The House of Islam: A Global History by Ed Husain

This is an excellent book which should be read by anyone of a conservative disposition who feels baffled by the Muslim world. For Ed Husain brings out, without labouring, the blinkered attitudes of the modern West, which render that world incomprehensible.

He observes that we have replaced the idea of Christendom with “a strident secularism” which is so sceptical and materialist, it cannot even imagine, let alone approve, a way of life informed at every step by a sense of the divine, conveyed through traditions of behaviour and belief.

In the West, we think of each individual choosing what to believe, with religion (if any) a matter of private observance, an activity to be carried on behind closed doors, rather than a communal endeavour engaged in by society as a whole, in which the soul finds peace through surrender to God.

But I am in danger of giving a misleading impression of the book, which consists of 20 chapters describing the many aspects of the House of Islam, from the origins of the Koran and of the Sunni-Shia schism, to attitudes to the Jews, education, and sex.

Husain is like the best kind of guide to what might seem at first glance like an unmanageably large and historic building. He is terse and clear, tells you about the amazing people who lived here, and once you have seen the main exhibits in a room, takes you on to the next before you have time to get bored.

His account is animated by burning sense of indignation at the way in which the Muslim faith has been narrowed and traduced by the rise of Salafi literalism, which as he says is “eerily similar” to the puritanism which from the 16th century afflicted the Christian world.

The generous tradition of Islamic pluralism is attacked and suppressed by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, who represent fewer than five per cent of the world’s Muslims, yet consider themselves entitled to kill anyone who disagrees with them.

In Husain’s previous book, The Islamist, he described his time as that kind of extremist. In this new book, he gives us the tolerant and life-enhancing Sufi vision of Islam, which turns out already to be known to us through FitzGerald’s wonderful translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

“Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night

Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:

And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught

The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.

Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky,

I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,

‘Awake, my little ones, and fill the Cup

Before Life’s Liquor in its cup be dry.'”

As Husain says, after a few pages in which he recounts Khayyam’s life and work:

“So one of our greatest scholars, poets and Sufis was a drinker – as were many others before and after him, including caliphs. Let the drinkers drink, and let the rest of us abstain. It is not the business of governments or clerics to interfere and condemn people to be flogged in the name of their literalist Islam. Wherever that happens, hypocrisy reigns. I have seen this at first hand in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where the elite drink wine and whisky imported from Europe and Russia, but poor lorry drivers and village folk who drink homemade concoctions languish in prison or are flogged in public.”

Sexual repression promotes extremism and violence, atrocious treatment of supposedly respected women, and the oppression of Yazidis as sex slaves. As Husain remarks, “If today’s Muslims had the sexual candour of earlier writers like Hafez of Persia, with his stirring, life-affirming and unashamedly erotic – yet profoundly spiritual – poetry, our world might be a better place.”

What became of this tolerant form of Islam, which flourished in the Ottoman Empire? In Husain’s account, which I find entirely convincing, it was destroyed by the French Revolution, and by the triumph of Rousseau and Voltaire over Edmund Burke.

The mockery of Muslims by Voltaire set a fashion for regarded them as backward, and obscured the many respects in which they had been ahead of Christian Europe.

Napoleon invaded Egypt, and was defeated, not by Muslims, but by Nelson. The Islamic world entered a period of humiliation which has not yet come to an end. Politically and technologically, it could no longer compete with the West, and found itself subjugated.

But nor, after the retreat of the French, British and American empires, can it run its own affairs with any degree of success. Sovereign nation states, conceived at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and today expected to be run on democratic lines, have seldom taken root, and the outcome of the Arab Spring has been the agony of civil war tempered by merciless dictatorship, by the flight of millions of refugees into dismal camps or leaky boats, and by ineffectual interventions by Western liberals who continue to believe in Western democracy as the only universal verity.

What unites Muslims, and indeed what divides them, cannot be expressed in national terms, so national democracies seldom put down roots. Political failure breeds anger, and a victim mentality which ends in suicide bombings by people who seek “dignity through death after failing to find meaning and worth in life”.

Burke, whom Husain quotes with approval, understood the importance of religion and tradition, and knew that trying to eradicate them would end in disaster. Husain laments that in the Islamic world,

“Leftist activists and NGOs help spread the secularising and revolutionary ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau and Marx, but not the conservative, faith-accommodating philosophy and economics of Burke and Adam Smith. Yet the latter resonate among peoples who were traders and merchants for millennia, and maintained a conservative balance between monarchs, merchants, mullahs and the masses in their political systems.”

At the end of his book, Husain urges the creation of a Middle East Union. It is perhaps the least convincing element in his analysis.

But as an exposition of the Muslim world, this work is first-class, and for a Christian reader, inspiring in its account of how life and faith can be combined.