Muslims must study both – Allah’s word and Allah’s world: Dr. Murad Hofmann speaks to Young Muslim Digest

Dr. Murad Wilfried Hofmann is a prominent Muslim German expert on Islam and author of several books, including Journey to Islam: Diary of a German Diplomat,Journey to Makkah and Islam: The Alternative. Many of his books and essays focus on Islam’s place in the West. Dr. Hofmann was born a Catholic, but converted to Islam in 1980, while serving in the German Foreign Service as a specialist on issues concerning nuclear defense. He graduated from Union College in New York and completed his legal studies at Munich University where he received a doctorate in jurisprudence in 1957. He became a research assistant for the reform of federal civil procedure, and in 1960 received an LL.M. degree from Harvard Law School. Posted as Attaché in the German Consulate General in Algiers he found himself, up to 1962, in the middle of the bloody guerilla conflict between France and the Algerian National Front. Dr. Murad went on to serve as the Director of Information for NATO in Brussels from 1983-1987; Ambassador to Algeria from 1987 to 1990; and Ambassador to Morocco from 1990 to 1994. Recently Dr. Hofmann talked to Biju Abdul Qadir of Young Muslim Digest on a host of issues critical to a proper appreciation of Islam and the Muslim community in the context of the modern world. Presented hereunder is the unabridged text of the interview.


YMD: Were you, in your pre-Islamic years, ever influenced by Muslims around you? Can you give us a specific instance?

MWF: No, simply because in Germany at the time there were no Muslims around me. This is hard to imagine because today one finds 3.5 million Muslims in Germany and more than 2,200 mosques and Masajid. When I became a Muslim that was quite an exotic thing to do. However, at that time, in 1980, people were not yet afraid of Islam in Germany. So I was rather seen as queer than as dangerous.

YMD: What was it in the beginning that struck you as the most attractive part of Islam?

MWF: I was impressed by three things simultaneously: (1) During the Algerian war of independence I came to admire the Muslims` discipline, patience, and readiness to sacrifice their lives. So I looked for the answer to this phenomenon by reading the Qur’an (in French translation, at the time). (2) Traveling to North Africa via Spain I marvelled at the splendid Islamic architecture as found in Cordoba, Granada, and Sevilla, sensing that there was a very great idea behind such intense beauty. (3) Against this background I read some of the key works of Islamic literature, including Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Khaldun. In doing so I realized that in school, in Germany, we had been kept in the dark about the Muslim input to world civilization.

YMD: A greater decline of Islam in North Africa is more perceptible than elsewhere: Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco. Do you agree?

MWF: It is true that the French as occupation power had done their very best to eliminate Islam from the Maghrib area. But that does not explain the weakness of Islam, as today, in Algeria and Tunisia, both countries being ruled by rabidly anti-Islamic military, pro-French colonels and generals. After all, the Muslim world, as a whole, does not present a very pretty picture. Most of it is ruled by dictators, and the oil-rich Muslim countries seem to be dazzled by their riches.

YMD: There is a studied opinion that the behaviour of professing Muslims frequently counteracts Da‘wah activity. How far is this applicable to the Muslim immigrant community in Germany, in particular, and Europe/ America, in general?

MWF: Da’wah in Europe and North America is indeed made more difficult by the impact of discouraging news from the Muslim world. How can we fight in Germany for the right of Muslimat to wear hijab as long as this is forbidden in Turkey?

YMD: You were posted in Algeria as German ambassador during the period 1987-90 at a time when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was reaching the peak of its popularity. How do you view the government action of canceling the 1992 election? How, in your opinion, have the consequences of such government action in Algeria affected developments in that country and in other countries of the Muslim Ummah?

MWF: The second round of elections was cancelled in 1992 because there would have been a land-slide victory of the FIS. The lesson drawn around the world was that the West would applaud the violation of basic democratic rules as long as this helped to keep Muslim parties from power. Ever since, Muslim democrats have been filling the prisons in Muslim core countries. From all this Muslim activists have drawn the conclusion that human rights have blue eyes and blond hair, i.e. that the West is judging events at home and in the Muslim world with a moral double-standard. This has been a contributing factor for the rise of violence.

