Viorst: In the Shadow of the Prophet

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VOL. 28

1998/99

No. 3
P. 98
Recent Books
Viorst: In the Shadow of the Prophet
FULL TEXT

    The writer of this work visited seven Arab countries, as well as Iran. The purpose of his visits was "to get the heart of Arab culture" (p. xi), including religion and politics. He interviewed a number of political leaders and writers in each country, and the information he obtained from those interviews, as well as his own observations and experiences, comprise the sources for this well-written and interesting book.
    The author's first stop was in Jerusalem, the center of the three major religious communities, each asserting its own historical attachment to it. From his talks with several Arab and Jewish thinkers, as well as from reading works about their cultures, Viorst learned about the wide differences between their ways of life, although he could not see the superiority of one over the other. He also noted the great difference between the West and the Arab world, the latter being poor and the former rich, although some Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, have become rich from oil. Viorst rightly argues, however, that wealth is not the only measure of Arabs' status, as their history indicates that in the past their standing was superior in the world. In modern times, however, this superiority has been outdistanced by Western technology and economic development. The Western press has pointed to the violence of terrorism as "the region's chief product" (p. 5). Viorst points out how shortsighted this view is: "Western streets are far more dangerous than the Middle East, and crime, heavily related to the drug trade, takes more victims than all [the] Middle East's terrorists combined" (p. 6).
    Arab intellectuals exposed to Western critical traditions (particularly in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and North Africa) maintain that Islam, as a closed society, deprived Muslims of the intellectual diversity they needed to compete with the outside world. Viorst provides a detailed account of the life and ideas of Faraj Foda, an Egyptian intellectual who called for freedom in religious belief and who was assassinated in 1992 because of this belief. Viorst went to Egypt to learn about the Foda affair and about those who defended or opposed him, and also because Egypt is considered the most important country in the Arab world. On the day he arrived in Cairo in 1993, Viorst learned that Najib Mahfuz, Egypt's Nobel laureate in literature, had been attacked. Mahfuz was the subject of threats by Muslim extremists because he advocated a secular culture, which fundamentalist Muslims want to crush. But because he was shy and modest in his lifestyle, fundamentalists did not threaten Mahfuz as much as they had Foda.
    Viorst took an interest in al-Azhar, because of its prestige as a Muslim institution of learning and because its head had agreed to support President Husni Mubarak's campaign against Islamic extremists. He also took an interest in the Muslim Brotherhood organization and wrote with appreciation on the life and work of its founder, Hasan al-Banna, whose plan "was first to ban the British, then purge Egypt of all non-Islamic influence" (p. 53). Viorst maintains that al-Banna had never called for the use of violence, although his organization was accused of using force. But President Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir was strong enough to ban the Brotherhood. Nasir's vision for Egypt was neither Marxist nor pro-Islamist, as Viorst maintains, and when the Brotherhood's attack on the regime culminated in an attempt on his life, Nasir ordered the execution of six Brotherhood members; thousands also were imprisoned and tortured. After Nasir's death, Anwar Sadat, referring to himself as the "believing President" (p. 71), released the militants.
    Viorst discovered that moderate writers such as Fahmi Huwaidi, a columnist at al-Ahram newspaper, defended the Muslim Brotherhood: "We want to make a connection between the material and the spiritual worlds" (p. 59). Mired in this Islamic debate, Egypt seems doomed, according to Viorst, to remain in an "intellectual wilderness" (p. 77). This is not the view of Arab writers, nor is it my view, as Egypt has developed far more toward the modern age than most other Arab countries.
    From Egypt, Viorst went to the Sudan, which he incorrectly considers to be the only Arab state whose government has adopted Islamic law. In fact, Saudi Arabia, long before the Sudan, adopted shari'a as the primary source of law and considered any other legislation supplementary. In the Sudan, which is an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse country, the government, dominated by northern Muslim leaders, decided that shari'a would be the law of the land and Islam its political ideology. "The architect of this course," according to Viorst, "is Hassan al-Turabi" (p. 108), a French- and British-educated scholar who has liberal views about Islam. "But as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly," says Viorst, his style "is . . . a model of oriental despotism" (p. 109). Overall, however, Viorst seems to be quite sympathetic with Turabi and contends that Islamic practice in the Sudan is less strict than in Egypt; not many of those who know Egypt and the Sudan would agree with him.
    In 1996, Viorst visited Iran to find out how Islam was being implemented there. He interviewed a number of intellectuals who gave him their own opinions about trends in the country. Most of them had been educated in the West. They told Viorst that they had doubts about Islam's capacity to provide guidance for all social relationships. The intellectuals and most of the clergy, the backbone of the 1979 revolution that had overthrown the secular monarchy, had been examining the validity of the principle of clerical power since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. They discussed a political pluralism that combines religious and secular elements. One intellectual told Viorst that Iran is now a fairly open society. Undoubtedly, secularism is raising questions about Islam, and the election of Mohamed Khatami as president indicates a new openness within the system. One Muslim thinker who questioned Khomeini's authoritarian premises compared Khatami with Martin Luther for challenging the clergy's political monopoly. Viorst must have felt, after he left Iran, that the clergy's role in time would be considerably reduced.
    In his visits to Algeria, and in meeting Arab intellectuals in Paris from other North African countries, Viorst learned that most Muslims have begun a serious reexamination of their faith. Having read the books of Algerian writer Malik Bennabi and having met Tunisian Rashid Ghannushi while in London, Viorst learned that although they condemned foreign domination, they also deplored the sad conditions of their countries. "If the Arabs are to restore their grandeur," said Bennabi, "they must begin by looking into themselves for the obstacles to growth that reside in the core of Islam" (pp. 10-11). Viorst seems to have been more highly impressed by the Algerian critique of Islam than by the Egyptian writers.
    Jordan was the last Arab country Viorst visited. Despite its desert background, modern Jordan is mostly urban, with a large percentage of the population being Palestinian refugees from successive Arab-Israeli wars. Life is modernized in the capital and other cities, but traditional in the small towns and villages. Jordan has been ruled by descendants of the Hashimi family to which the Prophet Muhammad belonged. When Viorst interviewed King Hussein and inquired whether his regime was an Islamic or secular monarchy, the king replied: "I am an Islamic monarch" (p. 306). He explained that he advocated tolerance and considered Jordanians one people with equal rights. When Viorst asked him further about Islam and its concepts and teaching, the king identified Islam with freedom and tolerance.
    The moderate views of the king and his ministers seem to fall between the liberal views of the Algerian intellectuals and the traditional views of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. In contrast to chapter 2, "The Prophet and the Book," and chapter 5, "Making the Shari'a," both of which are superficial accounts of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the Qur'an, and Islamic law such as may be found in any textbook on the history of Islam and Islamic law, Viorst's interview with King Hussein of Jordan is one of the most interesting parts of the book. The interview covers a variety of subjects, including the king's views about his grandfather, the Sharif Hussein (ruler of the Hijaz before it was conquered by Ibn Sa'ud, the founder of Saudi Arabia), and his plans for Arab unity, Islam, shari'a, and civilization. The interview indicates that King Hussein was well versed in Islam and its institutions.


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Majid Khadduri is distinguished professor emeritus, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC.