The agony of a 21st-century Muslim. "Islam is a religion that devours all that is most humane and open-minded." How has this happened? Ziauddin Sardar on the delusion and intolerance of his fellow believers

Islam Explained

Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated by Franklin Philip <em>The New Press, 120pp, £9.95</

It is not easy to be a Muslim. Believers like me live on the edge, constantly having to justify our very existence. As the French Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun discovered, the situation became infinitely worse after the events of 11 September 2001. Having watched the spectacle unfold on television, his daughter declared that she did not want to be a Muslim: "Muslims are bad; they killed a lot of people." The loving father explained that the attacks on America were the work of "fanatics" and "crazy people". They did not represent Islam.

But what is Islam, the children ask. So Ben Jelloun here sets out to explain Islam to his children. "Once upon a time, very, very long ago," he begins, "a little boy was born in Mecca." He traces the life of the Prophet Muhammad, describing the tenets of Islam in a simple, graceful style. Adults often assume that children are incapable of grasping the complexity of life, an assumption that has led Ben Jelloun to keep things simple. In doing so, he evades the biggest problem of all, which is the self-delusion that we Muslims have turned into a fine art - the reality that much of the agony of being a Muslim in the 21st century is self-inflicted.

Ben Jelloun's simplistic but compassionate interpretation of Islam is far removed from the Islam of the Taliban or the Revolutionary Guards in Iran. It is the Islam conventionally invoked by the liberal defenders of the faith, who believe that, as Muslims, it is their duty to present a more humane, tolerant Islam.

In truth, while humane representations of Islam ease our conscience, they do little to address the problems within Islam itself. The problem with all varieties of Islam as it is practised today, not as it is envisaged by liberals, is that it has lost its humanity. Our religion has become a monster that devours all that is most humane and open-minded. Instead of retreating to an imagined liberal utopia, we Muslims need to ask some tough questions about our faith. What, for example, makes so many pious Muslims such nasty and intolerant individuals? Why is it that every time a country enforces the shariah - the so-called Islamic law - it retreats into medieval barbarity? Why do Muslims still insist on treating women as though they were an inferior race, sent to earth only to deprave and spread corruption?

Not surprisingly, Ben Jelloun's children do not ask such questions. And the answers will not bring much comfort for any kind of Muslim, child or adult, liberal or otherwise.

It is easy to dismiss the followers of all the non-liberal verities of Islam as fanatics and fundamentalists. It is much harder and much more painful to see them as a natural product of what contemporary Islam has become. Their paranoia is located within Islam. All Muslims, no matter how liberal they perceive themselves to be, are in danger of becoming infected. For, at the very heart of Islam, there are four category mistakes of catastrophic proportions. (By which I mean, Muslims have elevated what is clearly human to the category of the divine.) These have transformed Islam into an authoritarian creed.

Ben Jelloun alludes to the first without realising what he is saying. "The Muslims owe their Prophet Muhammad, God's messenger, their worship and love," he tells the little girl. In this unconscious slip, Ben Jelloun reveals how Muslims perceive the Prophet. He equates the Prophet with God, for in Islam only God can be worshipped. The Koran insists, and the Prophet himself emphasised, that Muhammad was only a man. What made him human was that he could make mistakes and he was a product of his own time. But in reality, Muslims have fetishised the Prophet so much that all his human qualities have evaporated; his time and context have been transformed into eternal time.

The measure of piety for Muslims is thus how closely one imitates the Prophet's physical appearance: his beard, his clothes, the way he walked and brushed his teeth. Even the way the Prophet came to be described - his human qualities, his character, his struggles to shape a humane and just society in his particular epoch - was underplayed at the expense of superhuman attributes, such as his victories in battles against tremendous odds. All biographies of the Prophet, from the earliest, written by ibn Ishaq in the early eighth century, to those produced today, follow a standard formula. The story is told chronologically. We move from one battle to the next until we reach the conquest of Mecca and the death of the Prophet himself. But this is absurd; the battles of the Prophet occupied less than a month of the 63 years of his life on earth. The two most celebrated confrontations - the Battles of Badr (624) and Uhud (625) - were over within a day. The other main conflict, the Battle of Trenches, never took place. And apart from one minor skirmish, no one fought during the conquest of Mecca. The Prophet simply entered the city with a large army, declared a general amnesty and forgave all his bitter enemies. Yet the standard biographies of the Prophet contain little other than fighting and conflict.

This is largely why Muslims cannot relate to the Prophet as a man struggling to do the right thing in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Instead, they relate to an abstract construction; they aim to imitate an impossible person devoid of all human attributes and virtues. In the words of the celebrated Muslim philosopher and poet Mohammad Iqbal, they want to be "superman", or a Momin, the technical term for the perfect Muslim. The quest for this status, the absolute imitation of the Prophet in every eighth-century detail, then becomes a pathological end in itself. And all forms of violence and oppression are justified to achieve the end in the name of the Prophet.

The genius of the Prophet, as Barnaby Rogerson notes, was "to transform his own religious experience, which was by its very nature highly individual, and create from it something of relevance to a whole society". It is the relevance of the Prophet's example, the spirit, the ethics, the morality that shaped his outlook and behaviour that Muslims have discarded in favour of fetishising his personality and his times.

Rogerson aims to capture the spiritual and moral framework that guided the actions of the Prophet. It is an indication of the importance of his book that the Battles of Badr and Uhud are hardly mentioned. Rogerson concentrates on the Prophet's character, and the texture of the period in which he lived. We can almost smell and feel the Arabia of the seventh century. The end product is more than enchanting: it is a closer representation of what Muslims really should be emulating.

