On Being with Krista Tippett

Vincent Cornell

Violence and Crisis in Islam

Last Updated

September 30, 2004

Many Americans received a violent introduction to Islam in September 2001. And yet, only one quarter of Americans told pollsters then that they considered Islam itself to be more likely than other religions to encourage violence in its believers. In the last two years, that figure has almost doubled. The specter of violence committed in the name of Islam has become as routine as it is shocking, especially at present in Iraq.

In this hour, we take a critical look at what is happening in Islam from inside a practice of that tradition. Krista discusses the present escalation of violence in the name of Islam with a practicing Muslim and leading scholar of Islamic studies, Vincent Cornell. He paints a bleak picture of chaos and drift within Islam which may presage renewal or the continued decay of the religion he loves.


Image of Vincent Cornell

Vincent Cornell is Professor of History and Director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas.


September 30, 2004

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: This is Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Violence and Crisis in Islam.” Many Americans received a violent introduction to Islam in September 2001. Still, only one quarter of Americans told pollsters then that they considered Islam to be more likely than other religions to encourage violence. In the last two years that figure has almost doubled. The specter of violence committed in the name of Islam has become as routine as it is shocking, especially at present in Iraq. Car bombs and suicide bombs, kidnappings and beheadings are the stuff of daily headlines. After the murderous siege of a school by Chechnyan extremists, the general manager of the Al-Arabiya television channel published an unusually revealing editorial in a Pan-Arabic newspaper. “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists,” he wrote, “but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.”

We’ve devoted hours on Speaking of Faith since 9/11 to drawing out Muslim voices on the spiritual core of their faith, the daily practices that contradict unforgettable pictures of airplanes crashing into buildings. But today, in the midst of a spiraling pattern of bloodshed, we will face that contradiction head-on. We’ll look critically at what is happening in Islam from inside a practice of that tradition.

VINCENT CORNELL: I think for Muslims this is really the crisis for us. The Islam that I accepted through the Qur’an and through now over 30 years of study of classical Islamic works throughout Islamic history is, to a large extent, not the Islam that I see on TV and being expressed by many people in the Muslim world.

MS. TIPPETT: Vincent Cornell is watching the present escalation of violence in the name of Islam with a sense of personal grief. He paints a bleak picture of chaos and drift within Islam which may bring renewal or the continued decay of the religion he loves. He converted to Islam in the late 1960s after studying comparative religion at Cornell. He became a leading American scholar of Islamic studies and comparative religions. He taught at Northwestern and Duke and has also spent extensive time teaching in many Muslim countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia. He currently directs the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas, which was endowed by the Saudi Arabian government and dedicated to the international vision promoted by the late Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright. Vincent Cornell says that a crisis within Islam has been building for 300 years, since the 18th century origins of the Wahhabi movement, a movement closely associated with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Though Wahhabism remains a small sect in terms of formal adherence, it has tapped into powerful structures of globalization to gain inordinate influence in the way Islam is transmitted across the world. I asked Vincent Cornell what within Islam lends itself to manipulation by extremists, what makes it a ready vehicle for terrorism at this moment in time?

DR. CORNELL: I think the first thing I should do is to say at the outset that I’m going to try very hard not to be an apologist. I think that, in today’s situation, is a mistake. It’s not time to cover up and to try to whitewash the problem, but to face the problem directly and to deal with it. And one has to make a distinction between Islam as an ideal, as a religion, a way of life, a way of thought that is supposed to lead human beings to the acme, to the highest point of human nature and the highest level of understanding and Islam as it has been practiced historically through the centuries and Islam as it is practiced and understood today. What we see today — and here I have to speak both as a believer in Islam and as a theologian of Islam — we see what I call a radical superficiality of theology. And what I mean by a radical superficiality is that there’s a tendency today for many Muslims to look at statements that can be found in the Qur’an without regard to their context, without regard to the historical tradition that may have interpreted these statements in different ways, and to take them as unchanging truths having to do with a sort of enmity between Muslims and believers in religions apart from Islam. It also applies to people, particularly people who belong to the secular, what we might call the non-religious world.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, we can say this about people who practice any religion, right? That there’s a lot of superficial practice of religion. At other times in history, it’s been Christians who were burning people at the stake and cutting people’s heads off. But right now what is it in Islam that is making a superficial practice or understanding of the religion a violent phenomenon? You know, where do you start with that?

