My Photo

Sic Semper Tyrannis 2007

Blog powered by Typepad

November 2016

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30      

« "Iraq: What Could Have Been, What Should Have Been..." | Main | "WPost's Editorial Fantasyland" »

March 04, 2007


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


I should like to offer my sincere congratulations to Brigadier Ali for having perceived, at least in part, the realities of the world. He offers a modern interpretation of the koran which might be acceptable to many non-muslims who are of a religious mind.

However, at bottom, it's all religious wordsmithing. The bible, the koran the book of morman, the works of L Ron Hubbard, the writings of Marx, or even Milton Friedman, are all products of human thought, expressed in the context of the authors' time and containing the authors' predjudices, knowledge and ignorance.

To base one's lifestyle on the ideas of one or a few people writing hundreds or thousands of years ago, or of someone writing with an agenda in mind, is to willfully reject the knowledge and experience of the consolidated written record of academics from ancient history to moderm times.

May I urge you to take the next step, Ali, and recognise that the koran is just another book dictated by an illiterate individual who was totally ignorant of most of what we now know about the world. How could he have known that the flame of the sun was not put out every night in a pool of mud, or that the sex of a child is determined at the moment of conception?

Let's forget about those ancient myths of gods and an afterlife. This is it, and it's not a rehearsal. So, let's try to live together in peace and harmony, for we can be sure that the ultimate result of a major East-Weat conflict would be unnecessary death and suffering for countless numbers of us.


Cloned Poster

I find this essay a tad propaganda. Look at US "Muslim" allies in the ME.

Pakistan....... Dictatorship
Lebanon........ Shia/HA given no real representive despite the population that support them.
Saudi Arabia... Where has all the oil wealth gone?
Jordan......... Sandhurst puppet Abdullah
Egypt.......... US $$$$$$$$ to keep the elite, happy.

As Ali says This failure of Muslim societies to solve internal problems has been matched by their failures to deal with external challenges. In the 19th and early 20th centuries they were unable to withstand the European colonial and imperial tide that swept over them.

They are still subject to colonial masters.

W. Patrick Lang


What a strange thing! To respond to an insightful view of Islam with a general attack on religion. What a strange thing. Do you imagine that Islam isgoing to disappear from the earth? If you do, then you are foolish. pl


A political response? Do you also think that Islam will disappear? pl


I remember writing something along these lines a few years ago. Can't put my finger on it at the moment, but I'll pull my old files and see if I can locate it.


Babak Makkinejad


Your statements and General Ali's can be criticized on many grounds - historical, political, religious etc. Below I will briefly state my criticism to both of you from religious grounds.

General Ali's ideas will always be marginal within the Muslim world until and unless he persuades significant numbers of Muslim Doctors of Religious Sciences that those ideas, in fact, have merit. The doctor's of religion in Islam play a similar, but not identical, role as lawyers in US; they interpret an arcane and rather esoteric body of knowledge for their societies and guard it for future generations.
I personally believe he has no chance of success not only in the present emotionally charged political climate but even in a calmer situation. You see, he states, “Quran is a record of the divinely inspired utterances of Rasul Allah”. This is identical to the view of certain Protestant Christians regarding the Old and New Testaments – it emphatically is not the view of the Jews, the Catholic Church, and Sunni or Shia Islam. By that utterance, bringing into question the authenticity of the Quran as the actual Word of God, he has undermined the basis of Islam – Quran as the Word of God.
That view of Islam might be acceptable to him and others but that view will be rejected by almost all Muslims. What he is suggesting is the creation of a new religion. I believe we already have any number of such off-shoots of Islam that he could join: Sikhs, Babis, Bahais, abd others.

Now to my disagreements with you:

Yes, human beings give rise to ideas but those ideas take over the minds of men and affect their behaviour. Your own country is just an idea for example. Your own ideas of governance, justice, politics are based, to a large extend, on the intellectual tyrannies of the dead men of Greece and Rome – not to mention men of the European Enlightenment. Your entire corpus of Law is derived mostly from the precedents established over hundreds of years in the application of English Common Law – from a country across the Ocean from you. Your polity, I hope you will admit, is also tradition-bound.

The critical aspect of the extant religions is not belief in after-life; it is the Faith that the life of the individual does matter – in the grand scheme of things. That though God is inscrutable and capricious (some would say Mad) he cares about the individual human life. This is the chief idea – after monotheism – that sustains these religions and the faithful. What you are alluding to will be of no comfort to billions of human beings and ultimately – it is a poor substitute.

Peace and Harmony are not the natural states of living matter. I cannot conceive of a society in which the application of violence will not be needed – at least from time to time. It is the tasks of a historian of the future to sift through the records to find the roots of the current confrontation between Western Protestant Christians and Sunni Muslim. (This is not a confrontation yet between all of Islam and all of West.)

4 billion


Regarding your comment 'Islam disappearing being a foolish notion', I go a step further and say Religion is disappearing. One only need look at Church attendences in Australia and Europe to see them diving faster than a Tsurugi over Okinawa.

W. Patrick Lang

4 what?

You need to come visit us simple minded people here. We are not so wise as those you mention, but, you knew that. pl


4 billion,

There is a vast world beyond that of the increasingly non-religious (and in some cases popularly shrinking) cultures you mention that both embrace religion and resent being marginalized as superstitious, backwater unsophisticates.


Best of luck in unweaving 2000+ years of societal fabric.

Hopefully General Musharreff has read this essay.

Chris Marlowe

As a student of history, the current situation in the Islamic Umma reminds me a lot of the situation of China in the 19th century, with the added complications of oil and religion.

The closest China came to having its land taken away (re the Israel/Palestine situation) was with the Treaty ports treaties of the 19th century; this finally came to a climax with the Japanese invasion of WWII. China has since recovered, and is now the world's greatest creditor nation with the fastest growing major economy.

I often ask myself what the ME countries can learn from China's experience? Pakistan, for one, is an Islamic country which has long had a cordial relationship with China.

My observation is that:

1. A country, people and region cannot begin to recover unless and until they recognize that only they have the future in their own hands; nobody else can be blamed in spite of all the historical injustices they have suffered at the hands of others. They must become brutally realistic with themselves in their assessment of their situation. Slogans will not do the trick.

2. The factors which make a country renew itself are learning through education, hard work and selfless sacrifice and strong family values, supported by the government and which then permeate to the people.

3. Religion can be used as a positive force or as a negative force. In a positive role, it can reinforce the characteristics mentioned above. In a negative role, it can be used to blame outsiders and justify violence against civilians (terrorism). (This is not a problem just with Islam; there are fundamentalist Christians in the US who behave in the same way. This has given all three of the Abrahamic religions a bad reputation in large parts of the world, especially those societies which are more secularized.)

4. Most of the Muslim world are led by relatively feudal leaders who are not well acquainted with the ramifications of modern technology and the importance of education. They do not set a good example for their people, many of whom are not equipped with educations which will give them the skills to prepare them for productive lives in modern society. Instead of making the investment in education and infrastructure, it is politically easier for the leaders to turn their peoples' anger against the Israelis and their allies.

5. During the Abbasid caliphate, the Muslim world, led by Baghdad, was one of the great centers of world culture and learning. If Muslim societies and their national leaderships turned their focus to education and national economic development, instead of being reliant on oil and blaming their misfortunes only on Zionism and its American and European allies, there is no reason they could not at least recover some of their greatness.

6. The world is complicated, and the Muslims are not entirely to blame. The west, and the US especially, are to blame for supporting a long and unjust occupation of the Palestinian people without bringing sufficient pressure on successive Israeli governments to pull out of the West Bank and Gaza. In this regard, the Bush 43 administration has been especially irresponsible. The American people are directly responsible for this, as they elected this administration in 2004. (The Bush administration was appointed by the Supreme Court in 2000, so I do not blame the American people for what happened that year.) At the same time, the world's economic dependence on oil has made things "politically complicated". It is in everyone's best interest to move away from oil as an energy source.

FB Ali


The central point of my thesis is that the original, simple message of the Quran has been buried beneath this complex, man-made superstructure which is now the religion of Islam, and that Muslims need to go back to the original Quranic message. I am not addressing the clerics of this religion, but those in the Muslim intelligentsia who realise the limitations of this religion, both practical and theoretical, and are searching for a solution that does not entail abandoning Islam. To them I am saying : This religion is not the Islam that the Quran taught; that Islam is something that will fully meet your highest expectations of an ideology to live by, today and in the future.

I have no illusions about the size of the audience with whom this thesis might resonate; it will be very small. But if my argument is soundly based, I have hope that these numbers will grow over time. There are large numbers of educated, thinking Muslims who have lost faith in their religion, but are reluctant to renounce it.

Take another look at my essay; I am NOT advocating a new religion. What I say is that the Quran offers the basis for a way of life that befits a human being. Millions of people, Muslim and non-Muslim, actually live in this exemplary way. I am saying, this is Islam, not the religion that goes by this name.


I really couldn't disagree more with this essay. Primarily, and as a summary of his essay, Brig. Ali is confusing the problems of Islam in the modern world for authorities and the problems it brings to societies, ie the general populace.

Working backwards through his essay, his last paragraph speaks of a fundamental paradox, the paradox of a just God and the injustice in the world. The question isn't a paradox.

If there is no God, then all these natural travails are the natural order of things. All the injustice is a case of the survival of the fittest; If we are mere extensions of the ape world, then the cruelty and injustice is just an extension of our animal instincts.

Therefore the question is if there is a God, why allow these things to happen?

If you are religious then the answer is simple; A test of our faith, like Abraham as he had the knife to his sons throat, or Jesus in the desert; A test of our beleif in how we fight those injustices. Of course this is only true if you are religious. Theres no point a humanist responding that these are excuses because they are only excuses to a humanist and therefore a circular argument.

He states that no Muslim society today, whatever its geography or history, can be pointed out as one where humanity has progressed, or as a model of how human beings should live. There has not been such a one for centuries.

Humanity's progression comes through learning and the application of that learning into ideas and experiments. This requires a certain amount of infrastructure, political environment and state level encouragement. To blame the lack of contribution on Islam is churlish to say the least. It doesn't take a degree in history to know what progress humanity made when Islam had a leadership that encouraged and invested in science. The lack of contribution the Islamic world has made to Humanity since then cannot be attributed to a religion whose prophet told his followers to "seek knowledge, even if it be in China". Rather it is a result of 600 years of rulers, from todays corrupt, self-agrandising despots placed in their positions by the generosity of their colonial masters or via violent coups, through the Ottomans and to the final rulers of the Islamic empire, who have all have in their own ways, contributed to the de-education of the masses.