The second category mistake concerns the shariah. Ben Jelloun tells his children that the shariah is not obligatory. The liberals can ignore it. But Asma Barlas has no such illusions. Women living in "Islamic states" do not have such luxuries. Most Muslims consider the shariah to be divine. Yet as Barlas shows, in reality there is hardly anything in the shariah that is based on the Koran and hence can be taken as divine. The Koran has remarkably few rules and regulations. Most of the Holy Book is devoted to elaborating the attributes of God and the virtues of reason. So where does the shariah come from?

The bulk of the shariah consists of the legal opinion of classical jurists. It was formulated in the Abbasid period, when Muslim history was in its expansionist phase. It incorporates the logic of Muslim imperialism of the eighth and ninth centuries. Hence the black-and-white division of the world into "the abode of Islam" and "the abode of war" - the ruling on apostasy which, contrary to the unequivocal declaration of the Koran that "there is no compulsion in religion", equates apostasy with treason against the state. Or the dictate that says non-Muslims should be humiliated and cannot give evidence in a Muslim court.

It was largely men who formulated the shariah, says Barlas - good men, but firmly rooted in their time. It is not surprising that they were misogynistic. The shariah treats women and men unequally, particularly when it comes to criminal justice. By treating the testimony of women with what Barlas calls the "two-for-one formula", the shariah promotes the view - contrary to everything that the Koran teaches - that a woman is only half a man. Being a product of male perceptions, the shariah cannot distinguish between adultery, fornication and rape. As a result, victims of rape and sexual abuse can find themselves charged with a crime and sentenced to being stoned to death - an aberrant law, because the Koran does not sanction stoning to death for any crime whatsoever. Even though the Koran gives women's testimonies privilege over men's in the case of sexual offences, the shariah chooses to ignore them.

What this means in reality is that when Muslim countries apply or impose the shariah - the demand of Muslims from Algeria through Pakistan to Nigeria - the contradictions that were inherent in the formulation and evolution of this jurisprudence come to the fore. The shariah's obsession with extreme punishment generates extreme societies. That is why, wherever the shariah is imposed, Muslim societies acquire a medieval feel. We can see that in Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. But this is what even the moderate elements of the Islamic movement want. The alliance of Islamic parties that took over Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province recently may describe itself as "modernist", but it is still ready to lock up women, flog thieves and stone adulterers in the name of divine justice.

The reason Muslims are so reluctant to reform the shariah, Barlas tells us in her brave and penetrating book, is that it underwrites male privilege. But it does something more: it keeps the interpretation of Islam firmly in the hands of a select group of bearded obscurantists. The Koran declares unequivocally that no one has any special privilege of interpretation. As a book of guidance, it is open to all. But Muslims have created a whole elite class of individuals who are the only ones with the right to interpret the Koran. In Shia Iran, they go under the obnoxious rubric of "clergy"; in the other, Sunni Muslim communities, they use the term "ulama", or religious scholars. The repulsive notion that only the ulama and the clergy can interpret the Koran is the third category mistake.

The individual Muslim is thus denied agency. If the shariah is a given, and only a select few can reinterpret the Koran, then most believers have nothing to do except follow what we are told. Believers thus become passive receivers rather than active seekers of truth: that is why they can tolerate such injustice and inhumanity while imagining they are carving some piece of paradise for themselves. Even the liberals have to defer to the superior knowledge of the guardians of the faith for explanation of this or that verse of the Koran. The pressing ethical questions of contemporary science on issues such as human cloning and genetic engineering can be addressed only by the ulama, who, by and large, know nothing of science or contemporary society. Oppressed women have to turn to their religious oppressors for justice. The authoritarianism that has become so intrinsic to Islam is reflected in Muslim societies themselves. How can Muslims introduce democracy to their societies when there is no democracy within their religion?

And so, to the final category mistake. Everything about Islam, we Muslims believe, is eternal. Everything that the Prophet did is eternal. The shariah is eternal. The right of the ulama to reinterpret the Koran is eternal. Indeed, Islam itself is eternal. Thus, all human problems have been solved for all time. The most common slogan among Muslims of all varieties, in every part of the world, is that "Islam has all the answers". This from a people who have forgotten how to ask questions!

What remains constant in Islam is the text of the Koran itself, its concepts providing the ethical anchor for ever-changing interpretations. Everything else is subject to change, including the reinterpretations of the Koran and life of the Prophet Muhammad. As far as the shariah is concerned, it neither works as law nor contains much that any sensible person can recognise as ethics. If the original formulators of the shariah were to visit the 21st century, they would be appalled at the injustices their opinions are propagating.

Islam cannot survive as a static faith, buried in history. It was always meant to be a dynamic world-view, adjusting to change. In reality, the shariah is nothing more than a set of principles, a framework of values that provide Muslim societies with guidance. But these sets of principles and values are not givens; they are vigorously derived from within changing contexts. As such, the shariah is a problem-solving methodology rather than law. It requires individual believers and societies to exert themselves and to reinterpret the Koran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

If Ben Jelloun was really interested in explaining Islam to his children, he would have addressed the problems intrinsic to how Muslims perceive their faith. For it is his children, and mine, who will inherit the inhumanity of so much that goes under the rubric of Islam today.

Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: a Ziauddin Sardar reader, edited by Sohail Inayatullah and Gail Boxwell, will be published on 15 March (Pluto Press, £14.99)