Crisis of Contemplation, Crisis of Islam (II)

In my last post, I detailed the opening material of Ali Allawi’s Crisis of Islamic Civilization, and in this post I will take a look at his historical explanation of how this crisis came about.

Rending the Veil

If Allawi’s analysis of what ails Islam is distinctive, as I detailed in the last post, then his historical analysis of the crisis of Islamic civilization is more familiar.  He acknowledges the familiar narrative that Islam has been in decline since the seventeenth century, but denies this, and sees the origins of Islamic civilization’s weakened state as arising out 19th century Western colonial domination of formerly superior Islamic cultures.  “The projection of European imperial in an almost effortless demonstration of its superiority in military, technical, material, organizational and governance matters challenged the core assumptions that underlay the world view of Islam.” (25)  The sudden emergence of almost total Western military superiority and it subsequent imposition 0f Western institutions, despite the efforts of a few enlightened and spiritually adept Muslim leaders in a traditional mould, radically altered the way most Muslims perceived their civilization.   Specifically, it convinced Muslim elites and leaders that military, technology and political concerns were paramount, to the neglect of the moral and spiritual aspects of Islam.   Allawi sees in this both a cause and effect of the weakening of the influence of the old Sufi orders, who were often coopted by European powers during the 19th and 20th centuries. (33)  This led Muslim leaders to try to attempt to put all of their civilizational resources behind the renovation of the “outer” aspects of Islamic civilization, in order to remedy their political weakness with regards to the European powers.  They often did so, according to Allawi, without understanding the philosophical bases for Western science, for example, and without much thought adopted ideas which were not compatible to classical Islam in the process, not noticing how much it changed their thinking.  Thus they weakened the inner aspects of Islam in order to bolster the outer, without, however, appreciably altering the balance of power.  Additionally, some of the specifically religious reform movements within Islam, which began precisely in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, began to emphasize the outer aspects of religion—minute legal observances of sharia, Islamic rituals and the like, combined with an overly literal interpetation of the Qur’an and the Hadith—which helped to weaken the more mystical, spiritual aspects of Islam along with the new influx of Western ideas.  (Included among these movements is the so-called “Wahhabism,” whose influence became prominent among Muslim religious reformers only in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries (37-40).

The Crisis of Confidence

In the next chapter, Allawi gives examples of the increasing lack of confidence that Muslim leaders felt in their own civilization and its heritage, how they internalized the critiques of 19th century orientalists, who saw Muslim civilization as declining after the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 13th century.  The breakdown of the Islamic empires of the 19th century lead to their displacement by European ideals of race, nationalism, and other variants as replacements for older Islamic loyalties and loci of obligation.  Allawi notes again that words had to be invented or imported into Islam even to describe some of these concepts which were imported wholesale into the Muslim world. (47)   He notes the efforts of some scholars and thinkers in the twentieth century, who tried to reverse this trend, among whom he singles out one Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), a poet and philosopher who sought to create a system of Muslim thought that would be compatible with a Westernized modern world, in which he emphasized the evolution of the individual as an aspect of the creativity of God.  This very personalized philosophy Allawi admits did not quite fit with classical Islam, but it was an attempt at least to come to terms with a changed situation that was “authentically” Islamic. (50-54)  No such philosophy guided the nation-states that emerged from the first half of the twentieth century, be they the Frech inspired Secular State of Turkey, where he notes the efforts of Said Nursi (1877-1960) to oppose the radical secularization of the former Ottoman Empire. (Nursi’s Risale-i Nur, Epistles of Light sounds in Allawi’s descriptions a bit like Pascal’s Pensees, in that they appear to have been a collection of intutitive insights into the Qur’an, written specifically for skeptics or those infested with materialist philosophies). (56-58)  Allawi notes the surmise of social scientists in the late 1960’s and 70’s who predicted the demise of Islam (who had also been predicting the demise of Christianity as well), and how those various Western institutions and ideals which were to replace Islam as the focus for individuals—even some of the ones which have stuck, such as the nation-state, and the idea of racial differences—largely failed to replace the allegiance most Muslims felt to Islam, a fact that Hilaire Beloc understood better than most of them, as he points out in a footnote. (60-62, n.31)   Thus elites both Muslim and Western were both caught unawares when the backlash against this secularization came in the late 1970’s