As a model of how human beings should live? Can Brig. Ali point us to a society that acts a paradigm of how human beings should live? One cannot use macro-sociolgy for such answers. If he is refering to every single individual in every single Islamic country, then he is offending a lot of people.

Simple answer: Show me an Islamic state ruled by Muslims.

I wil agree that Muslim societies have been unable to solve internal problems or external challenges so far. However, what is the point in the statement that in the 19th and early 20th centuries they were unable to withstand the European colonial and imperial tide that swept over them. Considering what happened to much of the indigineous populations that also suffered this tide, and considering the technological difference between those Empires and the people they colonised, I would say the Islamic world came out of it in rather better shape than some of the rest.
Today, they are not able to effectively resist the external political, economic and cultural pressures to which they are subject? I would disagree. I think quite a few of them are making a good stab at it and some of them are succeeding. Those that are succeeding are doing so precisely because they have been able to keep up and cope with the rapid technological changes occurring in the modern world; And more than that, they are using their own abilities to turn that technology to their advantage.

Finally, the lack of individual freedom and human rights; deep economic and social class divisions; materialism and consumerism; the status of women; the alienation of youth, etc. These are all the result of poor leadership; Leadership that in no country can be seriously said to be Islamic.

Brig. Ali, yes the Muslim world is in bad shape; Yes it needs work. But the problems have very little to with Islam itself. But things are improving. The colonial guard will be removed; If Mr Bush can be thanked for anything, it is for the fact that he has accelerated this process. A few more Nasrallahs, Nassers even Saladins and we will return to an Islamic world where our youth are not enjoined to perversions of our religion; An Islamic world where education, social justice and human rights, ideals that existed in the Islamic world long before the rest of the world wanted civilisation, are enshrined in society.

There are questions for the populace of the Islamic world to answer. But sorry, Brig. Ali's are not amongst them.


Ali writes:

No Muslim society today, whatever its geography or history, can be pointed out as one where humanity has progressed, or as a model of how human beings should live. There has not been such a one for centuries

As a Muslim, I'm ashamed to admit the truth of this statement, at the same time I would say that this lack of social justice, to which Ali alludes to several times, is not the fault of Islam but of Muslims. As Ali well knows, the ambition of the Islamists is to establish a just society in this sphere of existence, that they beleive such a society can only be achieved through the sharia of the 7th century does not belie the value of that ambition. It is the duty of all Muslims to pursue a just society, the question is how to do so. Yet who amongst us, other than the Islamists, calls out for justice??

The General's namesake, Ali ibn Abu Talib, was one of the finest men who ever lived. If Muslims could live up to the example that he set, let alone that of the Prophet (saw), then we Muslims would be proud. Our problems begin when we forget the spirit of Islam and focus on the letter, but that is our fault as bad Muslims, not the fault of Islam.

Brigadier Ali asks: how can we reconcile this wide prevalence of injustice and suffering with our belief in a world in which a just and merciful God reigns supreme?

We can't, becasue it is we who are in error. But we Muslims can ask how we have failed in living up to the temporal ideals of our faith, ideals that are based on justice and humanity.

FB Ali



I am grateful for many obviously sincere and well-reasoned comments - but they are all only on the first page of my essay. I would suggest the whole document be read to get a clear idea of what I am trying to say.

Kevin Rooney

FB Ali,
Thank you for such a sincere and heart-felt post. I can feel that you have thought and contemplated long and hard about this and really poured yourself into considering the question.
At this point in time, the situation of the Muslim world can easily seem hopeless. But I remember back in the mid-60s, during the Cultural Revolution, when China seemed hopeless too. It was roiled in chaotic anger and frustration, choking in poverty, seemingly unable to cope with the modern world, and digging itself an even deeper whole through fanatic devotion to a dogmatic version of its dominant creed (in the Chinese case, the cultural revolution version of Marxism-Leninism). And anyone in China who criticized the situation or called for a different direction would be met with violence and very possibly death. Yet 40 some-odd years later, contrary to any reasonable expectation, China has progressed by leaps and bounds.
I think China is a good comparison because after all the Muslim world and China were at the head of human progress at the same time and both fell within four years of each other and to the same force, the Mongol Horde. In fact, the very same army that destroyed Baghdad in 1254 was marched back to East Asia and toppled the Southern Sung dynasty in 1258. Although there were Ming China and the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, neither the Chinese nor the Muslim world fully recovered until the Chinese have done so in the past few decades. And both the Chinese and Muslim worlds were held back by their very past success, a past success that allowed the old ways to become rigid and unable to change.
What lessons might be available in recent Chinese history about how a once great civilization can find its way again within the modern world? One is the role of hitting bottom. On at least two occasions the Chinese people as a whole really seem to have gotten that "this is not working". One was the rejection of warlordism and the Nationalist party in favor of the Communists. And the second was the rejection of Maoist purity and poverty in favor of a more ordinary life and greater prosperity through Deng's reforms. Each time, China hit bottom and hit hard. Like an alcholic finally hitting bottom.
The Muslim world has somehow not fully hit bottom. Perhaps much of this is the fault of easy money from oil. An alcoholic with an inheritance can go on drinking far longer than an alcholic who has to work for a living.
But like the friends of the hopeless alcholic who worry for him and wish they could help, FB Ali and all wise friends of the Muslim world must stand by waiting for when the bottom finally is hit and the Muslim world says "OK. This is not working. We need to do something else." Then, there will be the opportunity to really help. And it is worth having the courage to get ready for that day even when we can not see when it will arrive.

Chris Marlowe

Brigadier Ali--

I read through all of your article, and have a few comments.

As a secular non-Muslim who has studied the Islamic faith and has deep respect for its teachings, I am a little disturbed at any arguments which hearken back to the purity of an early Islam, even though I think I know what you mean. In Christianity, there have been many sects which have hearkened back to an early "pure" form of the faith; this was Martin Luther's criticism of the Roman Catholic church which sparked the Reformation. The problem with any argument which reaches back to the time of Jesus or the Prophet is that its interpretation, more often than not, is highly subjective. In contemporary America, some of the fastest growing and richest churches are those which claim to go back to the "original" teachings of Jesus Christ. These churches and their congregations form the base of George W. Bush's support in the fundamentalist Christian community.

In modern Islam, this has been the same argument which has been put forward by the Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, their interpretation is highly puritanical, and suppresses the rights of women, contrary to the practices of Islam in sixth century Arabia. Christians cannot even get a church built in Saudi Arabia. This Wahhabism is vastly different from Islam during the period of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, which was vastly more confident and broad-minded, and was much more tolerant of non-Muslims, with many Christians and Jews serving as ministers in government. During this period, talent and education trumped religious faith in importance.

In addition, Sunni Islam does not have a highly centralized central authority like the Catholic Church which can stand up to local politicians. The result is that it is totally dependent on the enlightenment of the rulers. Since they do not have much power, Muslim scholars and religious figures are left with arguing over interpretation of hadith and sharia in order to stay relevant in society.

Another thing which comes to mind is your argument for the doctrine of the Khilafat fil-Ard as a more rational interpretation of Islam. This argument occurred in 18th century America and Europe, it was called Deism. The most famous believer in this approach was Thomas Jefferson, who said that God was like a watchmaker (watches were the hi-tech of the 18th century), who wound up the universe and then let it run. This interpretation elevated human free will as the main causative agent in human affairs. Many of the Deist beliefs which were current at that time were reflected in the most important political document to come from that period, the US constitution.

In the modern world, I believe that this Deist interpretation is unlikely. Let me tell you why. I believe that the pace of change in the world, brought about by the forces of technology and globalization have made people uncertain about the future, and their children's future. They really don't know how things are going to turn out, or if they will even be relevant.

In this uncertain world, people who come from religious households often end up looking for simple answers to complex challenges. This is why evangelical Christianity has increased in popularity in the US, and why fundamentalist Islamists have blamed the evil west, with its support for Israel, as the cause of their suffering. This teaching not only has a following among the poor and uneducated, but among the more prosperous middle class. If we look at the backgrounds of Mohammad Atta and the 18 other attackers on 9/11, we find that they are well-educated people who would have had successful careers if they had not chosen their path.

It is always easier for politicians like George W. Bush and Osama bin-Laden to sell black and white "truths", than it is for intelligent people to sell 256 shades of gray. Both George W. Bush and Osama bin-Laden have a great deal more in common than they would like to admit. Both want to depict their societies as being on the defensive from a ruthless external assault, under attack from outsiders who want to kill their people and change their way of life. In this worldview, only George W. Bush and the Republic party, and Osama bin-Ladin and al-Qaeda are willing to defend their societies.

Ideologically and religiously, they are brothers who need each other, and they have an interest in perpetuating the conflict. That is the only way for them to stay in power and increase their influence.


While it may be tempting for some to blame the problems of the muslim world - or at least the relative problems when compared to the US, Europe and Europian exponents (like Australia) - on Islam or an interpretation of Islam, I think that doing so is misattribution.

Certainly societal conditions in the Muslim world are mirrored by certain non- Muslim societies; take, for example, the very Christian/Catholic country of Mexico (there are others). What does this do to the "it's all because of Islam" hypothesis?

A more attractive and reasonable hypothesis is that the societies under scrutiny here have evolved - or not evolved as the case may be - due to a lack of natural resources; natural resources that would allow the development of more ubiquitious wealth and hence a demand for more universal participation in governance, greater technological development, an ability to meet colonial world powers head on and eye to eye, to secure for more people an integral role in the economic and technological systems of the global community. These are the things that bring people from diverse cultures together. Economic ties and mutual dependence are more conducive to peace than anything else.

To over-simplify, in Europe or America anyone can invest in a bag of seeds, plant them, and enjoy a harvest. Those who do not farm are afforded other options by the natural world; cattle grazing, lumber, cotton, fishing, etc, etc In the troubled spots of the Muslim world, this is not the case. So what else is there? Religion to sooth as balm and anger and desperation to project outward and colonial powers to serve as all too convenient scapegoats, but the lack of resources is the cause. All else is symptom.



You ask if I can imagine that Islam is going to disappear from the earth.

Well, foolishly, yes -- but not any time soon. I would guess a timescale of maybe a few hundred years after we have worked out how to manipulate the human genome so as to eradicate cancer, and are able to grow replacements for worn-out organs in situ. Hopefully, applications of this new science of Synthetic Biology, together with other developments in the construction of artificial intelligence and an understanding of how the human brain creates a personality, will lead fewer people to have an intellectual need to propagate divisive ancient myths, or for leaders to gain any credibility in the projection of their personal power through doing so.

"... But when I became a man I put away childish things."


Babak Makkinejad

FB Ali:

Thank you for your reply.

I respectfully disagree.

For one thing, there are Muslim practices that are not explicitly mentioned in the Quran - such as male circumcision as a covenant with God - that are fundamental to that religion's practice.

