More Reviews of "Islam Under Siege" by Akbar S. Ahmed

By Stanley Wolpert

Prof. Akbar S. Ahmed, Distinguished Professor of Islamic Civilization and Studies, one of our most brilliant scholars of Islamic History and Culture, has just published Islam Under Siege, a book,which deserves to be at the very top of every American's list of vital works to read in order to understand our complex modern world.

Prof. Ahmed's lucid and sensitive work has most brilliantly put an end to any simplistic concepts that have long viewed all Muslims as "terrorists" or Islam as the "enemy of the West."

He teaches all of us to appreciate the "Merciful" (Rahim) and "Beneficent" (Rahman) importance of the great global faith of Islam that has captured the hearts and minds of more than a billion people in some 55 nations, and stresses the virtue of Sufism's mystic strand of Muslim consciousness, with its primary doctrine of "Peace with All" (Sulh-i-kul).

This brief but brilliant book should be required reading for all Members of Congress and our Nation's Cabinet, as well as for most of the Pentagon's top brass. Prof. Ahmed has shed light on a subject too long dealt with in doomsday cliches that he has most wisely dispelled, giving us hope for a brighter future of Peace and civilized reconciliation rather than endless War and violent hatred. He has left all literate people the world over in his debt.

The writer is a distinguished Professor of South Asian History Emeritus at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and author of world famous biographies of Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi

A Valuable Contribution

By Dr. Maher Hathout

Islam Under Siege, by Akbar Ahmed, is a valuable contribution to the literature of contemporary Islamic thought. It is a book that deserves serious study, certainly it is not the kind of book that a person will read and just retire to the shelf. It is stimulating, thought-provoking, sometimes deliberately controversial, and at the same time, offers a wealth of information and broad knowledge.

I am sure that the author, as he was writing, was quite aware that he is not after making friends or even neutralizing adversaries. This definitely maintained a level of undeniable integrity and self-respect throughout the chapters, regardless of the fact of whether the reader might agree or disagree.

As the book refreshingly challenged established and stagnant ideas, boldly delved into self-criticism, challenged “Eastern” emotionalism, as well as Western arrogance and lack of desire to understand. In a karping way, he criticized dictatorship, be it royal, military or theological, in the Muslim world, and exposed the ossified mullas, the Taliban phenomena, Bin Laden’s logic and interpretation, taking it to deep roots in the modern Islamic movement, then launching an unabated exposure of the official leadership in Pakistan, while not sparing the American administration.

He ought to expect a range of responses, starting from uneasiness to clear out hostility. What I mentioned will have nothing to do with agreement and disagreement, which is a product of respectful process of thinking and intellectual engagement.

Professor Akbar Ahmed applied his vast knowledge in anthropology, social science and history to explain the dilemma of the world which is just emerging out of the bloodiest century of human history, to plunge into a century that does not seem to be promising either. In that new century, he believes that Islam and Muslims will be the preoccupation of the world during the 21st century. The author, who is a leading academic and an anthropologist by specialty with a special fascination with Ibn Khaldun, the renowned medieval Muslim scholar and father of sociology and social history.

The over simplification of Khaldun’s theory is that social history is cyclical, a sort of predetermined dialectic and social mobility. The characters that keep a group cohesive and guarantee the loyalty of its members, which he called (asabiyya) is strongest in the Bedouin nomadic kind of life, when this group moves to, or forms cities, or gets urbanized, there comes the dilution impact of luxury, which will eventually lead to the loss of asabiyya, the weakening of the group which will disintegrate and is eventually replaced by another.

So with the collapse of “asabiyya”, the society goes thorough what I may describe as primortal convulsions that sometimes take the form of hyper reaction and exaggerated, or even violent resentment to change. Professor Ahmad called this “hyper asabiyya”.

For a classic Arabic reader, the word asabiyya poses some problems, as the word in the post-Islamic era carried negative connotation. The Prophet advised Muslims to “do away with asabiyyaas it is rotten.” What the Prophet meant was the blind loyalty and an chauvinistic pride of one’s own tribe and ego, not the Khaldun’s utilization of the word. The prophet peace be upon him considered it a divisive factor that will lead to discord and actually prevent the more encompassing broad cohesiveness of the believers. In other words, he was denouncing what Professor Ahmed calls “hyper asabiyya” which may be called in Arabic “ta-assub, or fanatic exclusive belonging to a group or even to an idea or faith.