DR. CORNELL: Well, where do you start with the violence? In a sense the question is phrased in the wrong way, `What is it about Islam that makes it violent?’ You know, Islam is whatever Muslims make of it. If they want to make it violent, it’s violent. If they want to make it peaceful, it’s peaceful. You know, as I said, it goes back to the 18th century. You know, people since 9/11 have talked about the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia. For example, in the case of Wahhabism, Wahhabism is an extremely literalistic interpretation of religion. It takes the Qur’an at face value. Now, in the past, there were any number of Muslim scholars. Perhaps one of the best known is the 11th century theologian al-Ghazali who, in a number of works, pointed out that it’s absolutely impossible for anyone to take the word of God literally at all times. There are passages in the Qur’an that can only be read or understood metaphorically.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And that’s true of other scriptures as well.

DR. CORNELL: It happens in any scripture.


DR. CORNELL: There’s even a tradition among medieval scholars in Islam that every verse of the Qur’an has 70,000 meanings. And they said it had 70,000 meanings because every word in the Qur’an, being a Semitic word with a nested set of meanings, the way Semitical languages are structured, every word has multiple meanings. Now today, through the influence of Wahhabi doctrine, which has been disseminated throughout the world partly as a result of petrol dollars, partly as a result of the creation of organizations such as the Islamic World League, partly through alliances between Saudi Arabia, not so much the government of Saudi Arabia, but the Wahhabi intelligencia of Saudi Arabia, along with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, this literalistic sort of corporate form vs. content view of religion has become more widespread than it ever was in the history of Islam. Here in Arkansas it’s a little bit easier to talk about these kinds of ideas and these kinds of things because we have a group, about 20 miles north of Fayetteville, Arkansas, is a group that’s called The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord. This is a Christian extremist group that is fundamentalist in orientation that is potentially violent and has been considered for a long time by the United States government as a terrorist organization, or potentially a terrorist organization. What’s happening in Islam, if it could be understood, perhaps, most easily this way, is to imagine groups like The Covenant and the Sword suddenly taking over the religious discourse of American Christianity to the point where they have become, if not the majoritarian discourse, they’ve become very nearly the majoritarian discourse. It’s also important, I think, to point out that, you know, today Muslims are infamous for cutting off people’s heads. Well, in the past this didn’t happen.

MS. TIPPETT: Does that have something to do with Islam? Or is that a cultural practice that…

DR. CORNELL: It’s a cultural practice that’s become Islamized. This is not a medieval response. This is new. Cutting off of the heads of people is a practice that most likely has migrated to Iraq through the influence of the revolt that had been going on for the past 20 years, essentially since the late 1980s, but especially since the beginning of 1990s, in Algeria. Algeria was the one Muslim country where hostages were taken, people’s throats were cut, heads were cut off.

MS. TIPPETT: But how did that migrate, do you know? What is the connection between Algeria and Iraq?

DR. CORNELL: The Muslim world, for better or worse, is a cosmopolitan world, and terrorism is just as cosmopolitan as intellectual activity or art. And what one had over a long period of time was an interaction among Muslims of various types of extreme views in places like Afghanistan fighting the Soviets. Ms.

MS. TIPPETT: Muslims from different places together there. Mr.

DR. CORNELL: Muslims from different places coming from everywhere in the Muslim world. They would then go back from Afghanistan to Algeria. They would meet at other times in other places in Europe, in the United States, everywhere in the world they might travel. Ideas travel, tactics travel, extremism travels, doctrine travels. This is very, very much a global phenomenon. And so what we’re seeing today, this danger that Islam presents to many people, is a particular danger that I think is real. It’s a threat. It should not be minimized, but it’s particularly a phenomenon of the times we live in today, the early 21st century.

MS. TIPPETT: And accelerated, exacerbated by all of the aspects of globalization, the tools of that. Is that what you’re saying?

DR. CORNELL: Absolutely, including the media. And including, I would say, global capitalism to the extent that much of Islam today is beginning to appear in a sort of corporate guise. And when I say corporate, I mean not only the fact that it’s highly institutionalized and politicized, but that it also is becoming, in a sense, a brand. The Islamic violence and extremism that we saw maybe in 1991 or 1992 in Algeria has now appeared in Iraq. Before that it’s appeared in Chechnya. And there is a tendency because of the heavy politization of the Islamic world partly as a result of the conflict in Palestine, but partly as a result of other factors, we’re seeing more and more a homogenization of Islamic forms, whether they’re extreme or not.

