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Winter 2001
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against humanity at large. More specifically, classical Islamic law explicitly prohibits the taking or slaying of hostages or diplomats, even in retaliation against unlawful acts by the enemy. In addition, it prohibits stealth or indiscriminate attacks against enemies, Muslim or non-Muslim, and prohibits the use of weapons of mass and indiscriminate destruction, such as fire or the poisoning of water wells.

It would be disingenuous, however, to propose that this classical attitude is predominant, or even that familiar, especially in modern Arab-Muslim culture. To put it simply and bluntly, I, like many other Muslims, grew up with an unhealthy dose of highly opportunistic, anti-Western and belligerent rhetoric, delivered not only through the official media but also through popular religious/cultural venues such as local mosques. Even in the United States, it is not unusual to hear such remarkably irresponsible and unethical rhetoric repeated in local Islamic centers or at meetings of university Muslim-student organizations.

All of this raises the question: What happened to the Islamic civilization that produced such tolerance, knowledge and beauty throughout its history? A lot has happened. The Islamic civilization has been wiped out by an aggressive and racist European civilization; colonialism happened; the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands happened. Furthermore, virulently despotic and exploitative regimes have taken control in nearly every Muslim country and, like most Third World countries, Muslim nation-states remain underdeveloped and continue to suffer from chronic economic and political problems.

But most importantly, a dogmatic, puritan and ethically oblivious form of Islam has continued to develop and predominate since the 1970s. This puritan brand of contemporary Islam is well-represented today in several Muslim regimes and mass-based Islamic movements. This brand of Islamic theology is largely dismissive of the classical juristic tradition, and is also dismissive of any notions of universal and innate moral or ethical values. This orientation insists that only the mechanics and technicalities of Islamic law define morality — there are no moral considerations that can be found outside the technical law. Paradoxically, however, it also rejects the classical juristic tradition as an historical aberration and i
nsists on a de novo and literal reinterpretation of all Islamic texts. But the de novo reinterpretation of Islam is not forward-looking; rather, it claims to bring Islam back to its pristine and authentic self.

According to puritan theology, there was an Islamic Golden Age — a period of absolute utopia that lasted some 40 years, from the time of the Prophet until the death of the fourth Rightly Guided Caliph Ali b. Abi Talib in 661 C.E. Under the tenets of this theology, if Muslims purify their religion from all corruptions and external influences, they can bring back this Golden Age, with all its glory and power.

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