A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America
A Call for Heresy discovers unexpected common ground in one of the most inflammatory issues of the twenty-first century: the deepening conflict between the Islamic world and the United States. Moving beyond simplistic answers, Anouar Majid argues that the Islamic world and the United States are both in precipitous states of decline because, in each, religious, political, and economic orthodoxies have silenced the voices of their most creative thinkers—the visionary nonconformists, radicals, and revolutionaries who are often dismissed, or even punished, as heretics.
The United States and contemporary Islam share far more than partisans on either side admit, Majid provocatively argues, and this “clash of civilizations” is in reality a clash of competing fundamentalisms. Illustrating this point, he draws surprising parallels between the histories and cultures of Islam and the United States and their shortsighted suppression of heresy (zandaqa in Arabic), from Muslim poets and philosophers like Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averros) to the freethinker Thomas Paine, and from Abu Bakr Razi and Al-Farabi to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. He finds bitter irony in the fact that Islamic culture is now at war with a nation whose ideals are losing ground to the reactionary forces that have long condemned Islam to stagnation.
The solution, Majid concludes, is a long-overdue revival of dissent. Heresy is no longer a contrarian’s luxury, for only through encouraging an engaged and progressive intellectual tradition can the nations reverse their decline and finally work together for global justice and the common good of humanity.
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Anouar Majid, A Call for Heresy - Why dissent is Vital to Islam and America, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis-London, 2007.
1 - The title - A Call for Heresy - Today the Muslim world is in deep turmoil. Islam is in crisis. Terrorism is only one aspect of the crisis. Another aspect is the search for intellectual and theological renewal. Thus a Muslim Heretics Conference took place in Atlanta, March 28-30, 2008, which called for an Islamic Reformation similar to the Protestant Reformation. The slogan of the Christian Reformation was “Scripture alone”. The slogan of this mini Muslim reformation is very similar. It calls for a return to the Quran alone. Islamic orthodoxy (sunna) has deviated from the original path. The new movement calls for a return to the one and only source of Islamic Revelation, the Quran. This group of reformists referred to themselves as “heretics” in order to emphasize their criticism of the established orthodoxy. What is remarkable about them is that they use a Christian terminology in their theological discourse, the word heresy being typically Christian. It is used to refer to Churches that deviate in one way or another from the orthodox doctrine. In this context, heresy applies to believers who disagree with the orthodox majority on some theological issues.
In his book, Anouar Majid uses the word heresy in a rather improper way. He includes in it the unbelievers who reject the notion of Revelation and the central tenets of Islam. This is never openly stated, but is implied throughout the book.
2 – The subtitle – Why dissent is Vital to Islam and America
What is characteristic of the book is that it is highly critical of Islam and America, by someone who has personal ties to Islam and America. Anouar Majid is of Moroccan origin. He is Director of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England, Maine. I assume that he was raised in the Islamic faith in his native Morocco, and that he became, after long years in America, secular minded. He is equally distressed by the decadence of the Muslim world and by the deviation of America from the original path, as it was defined by the founding fathers who created a republic based on secular grounds and egalitarian values. His criticism of Islam and America is therefore grounded in deep love for both of them. This makes his book highly valuable not only for Muslims but also for Americans. It is a thought-provoking reading. I highly recommend it, especially for Muslims who live in America.
The book reveals a hidden dimension of Islam that is usually ignored in the Muslim world. I am referring here to the first two centuries of Islam, when orthodoxy was still vaguely defined. This allowed for religious and political dissent to be expressed openly and without violent censorship. With the advent of orthodoxy (defined by theologians and enforced by the Abbasside caliphate) an Islamic Inquisition saw the light, and Islam was taken hostage by the requirements of power. The theological intransigence that is observed today is the legacy of that past, which spells obscurantism, spiritual infantilism and religious decadence.
Anouar Majid is a very good student of American history. It’s the story of how America became a world power and lost her soul in the process. A Christian saint wrote an autobiography which she entitled “Histoire d’une Âme” (the story of a soul). In its pages devoted to America, Majid’s book traces the story of the American soul. There is here a lot to ponder and reevaluate. This is a very advanced reading of American history.