MS. TIPPETT: American Muslim and scholar of Islamic studies Vincent Cornell. He’s describing how the non-hierarchical nature of Islam, which many Muslims experience as a spiritual virtue, can also be manipulated when extremists claim authority. The inordinately influential Wahhabi doctrine, for example, isolates individual hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, disconnects them from the spiritual center of the Qur’an, and declares them as definitive. Islamic law, or sharia, Cornell says, has also been reduced to a state of what he calls radical superficiality. Historically, the idea of Islamic law was not legalistic in a modern sense. It set out to trace how the spirit and teachings of Islam might shape the whole of life, individual and communal. Many schools of thought and opinion grew up over time, making Islamic jurisprudence a force for intellectual vigor and cultural diversity. But in the Muslim world today, Vincent Cornell says, Islamic law has become a blunt instrument. It is too often imposed without reference to the disciplines of thought and debate that once guided its interpretation. In Arabic this discipline is referred to as fiqh. It means “understanding.”

DR. CORNELL: Fiqh has been, in a sense, eliminated as an authoritative voice within Islam. In almost 20 years that I’ve been teaching on the university level, I’ve had a lot of Muslim students in my classes who would say, `I believe in the sharia, but I don’t believe in fiqh,’ all right? Now, from the point of view of understanding Islamic law, that’s an oxymoron. You just can’t say that. Because the sharia, literally it means “the way, the road to God.” This is sort of the general path that a person follows in life as a virtuous Muslim. But you can only know how to follow the road by practicing fiqh, by using the intellectual tools that have been developed in Islamic history to reason through the sharia and decide, for example, what things are recommended, what things are obligatory, what things are truly forbidden, what kinds of things and what kinds of practices are only disapproved. And historically, four major schools of Islamic law fit the jurisprudence developed in the Sunni Muslim world. And it used to be that you could follow any one of them, it was all the same. You were following an authentic road to God.

MS. TIPPETT: Even if those roads were making different conclusions along the way?

DR. CORNELL: Absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. I wonder if you, as an American Muslim, can reconcile the concept of Islamic law with notions of justice and liberty as Americans understand them. Or is that an important exercise for you?

DR. CORNELL: That happens to be something I’ve been working on quite seriously and quite intently over the past year. If you look carefully at the way the Qur’an prioritizes issues such as rights and duties, one finds that the Qur’an, indeed, can be found to agree, in broad, general philosophical terms, with the very premises of justice and mercy that we have in our own society.

MS. TIPPETT: Why, then, is there such a huge gap between Americans’ notions of justice? And we’ll admit that that’s a large concept and interpreted probably in many different ways. But the impression is that that is going to be at odds with the imposition of Islamic law in a Muslim country. As you watch what’s happening in Iraq now as that new democracy is formed, what are you going to be watching for that will correspond to this sort of hopeful, generous vision that you just outlined for me?

DR. CORNELL: Well, you know, Islam, despite the claims of many, Islam does not have a single form of government. It had a developing form of what you might call prophetic government during the time of the Prophet Muhammad himself, but that lasted for only 10 years, and the debate started as soon as the Prophet Muhammad died. So, to me, what I try to look for in a developing Muslim society is whether or not the society upholds the fundamental rights that one finds in the Qur’an itself. And the fundamental rights that are really paramount above everything — and these are reflected in Qur’anic verses that stress them as such — are the right to life, freedom of choice. Freedom of choice in Islam is necessary because, according to the Qur’an, we’re on this earth as a sort of test, and how we lead our lives is a test in which we can succeed or can fail, and eventually God will judge us in the afterlife. You can’t have a true judgment if you don’t have freedom of choice. There’s also the right to respect and dignity of the human being which comes about in the Qur’an. Again, specifically stated in the Qur’an as a result of the fact that all human beings are created by God and we come from one common ancestor. And finally, of course, the duty that comes from these rights is the duty of mercy, which is paramount above all other duties in the Qur’an itself. Well, what has to be done, first of all, is that the whole issue of the application of Islamic law needs to be reopened in most areas of the Muslim world. You cannot go back to the old schools as they were in the past because they no longer exist. So new schools of Islamic law have to be formed that take account of what happened in the past, but at the same time move forward with new forms. This cannot happen in conditions of political and social instability. And, of course, the other issue in Iraq is the issue of security. I mean, we’ve taken a misery for Iraqis under Saddam Hussein and turned it into a lawless here in which people literally cannot go out of their houses because of the lawlessness in the streets.

MS. TIPPETT: American Muslim and scholar of Islamic studies Vincent Cornell. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith. Today, exploring the roots of violence done in the name of Islam and what Vincent Cornell describes as crisis within Islam today. I think you also make the observation that reformist Muslims in many cultures tend to focus on issues of social justice. And I wondered then if that doesn’t still keep them from reforming this politicized Islam.

