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by Hans Dembowski

Muslim thought can be less authoritarian than mostly assumed

Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Jawdat Said, Abdolkarim Soroush and Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani are not household names in western countries. That is a pity. They stand for modernity in Islamic scholarship, with an emphasis on pluralism, non-violence and even democracy. Sadly, they are all too often neglected even in predominantly Muslim countries.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a non-violent leader of India’s and Pakistan’s independence struggle. Jawdat Said is a contemporary Syrian scholar who argues that violence may only be used in self-defence, but not to promote one’s views. Abdolkarim Soroush is an Iranian theologian who says that, while the faith is eternal, critical thinking is needed to adapt religious knowledge to changing times. Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani was a 19th century Muslim intellectual who wanted to liberate the faith from despotism. 

I must admit that I wasn’t aware of Jawdat Said and Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani before I read a recently published German book that I’ll soon be reviewing on the website. The book was published by Springer VS and written by Jörgen Klussmann, Muhammad Sameer Murtaza, Holger-C. Rohne and Yahya Wardak. So far, there is no plan to translate it into other languages, as Yahya Wardak told me.

The topics tackled in the book deserve a lot of attention. In view of terrorist threats, sectarian turmoil and growing Islamophobia around the world, it is important to understand that Islam is not systematically geared to authoritarian leadership. Its essence is actually rule of law. Islam has a long and sophisticated history of jurisprudence which was driven by debate among different law schools.

Islam, moreover, is not inherently intolerant, but has always appreciated Judaism and Christianity as forerunners. Indeed, Jewish and Christian communities were accepted in pre-dominantly Muslim societies for centuries.

The book argues that Muslim intellectual life deserves a revival and that migrants in western countries can play a crucial role. It also points out that western agencies can only have limited influence because colonialism, military interventions and double standards have undermined the credibility of Europeans and North Americans.

One paragraph hints at clashes of Islam and Christianity in contemporary Europe, but I think this is wrong. Catholic as well as Protestant bishops currently express themselves in favour of the EU accepting Muslim migrants. The churches don’t spread Islamophobia. Reckless, right-wing populists  do so. They want to kindle fears in order to become more powerful, but they do not seriously tackle any religious ideas.

Springer VS is an academic publisher, and the book that has inspired this blog post was apparently prepared in haste. It is unlikely to reach many people. That is a pity because the issues it raises are most relevant.


Klussman, J., M. S. Murtaza, H.-C. Rohne and Y. Wardak (eds.), 2016: “Gewaltfreiheit, Politik und Toleranz im Islam” (Non-violence, politics and tolerance in Islam), only available in German, Wiesbaden: Springer VS

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