YMD: Recent studies into the nature of Hitler’s thought – especially in the first part of his book, Mein Kampf – tend to show him as a visionary of his times who – although misguided later – foresaw the real malaise of German and world politics in the international Zionist movement that has since then gone from strength to strength right up to this day. Your comments?

MWF: While living in Vienna in his youth, Hitler probably was infected by the anti-Semitism raging there before World War I. There is no excuse for his translating this obsession into a policy of extermination. True, Jewish people all through the ages have been severely persecuted in Europe. But never before had this been done in cold-blooded, industrial, fashion as in Nazi Germany. It speaks for Islam that the Muslim world always welcomed Jewish people and allowed them to thrive. This is still true today: Anti-Zionism is not an anti-Semitic attitude but a political response to a political challenge.

YMD: How do you view the life and works of Anne Marie Schimmel, the renowned German Islamologist who had a certain sympathy for the Islamic worldview, but who never actually embraced Islam, choosing instead to remain a Lutheran all her life? What are your observations on Schimmel’s work on Islamic Mysticism, in particular, and Muslim esoteric doctrines down the ages, in general?

MWF: Mrs. Schimmel was a good friend of mine, and I admired her devotion to the study of all things Islamic. Even so, I was aware that her phenomenological collection and display of even the most remote and absurd ‘Muslim’ activities was downright harmful to the Muslim cause. In true mystical fashion, she tended to overlook features that might separate religions in favor of their common features. Like Professor Hans Küng also, Annemarie Schimmel maintained that she was wedded to her childhood image of Jesus to such an extent that she could not formally profess Islam.

YMD: What are your views on the continuum of perspectives in Islamic thought and movement as personified in Muhammad Iqbal, Abul A’la Mawdudi, Hassan al-Banna and Syed Qutb?

MWF: Except Muhammad Iqbal, the personalities mentioned have made an historically important contribution to what is considered ‘political’ Islam or ‘Islamism.’ Their preoccupation with setting up an Islamic State was due to the political situation of their time. Then there was a crying need for decolonization and the re-establishment of Muslim rule, and that in confrontation with atheistic Communist, Fascist and imperialistic ‘Democratic’ forces. Consequently, the Muslim Movements started out with a particular emphasis on politics and Muslim Brotherhood (partially underground) activities. The problem with this background is that it does not serve the needs of the Muslim diaspora in Western democratic countries.

Muhammad Iqbal, on the other hand, as a Muslim poet and intellectual, falls into an entirely different category. Of the three others, only Syed Qutb had been similarly exposed to Western thought. What counts is that of the four only Muhammad Iqbal was able to act as a bridge builder between Occident and Orient.

YMD: In your view, have the salafist-led groups progressed from being a stagnating, puritanical, reformatory influence to a more socially engaged political force with a movement-based approach in the Ummah today? If so, how, and, if not, why?

MWF: I am not of the opinion of Giles Kepel that the Islamic Movement is dying, or dead already. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the Salafi/ Integriste/ Wahhabi approach is rather counter-productive within functioning democracies, as in the West. There Muslim participation is the key to an essential improvement of the Muslim minority status.

YMD: With the tight control on thought and activity of the Muslims in the Arab world in general, and the Gulf in particular, do you think that after the stagnation of the previous few centuries, now it is poised to collapse?

MWF: Muslim thought and academic competence nowadays is found mainly in the Western context. Great Muslim thinkers like Taha Jabir al-´Alwani (Washington, D.C.), Fatih Osman (Los Angeles) or Rashid al-Ghannouchi (London) could not thrive within the Muslim world. Publications like the Muslim World Book Review or the American Journal of Islamic Social Studies are unthinkable in Cairo or Damascus. At any rate, Islamic thought is severely restricted within the Arabic Ummah – as proven by the excellence of some publications coming from Islamabad (Journal of Islamic Studies; Policy Perspectives) and Kuala Lumpur.

