‘Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue’ Review: A New Leaf

Photo credit: samharris.org

Though Islam and the Future of Tolerance is the combined effort of authors Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz to discuss the increasingly twilit future of Islam—and though Nawaz is without question the more axial voice of the exchange as a Muslim himself—the book shares much of the character of Harris’s recent solo works. As was true of Free Will, Lying, and Waking Up (and is true of all Harris’s shorter essays and interviews), the penetration and clarity with which the material broaches its subject is, while a sober and technically serene reading experience, indicative of a disquieting sense of urgency, if not emergency; when asked to identify his position on a possible (many would say imperative) reformation within Islam as optimistic or not, Harris declines to do so, instead explaining that he simply doesn’t see an alternative, regardless his expectations for such a circumstance.

As indicated above, if there is a key emphasis to be found in this dialogue it is, I think, Nawaz’s: that being the need to stress over all else the intrinsically interpretive character of text itself—both generally and, ergo, as it concerns the Qur’an, Hadith and other pertinent scriptures of (or to) Islam (such as the Torah). To belabour that point, however repetitious an exercise, is Nawaz’s point: if Muslims can eventually be persuaded to believe that there is no singly definitive, literalistic (what Nawaz calls “vacuous”) reading of their scriptures, the authority by which Islamist and Jihadist sects attempt to assert their vision of Islam on society (the scriptures themselves) becomes at best suspect and, in all likely scenarios, bankrupt. This is not to suggest Muslims forfeit their holy texts, but that they reject to the nth any individual or group’s claims to a definitive reading. By wedding the notion of pluralism to that of textual interpretation within the collective Muslim consciousness, nominal, secular and peaceful Muslims generally are elevated within their own societies, and internationally, while the radicalized are discredited and disempowered at a root level.

In the dialogue, Nawaz isolates several Qur’anic passages and argues—convincingly, I felt—the validity of multiple (sometimes genuinely contrastive) interpretations. Harris is disposed, as likely the reader will be also, to find these examples undoubtedly encouraging; his skepticism rightfully bubbles back to the surface, however, through acknowledgement of interpretation’s seemingly unavoidable limits—limits which, in the case of the more emphatically blunt and direct passages, Nawaz’s interpretive confidences offer little in the way of resolution. Reformation within Islam, as The Future of Tolerance makes thoroughly persuasive, if not obvious, will likely have no alternative but to arrive on the success of this pluralistic project Nawaz advocates. Any possible doctrinal impasses or blind alleys therefore pose amazing threat to this project. Personally, I want to believe that Nawaz’s apparent confidence in scripture’s total susceptibility to interpretation is not just genuinely felt, but factual; this remains, however, mostly a hope at this stage. Nawaz expects—with good reason—that the process of reform will take “years of work”, and perhaps that task (and its interpretive efficacy and reach) will only be truly measurable once it is underway.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance is, as its authors make an effort to clarify both within its pages and elsewhere in the public forum, an attempt to catalyze such a process. The impetus behind their dialogue, and the larger one to which it belongs, is not the desire—as they take starkly different stances on the religion of Islam itself—but the plain need to have it. In the postscript to the audiobook (which I recommend, as Harris does, over the nonetheless-excellent print edition), both men observe how, since release, the spirit and general temperature of the exchange has been read in contrary ways—either “cantankerous” (to borrow Harris’s wording) or élan—this lending credence, no doubt, to Nawaz’s aforementioned confidences. But whatever the temperature, the resulting book is so much a refresh on the discourse as to be oxygenic; the turning over of a new leaf. Or, more accurate perhaps, of an ancient one under the prismatic light of now.