Today's date:
Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Sacred Verses

In 2006, just after he published his novel Shalimar the Clown, which sought to get inside the mind of a jihadist, I sat down with Salman Rushdie amid the faded elegance of the University Club in Berkeley, California. Excepts of that interview follow.

Nathan Gardels | Ultimately, what is the central issue involved in bringing Islam into the modern world?

Salman Rushdie | The central issue here is interpretation, or itjihad. Conservative Muslims say that only Islamic scholars, ulema, can interpret the Koran. The religious power elite thus maintains control because theirs is the only interpretation that is acceptable. And because they have a literalist reading of the Koran, they never question first principles. It is from this kind of interpretive process that so many atrocities are committed, like the one in India recently where a woman was told she had to leave her husband because she was “unclean” after being raped by her father-in-law!

One of the reasons my name is Rushdie is that my father was an admirer of Ibn Rush’d, the 12th-century Arab philosopher known as Averroes in the West. In his time, he was making the non-literalist case for interpreting the Koran.

One argument of his with which I’ve also had sympathy is this: In the Judeo-Christian idea, God created man in his own image, and, therefore, they share some characteristics. By contrast, the Koran says God has no human characteristics. It would be demeaning God to say that. We are merely human. He is God.

Ibn Rush’d and others in his time argued that language, too, is a human characteristic. Therefore it is improper—in Koranic terms—to argue that God speaks Arabic or any other language. That God would speak at all would mean he has a mouth and human form. So, Ibn Rush’d said, if God doesn’t use human language, then the writing down of the Koran, as received in the human mind from the Angel Gabriel, is itself an act of interpretation. The original text is itself an act of interpretation. If that is so, then further interpretation of the Koran according to historical context, rather than literally, is quite legitimate.

In the 12th century, this argument was defeated. It needs to raised again in the 21st century. The sad thing, as I discovered in my research for The Satanic Verses and other books, is that so much scholarship was already done on the Koran in past centuries, including on the dating of verses and the order they are placed. When you read the Koran as a writer, you immediately notice places where the subject changes radically in the middle of a verse and then picks up several passages later. Obviously, in this “sacred” text, an editor’s hand was at work.

Today, in a lot of the Muslim world, such historical study is prohibited.

That is why the place to start today is with a new Islamic scholarship.

I have called for an Islamic Reformation, but that may give the wrong connotation because of Martin Luther’s puritanical cast. Enlightenment might be a better term. The point is, Islam has to change. The dead hand of literalism is what is giving power to the conservatives and the radicals. If you want to take that away from them, you must start with the issue of interpretation and insist that all ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to new realities.

All other major religions have gone through this process of questioning, but remain standing. An Islamic questioning might well undermine the radicals, but it won’t undermine Islam.

Gardels | Where will the impulse of this Islamic enlightenment come? From the “silent revolution” of Western Muslims? From Asia? Problematically, the “dead hand of literalism” reigns most severely in the Arab world, the cradle of Islam.

Rushdie | It is very improbable that it would come from the Arab-speaking world. It is more likely to come from the diaspora where Muslims in the West or in India have lived with secularism. Muslims are well integrated in India, having long known the secularism to which they adhere protects them and their faith from the dictatorship of the Hindu majority.

In Europe, integration has been held up as a bad word by multiculturalists, but I don’t see any necessary conflict. After all, we don’t want to create countries of little apartheids. No enlightenment will come from multicultural appeasement. This is very evident today in Holland, for example. Contrast that with the French model of secular integration. The headscarf controversy of a year ago is now a non-issue because a broad agreement emerged there across the spectrum that secularism is the best for everyone—from Muslims to Le Pen.

Gardels | Those who favor Turkey’s accession to the European Union argue it is critical for bridging the gap with Muslim civilization. But Muslim leaders such as (former Malaysian Prime Minister) Mohamad Mahathir say Turkey cannot be a model for the Muslim world precisely because it is committed to European secularism. What would it mean for better West-Muslim relations if Turkey joined Europe?

Rushdie | Not much. It is a mistake to make it such a big symbol.

Turkish secularism also seems a little rocky right now, though still holding. But they have big problems they haven’t begun to address, starting with a penal code that is used against writers and publishers—some 14 or 15 who are up for trial right now. Orhan Pamuk, the novelist, has been charged for merely saying there is something to the Ottoman massacre of Armenians. The power of the Islamists is still far too great.

So, skepticism is warranted about Turkey in Europe. If Turkey wants to join Europe, it will have to become a European country, and that might take a long time.