The Islamic Revival

When the reaction to the weakness of Islam and its abandonment by Muslim elites came, it was partly the result of a generational shift, Allawi points out, as those promised benefits of modernizing and secularizing the Muslim world failed to appear.  He notes the first generation of what he calls the “New Religious Intellectuals” continued the attempt to modernize Islam by mixing in traditional Islamic beliefs with selective Western ideas.   The most famous of these is the now infamous (at least in the West) Sayyid Qtub, the Egyptian thinker who helped found the Islamic Brotherhood. Besides these, there was an attempt by some traditional religious scholars, the ulema, also tried to “breathe new life into Islamic categories of thought” while simultaneously critiquing Western systems of thought, which Allawi says they did badly in Iraq due to lack of understanding.  (73-76)  Allawi refers to many of these groups associated with the Islamic counter revolt against modernity as “Islamists” or as part of “political Islam.”  By this he means to use those groups who used Islam to fight against modernity but wound up being shaped by modern ideas nonetheless; he gives as an example of this attempts by modern Islamic groups to reinterpret the Qur’an in order to further their political projects, and so produced new commentaries upon the text (he relates in a footnote that up till then most commentaries on the Qur’an had dated from the Middle Ages).  (79, n.19) What Allawi does not explain is why this is somehow illegitimate for Muslims to do in the 21st century, but not for Muslims in the 12th century it was a good thing to do, though I presume it goes to their motivations, which evidently lack a firmly Islamic enough moral or spiritual orientation in his mind.

Despite these intellectual changes, it was really the failure of the regimes which had embraced Westernization that were the catalyst for the explosion of Islamic fervor that began in the late 70’s that made possible the revival of Islam as a political force.  The primum mobile for this revival was the Iranian Revolution, whose proponents claimed they were going to totally remake the whole Islamic world, which as Allawi points out was never really possible but gained for the revolutionaries initially a wide support in the Islamic world (67, 81).   But even it indulged in innovations at variance with Muslim jurisprudence and Islamic political thought, in particular the granting of supreme political power to the Ayatollah Khomeini, which gave the hierarchy of priest in Iranian Shia Islam a power it had never yielded before.   This particularity of Shia Islam (Sunni Islam, by far the majority in the Muslim world, have no such religious hierarchy) made the Revolution for the most part unexportable to other parts of the Muslim world.  The revolutionary ideal of Islam in the Sunni world fell to the revived Wahabbism emanating from Saudi Arabia, funded by it oil money.  Insurgent Muslim fanatics stormed the mosque at the Kaaba on November 20 1979, and the Saudi royal family was only able to regain control by making concessions to Wahhabi clerics who demanded the reversal of the slow process of modernization that they had previously supported.   The Islamic counter revolt was underway, but as Allawi noted, it did not escape the pathologies it was meant to destroy:

“…Islam’s reappearance as a guiding principle in state and society obliged Muslims to confront a whole multitude of fundamental issues, which were covered up when the reins of power were in the hands of others.  Civilization had to be recast in a landscape where the preceding century and a half had created new realities in self, society and the state.  The footprints of modernity—and the bungled attempts to come to terms with it—were everywhere in Islamic society.” (83) 

Allawi’s narrative of what he calls “the Islamic world view” and its waning has a familiar ring to it; replace many of the names with Christian ones, and it would certainly be a familiar story.  But that is only true for the outline.  The body of it is quite different, for many aspects of Islamic civilization which are quite different from our own were altered by its contact with Western secularism.  The combined pressure of Western military and technological superiority with the allure of Western values produced profound changes in the relationship between the inner and outer workings of Islamic civilization.  Just to take one example:  Allawi, as we noted before, Islam is not terribly concerned with salvation or conversion, and so places little emphasis on interior disputes over doctrine.  Internal unity among Muslims was considered far more important.  This is why in contrast to Christianity, it has had few wars if any fought over religion between Muslims; Christians, on the other hand, seek to convert someone to a creed which they must believe, and so have always fought over such matters in much more serious way.  (Conversely, warfare against non Muslims is much easier to justify and is much more common in Islam, whereas the Crusades were an exception in Christian history).  When the Muslim thinkers of the mid-twentieth century began treating Islam as a vehicle primarily for fighting tyrannical government, for revolution in other words, things shifted; Qtub came up with his idea of jahili society (ignorant, or pagan), to refer not only to non-Muslim societies like the US but also to those Islamic countries he didn’t find sufficiently Islamic.  This idea, once embedded in Muslim life, could be used as an excuse to persecute other Muslims for religious purposes, something strictly against the practice and ethos of the Qur’an and Islam.  And it has, as the Sunni/Shia divide is now more sectarian than it has ever been.  The counter revolt of Islam against the modern West has only exacerbated this process, at least according to Allawi.  One wonders if he perhaps doesn’t protest too much, and maybe the of Westernization of Islamic society forced Muslims to look at themselves for the first time in a different way, opening up possibilities that were there all along.  Nietzsche says in the Twilight of the Idols that a psychologist must turn his eyes from himself to see anything at all.  It is almost as if Islam has been forced to look at itself, but cannot see anything any more as a result. 

In the next post, we will detail his account of the effects of this imbalance between the inner/outer parts of Islamic civilization, and his prognosis for correcting it.


~ by Alypius on August 2, 2009.

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