An Interview with Tamim Ansary

Aysegul Savas

SB: How about Islam as a political system? When it is executed as a political system, there is a tendency to make it consistent in its practice. Is that not the case with any religion that becomes a political system?

TA: Catholicism was like that in its day, and that’s what the Protestant revolution was all about. In Destiny Disrupted, what I’m trying to say is that Islam was unable to have a Protestant reformation in part because it already didn’t have a political structure to overthrow. It didn’t have a Pope, but what it does have, that makes it difficult for any Muslim to make an impact, is an un-institutionalized, legalistic development of doctrine that generations of scholars have created. And nobody has the authority to add or subtract from it unless they are themselves a scholar. And you can’t become one of those unless you are a conformist to the themes and axioms of that whole structure. So getting to the position of having authority to make change is a process that makes you unlikely to have any impulse to make any change. It’s an inherently conservative process.

SB: How about the Spanish Umayyads? They were shaping the religion through interaction with other faiths.

TA: Andalusia was no different from the Baghdad Caliphate or the Cairo Caliphate. In that time, they all had the possibility within Islam of having freedom of thought. They had people who investigated nature in a scientific sort of way. Everything that is impressive to European observers about the Spanish Caliphate was also true of the other ones. Jews and Christians had the same status in the Abbasid caliphate as they had in the Spanish one. There they also had Zoroastrians and absorbed them too, as people of the book. 

But the mechanisms that shut it all down were already in play. I think that began shortly after the death of Mohammed. On the other hand I am persuaded by the idea that the doctrine of Islam was never supposed to be a political system. The fact that Mohammed did not nominate a successor or give any commentary on how the community was to be governed after his death meant that it wasn’t supposed to be a political entity that survived his death.

SB: Don’t you think the Quran presents a legal system?

TA: I’m not sure that it does. There are only about five pages that are specific—there are specific rules about inheritance and a few other things. 

To my mind-- and this is something that reformists have tried to argue with in recent years-- the career of Mohammed and the Quran was supposed to be a revelation in action. It was supposed to be history unfolding with divine guidance to show decisions in particular circumstances from which people were supposed to identify the deeper principles to apply in other circumstances. But the interpretation that took hold was, “These are the rules, and we should try to create the circumstance that these rules would fit into.” The attempt was to freeze the social process and the social institutions in the way they were at the time of the Prophet.

SB: So, if the Quran had been progressively interpreted for changing societies it might have created a tolerant system.

TA: It would have been different. For example, the inheritance rules that apply to women—they get a sixth and the rest is divided among the sons, or something like that. One would have to ask, “What was the situation of the women at that time and how does this rule change that? What’s the direction we’re supposed to go in?”

There are various places in the Quran where they talk about drinking. My father used to say “It says right here that you’re not supposed to go to the mosque when you’re drunk.” Well, evidently, you could drink, but just don’t go to the mosque when you’re drunk! It wouldn’t be necessary to say that if people weren’t drinking. People like my brother say, “No, that’s early in the Quran and the later injunctions abrogate the earlier ones.” There is a final form and the latest injunction is the one that applies.  

SB: According to the narrative of world history through the lens of Islam that you present in Destiny Disrupted, where would you place the current events in the Arab World?

TA: To begin with, I strongly believe that we should stop using the terms we’re using for what’s going on today. For example “the democracy movement” in Egypt. I think it’s an anti-regime movement. That’s all we know. We don’t know what shape those revolutions will take. We don’t even know who the Libyan rebels are. All we can say about them is that they’re the rebels. It’s possible that they don’t even know who they are. But what I object to in the use of the term “democracy movement” for the Egyptian uprising is that it misleads us into thinking that they want to be Americans; they want whatever it is that we have here.

SB: What do you think about the NATO intervention in Libya?

TA: I think it’s turning out to be another one of those things. I was reluctantly against the intervention when it happened. Like many people, I would like to see Gaddafi ousted. I’d like to see change come. But the earlier moment, when McCain said “This is the time, let’s go in, they’re winning,” that would have been catastrophic too. That would have been America coming in right when the Arabs are about to have their own revolution. It would have left a terrible legacy. But now, I don’t think Gaddafi is going to be driven out. I don’t think the US or the West is going to be able to rid of him, doing what they’re doing. Because they don’t have a force inside that they can actually support. Those guys are rag-tag anybodies, those rebels. And the West can’t get out. So we can’t get in, we can’t get out.

SB: So do you think there should now be a harsher intervention?

TA: I wish other Arab countries would be more forthcoming and take a part in this. That’s’ what should happen. But the problem is, Egypt is an incomplete revolution. Nothing has actually happened there yet, in my opinion. It was a country run by the military, and they ran it as the owners of the economy. Just like Iran. They threw Mubarak overboard but they’re still in control and I don’t think it’s necessarily true that they’re going to lose control.

I also think the uprising in Egypt is tempered by the fact that there is a huge number of young people in the Arab world for whom technology has enabled an interaction to occur with other young people, and not just an interaction up, with their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. So it has created the possibility of a cultural change that is not as squelched by the past.

I am kind of optimistic of what will become. But Libya is important. I think if the rebellion in Libya failed, it would be another twenty years of dynastic, family style rule. And if that happens it’s going to have a dampening effect on other surrounding countries.

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