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This interview, which appeared as the final chapter in a book about modern Islamic trends and movements, provides an in-depth look at King Hussein’s conception of Islam. The interviewer takes particular interest in the views of King Hussein because he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and has fashioned Jordan into a Muslim country that is a model of tolerance and democracy.

In the interview, His Majesty stresses the need for Islam to adapt to today’s world through ijtihad, the process of reinterpreting the Qur’an (the Muslim holy book) and hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) for modern usage. When asked about Islamic extremism, the King replies that the leaders of these movements are using a distorted version of Islam to deceive the young, who are idealistic and desperate from oppression and lack of opportunity. True Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.

This interview is particularly interesting because His Majesty offers a rare description of his level of personal piety, and gives his opinion on controversial issues including the Salman Rushdie case and the role of women in Islam. Also noteworthy are His Majesty’s comments about the Hashemite line of succession after himself and his brother, Crown Prince El Hassan.

“The Hashemite Option”

Chapter 10, In the Shadow of the Prophet

Milton Viorst, 1998


On August 6, 1997, I interviewed King Hussein in the royal palace in Amman. The slim, dark-haired youth who was crowned forty-five years ago had emerged into a solidly built man, wearing a patriarchal, snow-white beard. The King underwent surgery for cancer five years before but has since been pronounced cured. At our meeting he looked extremely fit. We spoke at the end of a long working day, and he was dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. Having stopped smoking, the King sucked on hard candies as he talked.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Milton Viorst: What was the role of your forebears, the Hashemites of Mecca, during the centuries since the death of the Prophet?

King Hussein: My forebears were always the keepers of the holy flame in Mecca and Medina. But their great role in Arab history was to connect with the yearnings of the Arab people to lead the Arab Revolt, a reaction against the Turks who were trying to destroy Arab identity. Their objectives were unity and freedom, and a chance for the Arabs to take a place alongside other nations.

Milton Viorst: Do you, as a Hashemite, retain a role in Mecca and Medina?

King Hussein: No, sir, I have no role to play except that of a Muslim in a Muslim world. My family gave up a lot, losing their place in the holy cities, in the struggle for the Arab people. What happened after the Arab Revolt was a big price for them to pay. But now I'm a Jordanian, and I'm trying my very best to make this country a positive example in the Arab world.

Milton Viorst: Sharif Hussein's goal was also to form a united Arab state. Is that vision lost forever?

King Hussein: I believe that the Arab world is never going to be a united nation, as had been hoped in the Arab Revolt, but something in a more modern context, similar to Europe. It is the only way. We have developed within each part of the Arab world our own identities, and unity in the future must be a unity of sovereign equals.

Milton Viorst: Have you shifted your family's sense of proprietary responsibility to Jerusalem?

King Hussein: My family was involved in Jerusalem from the time that the Arab Revolt and the Sykes-Picot agreement and all the other surprises tragically took place, leading to Sharif Hussein's being exiled in Cyprus and eventually coming over here and passing away.

Milton Viorst: Do the Hashemites have a responsibility there now?

King Hussein: Yes, the responsibility to ensure that anything that can be done, will be done to bring an end to the unfortunate struggle that has been the history of the children of Abraham. I think that Jerusalem should become the symbol of peace between the followers of the three basic monotheistic religions. It should be above the sovereignty of any country or the control of any side. Jerusalem, east and west, could become the capital of both Palestinians and Israelis. It could be two capitals. It could be whatever they choose in the future. But we will always have ties with Jerusalem. My great-grandfather was buried there. My grandfather fell there. Jerusalem is as important to us as any of the holiest sites in the Muslim world. Solving the problem of Jerusalem will symbolize the coming together of the children of Abraham, and until this happens we will do our duty, to help and push in that direction.

Milton Viorst: Does that mean you consider yourself, as a Hashemite, a link between Jews and Arabs, the children of Abraham?