YMD: Max Henning, when issuing his translation of the Qur’an into German wrote in 1901: ‘Islam has obviously played out its political role.’ Do you agree with this assessment?

MWF: Ten years ago, from Istanbul, I re-published the Max Henning version, thoroughly Islamized by me. It became the most popular German Qur’an translation, selling close to 100,000 times. In the introduction I remarked that Henning`s assessment reflected imperialism at its peak when Muslims, as Henning remarked, made up only one-seventh of mankind. Today one out of five people world-wide is Muslim and Islam is playing a political role so pervasive that the world’s only super-power virtually sees herself at war with this religion.

YMD: There is a body of opinion in Muslim circles today that the institution of the Khilafath or Imamate is the foremost requirement of the Ummah, and that the need for Iqaamat-e-Deen (or the establishment of religion) is subordinate to this need. Classical scholars like Ahmed b. Taymiyah and modern researchers like Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, on the other hand, are of the view that the first priority for the Ummah – whether as an individual or as society – is Iqaamat-e-Deen, and any mode of leadership or governance that serves this requirement best is acceptable. How do you view this apparent conflict of opinions?

MWF: As proven historically, and maintained by Ibn Taymiyah, Islam can survive in the absence of a khalif (or better: universally accepted imam) but not survive the universal neglect of the Shari`ah.

YMD: While the act of organizing, and organizations themselves, have been key components in any endeavour geared towards Islamic revival, organizational affiliations tend to be over-pronounced in most Muslim organizations today. This is to the extent that the unity of purpose that should ideally exist amongst them is lost, and the whole exercise of organized Da’wah is reduced to petty inter-organizational wrangling. Your comments?

MWF: Muslim should remember that their diversity is a source of richness. Total uniformity is a horrid vision. Of course, we have to draw a line and exclude all those from the Ummah who do not belong to it for major doctrinal reasons – like Turkish Alevis, the Ahmadiyyah (Qadiani) sect or the Druzes. But for the rest – Sunni, Shi´i or Khariji – their (peaceful) competition adds up to more successful overall Da’wah.

YMD: The Iranian Revolution of 1979 has been considered a landmark event of the twentieth century. Quite apart from its contribution towards the history of liberation struggles, what is its value for the Muslim world in general? How do you evaluate the roles played by Khomeini, Shariati and the Shiite stream of thought in the revolution and the impact they have had on Muslim thought worldwide?

MWF: Certain aspects of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 (hostage taking; extreme intolerance; military pathos; ideology of suicide) shocked the entire world and made the life of Muslims in the West much more difficult. Before 1979, Islam was seen as an exotic creed; after 1979, as a dangerously expansive one. Few Shi´i Muslims realized that Khomeini `s re-interpretation of the Shi´a tradition amounted to a Shi´i heresy. True, many Muslims suffering from an inferiority complex enjoyed the sight of a Western power being humiliated; not realizing to which extent this was counter-productive for the Muslim cause in general.

YMD: How correct is it to refer to Islam as an ideology today? How, in brief, is Islam an antidote for Western short-comings?

MWF: That Islam is an ideology is as true as calling communism a religion. In other words: Each religion can be turned into an ideology, and each ideology into a religion. Thank God, Sufism has never died out and continues to counteract the trend to (ab)use Islam as a political blueprint.

YMD: Dr. Hofmann, you once wrote that ‘Western man’s life is more oriented towards having while the Muslim’s life is more dedicated to being.’ This is an important articulation, and so, would you please elaborate on this theme?

