Review: Islam and the Future of Tolerance

Review: Islam and the Future of Tolerance

Oliver Waters
Oliver Waters
4 min read

A review of Islam and the Future of Tolerance, by Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2015), 144 pages.

In Islam and the Future of Tolerance, ex-jihadist and Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz teams up with Sam Harris in an open dialogue to prevent radicalisation and to promote reasonable interpretations of the Islamic faith. An essential question Nawaz seeks to answer is how to converge on interpretations of Islamic theology that are consistent with modern political liberalism.

Their conversation canvasses Nawaz’s ambitious project to convince millions of Muslims worldwide that the religion of Islam can indeed be rendered compatible with liberal values and institutions. Harris, despite his repudiation of the religion’s truth-claims elsewhere, also embraces this pragmatic objective, on the basis that converting all religious believers into atheists is simply not a feasible precondition for lasting peace across the majority-Muslim world.

The unlikely duo’s strategy thus echoes the approach of influential political philosopher John Rawls, who argued that we should not demand citizens to converge on fundamental worldviews as a condition for particular political arrangements. In this sense, Nawaz and Harris’ project is similarly ‘political not metaphysical’ in ambition. Putting aside questions of theology, they focus on making clear distinctions based on political aspirations alone. This enables them to talk separately of those who would seek to impose Islamic doctrines via peaceful democratic methods, political revolutions, or violent terror campaigns. The idea is to isolate those who seek to impose Islamic rule on society, and in doing so unite the vast majority of peaceful, reasonable Muslims.

Yet it doesn’t take long for this project to run into some serious headwinds. Harris raises the rather problematic issue that the majority of mainstream Muslims believe that the text of the Qur’an constitutes the inerrant speech of Allah. This appears to place these believers in the category of ‘fundamentalists’, a term often used to dismiss outliers of the Westboro ilk in the Christian context.

Nawaz clearly does not consider himself one of these fundamentalists, since, as he puts it, ‘no doctrine on Earth is immutable.’ He further points out that the current ascendance of this doctrine was not inevitable, given many reputable Muslim scholars have historically denied it. That being said, the impression given by the end of their exchange is that Nawaz holds that this belief in the inerrancy of scripture does not necessarily have to be abandoned, so long as people appreciate that there’s no such thing as an infallible interpretation of that scripture.

The problem with this strategy however, is that it prevents one from disagreeing outright with any literal statement in the Qur’an that might serve as a justification for violence or other immoral behaviours. This in turn makes it much more difficult to convincingly shut down extremist propaganda. If the Qur’an is indeed the eternal word of Allah, when quoted a passage that literally supports the killing of apostates, for example, one cannot respond straightforwardly that the scripture itself is mistaken.

This problem kept arising throughout Nawaz and Harris’ discussion. When confronted with a passage of the Qu’ran that was obviously problematic, even immoral by modern ethical standards, Nawaz delves into the nuances of centuries of Islamic jurisprudence, in order to arrive at an interpretation of the scripture that does not fall foul of contemporary morality. Imagine if instead he had been able to sigh deeply and admit: ‘Ah right, well that passage was simply mistaken. Of course it’s immoral to kill unbelievers.’ Instead, he is forced to recite that only interpretations of the scripture that are fallible, not the text itself.

This issue scales up to the highest levels of political dialogue, a prime example being the famous point-by-point repudiation of ISIS written by a group of the world’s most esteemed Muslim scholars. While the authors of this open letter definitely went a long way in condemning the most horrific of the Islamic State’s doctrines and practices, they actually found themselves agreeing with ISIS’ overall agenda of instituting an Islamic Caliphate. The scholars condemned ISIS merely for failing to gain a consensus of all Muslims before doing so. They justified this stance with chapter and verse, presumably because the eventual establishment of a Caliphate is inevitable under any reasonable interpretation of the Qur’an.

Perhaps more disturbingly, the letter also rebuked ISIS by arguing that ‘armed insurrection is forbidden in Islam for any reason other than clear disbelief by the ruler.’ You might want to read that ‘reprimand’ a second time. There is no getting around the fact that this statement legitimizes violent Islamic uprisings against non-Islamic governments. The scholars cannot avoid this implication, because by their own lights it is what their scripture demands.

They could have said that theocracy, the imposition of the norms and practices of a particular religious group over all people in a society, is an intellectual and moral dead end. Unfortunately, a commitment to the inerrancy of their holy text prevented them from openly appreciating this nugget of political wisdom won at the cost of centuries of utterly futile religion-inspired war.

Those of us living in liberal democracies are lucky that hardly anyone is under the illusion that our nations’ constitutions, the overriding sources of our governments’ political and legal legitimacy, were divinely inspired. We acknowledge that they were written by human beings, who were necessarily subject to the ethical and scientific ignorance of their time. That is why today in Australia for example, we feel comfortable publicly debating the removal of our constitution’s explicitly racist provisions, as well as its out-dated and discriminatory conception of marriage.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance represents a valiant effort to converge upon a clear conception of what it means to be an Islamic ‘moderate’ in this day and age. Unfortunately, however, it falls short of identifying a key belief enabling such moderation: that we human beings are ultimately the authors and arbiters of our customs and laws, not God. This idea forms part of the bedrock of our secular and democratic institutions of power, which are in turn what makes life relatively peaceful and prosperous wherever they succeed. The doctrine of inerrancy, on the other hand, places intolerable constraints on polite conversation, our only known alternative to violence.


Oliver Waters

Oliver Waters is a Melbourne-based writer, with degrees in law, science and philosophy.