King Hussein: To look back on my family heritage is one thing, but to think of the realities of the day is more important. Of course, I'm drawn to a very large extent to this heritage and I'm proud of it, but the difference between success and failure in the world or today is clear thinking and ideas, and ideals that people can gravitate around. So rather than talk of statues to the past, all of us, including myself, should put all our efforts into the future of the generations to come. This is my philosophy.

Milton Viorst: Do you, do the Hashemites, have responsibility for leadership of Arabs beyond the borders of Jordan?

King Hussein: I've stood for what I believe is for the best interests of Jordan, and also for the whole region. But I don’t know about leadership. The Hashemites have a duty to supranational service but not in the sense of acquiring control. Nor do I seek it. I think that those who have sought that kind of control have brought enough damage to the Arab world. I believe that the Arab people themselves can decide what they want.

Milton Viorst: What is the condition of the Arab community in our times?

King Hussein: It is fragmented, no doubt about that. It is fragmented by religious belief and along nationalistic lines. But we are all Arabs, and we have the same language, so there is much that unites us. We must concentrate more on repairing relations between peoples than relations between leaders and governments.

Milton Viorst: Can Arabs be twenty nations and one people

King Hussein: I suppose we can and should be. But I don’t think that we can be described as one people at this stage, when we have no central control.

Milton Viorst: But, after the Prophet’s era, there never was central control.

King Hussein: That’s true. But it was a far more coherent society then.

Milton Viorst: Can't you do anything to make it more coherent now?

King Hussein: I think of myself as someone who has tried to identify with the aspirations of the Arab people and to guide them to a collective life that makes sense. Most of us are Muslims and, as a devout Muslim, I am troubled by much in the Arab world that is portrayed as Islam or Islamic. In fact, I get very irritated when I see so many distortions of Islam carried out in the name of Islam. It is a problem I’m trying to do something about.

Milton Viorst: What traditional Arab values do you consider vital to preserve?

King Hussein: We still have many sound tribal values—chivalry, hospitality, courage, shame—but they are changing, in some cases sadly, as we open up to the rest of the world.

Milton Viorst: What values might it be useful to shed?

King Hussein: When ijtihad—the possibility of reconciling faith and present-day life—stopped a long time ago, that was the beginning of a very sad deterioration that has continued over the years and has opened the way to all sorts of fringe movements and splits. We need to do whatever we can to repair that mistake. I am trying to get the leading figures in the Muslim world who have the minds and the faith and the vision to come together to reaffirm the moderation of Islam. Islam is called wasatiya, which means "centralist." This is in the Quran. It is where we should be now.

Milton Viorst: Don't the fundamentalists say that theirs is the real Islam?

King Hussein: I have read the Quran time and again, and with the passage of years I have learned that very little in Islam is rigid. I don't like the term "fundamentalism" and I wish it had never come into being. But Islam is not fundamentalism. It was very open as it spread throughout the world. It made major contributions. Then, in the tenth century or so, Islam changed course and went into decline.

Milton Viorst: What serious differences have you with other schools of Islam?

King Hussein: Take the so-called fundamentalists, for example. They want to consider the Prophet a messenger who delivered the message, and that's that. Their main challenge is to destroy everything that came down through the Prophet and the Prophet's descendants. That has been their drive ever since the outset; to destroy the links of Muslims with their history. They take a very extreme attitude at the universities they sponsor, influencing the students they produce. It has produced extremism, limited mindsets and a very clear lack of vision, far from the true teachings of Islam which make it unique. Islam is suitable for every time and for every people.

Milton Viorst: Do you mean by "the true teachings of Islam" the Islam that was before the close of ijtihad?

King Hussein: Yes. The true teachings of Islam as they came in the Quran and as the Prophet conveyed them.

Milton Viorst: Are your ideas like those of Abduh or the Mu'tazilites?

King Hussein: I have my own way that I identify with, not with any particular school in a particular way.

Milton Viorst: Would you agree that the Muslim decline can be dated from the ninth century when Islam missed the chance to become the religion of reason and moderation by crushing the Mu'tazilite movement?