MWF: Undoubtedly, the modern world in the Occident centers around quantifiable values: money, sexual prowess and frequency, possessions (villa, car), beauty and career. While it is true that the life of Muslims, too, must have a material basis it seems to me that the Muslim world continues more than the Western one to estimate non-quantifiable aspects of life like love, friendship and kinship, leisure and contemplation, i.e. what adds up to the quality of life. Of-course, when shaykhs from the Arab Gulf with their entire family entourage and bird psychiatrists fly to Algeria in order to allow their falcons to hunt, I, too, see little difference to outrageous Western consumerist behaviour.

YMD: Pope Benedict XVI is the first German pope in the (recent) history of the Papacy. While his scholasticism is evident in the delicate intellectual balancing act in his 12 September 2006 address to the scientific community at the University of Regensburg, his choice of quotations from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus as a point of departure for his otherwise interesting discourse on the relationship between faith and reason, betrays a certain carelessness, if not outright insensitivity, for the cause of inter-civilizational dialogue. Your comments?

MWF: There were German popes before, in the Middle-ages, but that is immaterial in this context. Pope Benedict above all is a very academic professor of theology, and that explains his short-comings at Regensburg. Ever since, he has gone out of his way to sooth the Muslim world. This has, however, little chance of success given his view that only the Catholic Church is a true church, claiming that none of the Lutheran, Calvinist and Episcopalian denominations do qualify. What sympathy can Muslims expect from a pope who even excommunicates his non-Catholic Christian brothers?

YMD: We read in European history (the Millennia prior to the 20th century) of Germanic tribes massacred for Christ, of Muslims butchered in Jerusalem during the Crusades, of witch-hunts and burnings at the stake, and of expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain during the Reconquista. How has the dogma of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (One God, One Church) contributed to this historical contradiction in pacifist Christian thought and behaviour?

MWF: The Catholic Church, as illustrated by Pope Benedict XVI, has never ever dropped the extra ecclesiam nulla salus dictum (not: dogma). Of course, the Church is in no longer in the position to implement that dictum with fire and sword. Most Christians I know including clerics of both churches, Catholic and Protestant, are rather ashamed of their church history and don`t want to repeat it. We should be aware that another medieval rule – cuius regio eius religio – did play, and continues to play, a devastating role. It means that ‘people must accept the religion of their ruler.’ Don`t we hear more and more voices in Europe demanding that their Muslim immigrants should either assimilate or go back home? (The trouble is that tens of thousands of Muslim converts in Europe have no place to go back to…)

YMD: The late Dr. Ismail Raji al-Faruqi is considered a prominent figure of dialogue – indeed, trialogue – between the Abrahamic faiths in America. What are your own thoughts regarding his role in the context of twentieth century ecumenism, and in the Islamization of Knowledge – a project which he initiated but could not fulfill owing to his assassination in 1986?

MWF: In post 9 / 11 America, Dr. al-Faruqi `s dream is more relevant than ever but hardly ever referred to. Nor has his project of an Islamization of Knowledge produced results. It could not because it would have required superhuman scientists who would excel in both Western and Islamic sciences. The effort made recalled the absurd Nazi efforts to distinguish between Jewish and Arian mathematics. In my view all you need for an Islamization of sciences is competent but truly Muslim scientists. As simple as that.

YMD: In today’s fast changing times the Muslim Ummah seems to be stuck between ‘culturally assimilated’ Muslims on the one hand and traditionally Islamic scholars incapable of reaching Western hearts and minds on the other. What, in your opinion, is the way out of this impasse in Muslim dialogue with the West?

MWF: The dilemma you describe is real. Third generation immigrant Muslims suffer most under it because they no longer speak the languages of their grandparents very well and because they have been exposed to Western curricula in school. ‘Imported’ imams, often staying only for a few years, are linguistically and sociologically unable to cope with the demands of these young Muslims in the West. There is only one answer: We have to train our own imams in the West from among the young generation. This already happens in Austria and to a small extent as well in Germany where Islam is taught by Muslim professors both at Frankfurt and Münster universities. The result should be immigrant Muslims who are integrated in Western society, yes, but do not assimilate.