Secondarily, by abandoning the Islamic Tradition - in contradistinction with the Quran - you are making the intellectual life of the Muslims poorer in religious, mystical, legal, and philosophical dimensions.

The concepts and ideas of the Quran have been elaborated and developed over centuries to actually address the needs of that time and place - disregarding them is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Moreover, while Islam is a simple religion compared to Christianity, the Quran is not a simple document conceptually - for example, the Second Surrah is a recapitulation - in a very dense manner - of certain ideas of Jewish Tradition. Which brings me to this: that you will need to interpret the Quran and thus you are back to the point where you need to have an intellectual infrastructure for the interpretation to proceed.

The Muslim intelligentsia, by and large and in my opinion, cannot rise up to the occasion. They are too unfamiliar with the Religious Sciences and their understanding of the Western Religious Thought is rather shallow to non-existent. They are not capable, in my opinion, of carrying out the program that you suggest (with which I disagree for the reasons I mentioned above.). They are worse than useless; they are divisive and misleading.

Over the last 50 years, in my opinion, there have been only two Muslim thinkers that have been able to move this load foreword and both of them were very deeply familiar with the Religious Sciences of Islam: one was Ayatollah Khomeini and the other was Fazl Al Rahman.

I am not unsympathetic with the need to revisit and revise large parts of the Islamic Legal codes. I think, in fact, you have a very good case in slavery for starting a discussion on that topic. And activities like that are already taking place in Iran and other Muslim states.

But I would like to point out that many Jews are in the same boat as Muslims when it comes to the obscurantism of their Doctors of Religion but they do not advocate such a radical approach (in my opinion) as yourself. And certainly the Catholic Church and the Buddhist Tradition accepts the "Tradition" as a large part of their religions.

Babak Makkinejad

Kevin Rooney:

In China they are killing female children and fetuses. This is akin to the pre-Islamic Arab practice of burying the girls alive. And what is so great about PRC? They destroyed the Chinese Tradition and all that have gotten left is crass materialism.

From a Muslim point of view China is in Darkness - Jahiliyya.

Babak Makkinejad


The problem of injustice and pain in the world has been addressed many times:

It is in the Book of Job, it is in the Quran, and it is in the Book 9 (I think) of the Gitas.

The answer is that God wills it and he has his own inscrutable reason for doing what he does - as a man of Faith (and I do not care of which religion) you will bear it.

And I have seen people like that: "God wanted my son and wife to die." And they accept it. This is not a theoretical statement on my part.

Chris Marlowe


To reduce China to a state of Jahiliyya (darkness) because of its "crass materialism" and because of the murder of girl babies and fetuses (these are individual actions, not government policy) is an insult not just to Chinese, but to Muslim thinking as well.

If China is so much in Jahilliya, then why do so many Muslim countries turn to China for economic, political and diplomatic assistance? China, as a culture, has existed longer than Islam and has prospered. It is now recovering from one of its many low points. There must be something right about the Chinese Jahiliyya then, wouldn't you think? How do you explain this from a purely "Islamic" POV? Besides, there are some 60M Muslims who choose to live under this regime.

Would it be better if the Chinese were still poor peasants? If they were poor, would that mean a rejection of "crass materialism"? So, are the Saudi royal families not materialist? This line of black/white thinking is insulting to everyone; if Muslims are so simplistic about Jahiliyya, then they deserve Bush/Cheney/Abrams and Osama bin-Laden. I do not think that most think that way.

I do not mean to defend everything that happens in China, or the Chinese government. There are many bad things which happen, but more and more, these are becoming isolated instances which are out of the norm. The US corporate media likes to report these out of context so that Americans will feel good about America. "Yes China is rich and successful, but girl babies continue to be murdered, blah blah blah." You get the picture.

I go to China frequently on business; I was there last week reading this blog. Kevin Rooney is much closer to the truth than you are.

John Hammer

Freeman, Look at the tremendous scientific breakthroughs of the last 100 years. Have they diminished the role of religion in general or Islam in particular. Why believe the next round of discoveries will?

4 bil, Christian Evangelicalism is growing in Australia, Brazil and Africa. Poland is intensely Catholic and religion is a more and more persistant force in Europe. Oh and if the modern envirnmental movement does not have all the hallmarks of a religion, what does?



Aside from my John Lennon "imagine" moment (above), I would also have to take issue over Brigadier Ali's understanding of science.

For example, he states that "... the sub-atomic universe appears to be as orderly and predictable as the wider universe." Well, actually, this is far from the case: the findings of quantum mechanics show that there is an indeterminancy about the speed and momentum of sub-atomic objects that makes Newtonian predictions about their behavior impossible.

On a more controversial point, he also takes the dogmatic view that human behavior is somehow a "notable exception" to the rules of physics. Again, not really, since according to respectable modern theories of neuroscience we are ultimately (extremely complex) state variable machines. This complexity means that our future actions/behavior cannot be predicted and so we have the illusion of "free will". If such a machine is heavily programmed from birth to believe in the gods it may be difficult, or even impossible, for it subsequently to shake off such beliefs, or indeed any other strongly fixed behavior such as its childhood language.

By the way, the expression of these thoughts does not mean that I do not believe in decent moral behavior, only that it does not require a spurious religious backing.

Charles Cameron

First, I would like to thank Brigadier Ali for his generosity in sending us his article, and Colonel Lang for hosting it.


As someone raised in the Christian tradition, I found it very helpful to read your Islamic description of that quality of the divine which lies at the heart of Christian understanding:

>> The love which the Quran extols is the one based on the term _rahma_. The root for this term is a name for the womb, and the term refers primarily to the nurturing, compassionate love that a mother has for her child. Maternal love is the foundation for our humanity; it is this (and the response it elicits in every human being: love of the mother) that enabled (even propelled) us to evolve to the human stage. <<

I had previously understood the word _rahim_ to refer to mercy as a divine attribute, and while mercy (like justice) appears to me to be a mode of love’s expression, it is instructive to read that in at least one manner of thinking within Islam, _rahim_ retains its more fundamental meaning.

The west has two major terms for love, _agape_ and _eros_, with _agape_ referring to the pure and (if I may put it this way) unalloyed love of the creator for creature, and of creature for creator, fellow creature and creation, _eros_ to a love which includes desire (the term is wider than our current use of the word "erotic" and includes also bonds of caring and affection). The nurturing love of creator and creature, understood through the analogy of the love of mother for child and the child’s reciprocal love of mother, seem to meld the virtues of these two forms of love. I very much appreciate the analogy.

Within recent Christian theology, Anders Nygren’s classic work, _Agape and Eros_ stands out as a treatment of the two kinds of love named in his title. I would be interested (putting it mildly) to see an equivalent comparative discussion of the meanings of _agape_ and _rahma_.

Charles Cameron

Col. Lang expresses the hope that the Gate of Ijtihad will be re-opened and the rationalism of the Mu'tazilites vindicated. Brig. Ali hopes for a return to the earliest Islam, without the “the elaborate structure that now passes for Islam” -- including not only the jurisprudential schools, but also the hadith. Bassam Tibi, in his book, _The Challenge of Fundamentalism_, writes:

>> A combination of these Islamic sources, the Sufi love of Ibn 'Arabi, the reason-based orientation of Ibn Rushd, the historicizing thought of Ibn Khaldun, and al-Farabi's secular concept of order, seem to me the best combination of cornerstones for an Islamic enlightenment. <<

I would very much appreciate both the Colonel’s and the Brigadier’s comments on Tibi’s proposal – together with those of Babak Makkinejad, David Habakkuk and any other interested parties.


A very illuminating study of the dilemma's of state, society, Power and Islam playing out in the good General's homeland, and of Musharraf's present difficult tightrope act, has been written by Hassan Abbas. Mr. Abbas, who served the democratic government of Benazir Bhutto and that of President General Musharraf, traces the interplay of these actors from prior to Pakistan's independance to the present. I heartily recommend all to read "Pakistan's Drift Into Extremism Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror".

The noble service of General Ali to his nation during very difficult circumstances, and the treatment meted out to him and fellow patriots by Zulfikar Bhutto, who sought to have the General executed, are detailed. He is able to further inform us today only because other noble Pakistani's clung to what shreds of the rule of law they could during the tumultuous events of the General's service. The analysis is intimately informed by the actors themselves, accessed by a learned former insider. I am very pleased to be further edified on this difficult subject by my serendipitous visit here today. I commend the General for his stalwart generosity here.

Commentators Freeman and Cloned Poster would have the narrow ambit of their apparent knowledge and perceptions, aptly questioned by Pat, vastly increased, and much humanized, by this study. I am an interested, ignorant man, prone to all sorts of foolishness, and I am proud to say that this book has furnished me with a great deal of analytical fortification against my simple perceptions, prejudices and conclusions. I look forward to reading General Ali's full essay with a broadened mind and historical context dealing with a great issue of the day that simply cannot be dismissed because it doesn't comport with my context, ignorance and prejudice.

Still can't shake the We-are-screwed-and-living-in-interesting-times feeling though, but by all the Gods existent and made up, I'm a little more enlightened about the ways and means of humankind - and there are so many kinds - today than I was yesterday, and I find that exhilarating and nothing to sniff at.

Thank you General Ali, thank you Pat, and thank you fellow commentators.

W. Patrick Lang


I think that my position and that of the brigadier are not much different than that of Tibi. They are merely expressed with diffreent examples. I do not think that the brigadier wishes to abandon the culture of the Islamicate world or of the core values of the Qur'an. What he wants is to rid the faith of the accumulated "concretions" and barnacles of the centuries.

I would like to see the same thing happen in Catholicim. Who needs vestments, etc.? pl

FB Ali

Kevin Rooney :

I agree that the example of China can offer hope to the Muslim world that they, too, could one day achieve such progress. But this progress relates only to the material sphere.

The problem I am trying to address is the much more fundamental one : with organized religion no longer providing adequate answers and supports for human beings to meet the challenges of life in an increasingly complex (and dangerous) world, where can they turn? Marx and Engels replaced God with History, and we have seen where that ended up (remember the old joke : God is dead, Marx is dead, and I'm not feeling too well myself?).

Science and humanism provide a basis to replace Faith with Reason. But, except for a relatively small number of people, human beings need more : a system of beliefs, a faith, that can co-exist with a rational and empirical view of the world, while still investing their lives with meaning and purpose, and providing them with an anchor to face the vicissitudes of life.

My argument is that the Quran offers such a prospect, not only for Muslims but for all human beings. It claims that the essentials of its underlying message are the same as those underlying all previous human visions of Reality and Truth, which were gradually transformed into the main religions extant today. It even indicates that these essentials can be arrived at by human beings on their own.

