The Nature of Islam

Harvard University Press
5 min readNov 1, 2019

In Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz invite you to join an urgently needed conversation: Is Islam a religion of peace or war? Is it amenable to reform? Why do so many Muslims seem drawn to extremism? What do words like Islamism, jihadism, and fundamentalism mean in today’s world? Remarkable for the breadth and depth of its analysis, this dialogue between a famous atheist and a former radical is all the more startling for its decorum. Harris and Nawaz have produced something genuinely new: they engage one of the most polarizing issues of our time — fearlessly and fully — and actually make progress. Islam and the Future of Tolerance has been published with the explicit goal of inspiring a wider public discussion by way of example. In a world riven by misunderstanding and violence, Harris and Nawaz demonstrate how two people with very different views can find common ground. Here is a brief exchange from the book.

Harris You used the term “fundamentalist” earlier, and I want to clarify another point of possible confusion for our readers. In English, the term “fundamentalist” has been inherited from a specific strand of American Christianity. In that context, it means someone who believes in the divine origin and inerrancy of scripture. When we use this term with reference to Islam, we may lead people to believe that mainstream Muslims do not consider the Qur’an to be the literal word of the creator of the universe. I want to ask you about this, because my understanding is that basically all “moderate” Muslims — that is, those who aren’t remotely like Islamists, or even especially conservative, in their social attitudes — are nevertheless fundamentalists by the Christian standard, because they believe the Qur’an to be the literal and inerrant word of God.

Nawaz I think we have to be careful to avoid two mistakes in our approach to this conversation. One would be taking a snapshot of the state of Islam and Muslims today and assuming that’s how things always were and always will be. The other would be focusing explicitly on what we think the text says rather than on the method through which the text is approached, because I would argue that no approach to a text is without method — even what you would call literalism and what I call “vacuous literalism.” (In fact, in many instances, some of which we will address, a purely literal interpretation leads to a surprisingly liberal outcome.) For me, vacuousness in itself is a method of approaching a text. I use the word “vacuous” because an insistence on ignoring apparent contradictions is not in keeping with literal wording. When you pick one passage of any text, and I demonstrate that it appears to contradict another passage, the insistence on being comfortable with those apparent contradictions and effectively arguing for both positions at the same time is a method. It doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s a method beyond mere literalism, as would be the method of attempting to reconcile such contradictions. Even agreeing on what the literal wording is requires a method.

Keeping those two points in mind, what would be my answer to your question? Well, to the first point, in Muslim history there have been people, known as the Mu’tazila, who didn’t insist that the Qur’an was the eternal word of God. A modern-day advocate of this position is the Iranian Muslim philosopher and scholar AbdolKarim Soroush. The Mu’tazila became quite prominent until, as always, power determined which doctrine won. Usually this happens for political reasons, not because of the strength of the arguments. It happened at the Council of Nicaea, when Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire, leading to its spread across much of Europe. Political decisions made by empires can determine and have determined which doctrines become orthodoxy. So it was with Islam. Part of the history of Muslim “doctrine being shaped by power” lies in the story of the Muslim dispute over whether the Qur’an was created by God or is his eternal word. I refer to this dispute not to take one view or another — I won’t take theological stances here — but to highlight the variety in traditional Islamic theology on questions such as this. Having the ruling doctrine at one stage, the Mu’tazila were eventually defeated by the Asha’ira, led by Imam Ash’ari, whose views on the eternal, uncreated nature of the Qur’an then became accepted as orthodoxy. Imam Ash’ari was, in fact, a defector from the Mu’tazila, which shows how popular the Mu’tazila view once was. This is why most Muslims today believe that the Qur’an is the eternal, literal word of God, despite neo-Mu’tazilite thinkers such as Soroush and others, who still make the opposite case.

So, my first point was that just because something is the way it is today, that doesn’t mean it’s what it was yesterday or what it will be tomorrow. Because there is no clergy in Islam, these matters are constantly evolving. I’d argue that no doctrine on earth has ever been or will ever be immutable because of course doctrines are constructs — the work of human beings. I think this will always be the case. Again, I need to qualify this. I do not speak as somebody who holds himself up as a religious leader or has a vested interest in resolving this particular theological dispute. My aim is merely to show just how closed the debate around Islam has become, whether the debaters are Muslims or even certain non-Muslims.

My role is to probe and ask skeptical questions about interpretive methodology, Muslim history, identity, politics, policy, values, and morality. But Dr. Usama Hasan, Quilliam’s senior Islamic scholar and a religious imam, takes a position on reform theology. Dr. Hasan’s positions are not Quilliam’s official positions — Quilliam is a secular organization — but we will support the work of scholars such as Dr. Hasan as part of our role in showcasing variety in theology. I believe that this variety will lead us to secularism and liberalism.