Crisis of Contemplation, Crisis of Islam (I)

The title of this post refers to a remarkable book I’ve just read called The Crisis of Islamic Civilization by Ali A. Allawi, the former Defense Minister for the government of Iraq, and now a visiting professor at Princeton University, published in April 2009.   This post will be the first part of a four part review of his book, which is part jeremiad, part reflection on Islamic identity, part apologetic defense of Islam, and part analysis of Islamic civilization’s current condition.  This first post will deal with the preface and prologue, and outline Allawi’s basic thesis as to what constitutes Islamic civilization and why he believes it is in crisis; the second will look at his historical account of how this crisis came about, and how the Islamic world has responded to it; the third will look at the effects of this crisis on what he calls the “inner” and “outer” aspects of Islamic civilization (of which more anon); and lastly I will give a full critique of the book and my reflections on what it has to say about Islam, the contemplative life, and their relation to “modernity.”

I should state at the outset again that I write as a Catholic Christian, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, and that this colors all of my thinking, about Islam and everything else.  But I also write as an historian, and a practitioner, in a very humble way, of the contemplative life, and I believe this gives me some appreciation for aspects of his book that others I think have overlooked.  But that will come out in the review, as you will see.

The Crisis Defined

What is the crisis that Alawi thinks the Mulsim world has come to?  Alawi notes at the beginning of his work that, to many observers, Islam seems just fine:  it counts nearly a billion followers whose religious practice is much more substantial than anything in the West, and its political manifestations in the past 30 years or so (what he variously calls “political Islam” or “Islamism,” terms I will return to shortly) have signalled a return to the world stage for Islam after years of obscurity during the 20th century.   But Allawi thinks that the dramatic events of the past thirty years have concealed a basic problem, not with Islamic religious practice or belief, but with Islamic civilization, which he distinguishes from Islam as a religion.  He never does define it specifically, but in his preface he says he noticed as he grew older that the outter world of political Islam and the inner world of piety and religion were becoming disconnected.  “The world of p0litical Islam was violent, centered on demands for power, and increasingly aggressive, while the inner life that he knew was introspective, contemplative.  “The rituals of worship in Islam were supposed to bridge these worlds, but they were bent to suit other demands.  I began to recognize that the essential unity of Islam had been greatly diminished, if not yet quite destroyed.  People could no longer move effortlessly between these two worlds.” (xi)  Alawi describes how the people he encountered while serving in the Iraqi government illustrated this for him, as most felt little connection to the ethical or spiritual aspects of Islam.  It is the the social, intellectual and spiritual “structures” of Islam that mediate between its outer and inner aspects, as Allawi calls it, that defines civilization, at least as I think he understands it, and the weakening or dissolution of those structures or institutions (whatever one calls them) that constitute the crisis he sees taking place in the Muslim world.  What really disturbs him is that he sees the inner world of Islam (its “beliefs, ideas and values which inform the outer aspect of institutions, laws, government, and culture” as he puts it) no longer seem to affect the outer word of Islam; as he bluntly states, “The inner dimensions of Islam no longer have the power or sigficance to affect the outer world in which most Muslims live.” (xvi)  This is a fascinating diagnosis, and I will comment on it a bit more expansively in the next post on his book.   But for now I will only add that it is a diagnosis of Islam’s problems that I have not heard elsewhere, at least in this particular formulation.

Defining Islam

In the prologue, he distills what he takes to be the essence of any civilization, all of which move between “the individual and the collective…and this-worldliness and other-wordliness.”  (2)   The modern West, he notes, defines itself in terms of the individual, though some societies, such as Japan and the Scandanavian countries, still favor the collective over the individual.  He defines Islamic civilization against this modern view of the West, which he says is unique, contrasting its emphasis on the individual with Islam’s unwavering committment to the transcendent decrees of Allah embodied in the Qur’an.  Specifically, it the distinction between sacred and profane, or between God and Caesar, as he puts it, that Islam ultimately rejects:  for Islam,

“the purpose of all knowledge must be to seek, find and affirm the divine basis of all right thinking and right acting…submission to the decrees of God must form the bedrock of any permanent, and permanently valid ethic of being and action—a personal ethic as well as the basis for public organization.  This is the starting point for authoritative renderings of Islam, and it has survived the vicissitudes of time and place.  It can brook no compromise.  All authentic traditions of Islam carry this imprint, as they must.” (10-11)