FB Ali

Chris Marlowe :

You are right that my approach is similar to that of several fundamentalist movements in various religions. However,what matters is not the form but the content of the approach. Babak M. put his finger on the critical point of divergence : my view that the Quran's position is that it is not the revealed Word of God, and neither are any of the other books or teachings of the prophets, seers, or visionaries that form the basis of other religions. This is a blow at the heart of all organized religions, and those who control them.

I agree that, in these fast-moving and uncertain times, people look for simple answers. But these answers provide only temporary relief. My hope is that more and more thinking people will look for more substantial answers; for them my explication of the Quran's real message may be worth evaluating.

4 billion

John Hammer,

Christian Evangelism is growing while Traditional Churches decline in Australia, the net growth being zero. This is not my personal opinion, it is a simple fact.

Evangelism is doomed in Australia, in the longer term, as Australians are generaly to easy going to sustain much happy clapping.

To put this issue of Church attendence in perspective, far more people go and watch our League football on a weekend than go to Church, like it or not, that is a fact.

Chris Marlowe,

I am about to start to learn Mandarin and I too, find it a little insulting, but unsurprising, that an Abramite should find China to be the heart of darkness. This is why I am wanting to learn Mandarin.

Funny that some one who believes in a culture that is 2700 years old should see fit to slander something twice it's age. This impetuousness is typical of those who say they know the word of a God.

FB Ali

Charles Cameron :

Col Lang is right : I am not advocating the abandonment of the rich cultural heritage of Islam (or of any of the other religions). The Quran says all religions flow from the same source, and all human beings are innately the same, whatever their apparent differences. The cultures that human beings have developed may differ in form, but they are all attempts at actualizing the highest values that humans could conceive at different stages of their history.

What the real message of the Quran attacks are the distortions and corruptions of religion and culture that seek to subjugate and demean human beings.


What a beautiful essay. I'm immensely grateful to you, Brigadier Ali, for writing it, and to you, Colonel Lang, for making it available. I read it in the early hours of this morning as a storm raged outside and felt oddly blessed.

It brought to mind an email reply I sent to a Christian friend who was in some despair in the immediate aftermath of 9/11:

"As to where God is in all this, I’ve come to love the notion of a creator who, having set the whole extraordinary process in motion, now watches with frequent tears and occasional jubilation as we, fond fruit of the long evolutionary journey – both blessed and cursed as we are with consciousness and some measure of free will -- carry out our role as co-creators. At least here in this little corner of infinity. Whether metaphor or not, I find the thought of perhaps raising an occasional smile deeply sustaining and sharing in the tears a trust."

Were I to label myself as anything it would be a sort of deist, filled with a quiet yearning but unable or unwilling to join any particular religion. What was broadly described in this essay feels to me very close to an ideal. I haven’t sufficient knowledge to make any judgement as to how this view of Islam might be received within the Muslim world. Perhaps Babak is right. Or perhaps, as the Colonel intimates in his last comment, there is much room for fruitful accommodation.

Whatever the case, those thirteen pages are filled with wisdom and light. If the Brigadier has any books on Islam that he can recommend for further reading, I’d be most grateful

FB Ali

Charles :

Thank you for your kind words. I second your comments on Hassan Abbas's book.

FB Ali

Freeman :

While not by any stretch a scientist, I do have a layman's knowledge of the subject. I am aware of Heisenberg's principle (and Schrodinger's cat, for that matter). Since this wasn't a science paper, I did not wish to interrupt the flow of the passage with awkward caveats. I was referring generally to the situation that enables scientists to postulate something like the Higgs boson, and predict where and how it might be discovered.

Incidentally, the Quran is more exact than I was, and refers to the uncertainty inherent in the system (see footnote 34 of my essay).

As for human beings, I do say that, as physical entities, we are subject to physical laws. However, the Quran's teaching is that humans possess free will, and can make moral choices. I much prefer this view over any contrary assertion by "respectable modern theories of neuroscience". Chalk that up as a moral choice.


The problem I see about Brigadier Ali's comments is that, razed of their religious content, they could be made about pretty much any country outside of the traditional "First World". What, for example, has Guatemala done for humanity? What blazing contributions to modern society have come from Nigeria? Is religious fervor and the backward nature of the Catholic Church the reason why El Salvador lurches along in grinding poverty?

The centuries of conquest, domination, and colonization by outside power have nothing to do with this failure on the part of these nations to innovate? I'm wondering if we have a chicken and egg problem here -- where it is the conquest, domination, and colonization by outside power that has caused religion to take on a fervent overtone in Muslim countries, rather than vice-versa. Having experienced the rather fervent nature of Catholicism in South and Central American countries, as vs. the rather tame version here in the United States, I have to wonder what Islam would look like in a nation which was prosperous and wealthy. Would it be as different as Catholicism in Mexico (where Easter involves self-flagellation and mock crucifixions every bit as bloody as the Shia Ashura festivities) is from the tame version practiced in European countries?

Chris Marlowe

This is slightly off-topic, but since Islam, Christianity and China have all been discussed here, I thought I might mention it, if only as a matter of interest.

Some six months ago I was in Shanghai on business. While there, I met with a young Chinese woman who had previously worked for me in China. (All the people who had worked for me were Chinese; I was the only American in the organization.)

After the usual banter, we started talking about religion. She told me that she had recently converted to Christianity because her mother had fought a long battle with cancer, and that she had thought that prayer had brought her comfort. She had three older sisters, and her family had all become Christians through her.In other words, she had converted five other people to Christianity. She asked me if I was Christian; I told her that I had been raised as a Christian, an Episcopalian to be exact, which is the closest a person can be to secular while still being Christian. (She wasn't aware of all the sectarian differences in Christianity, so she missed the humor of the statement.) I explained to her that it was a form of "Catholicism Lite". All of her family had converted to evangelical Christianity, which is the fastest growing version in China.

I explained to her that I had serious and fundamental problems with some interpretations of Christianity, especially fundamentalists who took literal interpretations of the Old Testament, and took the position of condemning others who did not share the same faith to hell if they did not believe in the same faith. If Christians, Muslims and Jews did not take this condemnatory approach to non-believers of their faith, then I was sympathetic to their faith. I also said that I did not like some of the more militant interpretations of Christianity found in the US, and in some parts of Asia. (Chinese Singapore evangelicals are an especially intolerant lot.)

When I was in China last week, I called her to say hello. She told me that her mother had died, but she was at peace.

What was interesting was that one of her older sisters, whom I had met before, and was a successful businesswoman in Shanghai , was also a Communist party member, had also converted. For the Chinese, there is no contradiction between being a party member in their public lives in order to succeed, and private practicing Christians.

Many Americans find this to be hypocritical; I think the Chinese are sophisticated, even delightful. Life is complicated, and they have found their own ways to make it work. There don't have to be clear answers, they just do what works for them. I like that. And no one claims to know the truth.

This is very different from what I have observed among American evangelicals, who look for simple clear-cut answers. I have tried to understand why so many Chinese have become Christians; I'm convinced it's because of the rapid changes in society, and people need a spiritual anchor.

Chinese official statistics suggest that there are 100M Christians in China; unofficial stats estimate that the number may be as high as 300M. If the higher estimates are correct; that would suggest that one out of five Chinese have embraced Christianity. (China's official population is 1.3B; unofficial numbers are 1.5B.)

The dream of the nineteenth and early twentieth century western missionaries was to convert China to Christianity. It didn't work at that time because Christianity was too closely identified with western imperialism.

Because the Chinese Communist party is officially atheist, the official position is that religion and superstition occupy the same realm. The Chinese state officially recognizes four religions which are regulated by the state through "patriotic associations". These four religions are Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), Islam, Buddhism and Taoism. Proselytism is not "officially" allowed.

For this reason, all religious proselytism occurs unofficially. While many Chinese worship in the official churches; the newest and fastest growing groups are the unofficial churches, which meet in each others' homes on Sunday. Part of the reason for this is because the Chinese government has been slow to issue licenses for the construction of new churches. Because the capacity in their homes are small, they usually meet to worship in groups of up to 30 people.

Most of the time, the Chinese police know about these unofficial organizations, and usually leave them alone, because they know that the Christians do not make trouble for the Communist party. The incidents you read about in the US media usually happen when some local officials want to gain publicity for non-religion related reasons. Of course, the western media loves to gobble up stories like this because they can say "Do you see how undemocratic China is, and how oppressive the Chinese Communist Party is?" One must remember that the US corporate media is in the business of selling fear to the American people.

I'm convinced the official oppression of Christianity has actually helped its growth in China; the situation is a lot like the church in Rome before Constantine. It gives the faith a certain spiritual purity it loses when it gets official support. This may sound strange, but I find Christianity a much more appealing religion when it is officially repressed.

Now, after 56 years of Communism, Christianity has lost its foreign face; and has gone native. Will China go Christian? It's too early to say. But it is safe to say that the "underground Christians" will have more influence in Chinese society, and that as Chinese society opens up, they will be more open about professing their faith.

On a global scale, the ramifications are very interesting. Christianity is rapidly losing its western European face; it is becoming a black, brown and yellow peoples' faith. White european Christians will soon become the minority, if that has not already happened.

Sorry for the long story; I hope you find it interesting. I wanted to tell you this because almost everything you see, hear and read about China in the US official press is not true and is written with an agenda, and I feel I need to do my little part to set the record straight.

Chris Marlowe

Brigadier Ali--

I did not mean to belittle or diminish your argument by bringing up Deism; I only meant to observe that this was something Christianity had gone through earlier as western society became more secularized. As these religions become organized and dominant in their societies, I believe that they went through similar stages of development, and had similar disputes. While I'm aware that this opinion would be treated as blasphemy by most; I'm of the opinion that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are branches of one religion.

This is why I'm so distrustful of conflicts between these three religions; on a theological level, the differences are small. Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same god; the only differences are over the time and circumstances of revelation. This has been later exploited by some in each of these faiths to make claims over absolute truth.

While I consider myself to be very tolerant to all faiths; I cannot accept anyone claiming exclusive truth and damning non-believers. I consider that to be human usurpation of God's final judgment (if God exists), and soundly reject it.

W. Patrick Lang


"between these three religions; on a theological level, the differences are small"

"Say he is the one God, God almighty, neither does he beget, nor is he begotten, and like unto him there is no other." Al-Qur'an

There are no significant theological differences? Does that mean that you do not consider the trinitarian nature of Christianity an essential part of the religion? pl

Babak Makkinejad


I think many of you are be-dazzled by the Chinese economic growth beat the Muslims on the head with it - "Why can't be you like them?" This is your essential point, in my opinion. Even Mr. Ali, a proefessed Muslin, is seduced by that. Jesus the Blessed Son of Mary observed: "Man is not alive by bread alone but by the knwoledge of Word of God.".

