June 2011 
Year 17    No.158
Bin Laden

Islam after Osama

An unintended gift to the faith


Behind the ugly reality, there is poetic justice. Osama bin Laden was finally bearded in the world’s most ‘happening’ terror den: Pakistan. Osama is no more but who does not know that the cult of violence that he practised and preached in Islam’s name is alive and kicking in Pakistan as nowhere else? This article however is about Osama’s unintended gift to post-9/11 Islam.

Step back just a decade and you’d think that Muslims engaged with the ‘Islam and Modernity’ paradigm were few and far between. The dominant voices in the world of 20th century Islam, especially its latter half, were those of Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi (founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami on the Indian subcontinent), Sayyid Qutb (leading theologian of the Egypt-born Muslim Brotherhood) and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (who gave birth to Wahhabism, the rigid, intolerant Islam of Saudi Arabia).

Born and bred as a devout Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia, it was easy for Osama to embrace the shared belief of Maududi and Qutb that all man-made ideas and systems – pan-Arabism, democracy, socialism, communism – were bankrupt: only Shariah law, ruthlessly enforced by an Islamic state, could restore divine order in the world. Thanks to an intermixture of Wahhabism, Qutbism and Maududism, what would otherwise have been an Afghan national liberation movement against the occupying Soviet forces in the 1980s turned into a laboratory of violent, global jihad. Osama was the most lethal product of this cross-fertilisation. And then there was 9/11, al-Qaeda’s own welcome message to the 21st century and the new millennium.

Call it the Hegelian dialectic: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Some Muslims rejoiced over this “humiliation” of the only global superpower (so soon after the mujahids had facilitated the demise of the rival superpower). Others insisted that 9/11 was a mean CIA-Mossad conspiracy to fan Islamophobia. But saner members of the ummah were horrified that such a monstrosity could be committed in the name of a faith that literally means peace. The poison that Osama and al-Qaeda injected into Islam found its antidote within Islam. Thank you, Hegel.

“Islam was hijacked on 9/11”, declared the American convert Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. The UK-based scholar Ziauddin Sardar was as prompt in issuing his ‘fatwa against the fanatics’. With such opening salvos, the last decade has seen an ever growing number of Muslim voices eager not only to reclaim their faith from the extremists but also, in the words of Sardar, to “rebuild Islam brick by brick”.

Though Osama has now been rendered inactive, the terror machine is yet to be dismantled, the theology of violent jihad is yet to be pushed out of the marketplace of ideas. But there are reasons to nurture hope. You can today build a small personal library just with books entitled Seeds of Terror, The Nuclear Jihadist, Terror in the Name of God, Sacred Rage, Talibanisation of Pakistan, Descent into Chaos and so on. But should you feel so inclined, you will need to multiply shelf space several times over to add the books and videos infused with the spirit of a New Age Islam.

A decade ago the theologians of a tolerant, plural, gender-just, rights and freedom-friendly, pro-democracy Islam were few in number. Today not only is their tribe growing rapidly but an ever increasing number of Muslims, both men and women, are reading and interpreting the Koran and the traditions of the prophet in sync with modern sensibilities.

Sadly, we in India aren’t familiar with them yet. But they are important, influential names across much of the world. The US-based Dr Khaled Abou El Fadl, for example, is a strong proponent of human rights, a staunch advocate of gender equality and is among the most critical and powerful voices against puritan and Wahhabi Islam today. Then there is Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California. Jordan’s Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre includes him in its list of the top 50 most influential Muslims in the world. The magazine Egypt Today described him as a kind of theological rock star, “the Elvis Presley of western Muslims”.

Or take Tariq Ramadan, the UK-based author of Radical Reform. An online poll by the American Foreign Policy magazine in 2009 placed Ramadan at the 49th spot in a list of the world’s top 100 contemporary intellectuals. And let’s not forget Amina Wadud, Islamic feminist, imam and author of Inside the Gender Jihad. In March 2005 she stirred up quite a storm in the Muslim world after leading a Friday prayer for over 100 male and female Muslims in New York.

In the first year of the 21st century Osama stretched the dominant Islamic thought of the 20th century to its extreme. A decade later, there is a growing body of books, lectures and the World Wide Web propounding an Islam that is at home with the modern world and vice versa. And in the last few months such intellectuals and scholars have struck common ground with the masses on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain…

Osama must have had many a nightmare during his last days of hiding.

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