Qasim Rashid’s ‘Extremist’

In his Youtube taxonomy of commenters on Islam, Klingschor includes the category of ‘Muslim apologist’.  My main reservation about the video was his rather negative portrayal of this (varied) group. I might agree with his conclusion – that academic scholars of Islam are the very best authorities on the religion – but while some ‘apologists’ are evasive charlatans, others are sincere people.  When they are not only sincere, but keen to promote a conspicuously tolerant and peaceful vision of Islam, it seems perverse not to hope their views prevail.  (Sometimes it’s the people who insist that Islam needs a reformation who are oddly the quickest to produce some hadith or sura which seems to defend the hardline position – a position, incidentally, which (in)conveniently makes any reformation pretty much impossible.)

Qasim Rashid’s Extremist is a work of Islamic apologetics, framed partly as a response to the anti-Islam polemics of Geert Wilders. I know that some HP readers will be able to fluently produce chapter and verse in order to demonstrate why they think Rashid’s got Islam all wrong, but his understanding of his faith is far preferable to the version promoted by opponents of Islam and hardline Muslims alike.

Rashid focuses on the Qur’an as the main source of Islamic teaching, and cautions against following ahadith which contradict it (11% – references are to the Kindle version).  He goes on to offer Qur’anic evidence against blasphemy punishments (15%), asserting that the correct response to blasphemy is to politely overlook it, and citing examples of Muhammad appearing to uphold freedom of speech. He also reminds readers that the Bible/Old Testament clearly endorses punishment for blasphemy.  Apostasy is another key topic. Although I don’t have the arguments quite so at my fingertips as some HP readers I am aware that there are ways of countering his capacious reading of ‘there shall be no compulsion in religion’. But, as Rashid points out, there are verses in the Bible which are decisive in calling for apostasy to be punished by death. (17%).

Yes, Jews and Christians have decided that they are allowed to cherry pick and historicise in a way most Muslims don’t so readily accept– but given that the Qur’an does seem susceptible of different interpretations, why impede the most benign ones from gaining more traction?  Also, although asserting that one must interpret the Qur’an ‘literally’ seems an unambiguous prescription, in practice it’s not quite so simple.  Rashid (28%) describes a complex system of hierarchy even within the Qur’an, whereby verses which are decisive are used to determine the meaning of verses which are more ambiguous.

There are things I can’t fully go along with here. Rashid invokes Wilders’ citation of President Adams saying Islam must be dispelled by force and construes this as ‘tacit approval of Breivik’s actions’  on Wilders’ part (18%).  He also asserts that most countries in Europe prescribe capital punishment for treason (19%) when this is not true, or even necessary in order for his argument to stand.  Neither did I find every element of his argument against finding certain passages of scripture antisemitic completely convincing. However he does provide plenty of examples of Christian authorities promoting antisemitism, as well as counterexamples of more benign Islamic references to Jews.

Of course in emphasizing the softer verses/readings of the Qur’an, Rashid is countering Muslim hardliners as well as opponents such as Wilders.  He quotes (52%) Mohammed asserting that one day the ulema, the clerics, will be the worst creatures under the heavens, and Rashid condemns preachers such as Qaradawi as extremists (67%). He argues staunchly that there is no Islamic teaching which forbids taking non-Muslims as friends (51%) and asserts that Muslims are instructed to protect universal religious freedoms (52%).  He finds democracy compatible with Islamic values, by contrast with theocracy which he condemns as unislamic :

Obviously, a theocracy violates both absolute justice and ignores mutual consultation because it enforces a state religion and does not care for the voices of minorities and the marginalized. (71%)

Readers may be aware that Qasim Rashid is an Ahmadi Muslim, a sect which many do not recognize, and whose members face persecution by other Muslims in countries such as Pakistan.  However, some later passages about the Caliphate aside, almost all the arguments deployed in Extremist are ones other secularist Muslims would be likely to support, and the book is endorsed by a Sunni Muslim, Professor Akbar Ahmed.

I think Rashid sometimes overstates the number of Muslims who agree with him, but I hope this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  As well as often speaking up for Muslims, for Ahmadi Muslims in particular, he is a vocal advocate for atheists, and I’ll end by echoing some words from a piece he co-wrote with Chris Stedman:

We may never agree on some matters—and that is fine. In a world where freedom of conscience and expression are rare, agreement is not our primary concern. Recognizing another’s fundamental right to disagree while respecting his or her humanity and highest principles, however, is central to our ability to productively exchange ideas in the first place.