I know that this statement does not make sense to many in this secular age but it is from this perspective that China is in Darkness (as is Japan and a few others). Killing girls is just an example; anther is the absence of any theoretical basis for the intrinsic value of the individual human life in those countries - except as part of the (racial) collective. In the West and among Muslims this is accomplished through the scripture.

FB Ali:

If one takes the Quran as the Word of God then you have no longer Islam - you have removed the center of that religion.
Christians can afford to question the authencity of the New Testament as the Word of God - from a Muslim point of view the sacred texts of Christianity correspond to the Hadith of the Prophet - they are not at the same level as the Quran. (Catholics will disagree.)


Your dream of Reason, pursued since the Enlightenment, has given us 2 World Wars and tens of millions of dead. It has brought us to this: the ability to destroy all life on this planet. And those who have that ability are the avowed "Hyper Rationalists" with their semi-religious faith in human perfectability and social progress not faithful Muslims or Christians - the Pope does not have hydrogen weapons aimed at population centers of the world.

In a way, the so-called Wast and China are the two faces of the same idea and Civilization - one that left God behind and instead entered a new age of barbarism that worships the collective powers of Man - China is just more brutal and crass.

Chris Marlowe


I read, write and speak Chinese, and the China you write about is simply the view of someone who takes everything from the NY Times and non-Chinese language press. You have combined "Islamic" religious bigotry with ignorance of modern Chinese society as presented by western journalists who do not read, write and speak Chinese, but are nonetheless sent to "cover" China. I went to an official church in Shanghai several years ago, and it was so packed I had to sit in the aisle. And it was full of young people in their twenties and thirties, not older people.

So if the Chinese, Japanese and other east Asians lift several hundred million people out of poverty and improve education opportunities for their own people, they are just materialistic and in Darkness, is that it? I would take the economic growth and improved living standards of east Asia over the religious problems of the ME any day; this is why I travel there so frequently, and why I'm planning to move there.

The reason I told my story is to show that that view, that economic growth necessarily means spiritual emptiness, is just not true. The Chinese I have met are keenly aware that not all of their needs can be met with material goods; that is why the Chinese Communist party is now gradually shifting to a more open policy to religion, and there have even been articles in the Chinese press about the positive roles of religion. When I was in China last week I had dinner with several government officials, all Communists, who were all very open in their criticism of Communist party corruption, and said that there was a need for spiritual answers which could only be provided by religion. They realize that the party cannot effectively police itself; that is why other social forces are needed, including religion.

Christianity is not only growing in China, so is Islam, especially in the northwestern parts of China which are traditionally Muslim. There is high demand for people fluent in Arabic so that the Muslim faithful can read the Koran in its original Arabic. Although I have never been to one, I am told the mosques are always full on Fridays at worship time. In every Chinese city I have been to, I have found Chinese restaurants with Arabic on their front, and the Chinese characters which identify them as Muslim. Near every Chinese train station, one can find Muslim men wearing the Muslim skullcap, and carrying their heavy bags to trade goods they have brought from their home provinces.

As for the trinity in Christianity; this is an issue which caused a great deal of trouble, including schisms, for the early Church. Official Christian doctrine after the Council of Nicaea under Constantine simply represents the victory of one government-supported faction. A cursory examination of the Gnostic gospels shows a very different picture of the life and teachings of Jesus; this view was much more mystical and one could even argue that he was even against organized religion. For this reason, most of the Gnostic gospels were suppressed, and their content was not allowed into the official Christian bible put together by the Council of Nicaea.

Constantine, for political purposes, wanted to consolidate his hold over the church. For this reason, he needed a stronger, more centralized religion with a centralized hierarchy.

I believe that the Muslim testament of faith, the Shahada, is an explicit repudiation of this argument which had caused so much trouble for the early Church, and had weakened the Christian church by the seventh century. My guess is that part of Islam's appeal in the seventh century was a simpler, cleaner theology unencumbered by a corrupt church hierarchy; this helped to win over millions of converts from Christianity and fueled Islam's early rapid growth.

W. Patrick Lang


I find your discussion of the results of the Council of Nicaea to be very contributory. Thank you. pl

Chris Marlowe


You are right; I do consider the trinity to be an intrinsic part of Christian faith.

At the same time, I accept that it is something very hard for many people, including Christians, to understand. This is why the fast-growing evangelical churches kind of gloss over it.

When I look at Christian theological doctrine, I see many things which are bolted together, and often do not make a lot of sense. It is my belief that these theological teachings were often adopted for political, and not religious reasons.One example is the Doctrine of the Infallibility of the Pope.

When it comes to personal faith, I believe that the best example was the late Pope John Paul II. He was able to reach out to other faiths for dialogue without compromising his own faith. Dialogue over theology could only go so far before reaching the differences, but he did it the right way.

However, I believe the RC faith has been too inflexible on issues such as the marriage of priests, which has led to issues such as pedophilia. It would make much more sense if the RC church adopted the Orthodox approach, where priests must marry, if only for social and not religious reasons.

I have written a lot, and some other time, I will tell you and your readers about why religion is growing in China, and how the Chinese Communist party has sown the seeds for religious growth in China without knowing it.

Babak Makkinejad

Chris Marlowe:

thank you for your email and the information therein.

My hands-on experience with the Oriental People is clearly not at the same deep level as yours - I have not lived there and do not speak, read, or write any of the languages of the Orient.

My ideas of course come from English language sources and my personal relationships with individuals from that part of the world over the years with various degrees of intimacy and warmth.

Your response does not alter my views - it confirms them. You wrote, for example: "I would take the economic growth and improved living standards of East Asia over the religious problems of the ME any day" This is an economic and not spiritual or religious criterion and does not negate my assertion of "Darkness" - Rabbis rejected Rome in spite of her wealth and power for similar reasons.

Your also wrote: "not all of their needs can be met with material goods; that is why the Chinese Communist party is now gradually shifting to a more open policy to religion". This is an instrumentalist approach to religion that is fairly common to the Oriental people - for them religion is just a garment that they put on today - but in their core of being they are still Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. They can discard that religion and still have the core of their personality intact. A similar situation does not obtain in Islam and for many Christians and Jews as well - without their religions they will tell you that they are nothing.

I am familiar with the Gnostic Christianity - in fact the portrayal of Jesus in the Quran is close to Gnostic Christianity - in my opinion.

FB Ali

Babak :

I am sorry that we disagree, because I share your deep emotional attachment to Islam as a symbol and repository of the highest human aspirations, to its values, to its rich heritage, exemplified in the glories of Baghdad and Cordoba when they were the custodians and drivers of human civilization. I cannot share your undoubtedly sincere belief in a just and merciful God whose inscrutable ways can make the innocent suffer and reward the unjust, and in ancient dogmas and practices that are considered divinely ordained.

For me the moment of crisis came when my head could no longer believe in what my heart believed. Faced with the awful prospect of the unavoidable conclusion that there was no God, I spent several years in an intensive, unremitting study of the Quran (solitary confinement is an excellent environment for undertaking such an enterprise, much better than a Trappist monastery or a Qom seminary; I would highly recommend it).

My essay distils the conclusions of that study. I hope to be able one day to publish the details that support these conclusions. I look forward to having you critique it.


Brigadier Ali:

Well, you certainly have started a fascinating discussion here, and no doubt we shall never reach agreement on the many weighty issues of theology versus rationalism that have been debated over the ages. So permit me to return briefly to your interesting essay and some of your subsequent comments.

1. My impression of your position was that you were seeking a modern (enlightened?) interpretation of the koran, which you call a "divinely inspired" document. As I see it the problem with any such reinterpreted text (as with the bible) is that some people are going to remain literalists, while others will disagree over which bits to keep and which to throw out or modify. Once you retreat a millimeter from an existing "holy" text you risk a rout.

2. In your response to Chris Marlow you say that the koran is not the revealed word of god. My suspicion is that in the mind of most muslims this would make you an apostate, so I have to admire your courage in speaking out. However, from this point the path ahead is wide open -- but which way to go with the new philosophy? And who will agree when so many are saying stick with the well-trodden path we all know.

3. A small nit-pick over your view of science. You say that you agree that humans are subject to the laws of physics, but contrarywise you elect to make a "moral choice" over your interpretation of neuroscience. I have no problem with your opinion, but it's not science.

Peace, and thank you.

Babak Makkinejad

Brigadier Ali:

The important thing is not belief in existence or non-exsitence of God. You can be a Buddhist with no belief in God and still be religious.

The important thing is the Faith that God cares about the individual human being: from the crippled Neanderthal whose bones were discovered last century to a child that is dying from cancer today.

It is this act of Faith that is the essence of the Semitic religions of Western Asia. That is why the stories of Abraham and Job exist in the Old Testament and are recapitulated in the Quran.

FB Ali

Ingolf :

Thank you for your appreciative remarks. I am glad that the essay held some meaning and relevance for you.

As to books on Islam, I would recommend something by the late Dr W. Montgomery Watt.

Chris Marlowe


I cannot argue with you; you believe what you believe.

I disagree with your use of the term "Oriental people"; this is like talking about "Middle Eastern people". It puts a huge group of people into a big basket; people who in fact are very different from each other even though there are some similarities. Chinese, Japanese and Koreans (very generally speaking, for historical reasons) are not very fond of each other, and when in China, it is very common to hear complaints of people from Wenzhou, Beijing, Shanghainese, etc.

Your argument that the Oriental approach is "instrumentalist" is an oversimplification; it implies that the embracing of religion is purely for purposes of governmental rule. From the party's point of view, that is true. But how do you explain the people's embrace of Islam, Christianity and Buddhism when it brings them no visible material benefit, and at times may even mean a chance for losing promotion inside the party? It would be too simplistic to use such an instrumentalist approach in this instance.

The US is a country defined by ideology; China is a country defined by culture. The modern Chinese which we all know as Han Chinese are in fact a mix of Chinese, Turk, Hun, Mongol, Manchu, Arab, Parthian, Korean, Vietnamese and even some Japanese blood. Two dynasties within the past 1,000 years occupied China, the Mongols (Yuan Dynasty) and the Manchus (Qing Dynasty). Both dynasties were completely absorbed and adopted the Chinese culture. Without someone visiting China, it is very hard to explain the tremendous soft power of Chinese culture. It is an extremely rich culture with complex traditions and variations within the country, all held together by a common written language whose influence extends far outside China's borders.

That is why in order for a foreign religion to be successfully adopted in China, it must become Chinese first. Asking the Chinese to completely abandon their own culture when embracing a religion simply doesn't work. It happened first with Buddhism, then Islam, then most recently, Christianity.