YMD: Considering the corruptibility of some ‘Ulama and their close association with governments, how do you perceive the role of lay intellectuals and reformers in the Muslim world?  In your opinion, what should be the ideal approach for such well-meaning intellectuals in the Ummah? What is the role of the scholar-activist – few as they are in the Ummah – as against the mere scholar and the mere activist?

MWF: I do not deny that a full command of Islam, Qur’an and Sunnah, required a sufficient command of Arabic and a profound study of Islamic sciences. The problem is that a person fulfilling these requirements is unlikely truly to understand the challenges of Western civilization. Things are indeed made worse if traditional ´ulama serve the interests of their rulers. Therefore, it was quite natural that Muslims in the West are mostly served by Muslim leaders who are no ´imams in the traditional sense but lay leaders. This trend began with al-Maududi, al-Banna and Sayyed Qutb and continues today with intellectuals like Tariq Ramadan. The ideal solution would be for both ´ulama and lay leaders to admit and respect their educational limits. Easily said…

YMD: Kant’s critique of metaphysics and his dismantling of the proofs of God, Marx’s defamation of religion and the Social-Darwinism propagated by Nietzsche are now common currency, as has been proven by the disasters of WWI, Stalinism, WWII, Maoism, and ethnic cleansing. If only superior civilizations spread, how do we account for the ‘superiority’ or the success of the present Western civilization when its recent history has only meant repeated disasters for Mankind?

MWF: Well understood, Kant`s four Critiques helped to bolster religion by re-establishing that belief is not the result of assured knowledge but an act of faith. Also Nietzsche was less of an atheist than a critic of clericalism and Christianity. The real onslaught against religion came from Feuerbach, Marx, and Darwin, later carried to extremes in the Communist world. The Western world – certainly not the United States – is less atheistic in theory than in (materialist and consumerist) practice.

The material success of the West will be its own undoing, already signaled by phenomena like far spread drug addictions of all kind, break down of the family, lack of children, collapse of social cohesion, juvenile crime, autistic behaviour, crass egotism. The United States has over-extended itself and Europe faces its own moral collapse.

The question rather is why the Muslim world is far less successful and, therefore, de facto re-colonized. This, I believe, is due to the sad fact that the Muslims have forgotten for some time now that Allah ta´ala revealed Himself twice: once through His book, and once in His universe. When the Muslims came to believe that it is sufficient to study Allah’s word – and no longer Allah’s world, via natural sciences – the progressive decline of the Muslim world began. We shall catch up again only when we cherish natural sciences again the way our forefathers did before the 15th century.

YMD: How successful has the practicing Muslim womens’ movement been in influencing the other, western, and/ or western-styled, womens’ liberation movements of today? How influential is the Muslim womens’ code of conduct and dressing amongst non-Muslim communities in revealing a prime objective in female dignity: something which other womens’ liberation movements are also striving for?

MWF: Alas, most Western women do not believe that Muslim women wear their hijab as a matter of personal choice and religious obedience. Rather they insinuate that the Muslim dress code is invented and enforced by Muslim men, famous for their sexual preoccupations. Fortunately many Western Muslim women now also wear hijab. Since they do not come from Muslim families and often are not married, there obviously is no father or brother who could browbeat them into covering. The problem is that in the West women can almost fully under-dress in public, at will , while they cannot cover themselves at will.

YMD: How does the Encyclopedia of Islam as produced by Brill (Leiden) stand in your estimation? How have Muslim attempts at producing an encyclopedia of Islam fared?

MWF: We are, indeed, still waiting for a Muslim-made encyclopedia of Islam. The ones by Brill and Cyril Glassé (The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam) are remarkable efforts and useful for Muslims, too, in spite of their preconceived attitudes and their denial of the divine revelation of the Qur’an. One should know that German Orientalists – as compared to British and French ones – usually were pretty objective (and, therefore, not unfair) in their study of Islam.

YMD: Apart from the Qur’an, what would you rank as the best of books that an educated non-Muslim could be offered as best representing theoretical Islam best?