DR. CORNELL: In a sense, I think you’re talking about the creation of new traditions and more just traditions. I think it’s important for Muslims to realize that tradition is not something that’s fixed, that tradition is always on the move, always in transformation, always changing. There’s a very interesting point here. Let me give you another little linguistic illustration of this. There are two related words having to do with creativity and change in Arabic. The word for creativity in Arabic is Ibadah. Ibadah, interestingly enough, in the Arabic language today is almost exclusively — this is creativity — is almost exclusively seen as a product of secularization and is something that exists in secular society. When applied to Islam, the word ibadah is not used. Instead, the word that is used is bid’a, a word that comes from the same root which means “innovation,” but in contemporary Islamic society tends to be seen as negative in and of itself. In other words, innovation, the very concept of innovation, goes for many people against the spirit of Islam. Now, that’s very telling. Is it really true that creativity today in the Arab world, in the Arabic speaking world, is only something that can be considered in a secular context? If that were the case, where did the great advances of Islamic art and architecture and thought, philosophy, science, astronomy, where did this come from in the past if there was not creativity?

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, those are such good questions, and I hear the passion that you have for them as you articulate them. And again I’m wanting to ask, and I’m thinking that my listeners are going to want to ask, are you able to say that in places where it can make a difference? Or are there many people like you saying this in different contexts?

DR. CORNELL: Well, not a majority, but many. Let’s put it that way. Muslims are beginning to get together to discuss these ideas more openly, not only in the United States, but around the world. It seems to me that many Muslims are waiting for somebody to say this kind of thing because in the depths of their hearts they know as rational human beings that much of what passes for Islamic tradition today is irrational. Now, there are conferences being held. For example, there’s going to be a major conference held in Indonesia around Christmas time in this year 2004 that will bring together Muslim scholars from Indonesia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, the United States and elsewhere to specifically talk about these kinds of problems, to open these kinds of issues. But, again, I think it’s significant that, you know, the invitation comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, from the Far East of the Islamic world, and not from what we would consider, say, the Arab and Middle Eastern center. But again, that also is a new reality. The demographic center of balance of the Muslim world today is Lahore, Pakistan. In other words, half of all Muslims live east of Lahore, Pakistan, half of all Muslims live west. Islam is very much an Asian world religion. And so perhaps the fact that these invitations are coming from Indonesia and Malaysia is simply a new reflection of the fact that they’re beginning to see themselves as the center rather than the periphery.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, Western observers of Islam, I hear many people saying — I’ve heard people saying this since 9/11 — Islam needs it’s reformation just like Christianity had a reformation.

DR. CORNELL: The problem is if you look at the Western Protestant reformation, you’ll find that the first hundred years of that reformation was exceedingly bloody as well. And it led, of course, to the great wars of religion that tore Europe apart and actually led to the enlightenment secularist ideas that are so much part of Western society today. So we’re in the middle of the process. Another way of talking about this is to say that Islam is in a state of ferment. Some years ago a writer on Islam said that when we think of ferment and you look at a vat of wine that’s fermenting you see what rises to the top. And he says the scum rises to the top. And, in a sense, what we’re seeing in terms of Islamic violence and extremism is this — and, again, I use the term in a comparative sense, not literally — the scum that comes to the top of the fermentation process of Islamic thought and society. The extreme tends to come to the fore, and what is less extreme does not come up until much later, until the process begins to work itself out.

MS. TIPPETT: Muslim scholar Vincent Cornell. This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, more of his observations about the sources of violence in Islam today. Also, his hopes and fears for the future of Islam. On our website at speakingoffaith.org you’ll find background and readings on the history and ideas in today’s show. You can also sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter which includes transcript excerpts and my reflections on each week’s programs. That’s speakingoffaith.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us.

Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Violence and Crisis in Islam.” I’m speaking with Vincent Cornell, a leading scholar of Islamic spirituality and Islamic studies. He converted to Islam in the late 1960s after studying comparative religion at Cornell. He currently directs the King Fahd Center for Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas. At Duke University he was credited with mentoring a new generation of American Islamic thinkers and scholars. Islam is a religion of daily-lived piety. Devout Muslims define their lives of faith more in terms of being and doing than in articulating beliefs and doctrines. And it is also a remarkably non-hierarchical tradition. Although the minority Shiite tradition of Islam has a more structured clerical hierarchy, the vast majority of Muslims, over 90 percent, are Sunni with little traditional institutional system of authority. I asked Vincent Cornell whether these characteristics of Islam leave average Muslims ineffective to reform or resist organized and violent extremism.