You may be outraged to hear that there are women imams in China's mosques who have been selected from their own communities. To a traditional Sunni Muslim, this may sound outrageous, but they are still Muslims, and they are Chinese.

You are probably aware that Japan very nearly became a Catholic nation in the 16th century, but because of infighting between the Franciscans, Dominicans and the protestant Dutch, the Japanese shogun of the time banned Christianity after a final battle and massacre near Hiroshima. The argument of the time was that in order to become Christians, Japanese of their time had to abandon their culture.

I take a big tent approach; I don't believe a person's personal faith should detract or add to whatever they are, whether they are American, Iraqi, Chinese or anything else.

Isn't there a hadith where the prophet Muhammad was quoted as saying that Muslims should be willing to go as far away as China to seek knowledge?

The Jesus which most Muslims are acquainted with is a Gnostic Jesus, instead of the post-Nicaean Jesus of the Trinity most Christians are familiar with. That is why I look at Judaism, Christianity and Islam as one religion; one interpretation of the historical context of Islam is that it was a Gnostic backlash against a highly-centralized and corrupt church which had lost touch with its flock because it had grown too close to the Roman Empire rulers (eastern and western) of the time.

That is why even though I was brought up in the Christian tradition, I can view with sympathy many Muslim's claim that Islam was not a total negation of Christianity, but simply a completion or correction of Christian tradition. This is why I oppose Muslims and Christians fighting each other on what I consider to be superfluous theological grounds.

Chris Marlowe


At the heart of your argument is the belief that those who do not embrace your interpretation of Islam are somehow in "darkness". I admire your certainty; it would be good if the world were so simple.

I have talked to some devout Muslims and Christians about China. Basically their argument goes like this: "China has a wonderful culture and heritage; it would only become complete if it became Muslim (or Christian)." For them, China can only become complete when it embraces their form of monotheism. At the same time, these outsiders are confused. How can this country reach this level of cultural development without embracing monotheism at some time in its history? I believe the answer is simple; it has developed in relative isolation over 4,000+ years.

This religious argument is not a new argument; it has been around in one form or another for more than 500 years in the west. Let me tell you the problem with this argument: If you want to convert people to your faith, you aren't going to win any points by telling them that they are somehow "incomplete" (or in your case, live in "darkness") if they don't embrace your faith and share your values. All of the east Asian peoples are very proud of their cultures, and they don't enjoy having their cultures insulted.

This gets to the root of America's problems in the world. America, besides being a nation, is an idea, an idea which is so deeply embedded in the subconscious of most Americans it is almost a religion. This makes it very difficult for most Americans who do not speak another language fluently to understand another country and culture on its own terms. In an earlier article, Col. Lang talked about how this affected Americans' understanding of Iraq; most Americans tended to think that if you scraped any Iraqi hard enough, a hamburger-eating baseball-loving American would break out. This is what he meant when he talked about the "Iraq of the mind". This was simply a polite way of saying that American policymakers were living in a delusionary world which only existed in their own imaginations, and had no bearing with reality.

Time has shown us this approach to Iraq is not true.

It is just as wrong to think that there are Christians or Muslims living inside other people who are not Christians or Muslims.

The Chinese have a good saying: "Let's try to find our common points and respect our differences." If Christianity, Islam and our political leaders were able to do this, our lives would be better.

In order for things to work, people need to be free enough to choose their own way. We can agree or disagree with their choices, but it is best if we respect them.

Babak Makkinejad


There is a saying in Persian; "It is unwise to try the already tried."

What you are alluding to and Mr. Ali is suggestig was tried by the THE MUTAZILAH 1200 years ago and it did not take root.


There are lot of interesting tangents one can go on here, but let me try to stick to one idea alone, can the good Brigadier's ideas work?

If some Christian pastor thought that a general improvement in mankind's condition could be had if only the Bible were interpreted and followed thusly, he is generally free to start his own church and to try to propagate his teachings. In the post-Enlightenment world, no one would molest this pastor (or at least, in a nation of laws, the pastor would have legal protection against criminal harassment). Thus, this pastor can "be the change he wants to see in the world". The world does not need to change all at once.

The Brigadier's idea seems to require all Muslims everywhere to change at once. Well, maybe not so, but let us look closely. If Muslims were free in the sense described above to form their interpretations of the sacred texts and teach them, then the Brigadier's essay and this discussion thread would not be necessary and would not even exist.

There are very few (none) majority-Muslim countries which would protect this freedom. In Pakistan itself, the one sect - Ahmediya/Qadiani - that has produced a Nobel Laureate physicist (Abdus Salam) is subject to various legal handicaps and persecutions. The Qadiani founder simply interpreted the "ultimate" in "Muhammad the Ultimate Prophet" as "the finest" rather than "the last", thereby opening the door to new ideas.

That leaves the countries which have a sizeable Muslim population but that are not "Islamic". Perhaps the change can crystallize there and then spread to the Muslim-majority countries. So far, this has been a dashed hope, with the Muslims there congealing into the conservativeness of "Fortress Islam", with the rallying cry of the politicians being "Islam is in Danger!".

This leaves only revolutionary change as a possibility. But such revolutions will probably make current Iraq look tame in comparison.

Babak Makkinejad

Chris Marlowe:

To he extend that the Chinese, Korean, and Japan share a common culture, world view, and sensibilities they are part and parcel of the same tradition and civilization. It is sensible, in my judgment, to indicate that commonality that over-rides their differences by "Oriental People". If you do not like tat, you may prefer the East Asian Tradition.

The appellation "Middle Eastern" people is not wrong; it is just incomplete because it does not include South Asian and East Asian Muslims of Pakistan, India, Bengal, Indonesia, and Malaysia. So, "Muslim People" or "Islamdom" would have been preferable.

I am aware of these differences, both internal to China and internal to Korea and Japan. But the differences, however large among these entities, they pale when compared with other traditions such as Islam or the Western Christian Civilization (now in its post-Christian phase). And the same obtains between Turkey and Germany, or Egypt and India. We have to accept the fundamental differences that may be impossible to accommodate under the same tent!

My intent in this discussion has not been a defense of the Orthodox Islamic position - rather a presentation thereof that is distilled to its bare essentials that are in common with both the Jewish and the Christian religious ides. And I believe conservative Catholics & Jews would agree with my characterization, if not the choice of words.

My comments regarding "instrumentalism" is based on my personal observation of the converts and others who have lived with Christianity for many more generation, say in Japan. How can I express this: They do not comprehend religion the way you and I do. It is not core to them and their identity. Whether it ever will - Christianity or Islam makes no difference - I do not know. It will take millennia - if at all.
The reason is that these countries are not defined by a culture -they are defined by race - Han, Han Gook, and Nihon... There is a strong racialist component to their identity that I doubt Islam or Christianity could over come (of course, with God, everything is possible.)

The process of religious conversion that they Oriental people have gone through is not one of spiritual rebirth and re-orientation. It is more like I pick this box of moral teachings because I need it in the journey ahead. It is not burnt into their souls - not for them is the Shiism of Iran or the Orthodoxy of Greece and Catholicism of Ireland.

I would not be outraged if they have female Imams; they are women in Iran that study the religious sciences - the first time in Muslim History - to my knowledge.

I think you misunderstand the East Asian (Oriental) people. It is not their culture that they are proud of, it is their race - and you heard this first from me!

The Age of Darkness - al Jahilyya - was a turn of phrase that the Muslim historians used to describe pre-Islamic period of the Arabian Peninsula. I believe it is a description that still applies - as I said just look at the Chinese killing of the baby girls in the country-side, the high abortion rate of fetuses (mostly female) in China and Korea and you get the picture.

Now, I agree with you that the Muslim response should have been to send preachers and mullahs to enlighten them - alas that has not been on any one's agenda since Muslims just got their independence and still have a long way to go to "save" themselves, let alone others!

I agree with you that the religion of Americans is America.

I also agree with you about USG policies under GWB.

I cannot respect foolish choices and stupidity - but I also believe that people have a right to be wrong. Normally I just feel sorry for the children - they deserve better.


We could go at this in another way. Let us look at some recent problems highlighted on a Pakistani political blog and ask whether any of them has a remedy in better/truer adherence to Islam.
Musharraf seeking yet another automatic term in office : This has to do with Musharraf's megalomania, and opposition to him should come from people who want democracy. Islam is peripheral to all this.
Pakistani Foreign Policy

The blogger notes that Pakistani foreign policy is made by the Army HQ, not by civilians, and that the Army is obsessed with India. Assuming this is a problem, the solution lies in civilian control of the government and army. Islam is peripheral to all of this.
Bombs in Pakistan set off by its own intelligence agency

The solution to this again is democratic, civilian government. Islam is peripheral to all of this.

Pakistan's army allegedly keeps aid from reaching the needy.

The solution again to this is democratic, civilian government. Islam is peripheral to all of this.

Government officials erase evidence of stock market manipulation.

Again, a failure of governance. Islam is peripheral to all of this.

I could go on, but I hope the point is clear. The perfection of Belief, interpretation/reinterpretation of the Quran, Hadith, etc., are not the keys to the solutions of the problems mentioned above.

I'll note that the genius of the American Founding Fathers is that they sought a system that would work in spite of human frailities. Everyone seeking Islamic utopia fails to realize that the perfectability of man is a precondition for their utopia, which is impossible to achieve. (This, IMO, is the identical mistake of the Communists.)

Chris Marlowe


I would point out about your quote:

"I'll note that the genius of the American Founding Fathers is that they sought a system that would work in spite of human frailities."

The system has failed catastrophically on all levels, on the peoples' level, on the legislative level, on the military level, on the diplomatic and political levels, and on accountability at all levels.

This proves that there is no human-designed system of government which cannot be defeated by a group of people with an agenda.

Benjamin Franklin was right.


Arun, it seems to me that far from suggesting all Muslims need to -- or are likely to -- change at once, the Brigadier is saying something very close to the opposite:

"I have no illusions about the size of the audience with whom this thesis might resonate; it will be very small. But if my argument is soundly based, I have hope that these numbers will grow over time. There are large numbers of educated, thinking Muslims who have lost faith in their religion, but are reluctant to renounce it."

Much of the radicalisation within Islam is, I think, a reaction to the incessant and largely destructive meddling of the west over many generations. Even with the best will in the world, it's difficult not to see western attitudes over that time as some blend of patronising, exploitative and aggressive. Notions of peace, openheartedness and compassion tend not to fare well in such an environment.

Chris Marlowe summed this aspect of things up rather well, I thought:

"The Chinese have a good saying: "Let's try to find our common points and respect our differences." If Christianity, Islam and our political leaders were able to do this, our lives would be better.