King Hussein: That is essentially correct, and we must do what we can to change that now.

Milton Viorst: Whom do you regard as an appropriate teacher of Islam today?

King Hussein: I don't think such a teacher is yet there. Unfortunately, teaching and learning in the Muslim world have declined as a result of political changes. Al-Azhar in Egypt used to be the pinnacle of reference to Muslims, at least for Sunnis, but since the Egyptian revolution there has been an erosion. Now there is an attempt to revive it, which I hope succeeds. Similarly, Najaf and Karbala, for the Shi'ites, should be centers of learning and light. But, unfortunately, changes in Iraq have caused so much persecution, so many human losses, that the hub has moved to Qom in Iran. These two centers have to return to what they were.

Milton Viorst: What is the difference between Najaf and Qom?

King Hussein: Najaf is the heart of Shi'ism. Qom represents the heart of a political ideology. Since Shi'ite theologians cannot live and study in Najaf, Qom has taken a more important position.

Milton Viorst: Are there any alternatives to Al-Azhar for the Sunnis?

King Hussein: Al-Azhar is moving but maybe not fast enough. The sheikh of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Tantawi, who seems to be a very able man and we were pleased to see him, attended the last meeting of the Aal Al-Beit Foundation. We started Aal Al-Beit University in the same spirit as the foundation. There should be more encouragement of enlightened, Muslim yet modern, institutions that hopefully will prepare people to open up and to preserve Islam.

Milton Viorst: Are you thinking at Aal Al-Beit University of restoring the traditions of openness and reason of the Mu'tazilites?

King Hussein: Yes, along with many other good universities and centers of learning, recently created or revived, that want to help bring the Muslim people together and resolve their difficulties.

Milton Viorst: Do you think of yourself as an Islamic model?

King Hussein: I would never think that I had it in me to be an Islamic model. But I have seriously thought time and again of quitting everything I'm doing to concentrate on theology. It hasn't been possible but it's often crossed my mind.

Milton Viorst: Would you be willing to describe your own level of piety?

King Hussein: I made the hajj many years ago. I don't drink. I say my five prayers every day. But that's something I don't talk much about. It's between me and God.

Milton Viorst: If you had the opportunity, what theology would you teach?

King Hussein: I believe the answers are there in our Quran, certainly in the overall sense. Take the question of peace, for example. There's so much in the Quran on peace, as there is on submission to one God, the attributes of God, heaven and respect for the other two monotheistic religions. These are teachings we don't much hear about, but they affect me in my political life, supporting my firm belief that I'm doing the right thing. It's along these lines that so much can be taught.

Milton Viorst: What is your position on amending the shari’a?

King Hussein: In fact, we tried here to base Jordan's civil law on the shari’a. Years ago, we got some of the best brains in Jordan and the Muslim world to sit together and bring about this civil law. We believe we succeeded and many Muslim states now copy it. It's a unique contribution that Jordan has made. Yes, there was much to preserve but also a need for changes in the shari'a.

Milton Viorst: Do you think of yourself as an Islamic monarch?

King Hussein: I'm an Islamic monarch in believing that Islam embraces all, that it gives people their freedom, that it does not differentiate in the way it treats people. Maybe this is a different concept from what others in this part of the world hold. But I believe I'm a Muslim in advocating tolerance, in believing very strongly that Jordanians are one people with equal rights.

Milton Viorst: What is an Islamic state?

King Hussein: An Islamic state is a state based on the morality that comes through faith and religion. We believe that Islam completed the two great Abrahamic religions, that the Quran is the most valid and clear word of God. There is no book like the Quran. It's so rich. But it must be subject to interpretation in every era to deal with the world. You can't just hold it up at any point in time and say, "That's it." Nobody has the right to do that.

Milton Viorst: How about the sunna, the hadith?

King Hussein: The sunna is also important but much that is in it, as you know, is not verified. The hadith are in some cases certain and in some cases not. Occasionally, you find a hodgepodge of ideas that make the meaning hard to grasp.

