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Book Review: Chasing A Mirage

It is a tragedy of the post-911 world that the field of Islamic concepts and terminologies have also fallen a victim to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and plain hysteria. Fuelling these fears among the masses are not only rabid Islamophobes but also those who claim to be nothing of that sort but whose actions speak otherwise. Canadian TV host and commentator Tarek Fatah belongs to the latter category. He has a history of mindless criticism of things as mundane as the aversion to music to more significant ones as the introduction of Sharia-based laws in Ontario. In Chasing a Mirage: the Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State he tries to show that the idea of an Islamic state is not only futile and untenable but outright dangerous.

Reviewed by Ayub Khan

Chasing A Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of An Islamic State

By Tarek Fatah

Wiley, 2008

Pages: 410

Fatah lays his claims on a rather simplistic analysis of the concept of Islamic state by saying that, “Islamists argue that the period following the passing away of Muhammad was Islam’s golden era and that we Muslims need to re-create that caliphate to emulate that political system in today’s world.” For the casual observer it might appear that the “Islamists” want to create an exact replica of the age of the righteous caliphs. But this isn’t the case as an analysis of the writings of those advocating an Islamic state reveals. For most Muslims an Islamic state can adopt many forms of modern polity and administration without comprising the Islamic ideals. Even Dr.Israr Ahmed of Pakistan’s Tanzeem-e-Islami, for instance, is open to the concept of a parliamentary caliphate. Benazir Bhutto, for whom Fatah is of fulsome praise, was better informed than Fatah on this front as her last book reveals. She quotes the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami ideologue Khurshid Ahmed who says: “God has revealed only broad principles and has endowed man with the freedom to apply them in every age in the way suited to the spirit and conditions of that age. It is through the ijtihad that people of every age try to implement divine guidance to the problems of the time.”

Fatah fails to realize that most Muslims who consider the golden age of the righteous caliphs as an ideal do not want to re-create the historical epoch but rather the values which were prevalent at that time. But for him that age had nothing to offer as “when Muslims buried the Prophet, they also buried with him many of the universal values of Islam that he had preached.” In his attempt to prove this he cites in detail the disputes that arose after the passing away of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) among his companions. There is nothing new in his research. These topics have been of much debate and discussion in the Muslim literature. What the author fails to understand is that these incidents, if indeed they were true, are of secondary importance to modern day Muslims. What is of importance is the emulation of sacrifice, sincerity, dedication, justice, and the brotherhood of the early Muslims. In his overzealousness to prove his pre-conceived notions Fatah marshals up a number of historical references of disputed events of history without any care for their authenticity. An indication of this un-scholarly attitude can be seen for example when he cites Maulana Maududi when convenient while at other times lashes out against him.

The author is dismissive of most things related to the practice of traditional Islam and appears to believe that it is just a set of values which are to be believed in but not practiced. In a display of his lack of seriousness he tries to create connections between themes and events where there are none. For instance, he cites Akbar Shah Najeebabadi regarding the caliphate of Ali (RA) and claims that his view backs up the Saudi version of historical events. He arrives at this conclusion because the English translation of Najeebabadi was published by a Saudi publishing house. Little does he realize that Najeebabadi was an Indian scholar who was noted for approaching history in an unbiased manner and whose books were first published in pre-independence India.

In a marked display of intellectual dishonesty Fatah claims that Muslims have forgotten the act of hospitality by a Hindu ruler of Sindh to Abdullah Ushtar, one of Prophet Muhammad’s great-great-grandsons. “The lone descendant of Prophet Muhammad had to find refuge and protection with a Hindu prince of India. No school textbook in Pakistan recognizes this historic act of hospitality by a Hindu ruler in Sind who gave sanctuary to escaping descendants of the Prophet,” he writes. What Fatah fails to tell his readers is that this incident is mentioned in Najeebabadi’s book, whom he had earlier derided for promoting a Sunni version of history.

Admittedly, current projects (there are more than one) for the creation of an Islamic state are not without problems. There indeed are some issues which need to be addressed (like the treatment of minorities) but this does not mean this whole premise is based on faulty foundations. One needs to differentiate between the radical violent forms of Islamism with those of peaceful/persuasive ( Rachid Al Ghannouchi, ‘democrat within Islamism’ anyone) ones. This project doesn’t need to and shouldn’t journey on a violent route. It can be accomplished through the winning of the public opinion by persuasion and reasoning which are the hallmarks of a democratic society. Just as the Liberals, the Conservatives, Communists, the Leninists and others are allowed to put forward their case so too should the advocates of the Islamic system be allowed to do so.

Fatah fails to recognize or just plain ignores that obsession with politics or attempts to reduce Islam to a mere political ideology have been criticized by many notable ulema like India’s Maulana Abul Hasan Nadwi without compromising the tenets of Islam. One would have expected that their views will be discussed in the book but one comes out disappointed.

Fatah sets out with a pre-determined objective and goes about attempting to strengthen it with all and sundry references. In his obnoxious attempts to display a secular than thou attitude, the ‘iconoclast’ Tarek Fatah has turned secularism itself into an idol; an untouchable beyond criticism. Thus, his opposition to the introduction of Islam based arbitration in Ontario despite its backing a former Attorney General of the province who wrote an exhaustive report in its support. Similarly, he ridicules the organizers of Muslim entertainment show for not allowing certain musical instruments and forms of art and those Muslim women who wear the veil. If this is not stifling of individual and group rights then one wonders what is.