In order for things to work, people need to be free enough to choose their own way. We can agree or disagree with their choices, but it is best if we respect them."

Kevin Rooney

I did not intend to suggest that Muslim countries must become crassly materialist. What I am suggesting is that if a once-powerful nation like China could rise again and overcome its material poverty, so could Muslim nations. In the West, I think most people would find the notion that Muslim nations might be as materially prosperous and growing as China in 50 years unusually optimistic. This would still leave the question of spiritual wealth.
My reading of history is that spiritual wealth is more easily attained by well off nations than by poor ones. Even the extreme examples you cite in China are the result of poverty not of wealth.
Also, I used China as an example just to indicate that cultures other than the West can successfully take in the material production side of modernity. I myself was surprised and intrigued to see the similarities in the historical trajectories of the Muslim and Chinese worlds from about 1200 on.

FB Ali,
You are right. I was not addressing your broader spiritual proposals, just addressing material issues. I suspect that the chance for both will come together. That as long as religion is used as a way to try to avoid acknowledging the pain of poverty and international weakness, that religion will be brittle and suppressive.
I greatly admire your courage and intelligence and dedication. I hope your chance comes to be heard with open minds by many Muslims. Part of what I was trying to get at by using China as an example is that the day may well come when people like yourself are suddenly listened to. That often cultures re-intensify their efforts to succeed on the very path that has brought failure, like China during the Cultural Revolution, like the United States in Iraq right now, and when even that fails, then they finally are willing to see "this isn't working". And then suddenly the very voices they refused to listen to are the ones most in demand.

Kevin Rooney


"I'll note that the genius of the American Founding Fathers is that they sought a system that would work in spite of human frailities. Everyone seeking Islamic utopia fails to realize that the perfectability of man is a precondition for their utopia, which is impossible to achieve. (This, IMO, is the identical mistake of the Communists.)"

Excellent point. Thank you for that.
My optimistic side hopes that the Islamicist phenomena we are seeing now are analogous to the Cultural Revolution and that more pragmatic and flexible ideas will have their turn soon.



I agree your comments made at 8:20, and with the problems of attempting religious change that Arun highlights.

However, I am unhappy with the phrase "religious sciences" to which you refer at 9:03, and which idea appears to have some appeal to Brigadier Ali. In my mind the two words apply to essentially orthogonal realms. Basically, religion comprises man-made ideas which their originators seek to inflate with the veneer of a god origin; once accepted, change to them is generally unwelcome. Science also involves man-made ideas, but the rules say that these are always subject to change and refinement, and ultimately must meet the challenge of being repeatedly tested against real-world events, both ongoing and forecast. This rigour is of course the strength of the so-called scientific method, which enables us to make and do things which philosophers can only dream about.

Some scientists seem to be able to keep their religious and scientific thinking in separate compartments of their mind. Others, like myself, are not so smart and have to choose one or the other. But I can nevertheless shed tears of joy at a symphony concert or of sadness at the hurt of another. A belief in science does not mean loss of humanity.


One might not like the results of

"The first step is to discover the correct meaning of the terms and concepts that occur in it [the Quran]. To do this we need to take their meaning as it was understood in the Arabic of that time, which may not necessarily be the meaning developed for them later on. In the case of an important or ambiguous term or concept, we should put together all its usages in the text, and then deduce what meaning or meanings the Quran assigns to it."

At least, it may lead in unexpected directions.

See Luxenberg:

W. Patrick Lang


The word used for "science" in Arabic is "'ilm." This word has always been used to denote a coherent body of knowledge on a given subject. It is applied to both the natural and religious "sciences." I am not sure what other word would serve. pl


Reply to Chris Marlowe - all engineered systems represent compromises and all engineered systems occasionally fail. So it is with airplanes and cars and with the American Constitutional Republic. Waiting for fail-proof components is not an engineering option. And the story of whether we recover from the failure is yet to be written.

A musing prompted by Babak Makkinejad: according to the CIA World Fact Book
China has an infant mortality rate of 23 per 1000 births.
Iran has an infant mortality rate of 40 per 1000 births.

Perhaps some Chinese kill some of the girl children who are born. But perhaps the jahilliya also lies in the 17 unnecessary deaths per 1000 in Iran?



Thank you for that explanation of the Arabic language. It helps to understand why the conflation of two subjects in one word should lead to occasional muddled thinking. Perhaps that is where the Italian Marxist philosopher, Gramsci, got his ideas about subverting the meaning of words to achieve political ends?


Brigadier Ali,

Your essay is worth a long and serious debate and each point can be argued at length by themselves. You seem from what you say to want a re-alignment of Islam based on you long medidation brough about by a crisis of faith over the suffering of the honest and the reward of the unjust and unfaithful. I do not wish to demean your work by diluting in any way so I will stick to my beliefs and how they answer your questions.
Islam, for me, is a very personal religion. There is no central church, no Pope. Therefore, I am free to interpret its meanings in my own way or am free to follow the interpretations of clerics I respect. Any attempt to distill Islam to its purest form is an excercise in futility. You cannot erase my interprations from my mind or others; You cannot erase interpretations I accept from my mind or others. And to distill the religion back to its purest day ignores the very reasons many interpretations exist, namely the existence of opportunities, technologies etc. that are not specifically mentioned in the Quran. All you are doing by going to point 0 is to say we need to re-interpret everything. There may be interpretations floating around that have been affected more by political or social factors than they have been by religion; there may be factions which have used the religion to enforce certain tribal or social rules; The fact is though that no matter how far back in time you go, these people will still exist and will do the same things.

In regards to a just and merciful God whose inscrutable ways can make the innocent suffer and reward the unjust; I think you are making a fundemental error here. If the religions all share one thing it is that (if God exists) our existence on Earth is a test of our faith and belief in him as a result of Adams failure to heed his word. Therefore it is not intended that our existence on Earth be just and fair (after all thats what heaven is there for). In fact one could argue that because life is a test of our faith, the more innocent, good or pious you are, the more injustice will be heaped on you. In summary, life is a question of how much you can take before God loses your vote. Therefore the description of God as just and merciful is his attitude towards us in judgement not in life.

Your inability to believe in ancient dogmas and practices that are considered divinely ordained is of course your choice. The fact that you have spent years in solitary studying the book and were unable to believe it is divinely ordained I guess highlights the differences between people in the world. I can't pick up and read the Quran without being amazed by it.

I think I understand what you mean about the attitude to religion in the Far East but I don't believe that one has to understand and feel religion the way you do in order for it to affect them equally. Different cultures have different attitudes and I think it is difficult to judge that attitude by meeting expats. I am Lebanese, living in the UK and I know that every Lebanese I have met in the UK is considerably UN-represantative of the general Lebanese population. Japanese ex-pats I have met, for instance, who have spent a long time in Europe do not have the same vision of society that people in Japan do. Furthermore, to talk about a lack of spirituality in the Far East is serious generalisation. From Bhuddist monks to undeground (pre-90's) Chinese churches, I do not think you can so easily dismiss their ability to have and fight for their faith.

Im glad you brought up the Council of Nicaea; Its always dangerous when a Muslim brings it up! However, I would go further with the council, the gnostics and the Holy Trinity, a concept not mentioned in the New Testament. Not only was the concept part of the winning factions manifesto it was essential that it happened for Constantine to keep his nation from civil war. From what I understand the Army believed in a Lord and saviour who was born of a virgin human mother, often called 'The Mother of God'. The problem was of course that this Lord was not Jesus but Mithra,"mediator between heaven and earth and member of a Holy Trinity".

The general population however considered themselves Christians but their beliefs on Jesus reflected in the Aryan Church were far closer to Gnostic (and as mentioned Muslim) writings.

Babak Makkinejad


Iranian Infant mortality rate (under 1), 2005 was 31.




You mention that nice man Constantine who introduced Christianity to Rome in an attempt to revive the, by then, flagging empire. I say "nice" as he is also renowned as the man who killed his son and then murdered his wife when she complained about it!

Babak Makkinejad


In regards to your 10:46 posting:

I respectfully disagree.

I state my opinion below:

Islam and its relationship with Modernity is the core issue in Pakistan as well.

The Pakistani State is dominated by the Army.

But the Army is dominated by Punjabi Muslims. These people share a collective understanding of the traumatic events in Punjad where Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs had been fighting one another - intermittently - for several centuries. The Muslim group identity has a lot to do with the policies of the Armed Forces of Pakistan.

Moreover, many eductaed Pakistanis, when they look across the border to India, ask themselve: "Is it because of Islam that we are in this rut?" This question is often asked in Pakistani gatherings. There is an issue here.

FB Ali

All :

I am overwhelmed by the response to my essay, not only its quantity but also its quality. I am grateful to Col Lang for providing this forum, and to all of you for your sincere and thoughtful comments.

The discussion has focussed on Islam and Muslims; naturally so, because my essay was aimed squarely at Muslims (because they have assumed “ownership” of the Quran, and undertaken to apply and spread its message, and because of my emotional ties to this community and its heritage). But the Quran casts a much wider net. Its aim was not to found a religion, but to serve as a “reminder” to all humanity, the most recent one in a long series.

The message of the Quran is not just for Muslims, but for all humankind. Stripped to its bare essentials, it calls upon human beings to:
(a) Believe that there is a Reality beyond our finite universe, a Reality to which we are in some fashion connected (iman).
(b) To accept the stewardship of our world (the khilafat f’il ard).
(c) To discharge this responsibility by bringing our world to its rightful state (amal as-salihat).

The Quran says that this is Islam : the way of life that befits a human being. Millions upon millions of people, of all faiths and none, already lead such lives, whether fully or partially.

Some of you have commiserated with me for being a lonely “voice in the wilderness” among the Muslim community. But I don’t feel that way at all. What I see around me are these countless men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, who try to improve themselves, care for and help their fellow beings, make this a better world. They are living as the Quran would have human beings live, they are living in Islam, whether they know it or not.

What I am attempting is to make explicit the original, the real, message of the Quran, and link this to the lives of these millions. Our world is entering a dangerous stage; the problems we have ourselves created are now threatening to overwhelm us. Human beings need, as never before, to join together in a conscious acceptance of our responsibility for our world, the animate and the inanimate. In commencing this endeavour, and maintaining it in the face of all the difficulties that lie ahead, will require a shared faith.

The basic message of the Quran provides a foundation for this great and difficult undertaking

Charles Cameron

My appreciation again to both yourself and Col. Lang, Brigadier Ali.

This has indeed been an exceptional interaction all around, and yet I feel that it is only with your last post that I have really grasped what you are getting at.

When you say that those "who try to improve themselves, care for and help their fellow beings ... are living as the Quran would have human beings live, they are living in Islam, whether they know it or not", it becomes clear to me how thoroughgoing your vision in these matters is.