DR. CORNELL: Well, I think that’s fair to say. And I think you’ve noticed this, that acting without thinking, or focusing on virtue and action without thinking about belief has as one of its more negative side effects, a possibility of sliding into a sort of chaos. Now, again, there’s a difference between the Sunni world and the Shiite world. And the Shiite world is organized much more institutionally like, say, the Catholic Church is. As a matter of fact, in my classes I say in Islam that the Catholics are Protestants and the Protestants are Catholics. And what I mean by that is if you think of Catholics as universalists, these are the Sunnis and they’re organized like Protestants. It’s sort of like in the American South with the…

MS. TIPPETT: More populist you mean.

DR. CORNELL: Well, populist and the myriad of these independent churches under independent pastors that aren’t linked to major institutions.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. CORNELL: But the protesters, the Shia, are very Catholic in the sense that they are the ones that have a strongly institutionalized hierarchy that allows the development of Shiite thought to proceed in much less chaotic ways. But also I think you’re noticing a reflection of Islam of today, of the times. Muslims right now — and this is a sweeping generalization, but I’m going to make it anyway — Muslims now are not very reflective. And one of the ways in which they’re not reflective is that in the emphasis that’s been put in the last 15 to 20 years on political action, which is necessary in its own field, but in this emphasis on political action Muslims forget, for example, that even if their greatest dreams of triumphalism were realized and the entire world became Muslim, this would not help any single one of them get to heaven. One of the ways in which I’m a radical thinker in Islam — I follow something I call critical traditionalism; I try to stay true to the traditions but be very critical of them at the same time — is to realize that everything that Islam has to offer in the last 100 years in the ways of politics, human rights, all of the forms that have actually been created by Muslims themselves, by which they identify Islam as being important to the world, to my mind, can be found better in the West. To me, what does Islam have that other religious perspectives or Western society doesn’t have? To me it’s the spirituality. It’s the path of knowing God. It’s the way of understanding what is really important, what is really fundamental in life that one finds in the Qur’an. That aspect of Islam has been lost. It’s now found to a certain extent among groups of people such as Sufis, but in the past, three or 400 years ago, you didn’t have to be a Sufi to be a spiritualist. You could have been any variety of Muslim. You could be a traditionalist, you could be a legal scholar, you could be a theologian whose not a Sufi, you could be a philosopher. All of these ways were open. They were paths to God that were accepted. Contested, perhaps, but recognized as valid and authentic. Today you don’t have these options. Philosophy is dead. Theology is just about dead. The legal system is dying or dead in most countries, with the exception maybe of Saudi Arabia and leaving the Shiite world to the side. Where are people going to go? People are confused. People are lost. I think the chaos that you sense is to a large extent a reflection of the sense of drift that Muslims find themselves in.

MS. TIPPETT: And I guess I’m asking if the non-hierarchical nature of Islam contributes to that drift?

DR. CORNELL: Sure it can, in the sense that Islam puts a great responsibility on the individual. Each person, man or woman, is the imam, or in a sense leader of one’s own soul. The paternal head of the nuclear family is the imam of the family. The sense of the individual responsibility of the believer is paramount and, of course, that leads to a sort of dehierarchization of Islamic society and, of course, can lead to this kind of chaos. But what held everything together in the past was a common understanding of priorities and also a willingness to listen to scholars and intellectuals and to allow them to work through these issues in ways that could guide the community. Today the democratization of Islam is as much of a problem as anything else. Now, again, this is part of the Protestant, in a sense, the Protestant reformation of Islam. Just as in Protestantism the printing press opened the Bible for everybody to read, the Qur’an is now there for everybody to read, and everybody wants to be an imam and make up his or her own mind about interpretation. That’s good, but somewhere along the line there has to be at least a practical recognition that there are experts, there are institutions.

MS. TIPPETT: There are theologians, I suppose.

DR. CORNELL: There are theologians, right. Again, I mean, it’s just like in society you need doctors to treat an ill, you need experts within religion to treat the ills of societies that are governed by religion. Today in the Sunni world, for example, despite the existence of universities such as Al-Azhar in Egypt, there are really no adequate theological schools, or what we might call divinity schools, as you’d find on the Christian model, to create people such as this. At Al-Azhar what they typically do is memorize. They don’t think. Critical judgment debate cannot be found in these schools. Again, Shiite Islam is different. You can find it in Shiite Islam. The best place to go for a good medieval education, and I use this word accurately in the proper sense of the term, is a place like Qom in Iran, where you can still get debate. You may not like what comes out of the debate, but the process is still alive.

MS. TIPPETT: American Muslim scholar Vincent Cornell. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith. Today, exploring the roots of violence done in the name of Islam and what Vincent Cornell describes as crisis within Islam today. You said as we began to speak that you wanted to be frank and that the time for covering up or apologizing is over and that’s it’s important for Muslims like you to name the problems. I think, though, if you heard an outsider, a non-Muslim, describing the problems in such passionate terms as you just have, it would be very difficult to hear. And is it painful for you to describe your religion in this way?