Milton Viorst: You say that Islam today is misinterpreted. Is it, in some cases, being deliberately abused?

King Hussein: The faulty teaching of Islam has left the door open to exploiters, people who have tried to use it in a non-Islamic way. Islam is not "today." Islam is an afterlife. You work throughout your life for the afterlife. And what I see is people working for today, using Islam to gain their own objectives.

Milton Viorst: Don't Muslims recognize this exploitation?

King Hussein: The problem is that Islam has not been competently taught to our young people. Often the least qualified students, unable to master other subjects, have ended up learning Islam and becoming sheikhs. The best minds should be encouraged to study Islam. That's what we are trying to do in Jordan. We want our best people to bring an Islamic revival, in the proper sense.

Milton Viorst: Isn't this a futile effort, since the Arabs place so much effort on preserving Islam unchanged?

King Hussein: Yes, but the damage has taken place over a very long time, and will take a long time to correct. We're not seeking leadership. We're seeking a collective effort to reform Islam. We are trying, and with some success.

Milton Viorst: Let me ask you about some Islamic concepts. What about bid'a, the notion that innovation and creativity are sinful?

King Hussein: This is totally alien to Islam, as I see it. I'm not saying there should be no limits, but if we're talking about limiting creativity, I'm against it. When ijtihad was closed, that was the beginning of the end. Hopefully it will be ameliorated.

Milton Viorst: What is your concept of shura?

King Hussein: My concept is that it is another word for democracy. It is incumbent on us as Arabs to share in shaping our future, honestly and openly in dialogue. But what we see in our part of the world is intolerance to ideas and to dialogue: "I am right and you have to accept that." That is alien to Islam and to its future. I think others are looking and listening at what we are doing here in Jordan. You can't stop the clock. It has to move ahead.

Milton Viorst: Is there much controversy over drinking in Jordan?

King Hussein: Being a Muslim, you are advised not to drink and you shouldn't drink. But it doesn't mean that you have a right to impose that on non-Muslims. Such tolerance, in fact, is our religion.

Milton Viorst: How many Jordanians would you estimate would like to have a ban on alcohol or a required hejab in the society?

King Hussein: I can't give you any figures, but anybody in Jordan who believes couldn't possibly subscribe to these demands, because without openness and without all working together there's no future. Some of these people are linked to ideologies or to forces within the area that would like to see the destruction of Jordan. But a lot of politicians and others underestimate the majority of Jordanians, who solidly oppose that sort of thing.

Milton Viorst: Don't many Muslims regard restrictions on behavior as what Islam is?

King Hussein: Yes, but unfortunately they are moving about on the surface, the superficial things in Islam, not the substance.

Milton Viorst: Hasn't that been the problem with Islam for a long time?

King Hussein: Yes, it has.

Milton Viorst: Do you have a position on the hejab?

King Hussein: My personal position is that there are certain rules that are cited in the Quran and refer only to the family of the Prophet. But, more important than the hejab, I am totally against the idea that a Muslim woman should not have the same opportunities as a Muslim man to learn, to open up, to work, help shape the future. To close Islam down to a sexist approach is totally intolerable and ridiculous. It's not Islam.

Milton Viorst: Doesn't the Quran provide some confused guidance on women, saying they are subject to men?

King Hussein: I think Islam reveres men and women alike. The Quran speaks very much of the rights of women and mothers. If you take the period of the Prophet and the birth of Islam, women were a very important part of it. Restrictions against women didn't exist then and there is no reason why they should exist now.

Milton Viorst: Are you saying restrictions have been imposed since the early years of the Prophet?

King Hussein: Yes, I think they have been imposed in a subsequent period. Islam brought with it the ban on killing a female baby. It brought with it enlightenment. The Prophet said in a hadith: "Take half your faith from Aisha," his wife. So how can Islam be belittling of women and their role? During that period they were poets. Women fought in battles. You'll find true Islam if you go back to its origins, an open and not a closed Islam.

