Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue

Image of Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue
Release Date: 
October 6, 2015
Harvard University Press
Reviewed by: 

“This book may not change hearts or minds, but it will provoke thought and discussion—and that is a contribution.”

Religion, as the recent visit of Pope Francis to America reminds us, is a hot topic. Believers and non-believers care about, read about, and follow issues related to religion and faith. Religion both unites us and divides us, which is what makes Islam and the Future of Tolerance such a timely and interesting read.

In the current domestic political environment of a presidential election, and the ongoing threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Muslim faith finds itself under scrutiny and duress. For the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, this is an agonizing time of self-reflection.

Into that vortex wade Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaj with this short volume—short both in physical size (about the size of a religious book like a Qur’an) and in length at less than 150 pages. The format of the book is a debate between these commentators/scholars as they dissect controversial concepts like ”fundamentalist,” “extremism,” “Islamist,“ “Jihadist,” and the text that animates the Qur’an.

What you need to know about the authors is that Sam Harris is an atheist, and Maajid Nawaz a former Islamist who has taken up the cause of countering violent extremism. At the center of this debate between such unlikely partners is the simple question: “Is Islam a religion of peace?”

Nawaz’s opening premise is that Islam is not a religion of war or of peace. “It’s a religion. Scripture exists; human beings interpret it.” Nawaz refutes strict literalism that leaves little room for a more moderate interpretation or reformist approaches to religious texts. Nawaz points out that any interpretation of Shakespeare (or, for that matter, the Constitution,) will undoubtedly change over time, and become subject to the human beings that read it. He believes that Muslim liberals and reformist voices can be empowered if there is a willingness to debate issues within the faith.

Harris’s argument is that some of the basic premises in the “Qur’an are simply at odds with moderate thinking and peaceful approaches. In particular, he cites concepts like “infidels” and the notion of “martyrdom” as antithetical to peace. “No doubt you are right,” he says to Nawaz, “about the necessity of starting a social movement that champions reforming interpretations of scripture. But the contents of scripture still pose a problem . . . So a multiplicity of interpretations is no panacea if all options are bad.”

For Nawaz, the real issue is not the concept of the religion of Islam, but how it gets hijacked. “Islam is just a religion,” he argues. “Islamism is the ideology that seeks to impose any version of Islam over society. Islamism is, therefore, theocratic extremism.” Further delineating strands, Nawaz finds that Jihadism is “the use of force to spread Islamism,” which he opposes. “We’ve all got to learn as a community, as a society, to be more nuanced in this debate.”

For Harris, the Qur’an and “ahadith,”(a collection of quotes from the prophet Muhammad) contain passages “inimical to pluralism, secularism” and everything Nawaz is moderately advocating. Harris worries about the emphasis that Islam places, for example, on “paradise.” “I’ve long been worried that a belief in paradise can lead ordinary people to perpetuate atrocities . . .”

The debate continues, page after page, veering into foreign policy, historical events and references to Christian conquests and Jewish experience. Even the Yazidis make it into the debate.

In the end, the authors acknowledge, “it isn’t easy for anyone to reach across divides—real or imagined—and to try and hold a sensible dialogue amid so much background noise and confusion.” The answer, they seem to suggest, may rest in the ancient art of conversation, which this book offers.

This book may not change hearts or minds, but it will provoke thought and discussion—and that is a contribution.