Although Ibn Khaldun’s work is brilliant and although it deserves all the praise that the author render to it; yet we have to be aware of the awkwardness that accompanied all the trials to offer one theory to explain social change, be it Hegelism, Marxism or Khaldunism. We also have to question whether the model of Ibn Khaldun can be applicable to the world of modernism or needless to say, post-modernism.

This last reservation was acknowledged by the author in the later chapters of the book. This does not diminish the value of Ibn Khaldun’s work nor of the great value of using his analytical methodology as the author did. As a matter of fact, he offered a new angle for studying the situation, and a brilliant building up on an old, but ever valid, scholarly work.

Another expression that the author used is “honor” to which he offered elaborate explanation to lead to the hypothesis that we live in a “post-honor world.” While we may agree on the concept of honor as explained, and as a driving force, and shaper of individual and societal behavior, yet the description of the world as a post-honor world needs more discussion.

It gives, to certain readers, the impression of a chronological linear arrangement of history, like pre-Christ and post-Christ, or jahiliyya (pre-Islamic Arabia) and Islam, or in our case, pre honor, honor and post-honor era. Knowing that this is not what the author meant, and knowing that according to Khaldun there must have been several “post honor periods,” I just hope that Professor Ahmed will invite for and initiate further discussion about this issue.

I hope that this commentary made the reader aware of the leading themes of the book. A comprehensive study will need writing several books about the book. The main values of this work is that it raises so many important questions.

Maher Hathout is a Senior Advisor, Muslim Public Affairs Council Spokesperson, Islamic Center of Southern California

The Most Important Book

By Ambassador Karl F. Inderfurth

IN HIS LATEST and perhaps most important work Islam Under Siege, Akbar S. Ahmed writes "For the first time in history, Islam is in confrontation with all of the major world religions: Judaism in the Middle East; Christianity in the Balkans, Chechnya, Nigeria, Sudan, and sporadically in the Philippines and Indonesia; Hinduism in South Asia; and, after the Taliban blew up the statues in
Bamiyan, Buddhism."

Unfortunately this statement rings true with me. From 1997 to 2001, I served as the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs and had direct responsibility for Afghanistan. In that capacity I came to know the Taliban well.

During its five year reign in Afghanistan, the Taliban, whose name comes from talib, or "religious student," declared war on religion. Periodic massacres of Shiite Muslims took place. The Shiites, who number several million in Afghanistan, were considered little better than infidels by the Sunni Muslim Taliban. Foreign aid workers were arrested on charges of spreading Christianity.
Hindus were ordered to wear yellow identification badges to distinguish them from Muslims (under intense international criticism, the Taliban later backed down). And, as part of its campaign to destroy all "un-Islamic idols," the Taliban blew up those centuries old and revered giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan.

Was there a way to persuade the Taliban to pursue a path of greater tolerance, to show respect for the diversity of Islam and the Quran? That was unlikely, given, as Ahmed points out in his insightful look at the ethnic and religious roots of the Taliban, "their zeal for Islam and the burning desire to impose their vision on all of society."

Today, of course, the Taliban are no longer in control of Afghanistan and therefore no longer a major contributor to the confrontation between Islam and the other major world religions. But Ahmed is concerned that if we are to prevent the world "from lurching toward one crisis after another, one flash point to another" -- the terror attacks of 9/11 and the recent Iraq war come to mind, both with their overtones of religion -- "then we all need to radically rethink the relationship between our religion and other religions; a radical reassessment of each other."

In his final chapter, "Toward a Global Paradigm," Ahmed points us in the direction of what "people of good will and good faith" (of which the author is eminently one) can do to increase the prospects for "a harmonious relationship between Islam and the West and other world civilizations." The steps he urges for the Muslim world are fundamental and transformational. Of central importance, Ahmed says, is the internal challenge of rebuilding "an idea of Islam -- which includes justice, integrity, tolerance and the quest for knowledge."

Equally important is what the West must do -- to take the initiative "to respond to the Muslim world firstly by listening to what Muslims are saying and secondly by trying to understand Islam."

"Understanding Islam" has been and continues to be a central focus of the life's work of Akbar Ahmed -- as a scholar and former diplomat. He writes with authority, clarity, insight and compassion. And his message to his many audiences is the same: "Whether one adheres to the notion of the clash of civilizations, or whether one chooses dialogue, understanding Islam is the
key." He, by the way, is firmly in the "dialogue" camp -- as is this reviewer.

Ambassador Karl F. Inderfurth is currently a professor at The Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University