Milton Viorst: How do you read what the Quran says about polygamy, about taking four wives?

King Hussein: I read two verses. One says four wives, but another requires you to treat them equally, and says you won't be able to treat them equally. What does the Quran mean? It means that polygamy is not the right thing. No, I do not believe in polygamy.

Milton Viorst: What position do you take on the imperative for jihad?

King Hussein: Who has the right to call for jihad? The concept of jihad is all-encompassing. Islam requires that you improve yourself, in anything you do. It's not just battle and fight. Jihad, as war, should have ended with the Prophet, who alone had the right to call for it. So I believe that extremist movements in the name of jihad are wrong. Muslim life has a certain sanctity. If you commit suicide, no one is permitted to come to your grave and pray. So when you see suicide attempts portrayed as jihad, leading to heaven, I believe this is an abomination of Islam.

Milton Viorst: Since all Muslims read the same texts, how do you think so many went astray? How did the suicide bombers in Jerusalem come to believe that this is what God wants them to do?

King Hussein: I believe the impact of the extremist leaders on the young, on the unnurtured, has been almost criminal. I have read the Quran so many times, and each time I read it something becomes clearer, and with the passage of years I always find something new. When you think of idealistic young people, wanting to do so much, if you couple that with oppression and lack of opportunity, you find fertile ground for extremism. I've seen it so many times. And I've seen how people have started out and how they have ended up. Many who have the opportunity to think things out eventually mature and settle down. This, I suppose, is a part of life. What we need to do is to speak openly about Islam, and defend it and present it properly and prevent its abuse.

Milton Viorst: But the Muslim Brotherhood is not a small phenomenon, and its justification of jihad in the name of Islam has become popular and widespread. How does it get away with that?

King Hussein: At a certain time, Islam was considered a possible weapon in the struggle against Communism and colonialism, and it was encouraged to be such. Afghanistan is just an example. It's a shame to every Muslim that Afghanistan has ended up as it has.

Milton Viorst: But is it a shame to every Muslim? There are so-called "Afghans" in Algeria, in Egypt, probably here in Jordan, certainly across the river in the West Bank. They are very dangerous.

King Hussein: Yes, they are. And what sort of distorted minds they have, what sort of distorted visions! They engage in money laundering and drug trafficking and other criminal activities in the name of Islam. I don't know how. I think that a lot of people have been mentally abused, to the point where this is the result.

Milton Viorst: Some of them are probably very smart people . . . .

King Hussein: Yes, those who run these things and lead people astray. Much blame lies with them. But it also lies with Islamic governments and officials who were not watching while their schools and universities were teaching Islam in the wrong way.

Milton Viorst: It is a tragedy of our time that Arab civilization, lacking dynamism and creativity, is falling increasingly behind other cultures. In this book, I ask whether Islam, in its orthodox form, is to blame. As you see it, why is Islamic civilization not moving forward?

King Hussein: I think there are many reasons: Let me just take our prayers, five times a day. Islam imposes a ritual to recite parts of the Quran, learning them by heart without necessarily understanding what they mean. I doubt whether there are many people who have really read the whole Quran. And it's only if you do that you understand what Islam is truly about. So there is this superficial approach. To pray you have to recite verses, in many cases not knowing what they mean. But with deep understanding of the Quran, Islam becomes a dynamic movement, opening up every opportunity. It is not rigid at all.

Milton Viorst: Men and women who have Islamic educations, even in Jordan, say that schoolwork is all memory, without analysis or examination.

King Hussein: I agree with them.

Milton Viorst: How are the children to learn that Islam can open up this world to them, which is what you say they must learn?

King Hussein: That is what we are trying to deal with as best we can. Sadly, we inherited a situation that prevailed before, of memorizing rather than understanding. The absence of discussion, of debate, is among our greatest weaknesses. In Jordan we went all out on schools and universities, building everywhere, but our standards dropped considerably from the days of limited schooling. So now we are concentrating on quality, and on openness, and dialogue. But to bring all that about requires time and sustained effort and stability. It also requires peace, because without it you are not sure what any day will bring. So when we speak about peace and the need for it, it is really one of our top priorities. And anyone who fights it—and there are some in Jordan—would have us remain where we are, or sliding backward.

