So Now I Am Being Taken to Task for Being Soft on Islam?

Mr. Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum. His website address is

This article was written in response to Lawrence Auster's "The Search for Moderate Islam", which was published last week by

Lawrence Auster characterizes my approach to Islam as"ecumenist" and his own as" civilizationist." I prefer to call my approach historical and his essentialist. That is, I emphasize that things change over time and he sees them as static. For example, he emphasizes continuities going back centuries, I focus on the vast changes since I began studying Islam in 1969.

At the core of his argument is the view that"moderate Islam cannot exist." To which I reply that Islam can be whatever Muslims wish to make of it. I commend to him the study of Muslim history, so that he can for himself understand how (to take two extremes) Bosnian and Najdi Islam turned out the way they did, with one among the most tolerant and the other surely the most stringent.

The religion has changed momentously in the past and surely will continue to do so. Most of us can agree that the Muslim world is in the throes of terrible crisis now, but Auster sees this as a permanent condition, I see it as temporary, comparable, perhaps, to Germany's in the interwar period.

In particular, Auster's argument is based on a static understanding of the Koran, ignoring how much Muslim views have changed in the past and continue to do so. Interpretations already exist (such as that of the Sudanese scholar Mahmud Muhammad Taha) that overturn centuries of Koranic interpretation and would make Islam compatible with modernity. They exist, ready for the taking.

I am"deluded," writes Auster, into thinking that moderate Islam (or anti-Islamist Islam) exists. But I personally have worked side-by-side with moderate Muslims and have provided specifics (see"Naming Moderate Muslims" for details) about some of them. For Auster to deny their existence suggests he is driven more by theory than facts.

I find Auster's comparison of Islam with Soviet communism offensive. But if he must compare a faith with a political ideology, then he should compare Islam with socialism as a whole, inclusive of its range from social democrat to Stalinist.

He wonders that I do not judge Islam, to which I say that a person's faith is not within my purview, only the person's politics and actions. I suggest it is generally a good idea not to mix scholarship with matters of faith.

As for his dig,"Since when does studying a subject preclude one from criticizing it?" I reply that my study is not of Islam the faith but of Muslims in history. I repeatedly have signaled this prism, for example, in the sub-titles of my books ("The Genesis of a Military System,""Islam and Political Power,""Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics"). In contrast, he will search my bibliography in vain to find works on such topics as the concept of the godhead in the Qur'an, the origins of the Hadith, the poetry of Rumi, and the faith of Sufis.

The Auster view of premodern Islam ("the glories of medieval Islam are largely a myth. It was a parasite civilization whose achievements were mainly the work of its subject peoples such as Byzantines, Jews, and Indians, and it declined when it eventually killed off its host") is a superficial projection backwards of today's problems. Indeed, its very premise ("a parasite civilization") is oxymoronic. There was a true and vital civilization of Islam and (to take a convenient date) in 1005 it represented the best that humans had attained at that time in terms of learning, governance, and general advancement. I suggest that Auster ground himself more in this civilization before dismissing it.

Auster portrays me as an apologist for traditional Islam ("Pipes unbelievably denies the aggressive, collectivist, genocidal, and tyrannical aspects of traditional Islam…. he evokes the full-bodied, romantic view of Islam"). My view of historic Islam is allegedly"wholly positive," with a notable absence in my writings of anything about jihad, the Islamic conquests, Shari‘a, slavery, and dhimmitude. I wish Auster had spent a bit more time looking over my writings before drawing conclusions about them. For example, a long 2002 article,"Jihad and the Professors," as well as several shorter pieces ("Harvard ♥ Jihad,""What is Jihad?") deal extensively with jihad and are as tough as even Auster could ask for (a"gruesome reality" I call it in one place; in another, I quote Bat Ye'or on the suffering jihad has caused through"war, dispossession, dhimmitude, slavery, and death"). And slavery? My first book is titled Slave Soldiers and Islam. I also published lesser works on this subject (mostly dating from around 1980 and not online) carrying such titles as"Mawlas: Freed Slaves and Converts in Early Islam" and"Why Did Military Slavery Exist?"

I wonder what, exactly, I must do to prove my non-romantic view of premodern Islam.

That said, I view premodern Islam by the standards of its time, not ours and so am less judgmental than is Auster. Further, I subscribe to the wide scholarly consensus that during the first half of Islam's history, its adherents were less"aggressive, collectivist, genocidal, and tyrannical" than their Christian counterparts in Europe. The consistent pattern of Jews fleeing Christendom for Islamdom provides one indication of this reality.