DR. CORNELL: It’s very painful, and I think not only for myself, it’s painful for Muslims in general. A number of people who’ve traveled throughout the Muslim world have observed in the last couple of years that Muslims tend to be a very crabby lot. And I think it’s largely because we’re faced with this crisis where we have now become The Problem, you know, capital T, capital P. And even though the problems that exist in our religion are problems that can potentially be found in any major world religion, the microscope is focused on us, and we are now forced to take stock of what we as a community have done to ourselves just as much as what others have done to us. The Muslim world is suffering from centuries of tradition that may have been relevant and may have worked when the world was a smaller place and a less dangerous place. In the Middle Ages, for example, where people didn’t travel as much and they didn’t have access to other cultures the way they do now, it was easy to be narrow-minded, to consider one’s self the best and sort of ignore other cultures. Today we can’t do that. We’re thrust together in ways that we haven’t been thrust together before. We have a whole array of weapons that now are dangerous enough to lead to the ultimate destruction of human life on earth. Muslims cannot really afford to be narrow-minded. Muslims cannot afford to erect barriers between themselves and others. Whether we like it or not, we live in a world, a globalized world, that is a free market of ideas. And in the free market of ideas, you adapt or die. And I think something that’s sensed by many Muslims, at least unconsciously if not fully consciously, is that the crisis that Muslims are living in today is a crisis that may have to a large extent an important bearing on the very existence of Islam. It certainly has a bearing on the way that Islam is going to shape itself and develop itself and the traditions that are going to come out of Islam in the near future.

MS. TIPPETT: Before we finish, I want to ask you specifically how some things that are happening in the world are affecting this crisis in Islam, are being experience by Muslims for better or worse. Some people who criticize the American military action in Iraq say that a much more pressing issue, if Islamic extremism was to be controlled in the world, was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tell me how what happens in Israel and Palestine complicates this crisis of Islam. How are Muslims in the rest of the world invested in that or not, in your understanding?

DR. CORNELL: Well, first of all, I think one has to state — and this is to be clear about it — that the issue of Palestine has become an obsession in the Muslim world. And when I say obsession I mean it really in a psychological sense. In the sense that for Muslims, I would say probably for most Muslims, the recuperation of Palestine has become almost a mirror image of the original Zionist movement among the Jews in the 19th century in the sense that the recuperation of Palestine for Islam has become an end in itself that seems to justify all means and seems to cover all other ends. This has led to some very strange attitudes. Now, first of all, I want to say that from the point of view of social justice and human rights, there are enormously important issues about what’s happening in Palestine for all Muslims. And I think every single Muslim in the world shares the same concerns that I do. But where this obsession of Palestine comes into play is, for example, in contemporary attitudes about what Palestine means and what the recuperation of Palestine would mean for the Muslim world. Two years ago I was at a conference in Jerusalem and the conference was about religion and territoriality, which is a very fundamental subject, obviously, in that area. And one of the panels at the conference was a panel that had both Palestinian and Jewish representatives talking about what the temple mount, for Muslims the Masjid-ul-Aqsa on the Dome of the Rock, means on both sides. Well, on the Israeli side the argument went like this: `For Muslims the most holy place is Mecca, the second most holy place is Medina, the third most holy place is Jerusalem. For Jews the only really holy place is Jerusalem, so let the Jews handle Jerusalem, and we won’t bother you with the rest.’ That, obviously, is not going to go very far with Muslims. But on the other side the Muslim response was, I think, in many ways even more shocking. The Muslim response was — and this was the official line at the time from both the Mufti of Jerusalem and from the PLO, from Yasser Arafat — that there had actually never been a Jewish temple on that mount. Solomon’s Temple was never there, and that there is no historicity to the Jewish claim for it and that only the Muslims had a claim to the temple mount. Well, this is what this kind of obsession creates. And at the conference I had to stand up and say as a Muslim I was really appalled to hear this because, to me, this is what happens when nationalism takes over a holy place to the point where the spiritual meaning of the place is totally lost.

MS. TIPPETT: In one essay you wrote as a Muslim to other Muslims “Reflections After September 11th,” you wrote “Palestinian despair and anger confront Israeli guilt and fear. The only winners are the extremists.”

DR. CORNELL: Amen. I have to say I’ve probably not written any truer words.

MS. TIPPETT: Scholar of Islamic studies and spirituality Vincent Cornell. Since 9/11 many analysts have pointed to the role of Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahhabism, as a source of Islamic violence. Most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, as does Osama bin Laden. The original funding for the King Fahd Center that Vincent Cornell directs came from Saudi Arabia, though the endowment is held by the University of Arkansas. I asked Vincent Cornell about this connection.