This distinction of Islam from the modern west leads to him to make a critique of modern secular humanism that many contemporary Christian thinkers are apt to make, namely that for Islam there is no such thing as individual human autonomy, as a freedom totally apart from God.  This much Islam has in common with all the Abrahamic faiths, but he further distinguishes the term for individual in Arabic, al-fard, which he says does not denote a being endowed with free will, but rather “the term carries the connotation of singularity, aloofness, or solitariness.”   (11) The power of free will comes into play only with “the fact of acquiring these from God, at the point of a specific action or decision—the so called iktisab—rather than the powers themselves which are innate to natural freedoms or rights.” (11)   More interesting than this is Allawi’s assertion that “al-fard is usually applied as one of the attributes of supreme being, in the sense of an inimitable uniqueness.  It is usually grouped with others of God’s attributes (such as in the formula, al-Wahid, al-Ahad, al-Fard, al-Samad: The One in essence, state, and being, and the everlasting) to establish the absolute transcendence of the divine essence.  Man is simply unable to acquire any of these essential attributes.” (11)  This is why the collective must take precedence in an Islamic civilization over the individual, partly because no human being can be unique or singular in the sense that God is, so that as a consequence human beings are only individuals in the sense of being parts of a whole, of the Ummma, the community of Islam.  Alawi notes that the modern word for society in Arabic (al-Mujtama’a ) is a neologism derived from western ideas of community that has no parallel in classical Islam, and he notes the efforts of some modern commentators of Islam to equate the term Umma with this modern notion.  But he points out that the word was used in the Qur’an to refer to Abraham himself, indicating a identification of individual with community embodied in a perfected human being.  Human beings are equal in the same measure that they are unlike God, and therefore all basically of the same make up themselves, and so Abraham is a perfected version of everyone else. (12)  Allawi states that “there is a continuum between the individual and the group, with little possiblility of ethical atomization at the individual level or oppressive conformity at the group level.” (12)  This is so because the distinction between group and individual is a permeable one, as both are guided by the same set of standards which are derived totally from outside humanity itself, the divine and transcendent decrees of Islam.(13)  

What is notable about this description of Islam is that Allawi says that there are two ways within Islam for understanding and interpeting the “divine plan” as he calls it, namely reason and revelation, or what he calls prophecy.  What is notable about this is Allawi’s admission of the difficulty in interpreting the “divine plan,” and especially the difficulty in mediating the content of divine revelation down to succeeding generations of believers.  The “prophetic” way of transmitting divine message is by way of a perfected human being, an ideal type which Allawi says is common to all religions, and which is embodied in Islam by the sayings and teachings of Muhammad.  (14) The result of a religion based on divine decrees transmitted this way is a “God based and timeless ethical system” whose last essential attribute is that any human moral virtues must have their roots in God’s essence, in his attributes, so that there are “no human virtues as such” in Islam, they all being predicated upon the oneness and transcendence of God.  (15)  I want to return to this theological point in my last post on this book, as I think it is of profound significance for what he says about Islamic civilization, and what it implies about Western civilization.

Much of what Allawi says in this prologue has its parallel critiques in the Western world of a secular society that has loosed its moorings from the divine, the transcendent, the sacred, the eternal and so forth, and Allawi admits as much, citing, inter alia, Alasdair MacIntyre, the Catholic Church, and proponents of Neo-Confucian “Asian values” in the far East.  What is the difference then between these other critiques of secular modernity and Allawi’s critique from a Muslim perspective?  As I read it, it is this: 

“The concerns of Islam are not too different, it is true, but Isam is, theoretically, the only force which can move beyond the realm of the polemical and into the ream of the political, through its explicit connection with states and governments, and thus with power.  It can therefore create the circumstances to propose and even go down an alternative route into modernity.  ” (17, my italics)

Because Islam is in Allawi’s words a “total way of life” and can manifest itself as political power, it can effect a serious challenge to the forces of an alien and threatening secular modernity.  Islam, unlike the pope, does have many divisions, and so can be a player politically in the world, an important point given the continuum that Allawi identifies between the individual and the community in Islam, and therefore between the outer and inner aspects of its civilization:  the political power of Islam can be brought to bear in order to remedy its spiritual crisis, if I read him correctly.  The problem in his mind is not, to paraphrase Chesterton, that Islam has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been abandoned by Muslim elites obsessed with the political manifestations of Islam, who have ignored its spiritual and ethical attributes, and even while trying to fight against the tide of a secular, Western world have succumbed to its basic ethical and cosmic presuppostions.  What exactly are the spiritual and ethical foundations of Islam that have been eroded, starting, Allawi says, in the mid 19th century, and how they were eroded, are the subject of the first three chapters of the book, and in my next post I will detail what how he believes this happened.


~ by Alypius on July 27, 2009.

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