And finally, I must respond to this characterization:"Pipes's respect for Islam, his faith in its essential benignity, and his abiding hope (despite all the evidence) that we can ultimately live in complete harmony with it, contradict and undercut his realistic analysis of its dangers." Yes, I have respect for the faith of a billion people but I don't recall ever espousing"faith in its essential benignity." To the contrary, I have publicly argued against President George W. Bush's formulation that"Islam is peace." As for my hope that Muslims and non-Muslims can live in complete harmony, it is a hope. But who in 1940 could imagine living in complete harmony with Germany, Italy, and Japan? Such hope is functional. That we have for many decades now suggests that change is possible through victory in war and wise guidance of the defeated to understand their own traditions in a moderate, modern, and good-neighborly way.

As for the second part of Auster's analysis, his policy recommendations; they differ surprisingly little from my own, as presented three years ago in"Who Is the Enemy?" Auster asserts"that the West must confront Islam as Islam and so reduce its power to the point where Muslims have no opportunity to wage jihad campaigns against us. Under such circumstances a more decent type of Islam may arise." This two-stage approach resembles or perhaps even derives from my program of defeating radical Islam, then promoting moderate Islam in its place. Auster and I agree that, in the end,"a more decent type of Islam" is the only answer.

I'll leave it to Auster to explain how his"decent" Islam differs from my"moderate" Islam (which he insists"does not exist, and cannot exist"). And why, if Islam cannot change, he pins his hopes, with me, on a changed Islam.

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N. Friedman - 1/31/2005


Your idea makes sense even if the groups you speak of represent a tiny, tiny minority.

David A.H. Perry - 1/31/2005

Mr. Friedman,

I'm aware that certain Muslim religious authorities have declared that the Nizaris, Musta'ilis, Alawis, Druze, Ahmadis and Baha'i are unbelievers and/or apostates, and that many Muslims parrot these opinions and discriminate against them because of that. However, I am also aware that all these (except possibly Baha'is) believe that they are Muslim, even when they know that "mainstream" Muslims don't agree. I see no reason why non-Muslims must accept the predominant definition of who is and is not a Muslim any more than Mormons should take the Lubavitchers' word for who is and is not a Jew. If they say they're Muslim why not accept it?

As far as jihad goes, I am aware that these "heretics" by and large differ from the "norm" on the subject of jihad; that's my second point, that one of things they're "heretical" about is that they do not do offensive jihad.

What I'm getting at is that perhaps "the West" should make up for having financed and bolstered the jihadis by favoring the "heretics" who don't take blowing us up as a religious duty. As to how that might be done I suggest consulting them; for example the Aga Khan, among his many attributes and attainments, has a degree in Islamic theology and a widespread network of followers.

N. Friedman - 1/31/2005


I think Pipes and Auster were referring to the vast majority of groups which form what most people, including most Muslims, call Islamic. I do not think that anyone doubts that some groups which might somehow be termed Islamic are very, very moderate - which to me means anti-Jihad -.

Take the example of the Baha'i. Note that in Iran, the Baha'i are not even protected by a dhimma, which means that they have no rights of any sort to the extent that the religious authorities of Iran have any say - which they clear do -. Which is to say, Baha'i have a very, very tough life in Islam, even worse than the dhimmi (i.e. Christians and Jews) - if that is to be imagined -. In fact, the meaning of Islam to the Baha'i is not all that important since nearly all Muslims consider Baha'i to be apostate.

In any event, Jihad, for the vast, vast majority of branches of Islam, is a central tenet of the faith. And by Jihad, I mean offensive Jihad. Such is the reason for the debate between Pipes and Auster. The point being discussed is the possible moderation of the Islam known to the more or less billion Muslims - not to sects which most Muslims consider to be apostate (e.g Baha'i)- . It is the possible emergence of a peaceful Islam - as understood by the vast majority of Muslims - that Pipes and Auster debated.

One of my favorite quotes about Jihad comes from the Muslim Indian scholar MJ Akbar. What follows is from pp's xv - xvi of his book "Shade of Swords":

"... There are Muslims today, for instance, who will convert jihad into a holy bath rather than a holy war, as if it is nothing more than an injunction to cleanse yourself within.