DR. CORNELL: We do have a relationship. People come from time to time from the Ministry of Education in Saudi Arabia and sort of consult, and we talk to them about what we do. Interestingly enough, in my own case, I’m probably the last person that one would expect to be the director of a center funded by Saudi money. You can see from my comments earlier that I’m not a believer in Wahhabism. I work on Sufism. Sufis are considered essentially non-Muslims by many Wahhabis. I have great respect for certain things that are going on in Shiite Islam. And we have a partnership with an organization that’s based in Israel. Interestingly enough, last time we talked to our Saudi interlocutor from the Ministry of Education, he was quite happy to see that the King Fahd Center was doing things with an interfaith organization based in Israel. Saudi Arabia’s much more complex than people assume. Saudi Arabia has a host of problems. And, as a matter of fact, many Saudis are worried that the problems are so great that the country may not be able to solve them.

MS. TIPPETT: But, you know, there’s a larger conclusion that I think people could draw, given a lot that’s out there, that somehow Saudi Arabia is the root of all evil in the Muslim world. Let’s say that if tomorrow there were some kind of reformation of Islam in Saudi Arabia, it could change the entire picture. You know, how do you respond to that scenario?

DR. CORNELL: Well, that’s a very overly simplistic view. Now, again, Wahhabism has, to a certain extent, contributed to this what I called radical superficiality of Islamic thought. But much of the problem goes beyond that. I mean, Wahhabism, for example, has within its doctrines and within its world view a level of spirituality and very deep spirituality that many people do not see and which is not shared by many of the political Islamists who are, perhaps, the most directly involved with confronting the West and various parts of the Muslim world. And, again, you know, certainly there are problems with the Saudi royal family, there’s problems with Saudi society. Many Saudis are known throughout the Muslim world for not practicing their religion very well and exploiting people. And yet the fact remains in Saudi Arabia that if that monarchy was replaced, by whom would it be replaced? And from where I sit, the people who are complaining the loudest about the injustice and the corruption of the Saudi monarchy are the last people that I want to see in power. For example, who’s worse, King Fahd or bin Laden?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. CORNELL: I mean, bin Laden’s main goal has been for many years to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and to install an Islamic state, you know, that is sort of a neo-Wahhabi extremist state on his model. You know, we’d do much better with what we have, in a sense, than what we might get. Or, for that matter, what would be worse, you know, the Saudi monarchy as it exists today or some version of the Muslim Brotherhood ruling Saudi Arabia? Well, that would be a toss-up because it depends on, you know, what factions of the Muslim Brotherhood might come to the fore. So, again, it’s a very, very complex issue, and I think it’s wrong to demonize Saudi Arabia, but at the same time it’s wrong to pretend that Saudi Arabia, you know, doesn’t have any problems. It has serious problems within it’s society, not the least of which is the fact that the monarchy, to have any legitimacy at all, must support the Wahhabi religious establishment. If the monarchy gets rid of the Wahhabi religious establishment or tries to limit their activities in serious ways, they can lose their entire reason for being. They’re really over a barrel.

MS. TIPPETT: And it seems like such an incredible knot, such a terrible knot that that regime has gotten itself into.

DR. CORNELL: It’s a classic Gordian knot, absolutely. And the answers are not going to be easy.

MS. TIPPETT: Another image that has become part of all of our consciousness in Israel and Palestine but also elsewhere is this image of the Muslim suicide bomber. And I think in something you wrote you quote Islamic texts against that image, counter to that image. You quote the Prophet Muhammad saying “The first person against whom judgment will be pronounced on the day of resurrection will be a man who has died a martyr.” I mean, you suggest that there’s a very strong core tradition against that, but all we hear are the letters that the 9/11 hijackers wrote home.

DR. CORNELL: Now, this is an important key point. This is actually an easy question to answer.


DR. CORNELL: In Islamic law the only way in which martyrdom can be justified is in the sense that, say, in World War II a person would bravely run up against a German machine gun nest and die in an effort to save his friends. You cannot be a martyr by choice. This is extremely important. God chooses the martyr, the martyr doesn’t choose martyrdom. This is a fundamental mistake that’s made by suicide bombers in Islam. OK, the very fact that they say, `I’m going to go and die as a martyr so that people can see me as brave’ or because `I want to do something for Palestine’ or because `my family’s going to get money,’ all of these things are illegitimate causes of martyrdom. What is advocated in all of the rules about jihad — or in this case let’s call it holy war in Islam — are that the martyr is a person who acts bravely and selflessly without thought for harm of himself. But whether or not he dies is God’s choice, it’s not his choice or her choice. Also, the traditions of Islamic law are very explicit in saying that the only acceptable targets of what we would call near-suicide operations are military targets. They cannot be civilians. They cannot be random people. What we’re getting now throughout the Islamic world, in Palestine and in Iraq in particular, and also in Chechnya where the suicide bombing takes place, are very odd modern utilitarian justifications for martyrdom that have never been used in the past. This goes fundamentally against all of the teachings about jihad in Islamic law with the exception of a few early groups of extremists that existed in the very, very beginning of Islamic history. And these groups of extremists, needless to say, didn’t exist for very long.

