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A Model for Moderate Muslims

05/12/2015 01:18 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

Continuing terrorism by Islamist radicals in the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S has led numerous commentators to argue for solutions that nearly always involve revision of the foundations of the religion, especially the Quran. Some born Muslims claim the title of "apostate" proudly. Others, betraying a superficial knowledge of Islamic theology, assert that Muslim thought ceased to be fruitful 800 years ago.

Many more call for a "reformation of Islam," but do not consider that the Protestant Reformation was a hideous, prolonged conflict that nearly destroyed Christendom. Luther and Voltaire, both of who preached against Jews with extreme hatred - while the Ottoman and Moroccan sultans welcomed and protected the Hebrews expelled from Spain and Portugal - are held up as ideal figures for Muslims. But the chief historical issue for Luther, a reading of the Bible in the native languages of the believers, had never existed in Islam, since the Quran was translated early into other tongues.

John Calvin, a leading Protestant reformer, established an authoritarian state in Geneva that in 1553 burned the Catalan physician and Protestant theologian Miquel Servet at the stake, after denouncing Servet to the Inquisition in France. The Catalans have a long memory and many still consider Servet a hero as well as a martyr.

Most significantly, the claim of "reforming Islam" is advanced by the terrorists themselves. They argue that by blowing up shrines, devastating other historical monuments, and massacring Shia Muslim and spiritual Sufis, they are restoring the faith of Muhammad to an imagined pristine condition at its origin. As Bosnians said during the atrocious Balkan Wars of the 1990s, by that logic they should have defended themselves with swords and bows and arrows, while riding on camels, although their enemies had modern weaponry.

Numerous "liberated" Muslims appear to acclaim an "Islamic Reformation" because they hope such arguments will win favor from Westerners, especially Protestant Christians. And in this such Muslims are often correct, since many Westerners have been indoctrinated in a belief that the Reformation represented the beginning of "modernity" and popular sovereignty in the West. But notwithstanding certain widely-accepted allegations, Catholic Venice, which grew rich on trade with the Ottomans, was no less forward-looking in its political institutions and intellectual life than the Protestant redoubts of northern Europe.

Does the world really need Muslims to follow a path of "reform" through more bloodshed, oppression, and confusion?

An examination of Islamic history provides many counter-examples to the discourse acclaiming a "Muslim Reformation." Some are well-known to Muslims. One of the most important is a relatively recent Iraqi figure, Shaykh Jamil Effendi Al-Sidqi Al-Zahawi (1863-1936). I believe Al-Zahawi provides an appropriate model for moderate Muslims today. Further, scholarship on him has linked his name with those of other outstanding and learned individuals, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The story of Al-Zahawi is incompletely known to Westerners, but deserves recognition.

Of greatest significance, Al-Zahawi was a superlative opponent of Wahhabism, the extremist ideology that was the foundation of the Saudi kingdom, and which then mutated into the terrorism of Al Qaeda and the so-called "Islamic State." Al-Zahawi, the son of the Mufti (chief Islamic jurist) of Baghdad, was a conventional Sunni in religion, whose opinions were highly influential.

In his volume The True Dawn in Refuting Those Who Deny the Seeking of Intercession and the Miracles of Saints, commissioned by his father and published in 1905, he described the crimes wrought by the Wahhabis and the House of Saud in their rise, their declarations that they alone were true Muslims, and - although the Saudi monarchy has distanced itself from their excesses - the many brutalities in their campaigns to conquer Mecca, Medina, and other Arab territories. That effort had just been revived and was feared in Baghdad no less than in Arabia when Al-Zahawi challenged Wahhabism.

The True Dawn comprises a powerful refutation of Wahhabi pretensions and perversities. It was translated into English almost 20 years ago by the very distinguished Sufi, Maulana Shaykh Hisham Kabbani of the Naqshbandi spiritual order. This was one instance in which the names of two great personalities were joined.

Al-Zahawi was the leading Iraqi poet of his time in Arabic and Persian, and composed verse additionally in Turkish and Kurdish. Shmuel Moreh, a Baghdadi Jew and professor of Modern Arabic Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, considered a great patron of Arabic literary studies in Israel, discussed Al-Zahawi in a 1968 paper, "Free Verse (Al-Shi'r Al-Hurr) In Modern Arabic Literature: Abu Shadi And His School, 1926-46," published by the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Moreh wrote, "The beginning of the twentieth century marked a new and revolutionary stage in the history of Arabic poetry. Through the increasing influence of Western literature, some new genres which show only preliminary signs of emergence in the nineteenth century found official recognition, as in the case of the strophic verse, or experimenting with them was resumed, as in the case of the blank verse (shi'r mursal), which was first practiced by Rizq Allah Hassun in 1869 and which was revived in 1905, probably unconsciously, by Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi... under the name of shi'r mursal."

Professor Moreh is, in his own way, as remarkable a figure as Al-Zahawi and Kabbani. Reflecting his love and nostalgis for his own Iraqi background, Moreh wrote in a note for Contemporary Authors, printed in 2002, "I can write Hebrew prose as easily as Arabic. I can't express myself in Hebrew poetry, however, although I have lived in Israel since 1951."

Little of the verse of Al-Zahawi has been translated into Western languages. Yet Al-Zahawi had other admirable qualities aside from his eloquent denunciation of Wahhabism and his talent as a poet. Kabbani writes that Al-Zahawi "served on the board of education in Baghdad, as the director of the state printing office, as editor of the chief state publication, 'al-Zawra, and as a member of the Baghdad court of appeal. The second half of his life was devoted to writing, journalism, and teaching. He taught philosophy and Arabic literature in Istanbul and law in Baghdad.... In addition... he was scientifically inclined and wrote papers on various scientific topics such as electricity and the power of repulsion, all this despite a chronic disease of the spine which had crippled him from his twenty-fifth year."

Fearless opponent of Wahhabism, poet, scientist, journalist... what need one add? Al-Zahawi was known for another great aspect of his life: his defense of women's rights. He wrote boldly that Islamic fundamentalists "have claimed that in the veil there is protection; they lie, for it is in truth a disgrace. They have claimed that unveiling is a breach of modesty; they lie, for unveiling is perfect purity."

Indeed, one of his few poems available in English, titled "Equality in Age" and translated from Arabic by Sivar Qazaz, condemns the marriage of older Muslim men to young women. Therein, Al-Zahawi asks, "How many men of sixty have married adolescents, their gray hair burning as fire on their heads?"

The poem concludes unforgettably, describing how an old man "grabbed at [his young wife] as she pushed him away, telling her, Asmaa, you are mine by Sharia, and what Sharia makes mine shall obey. God in heaven made you mine. He is wise and prescribes the right and the wrong. When she saw there was no one to defend her, preserve her from the Sheikh, when the Sheikh began to tire, she lifted a cup, prepared with poison, and, provoked, gulped it down."

Al-Zahawi was a traditional Sunni Muslim. He proclaimed no "reformation" in the faith of Muhammad. Yet he knew what Muslims needed, and still need.