MWF: For this purpose there still are no better books than the ones by Muhammad Asad, including his Qur’an translation into English (but also available in Swedish and Turkish). My own books certainly rank below that.

YMD: First it was Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi’s book (What did humanity lose from the fall of Muslims?), then it was Qaradawi’s work (The Lawful and the Unlawful in Islam), and now it is Haroon Yahya’s book on Evolution – that have been banned in the heart of the Free World, France. Considering the fact that Haroon Yahya’s work, although not wholly scientific, is yet scientific enough for serious discussions, do you think Europe could be inching towards non-tolerance of anything that can seriously challenge its own authority?

MWF: Freedom of publication is among the highest principles in Europe and hardly ever violated. Europeans are unlikely to repeat the mistake of those who physically banned Salman Rushdie`s blasphemy. Books, one should fight with books, not with guns, and most Europeans stand by that.

YMD: Do you agree with Eric Fromm when he said – in his Escape from Freedom – that the right to expression of opinions has meaning only if we are able to have our own opinion?

MWF: Freedom of opinion is a basic human right, embodied in all human rights codifications. This right would be undermined if it was qualified by considerations of a psychological nature.

YMD: Roger Garaudy, the renowned French communist intellectual who reverted to Islam, once referred to Globalization as a new form of Colonization. How much – if at all – do you agree with him?

MWF: Roger (Raja) Garaudy has professed Communism, Christianity, and Islam. In each case, he focused on social and economic aspects to such an extent that one wonders whether he ever truly shed Dialectical Materialism. At any rate, it seems unfair to equalize globalization with colonialism. After all, there has always been a dependency of less developed countries on more developed ones, all through history. In this sense, the Muslim world globalized Europe for centuries. Colonization, however, meant the presence of Western military forces and the day-to-day running of countries like Algeria, Egypt, Syria or India by colonial officers. Equating that with economic globalization means belittling the cruelty of brutal, on-the-spot, colonization.

YMD: How do you view Germany’s role in Afghanistan and Iraq?

MWF: Germany did not approve of the US attack on the ´Iraq (al-Qa´ida having no part in Saddam`s operations) and therefore, in contrast to the U.K., the Netherlands, Portugal and Poland, did not get involved militarily. At the same, Germany sent troops to Afghanistan in view of the… al-Qa´ida presence there. The German contingent is, however, mainly tasked to re-build the country’s infrastructure in the Northern area.

YMD: Decline in birth-rate, immigration control, aging population, rising cost of energy, and non-competitive manpower, is inexorably leading Europe to a decline that EU hopes to reverse through internal co-operation and rationalization of production and services. Do you think the efforts can do anything more than slowing the process?

MWF: The more the European Union expands the less efficient it becomes.

YMD: An idea is being mooted that the Western intellectual class has not been addressed by the Muslims in the intellectual language and, therefore, a body should be quickly created that can do this work. Do you agree? If yes, would you like to name a few who may be included in such a body, who are dynamic enough to take up such a task?

MWF: The problem is two-fold: As far as a dialogue at high level with the Christian Churches is concerned, the Muslims are not doing badly at all. As far as a dialogue with the un-religious, and anti-religious, European sectors are concerned the problem is not quality of input but readiness to listen. I strongly advise against a body of professional dialoguers. We already have people of that nature who are far removed from their bases. Dialogue can be carried out meaningfully only between functionaries in command. Otherwise we engage in what Hermann Hesse called Glasperlenspiel.

YMD: How optimistic are you of the still-extant warmth and compassion in the Islamic Ummah being the perfect requirement for the contemporary youth of an emotionally cooling Western world? What would be your advice for Muslim youth who are coming to grips with these testing times?

MWF: Yes, I still feel a notable difference in the warmth of reception between Muslim and non-Muslim circles. Whenever I am invited for a lecture by Muslim students they give me that family feeling. I hesitate to give advise to young people, being myself glad that I am no longer exposed to the particular problems of the young.

About YMD

Past Issues