Milton Viorst: Do you think the next generation of Jordanian children will have a different frame of mind from their fathers and grandfathers?

King Hussein: We are trying, we are trying.

Milton Viorst: But isn't there a strong Islamic component in the administration of Jordan's schools, holding back change?

King Hussein: There was, and there probably still is, but we're trying to depoliticize the schools and teach Islam as it should be taught.

Milton Viorst: In Islam, there is always a line—symbolized to me by Khomeini's fatwa punishing insults to the Prophet—beyond which speech and thought cannot go. Do you draw a line, and where is it?

King Hussein: In general, I believe the judgment that we receive comes after our death, based on what we have done in this life. It has to do with the Almighty, and also with the judgment of people after we are gone. I'm not for excess in anything, including so-called freedom. But I would never appoint myself a judge; to say that because I disapprove of how someone has behaved he is no longer a Muslim. That is something that is beyond me or anyone else. Yet I don't understand how anyone in his proper mind would insult the Prophet.

Milton Viorst: When you say someone is not a Muslim, doesn't it trigger the Islamic law on apostasy? Many of the great interpreters say that Islam requires putting to death anyone who would leave the religion. How would you deal with that?

King Hussein: I have so many other problems before I ever reach that one.

Milton Viorst: But many Muslims applauded Khomeini's fatwa, and justified the murder of Farag Foda in Egypt, on these grounds.

King Hussein: I don't think that individual leaders have the right to determine who lives and who dies. There are many ways of examining these matters. I do not stand with much that is decreed, and sometimes followed up by action, along these lines. I've read what Rushdie has written and it was very deeply offensive and very deeply objectionable. But I would not sanction murder and wouldn't expect anyone I know to do that.

Milton Viorst: So you apply your principle that God will judge Rushdie in the afterlife?

King Hussein: Of course.

Milton Viorst: Leaving aside insults to the Prophet, do you feel there is a line that can be drawn in political speech?

King Hussein: No, as witnessed by what you hear and see in Jordan.

Milton Viorst: Well, a Jordanian went to prison recently for what he said, though you pardoned him soon afterward. There is also a press law which, I am told, is designed to limit free speech.

King Hussein: I don't know that it's designed to limit free speech but it is certainly designed for the judiciary to address distortions of truth and morality. I believe this would happen anywhere in the world. We opened up here in Jordan without having time to develop codes for preserving our coherence and our unity and our dialogue as they should be. So we had to look at certain—not restraints, people can write whatever they feel like writing—but if they infringe on certain areas in a blatant way . . .

Milton Viorst: What areas?

King Hussein: For example, attacking people in a manner that is incompatible with the truth, false accusations. There is no restraint. But undermining the very roots of a society is not what freedom is about. Freedom is your freedom to do whatever you like without infringing on the freedoms of others. That is precisely the line we are trying to draw. Are people in Jordan telling you there is no freedom? There is freedom. Too much at times.

Milton Viorst: Shifting the subject, how would you describe the Islamic movement in Jordan?

King Hussein: It's passing through an interesting phase, a dialogue between moderates and extremists. The extremists, who want to take us back to the distant past, are a very small number. In fact, politicized Islam is a very small percentage of Jordanians. The dialogue might heat up, but it is still essentially political.

Milton Viorst: Are there really people who believe the society can go back to the rashidun?

King Hussein: There may be some. That's freedom of thought.

Milton Viorst: Why do Muslims find the distant past so appealing?

