Religion, Review

Review: Islam and the Future of Tolerance

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


Filed under: Religion, Review


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


  1. Whiskyjack says

    Whether or not a believer thinks that their scriptures are literally the word of God or merely inspired by God, the same problem arises. Those scriptures don’t change, and they reflect a worldview prevailing at the time and place they were written. In the case of the Abrahamic religions, the society they reflect was patriarchal and tribal. If we wish to move on from that, we have no choice but to ditch religion.

    However, since religion offers hope to people whose lives suck, I don’t see that happening soon.

  2. Preston says

    I agree with the principle that the key to moderation is the understanding that human beings are the authors and arbiters of customs and laws, not God. However, neither religious moderates or extremists will be quick to accept this idea. The method that Maajid and Sam are trying to promote – revising interpretation to accommodate secular ideas – is how most secular, democratic societies arose out of theocracies. There is plenty of material on atheism for religious people to access, but it’s not practical to suggest that everyone ditch their deeply entrenched beliefs.

    Islam and the Future of Tolerance proposes a realistic path to change, a strategy developed in spite of the authors’ own personal convictions about the infallibility of scripture.

  3. Darwin T of BC Humanists says

    You may believe anything you care to however that has a limit when it comes to trying to make others believe or obey it as well. This impulse to force others is the impulse of the authoritarian mindset. Scratching our way out of that pit is the whole struggle of humanity in a nutshell and we must choose. Either we go forward with a functioning liberal participatory democracy as Rawls and Hitchens encourage in their writings or we allow obscurantism and superstition to rule our lives. Decide. Here is a helpful tool you can always rub as a talisman – Bad Ideas Do Not Deserve Respect.

  4. Pingback: Will the Alt Right take over the Republican Party? – Becoming Borealis

  5. andrew097 says

    The mistake liberals make is all cultures are equal and compatable, that people can change them like a designer lable. If two cultures are incompatible ie one is tolerant and one is not then when they mix one philosphy must win and one lose.
    For example you cannot have an apartheid system and non apartheid system operate in the same space.
    One philosphy will always seek to undermine the other and eventually a tolerant philosphy will have to protect itself or will have to adapt to the predjudices of the intolerant one.
    This article seems to indicate that Islam by its nature will always look to subvert other cultures. Maybe separation is the only way to protect differing cultures.
    To see the future look at the past, look at the societies where Islam has entered and see how they have survived over several decades.
    Post Christian democracy’s might not be able to survive.

  6. It is a frequently appearing cause for surprise that people with a thorough appreciation of Islam contemplate the possibility of its reformation. Alas, that is a forlorn hope without the faintest hope of ever becoming reality. That being the case, the only alternatives are (1) never-ending hostility between Islam and the rest of the world, (2) the triumph of Islam by whatever means, or (3) the defeat of Islam in a violent confrontation. Militant fundamentalist Muslims yearn for such confrontation which they believe they are certain to win.

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