"It is true that the Prophet insisted that a greater jihad was the struggle to cleanse impurity within, but that does not take away from the fact that the lesser jihad inspired the spirit that once made Muslim armies all-conquering, enabled Muslims to protect their holy places, and ensured that most of the community lived with the protection of Muslim power despite formidable challenge from Christian alliances in a world war that was virtually coterminous with the birth of Islam. So often did Muslim armies, whether in the west or the east, triumph against odds that it conjured up a sense of a self-replicating miracle. Faith in Allah's bargain was reinforced by each victory, particularly against Christian armies who mobilized repeatedly not only to destroy Muslim empires but also Islam, which they called a heresy against Christ.

"Jihad is the signature tune of Islamic history. If today's Muslim rulers are reluctant to sound that note, it is often because they are concerned about the consequences of failure. As in every bargain, there are two sides. Allah promised victory to the Muslim, but only if the believer kept faith with him. Defeat becomes an indictment of the ruler, and is therefore risky, particularly as Muslims have a long tradition of holding their rulers accountable. They are enjoined to do so."

I also like the following quote from the great French writer Jacques Ellul's Forward to Bat Ye'or brilliant book "The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam. From Jihad to Dhimmitude: 7th - 20th Century":

"But a major, twofold fact transforms the jihad into something quite different from traditional wars, waged for ambition and self-interest, with limited objectives, where the "normal" situation is peace between peoples - war, in itself, constituting a dramatic event which must end in a return to peace. This twofold factor is first the religious nature, then the fact that war has become an institution (and no longer an "event"). Jihad is generally translated as "holy war" (this term is not satisfactory): and this suggests both that this war is provoked by strong religious feeling, and then that its first object is not so much to conquer land as to Islamize the populations. This war is a religious duty. It will probably be said that every religion in its expanding phase carries the risks of war, that history records hundreds of religious wars and it is now a commonplace to make this connection. (3) Hence, religious passion is thus sometimes expressed in this manner. But it is, in fact, "passion" - it concerns mainly a fact which it would be easy to demonstrate does not correspond to the fundamental message of the religion. This disjuncture is obvious for Christianity. In Islam, on the contrary, jihad is a religious obligation. It forms part of the duties that the believer must fulfil; it is Islam's normal path to expansion. And this is found repeatedly dozens of times in the Koran. Therefore, the believer is not denying the religious message. Quite the reverse, jihad is the way he best obeys it. And the facts which are recorded meticulously and analyzed clearly show that the jihad is not a "spiritual war" but a real military war of conquest. It expresses the agreement between the "fundamental book" and the believers' practical strivings. But Bat Ye'or shows that things are not so simple. Since the jihad is not solely an external war, it can break out within the Muslim world itself - and wars among Muslims have been numerous, but always with the same features.

"Hence, the second important specific characteristic is that the jihad is an institution and not an event, that is to say it is part of the normal functioning of the Muslim world. This is so on two counts. First, this war creates the institutions which are its consequence. Of course, all wars bring institutional changes merely by the fact that there are victors and vanquished, but here we are faced with a very different situation. The conquered populations change status (they became dhimmis), and the shari'a tends to be put into effect integrally, overthrowing the former law of the country. The conquered territories do not simply change "owners". Rather they are brought into a binding collective (religious) ideology - with the exception of the dhimmi condition - and are controlled by a highly perfected administrative machinery. (4)

"Lastly, in this perspective the jihad is an institution in the sense that it participates extensively in the economic life of the Islamic world. Like dhimmitude does, which involves a specific conception of this economic life, as the author clearly shows. But it is most essential to grasp that the jihad is an institution in itself; that is to say, an organic piece of Muslim society. As a religious duty, it fits into the religious organization, like pilgrimages, and so on. However, this is not the essential factor, which derives from the division of the world in the (religious) thought of Islam."

David A.H. Perry - 1/31/2005

Both Pipes and Auster are forgetting that there has been a "moderate", modern brand of Islam for over a century, the Nizari Isma'ili Shia currently led by Karim al-Husseini a.k.a. Aga Khan IV, an English gentleman in a business suit.

There's also another Isma'ili "tendency", the Musta'ilis, whose largest sect is the Dawoodi Bohras led by Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin; though closer to Twelver Shia in their outward observance they still hold to their Fatimid philosophy. Of the non-Shia there is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the "Qadianis", who hold that Jihad can only be used defensively against extreme religious persecution (and who have a special reverence for the prophet Isa, who we call Jesus). And then there are the Baha'i, the Druze, and the Alawi, off the top of my head.

"Ah," the objection goes, "(at least most of) those are not REAL Muslims". My response: sez who, the militant Islamists you both decry?