Friday, July 15, 2005

The Erroneous World of Thomas L. Friedman

He’s at it again. The doyen of op-ed columnists from The New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman (left), has yet again written an editorial that presents his readers with a general, simplistic argument about the "War on Terror." This time, his target is Sunni Islam, which Friedman believes has become stagnant and is struggling with the challenges of modernity.

Friedman writes: "Part of what seems to be going on with these young Muslim males is that they are, on the one hand, tempted by Western society, and ashamed of being tempted. On the other hand, they are humiliated by Western society because while Sunni Islamic civilization is supposed to be superior, its decision to ban the reform and reinterpretation of Islam since the 12th century has choked the spirit of innovation out of Muslim lands, and left the Islamic world less powerful, less economically developed, less technically advanced than [the West and India and Asia.]"

It is true, generally speaking, that traditional orthodox Sunni Islam's four main legal schools of thought, the Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, and Hanbali, hold that the gates of ijtihad (reasoned legal interpretation of the Qur'an and the Ahadith literature) has been closed since the 12th century. The Medieval jurists of these four legal schools took this position because it was thought that the classical jurists (such as the founders of the schools) had expounded all possible rulings from the sacred sources and thus, there was no need to continue with ijtihad.

However, what Friedman fails to mention is that a sizeable number of Sunni jurists in later centuries argued that ijtihad should be brought back in order to allow the Sunni Muslim communities to engage current problems that did not exist during the lifetimes of the four founders of the legal schools. Among these reform-minded jurists was Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, who lived during the second half of the 18th century in Arabia and who was an ally of the al-Sa'ud family that would come to rule most of Arabia in the early 1920s. Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab rejected the practice of taqlid, the following of past practices because they had become traditions. Instead, he believed that a reinterpretation of the sources was needed to reach a purified form of Islam. Ironically, after this utopian stage was reached, the practice of ijtihad, in the views of Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, would no longer be necessary.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Hassan al-Turabi (right), the ideologue of the National Islamic Front in Sudan during the 1980s and 1990s, also believed that the "gates" of ijtihad should be reopened, specifically so that the Muslim communities can address contemporary issues in the modern age.

For a lengthy and detailed analysis of al-Turabi's thought, see:$File/xsmall.pdf?OpenElement

For biographical sketches of al-Turabi, see:

In the 19th and 20th centuries, ideolgues such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's chief intellectual Sayyid Qutb, Pakistan's Syed Abu-Ala' Maududi (right), Syria's Muhammad Rashid Rida, and the Pan-Islamic thinker Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani all practiced a renewed version of ijtihad.

To view Syed Abu-Ala' Maududi's influential introduction to the Qur'an, see:

For a biographical sketch of Sayyid Qutb, see:

In Friedman's view, if only ijtihad was brought back, then the Sunni Muslim world would perhaps no longer be prone to a "poverty of dignity and a wealth of rage," as he puts it. To put it frankly, the historical record is not on his side. Although I agree that the return of ijtihad would allow orthodox Sunnism to better tackle some of the modern age's ethical issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research, Friedman's argument that it is a major cause of militancy is incorrect. Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, Qutb, Maududi, and al-Turabi shared Friedman's view that ijtihad should be resumed, yet none of them are individuals that I think Friedman would deem "moderates," though al-Turabi is a more complex figure and harder to pin down than the others.

Friedman also states that the "ban" on ijtihad has "choked the spirit of innovation out of Muslim lands."

First, legal interpretation within the four Sunni legal schools continued past the 12th century, regardless of any informal "ban" on ijtihad. Under the Ottoman Turks, who were largely followers of the Hanafi school, some of the religious practices of the ruling elite were far from being in accordance with the traditional orthodox mode of thought.

Second, Friedman uses the term "Muslim lands;" does he forget that Iran, although part of the Islamic world, is not Sunni, but Twelver Shi'ite? In Shi'ite Islam, ijtihad never stopped and has continued for centuries. Indeed the ayatullahs of Twelver Shi'ism serve as mujtahids, jurists of high education and rank who are capable of interpreting the religious sources and issuing fatawa (religious legal opinions) to the "laity." Friedman's choice of words and phrases make it clear that his view of the world is simplistic at best. By using incorrect or overly broad terms, he shows his ignorance or lack of concern about being accurate and truthful.

In summation, through his writings about Muslims and the larger Muslim world, it is apparent that Friedman has only a cursory understanding of the complex histories, cultures, and cycles of thought that have effected them. Yet, he still insists on writing simplified and often inaccurate op-eds about Muslims and the Muslim world. To students, whether formal or not, of Middle East history and Islamic studies, Friedman's ignorance is clear and nauseating.

Certainly, he has the right to be ignorant. However, he should show more concern for his readers, since his personal ignorance does not just effect himself. While it is also true that on many (some would say most) topics Friedman is a pompous windbag, this does not excuse his blatant and continued misinterpretation of the historical record and the facts.

To view Friedman's latest op-ed, "A Poverty of Dignity and a Wealth of Rage," which was published in the July 15 edition of The New York Times, see: