In the fight against Isis, there’s hope in the history of Islam

Robert Fisk in The Independent:

IsisflagThe Near East School of Theology in Beirut is housed in a bland grey and brown building near the Mediterranean Sea. A few days ago, the audience in its underground lecture theatre was witness to one of the most remarkable lectures on ancient and modern Islam in recent times, which – had it been more widely advertised – might have had just about every shade of religious protester huffing and puffing outside in the aptly named Jeanne D’Arc Street. The speaker was Dr Tarif Khalidi, one of Islam’s foremost scholars and translator of the latest English-language edition of the Koran, whose earlier works on Jesus in Muslim stories match his most recent anthology of Arab literature. The title of his address was an almost frightening world-beater: Does Islam need a Martin Luther? Khalidi’s short answer was “yes, please”, the more Luthers the merrier – despite Luther’s violent indictment of Islam. It wasn’t clear whom Luther disliked more, the terrible Turk or the terrible Pope, and if you’ve got to shake up any religion you might as well do it “in as wonderful a cascade of rhetoric as his”.

Khalidi recalled Lucretius’ castigation of all religions – “to so much evil can religion urge mankind” – and evil was all too obvious these days. It was obvious in all monotheistic religions, Khalidi insisted, “among certain so-called fundamentalist and apocalyptic sects in the US, among racist and fundamentalist settlers in Israel, among Daesh [Isis] and other horrifying groups in our own immediate neighbourhood.” Khalidi, a generously-bearded Palestinian who talks English with TS Eliot precision, called all this the “Age of Dis-enlightenment”, which should move us to study “how and why religions can from time to time get lost, and mistake the road to heaven for the road to hell.” Every 100 years in Islamic history, Khalidi observed, a renewer of faith – a mujaddid – would arise to breathe new life into the religion. The two “great wings” of Islam began their careers as reform movements, the Sunnis emphasising the importance of the unity of the community, the Shias emphasising the integrity of government, each splintering of these wings a form of reconstruction which now appear “like two great trees with numerous branches”.

And the most urgent task today? To “unpack” the ideas of Isis and to show how and why “its path leads to hell”.

More here.