jihad (i.e. jihad aimed at conquest, rather than opposing invasion or occupation); after all, the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 was scarcely a defensive action, anymore than was the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. We must avoid politically correct interpretations that are not historically valid.

Esposito gives a good overview of modern Islamic history, especially in terms of politics and jihad, but he dismisses the idea that Wahhabism is 'necessarily violent'. In terms of terrorism this might be true, but  Wahhāb himself endorsed both defensive and offensive jihad. Esposito is on surer ground when he gives an overview of US policy in the Muslim world, showing how its negative character has led to only 5%-10% of Muslims viewing the US as trustworthy or friendly.

On his main theme of reform, Esposito points out that Islam - specifically its Sunni variant - has a hadith that in every century God will send someone to renew Islam - a mujaddid. This where a sting in the tale is revealed. Wahhāb presented himself as a reformer, and though Esposito doesn't mention it, so did Mawdudi, the founder of the Islamist Jama'at-i-Islami. Clearly, Westerners are scarcely enthusiastic about such reformers! On the other hand, people such as the Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric, scholars like Tariq Ramadan are presenting ideas of co-existence, and suggesting ways to make Islam democratic. Esposito addresses this in more detail in the subsequent chapter, looking at the issues of women's rights and tolerance of other faiths.

This is probably the central concern for most Christians. Esposito lists attacks on Christians in Pakistan, the mistreatment of the heterodox Ahmadi sect, Sunni-Shia disputes, and most vitally, the Islamic concept of the head-tax (jizya) that non-Muslims had to pay in the Islamic State. Whilst the jizya is no longer officially practised, the status of non-Muslims as second-class citizens is still with us. Perhaps here Esposito could have challenged western Muslims about their practice of receiving official scholars and taking funds from oppressive regimes to build mosques, etc., as well as their evident failure to challenge regimes like Saudi Arabia, where religious liberty is totally absent.
Given that discrimination and sometimes outright persecution are practised in a number of Muslim-majority states, especially when it comes to conversion from Islam, it is not surprising that many in the US, as Esposito notes, believe Islam disrespects the beliefs of non-Muslims. He notes that human rights groups criticise the Saudis for their practices, but that only highlights the silence of western Muslim representatives on the subject. Unlike the allegations made against them regarding condemning 9/11, this is empirical observation. Then again, since they often receive funding from the Saudis, it is hardly surprising that they fail to condemn their religious oppression.

There is much more in this book which is of value both to scholars and others. The fact that a global leader in the field of Islamic studies has produced such a book should hopefully dispel some myths among non-Muslims about Muslims and their religion. However, there are facts about Islam - especially in terms of the human rights record of Muslim states as outlined - which are not myths, but harsh realities. Hopefully Esposito's next book can challenge Muslims in the West to become part of the solution to this problem - most notably on the question of the treatment of 'apostates' - converts from Islam.

Anthony McRoy