‘The heretic and the holy: Tariq Ali’s histories of Islam’

The Islam Quintet reviewed by Robyn Creswell for The National, May 7, 2010

“I’ve let my pen run away with me and preached my heresies for too long,” Tariq Ali once wrote, in an essay called Letter to a Young Muslim. “I doubt that I will change, but I hope you will.” Ali is indeed a kind of professional, or inveterate heretic, a writer who has made a career of dissenting from every kind of orthodoxy. But to call it a career suggests a rather solemn enterprise, whereas Ali’s writings are chiefly characterised by their wit—note the impish paradox of “preaching” heresies—and their swaggering combativeness. For Ali, dissent is an essentially heroic activity and he never seems so happy as when he has an opponent, be he neoliberal, Islamist, or ex-Leftist, to pummel into submission.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1943, Ali began organising street protests as a teenager. He soon became a university firebrand and caused enough trouble for the military regime of Ayub Khan that Ali’s family encouraged him to continue his studies elsewhere. In Britain, Ali joined the Oxford University Humanist Group (whose slogan was “Down with God!” and which held debates on motions such as “Jesus Christ Should Have Been Crucified”) and played an active part in student politics.

Over the next decade, he edited and wrote for a number of memorably-named magazines (The Black Dwarf, The Red Mole) and became a Leftist celebrity, debating Vietnam with Henry Kissinger and interviewing John Lennon. The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man (“my name is called Disturbance / I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the King”) was supposedly written in his honour. read more