King Hussein: I think it's the search to stabilize oneself. Again, my hope is that going back to the proper teaching is the answer. We Muslims can't live without faith, without our beliefs. But where do you receive them from? During the years of crisis in Jordan, things were left without the proper attention. We never thought we would have an Islamic problem. So there was not as much watchfulness as there was against other elements that were trying to undermine this country. The Islamic movement lived with the protection of the regime and then became a political movement. Now it is divided between moderates and extremists, who would like to exploit it. And the instability in the region is a factor, including lack of progress on the peace front.

Milton Viorst: Do you think Jordan is endangered by the Islamic radicals?

King Hussein: I don't think so. We will be able to talk over things and work them out in the best interests of the people of Jordan.

Milton Viorst: How democratic are these Islamic parties?

King Hussein: Their thoughts are not clearly defined, and I believe there is some danger. When we returned to parliamentary life after the long absence, I said it would probably take us about twenty years for things to jell up, and unfortunately I have been proven right. At a certain point we had twenty-three parties. If you want to have a system based on political parties, you need people who have thoughts and ideas and plans and programs that they can present to the voters. This has not yet happened. As for the Islamic parties, how they would behave if they came into power is unclear to me. We are bound by the national charter, which we've all agreed on, including the political Islamic movement. But if you take the whole spectrum of the opposition parties, which are trying to ally with the Islamic movement, it may come out to 10,000 out of 4 million-plus Jordanians. So political parties are not convincing as yet to the grass roots, because they lack experience and the ability to look forward. It will take time before we reduce to three or four parties to run in elections.

Milton Viorst: What is the future of fundamentalism in the Arab world?

King Hussein: It grows, like other movements in this part of the world, if there is no evolution, no progress toward greater freedom, greater dialogue, greater debate between people on all issues. Whenever an attempt is made to stop the clock, that is when you can expect trouble from extremist movements. If the basic social problems are dealt with, and if we have peace, then I think that the future is very bright. We will have greater moderation and Islam will be a source of strength for true Muslims.

Milton Viorst: And you really believe that peace is essential for moving in this direction?

King Hussein: I believe that peace is absolutely essential.

Milton Viorst: The Arab world is historically weak at political succession. Have you taken measures in Jordan to correct that weakness?

King Hussein: I have some thoughts on the succession. I have sought to produce a system that would he close to the true teachings of Islam while selecting the best available person. The House of the Prophet is a force for stability and continuity, and democratic monarchy is my ideal. When I was considerably younger and my first son was born, things were so turbulent here that I thought that if anything happened to me, he would not have the opportunity to take over. So I chose my youngest brother, which is probably an indication of the way I feel, to be crown prince. And he has done very, very well. I've brought him up as close to me as I could all these years. I've talked to him and others about a system to choose the best-qualified person from the line of sons and grandsons of Sharif Hussein. This would avoid subjecting someone who is young to exploitation. I hope sometime soon to present a system—I was thinking of a family council—that will provide for the line of my succession.

It was clear from listening to King Hussein that he represents a vision of Islam that is very distant from Islamic orthodoxy, and even more distant from Islamic fundamentalism. To call it modernism might do the King a disservice, since he would very likely explain that, whatever the resemblance, it is what the Hashemites have believed since the time of the Prophet. Its Meccan roots impart to the vision much more persuasive credentials than if it were of recent religious vintage, or the product of one man alone.

But, in terms of the decline of Arab civilization, what matters is not so much the history of the King's Islamic concept as its minority status within the Islamic community. The Hashemites rule over a tiny country; their influence beyond its borders is limited. The King, whatever his efforts, does not have a large following as an Islamic thinker. That the heir of the grandest of Islamic dynasties holds to these views surely makes them a valid candidate for mainstream thought. But not even a king can generate optimism that they will be widely accepted.

What King Hussein articulates to Muslims is a Hashemite option for understanding their faith. It seems to hold much promise—far more promise than the competing options—for reconciling Islam with the modern world. In the larger arena where the struggle for the soul of Islam is conducted, there is scarcely a sign that the Hashemite option will prevail. But the clear impact it appears to have made in Jordan during the so-far brief Hashemite reign suggests that Muslims may, after all, be listening.