I am reminded of the concept of "tikkun olam" or healing the world, which has the marvelous property that while it springs from and can be considered a part of Jewish tradition, can also be (and in effect, is) embraced and acted upon by any and all members of that same group "who try to improve themselves, care for and help their fellow beings" -- entirely independent of any Jewish affiliation or lack of it. If I were to call this "true Christianity" or "the heart of Judaism" or even "pure Buddhism" I might well be speaking accurately of the core component of the religion I named, but I would also tend to give my audience some sense that I associate the idea with a body of doctrines -- and this indeed is what you are trying to avoid.

Perhaps it would be useful to have a term other than Islam, yet within the language of Islam, to speak of this universal compassionate substrate of human life. Perhaps "amal as-salihat" is such a word...


May I ask -- would you be averse to some of us continuing to discuss these matters with you by email, either individually or in a group, with due consideration for your time and patience?

I ask because I get a mildly valedictory sense from your most recent post.


FB Ali, the journey that Islam must make to preserve its core values in the modern era and discard those parts of the faith that are not core parts and that are no longer relevant to the modern era is not an unusual one. It is one that many other faiths have made over the centuries. One thing I will point out is that for most of those other faiths, prosperity and political reform led to religious reform, rather than religious reform leading to prosperity and political reform. In short, I applaud you for your motivations, but very much believe that you are putting the cart before the horse. That is, it is the economic poverty and political repression which leads to the rise of fundamentalists sect that become a disfunctional part of the national discourse and fight with the core values of rational scientific thought that are so important in the modern era (thus the power of fundamentalist Christian religions in the most impoverished and politically oppressed region of the United States, the region which was was the loser in a violent civil war a hundred years ago), rather than vice-versa.

In short, I feel that a reformation of the political and economic structure of current Muslim states would lead to a reformation of Islam along different lines similar to the reformation of Christianity that occurred some five hundred years ago, rather than the reformation of Islam being necessary to the reformation of current Muslim states.

Granted, I am making an argument from history, and arguments from history are always flawed and fallible. Indeed, we may already be at the point where increasing educational attainment in the Islamic states and a significant rise in overall economic activity (albeit not a corresponding rise in per-capita economic activity) call for an Islamic Martin Luther to come forth and call for a reformation of Islam to reflect modern realities. If that is the role you may see for yourself, it is certainly a worthy role. It is certainly not my place as a non-Muslim looking in from the outside to state what is or is not appropriate here. In the end, we do what we can do, I suppose.

Chris Marlowe

I believe that gnostic Christianity, the bottom-up form of Christianity which Jesus most closely represented, evolved into Islam in the seventh century.

The top-down form of state Christianity which came from the Council of Nicaea, evolved into the Orthodox and Catholic Church. If you would like to read more, please look up the Constantinian shift in Wikipedia.

This is why I say that Christianity and Islam are one faith, and that it is pointless for us to be killing each other over religion.

I suspect that the crucifixion of Jesus was a story invented shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem. The reason was to blame the Jews for not converting to Christianity and to form a powerful divine story; this later formed the roots and justification of European anti-Semitism.

It is worth remembering that anti-Semitism did not have ME roots where gnostic Christianity and later Islam were dominant; in the ME the Jews were just another group of people among many. It really only appeared in Europe during the Middle Ages. ME anti-semitism is a new phenomenon, and only appeared after the founding of the state of Israel.

And the Trinity was something the Council of Nicaea bolted on to Christianity. (I personally think that it was sloppily done; the debate over the nature of the Trinity has caused an immense amount of trouble in Christianity in the forms of schisms and heresies.) Later on though, it became so deeply embedded into Christianity that not even the Reformation challenged it.

Then there was the tragedy of the Crusades, then the founding of the state of Israel, introducing the concept of the nation-state to a region where there were no dominant ethnic groups. And now the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

I often think about all the pain and suffering which has been inflicted on so many innocent people for no good reason. I feel a profound sense of guilt and shame over the suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people by this invasion, and by the US in the name of freedom and democracy. I feel sorry for the US military, the vast majority of whom are good people involved in a bad cause which they do not understand.

The United States has legitimate interests in the Mid-east and other parts of the world. But the question I am asking myself more and more is "Why do we have to inflict so much suffering on other peoples in the process? Is this necessary? What good does it do?"

That is why we have blowback, which came back in spades in the form of 9/11.

American leaders love to say that we have to fight for freedom and democracy. If our system of government is so good and so great, then why do we need to go around killing so many other people to convince them of its greatness? If it is indeed so great, then wouldn't the people of all nations rise up and embrace our system without us having to fire a single bullet or dispatch a single soldier or killing a single person? Why do we need a defense budget which is larger than the total of all other nations _combined_?

What is this sense of western superiority based on? Is it something real, or is it just ignorance and bluster as we have recently seen over Iraq?

This is where the narrative of the Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals do not add up for me.

To the people who have suffered because of American policy, I can only say "I'm sorry."

Chris Marlowe


You may be right that religion is not burned into peoples' souls in Asia; that is not a problem for me though.

Who's to know what God wants?

Several years ago I visited a temple in China; it had sections of worship for Buddhists, Taoists, Christians and Mao (yes, Mao Zedong. There are rural Chinese who have elevated the founder of the Communist party to god status.)

"Come on in, pick your god".

I like that.

I believe that religion is generally a force for good, and that it brings an extra dimension to every individual. However, I do not believe in people killing each other for religious reasons. Ninety-nine percent of the time, politicians stir people up on false trumped-up religious reasons. Americans are going through that now with the current cycle on "Islamofascism"; Osama bin-Laden is doing his bit with hatred of Christians and Jews on the Muslim side.

I would like to take that weapon away from the politicians and troublemakers.

I respect your care for girl infanticide in China; even if it happens once, that is one time too many. One way to help is to encourage your friends to adopt baby girls from China. At the same time, I would urge you to put the matter into context, and not to let it affect your overall view.

China is a huge and tremendously complex country, more complex than anywhere I have been. If you watch and listen and withhold judgment, you can pick up a lot.

FB Ali

Charles Cameron

“Tikkun olam” (healing the world, as you define it) would be a fairly close approximation to amal as-salihat. The latter does have an additional connotation : after restoring something to good health, to nurture and develop it so that it attains its full potential.

I would be glad to hear from you, and any others who so wish, after this thread winds down. The email address would be :

FB Ali


I think you misunderstand my aim with regard to Muslims. It is not to spark a religious reformation, but something much more modest. Muslim countries are not going to become secular in the foreseeable future (even in Turkey it is the generals who are keeping the door shut; it remains to be seen for how long). The kind of Islam that plays a role in their polity will continue to depend on their intelligentsia.

Under the pressures and problems these countries are facing, this class is fracturing. A major portion has moved to Islamic orthodoxy, while another large section has effectively opted out of the debate (and the coming struggle) by essentially giving up on Islam, while continuing to pay it lip service. This leaves a tiny minority (the so-called “moderates”) that, while still strongly committed to Islam, attempts to counter the excesses of the orthodox. Since the basis of their position is the same as that of orthodoxy – Islam as religion – they make little or no headway.

My aim is to provide this small moderate constituency in the Muslim world with an alternative intellectual approach to Islam that still remains firmly anchored in the bedrock on which the faith rests – the Quran.

Of course, as I said in my March 7 post, I follow the Quran in seeking to address a much wider audience than just the Muslim community. I believe the Quran has much to say to them, too.

W. Patrick Lang

Col. Lang--

As a Christian, I'm sure you're wondering,"If you believe that the Trinity was invented for political reasons at the Council of Nicaea, and the Crucifixion was probably more mythical than historical, what does that leave for a Christian to believe? Shouldn't you just consider becoming a Muslim or even an agnostic?"

The answer is no, and I would like to explain why. Just as bad things can come out of good, good things can come out of bad.

I really started thinking about official Christian doctrine during the papacy of Pope John Paul II, someone I consider to be a holy man. During his papacy he reached out to Muslims and Jews like no pope has ever done before. Instead of fighting and condemning them, he approached them with humility and in peace. Moreover, he treated them as equals, and apologized to Muslims for the Crusades and to Jews for anti-Semitism and for trying to convert the Jews and condemning their faith, all which were often officially sanctioned by the church.

The Nicene Creed says that we commit sins by thought, word and deed. We can also do good through thought, word and deed. In my case, I believe that I have sinned by remaining silent when I should have should spoken out. Whether the Trinity and Crucifixion are objectively true or are historical concoctions are all irrelevant.

The questions we need to ask each other are not whether we are Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists or Americans, but whether we are good Muslims, good Jews, good Christians, good Buddhists and good Americans. I include American because all Americans are taught that our country is something special, that we have ideals which other countries may not have.

We have fallen far short of those ideals, and there has not been enough discussion of the moral, religious and political consequences of this course which the current administration has chosen for us.

Ultimately, we need to strive to be good humans and set good examples, because we are all brothers and sisters. This is what every religion teaches us.

I would like to thank you for providing this venue for what I consider to be very stimulating and meaningful discussion. Maybe we can do a little good and make some difference.

Charles Cameron

Just for the record, the only thing the Nicene Creed says about sin is, "We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins." The phrase about sinning "in thought, word and deed" is from the Confiteor or General Confession.

Thanks again for a marvelous conversation.

Chris Marlowe

For those of you interested in early Christian doctrine and theological disputes, these two Wikipedia entries are good starting points:



I do not deny that Pakistanis keep debating the relationship of Islam and modernity, as though a resolution of that debate would improve their condition. But it is a misdirection. It is as though one thinks the resolution of the limits of stem cell research, women's access to abortion, and gay rights are central to America's problems of the squeezed middle class, crisis in health care,crisis in retirement funding, etc.

Musharraf's subverting the Pakistani Constitution such as it is, has nothing to do with Islam, Modernity, Muslim Group Identity, the History of Punjab, conflicts with Hindus and Sikhs, conflicts with Sindhis, Baluchis, Pashtuns or anything like that. You can make any or all of these latter a Central Issue, and debate till Doomsday, while constantly sliding downhill.


Babak Makkinejad


My point was the centrality of Islam to all of this.

I am not suggesting that struggle for political power has been irrelevant.

But you can look at Bihar and observe some of the same poverty & feudal conditions without the problems of Pakistan since they are mostly Hindus there.


I have read your excellent article with keen interest.An excellent analysis of Muslims failure.But is the prgress of Malaysia good.


I have read the article carefully. I request the writer to throw light on the development of Malaysiala as a modern progressive country with more than 52% Muslim population.

FB Ali

Irfan, I'm afraid I do not know enough about Malaysia to comment. I'm glad you liked the article.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)