MS. TIPPETT: Where do you see that kind of argument being made by Muslims to other Muslims?

DR. CORNELL: Well, the arguments that I’ve just made are actually arguments that have been made by a number of Islamic scholars and jurists throughout the Muslim world. Unfortunately, the arguments are being made in local languages, you know, such as Arabic or Pashto or Urdu or, you know, or Persian or something like that. They’re not so often printed in English so we don’t get to see them in the West. But actually that is one part of the discourse that’s been very, very actively debated across the Muslim world ever since 9/11. And, again, you know, people come out on different sides, but the scholarly opinion is pretty solidly in the camp of what I’ve been talking about just now.

MS. TIPPETT: The Prophet Muhammad said, “Islam came as a stranger, and it will be a stranger once again.” I wonder if you feel that since September 11th, 2001 Islam is better known in the world or is it more of a stranger?

DR. CORNELL: Well, yeah, I think for Muslims this is really the crisis for us. I mean, for myself the Islam that I accepted through the Qur’an and through now over 30 years of study of classical Islamic works throughout Islamic history is to a large extent not the Islam that I see on TV and being expressed by many people in the Muslim world. My own feeling is that if that continues to be the case, then this tradition of the Prophet Muhammad will, indeed, come true that, you know, Islam came as a stranger, in terms of the values that it tried to introduce to pagan society in the Arabian Peninsula, and it’s going to be a stranger once again because what’s happening is in many ways the very people who are accusing the West and Muslim societies of being part of Jahiliyyah, the state of ignorance that was supposed to exist before the coming of Islam, are themselves reverting to Jahiliyyah to make their points. The arguments we last talked about having to do with suicide bombing are part of that. The psychological justifications are part of that. The desire for revenge, the desire for glory, the desire for personal heroism, the desire to eliminate all norms of decency and ethical behavior in the cause of a political goal, all of these things that are being expressed by Muslim extremists are specifically mentioned as aspects of pre-Islamic society that Islam came to end and eradicate. And so for Muslims like myself what makes this particular time so painful is that everything is in a sense reversed. The world is upside down. You know, it’s a 180-degree reversal. So is Islam going to be a stranger once again? The name is known like never before, but the reality of the religion seems to be less understood than it was 50 years ago.

MS. TIPPETT: Vincent Cornell is director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Arkansas. We’ve devoted hours on Speaking of Faith to the spiritual virtues and vitality of the Muslim faith, and we will do so again. But there is no end in sight to violence in the name of Islam, and as we developed this program we felt it necessary to name that head-on. Vincent Cornell’s perspective is sobering, all the more so because he has loved, studied, and practiced Islam for three decades. There is something terrible in both the irony and the logic in his analysis. “In the 21st century,” he says, “terrorists, like artists, have become cosmopolitan.” The resources of globalization have furthered what he calls a corporate superficiality of Islamic thought. And the very nature of Islam, a religion of daily-lived piety above doctrinal formation, has lent itself to the inordinate influence of organized, violent extremism. Vincent Cornell offers some hope that the turmoil and terror of the present might be preliminary signs of a building ferment within Islam that might give way to reform. He challenges himself and his fellow Muslims to examine their own shortcomings and prejudices to fight to creatively rebuild and modernize the best of Islamic tradition. He leaves me to wonder how we in the non-Muslim world can support this challenge. Religious upheaval and reform have been bloody before in human history, but never in such an interconnected world. In the world we inhabit now, none of us can afford for the religion of 1.2 billion people to become a stranger to the rest.

We’d love to hear your reactions to this program. Please write to us through our website at speakingoffaith.org. While you’re there you’ll find background on all the history and ideas discussed in today’s program, including definitions of terms like Wahhabi, sharia, and fiqh. And you can hear this program again as well as our previous programs on Islam. Please sign up at speakingoffaith.org for our weekly e-mail newsletter. That’s where I preview and offer reflections on each week’s program and offer book recommendations and transcript excerpts.


I’m Krista Tippett. Please join us again next week.