Crisis of Contemplation, Crisis of Islam (III)

This will likely be the final post on Alli Allawi’s book, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, as I have been busy trying to finish my dissertation and other minor chores.  But I promise to fulfill as much of my earlier plan as I am able to do in this last post.

The Disechanting of Islam

The various reactions to Westernization and modernization brought with them their own set of challenges to classical Islam as Allawi defines it, as we saw last time.  The outcome of the various Islamicizing governments of the 1980’s was not a revival of Islamic civilization, but a politicized Islam, clumsily trying to deal with the effects of a good century or so of the marginalization of formally traditional Islamic cultures.  Allawi says that part of this happened by way of attempts to modernize the Arabic language, which led to the loss of key concepts central to Islam.   Allawi notes that Quranic Arabic differs from conventional Arabic, which was the language of Arab civilization; the former is a sacred langauge, even though it was the language of Muhammad’s tribe the Quraish, which means it cannot be changed, whereas the latter can. (90)  He even goes so far as to call modern Arabic “neo-Arabic,” so completely has it severed its moorings in Quranic Arabic.  A similar process occurred in non-Arabic languages which had been aborbed into Islam, most prominently that of Turkish, which was purged of Arabic script by Attaturk in the 1920’s, when Turkey was turned into a secular republic.  (He perceptively notes the contrast with Israel’s insistence on Hebrew as its national language at its birth, despite being positioning itself in the Western tradition.) He notes the disrputive effects that changes in education had on Islamic civilization as well, as Western modes of learning were imported in the 19th and 20th centuries, introducing into the educational sphere that distinction between secular and religious learning which is basic to Western religious thought but a poision for older Islamic educational traditions.  Attempts by Muslims thinkers to found alternative Islamic universities have largely been a failure, partly for political reasons. (103)  He goes onto to note the potential for genuine reform of Islam which would not compromise its essential features, going through a variety of Muslim reformers of the 20th century but doesn’t really sound that sanguine about any of their ideas (128-132).   He rejects calls for reform along Western lines, noting the rather silly efforts of some Western journalists and pundits to find an Islamic “Luther” to give Islam its “Protestant Reformation.”  He makes an intriguing comparison between the Islamic world today and Europe at the time of the Reformation, but its not a comparison he wants to embrace, citing Protestant authors Harvey Cox and Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the necessity of religion’s privatization in the modern world, something Islam could never embrace and survive. (134-35) 

Islam & Political Power

Allawi tends to treat with contempt the whole notion of a “clash of civilizations” thesis, which he seems think is a matter of Western thinkers needing a scapegoat for nationalist sentiment.  He makes the odd comment that the “clash of civilization thesis glossed over an issue of singular importance.  Of all the great civilizations of the world, it was only Islam that had no state champions who could act out their role on the global stage.”  (137-38)  I say this is odd because Samuel Huntington, in his book titled with that very phrase, explicitly pointed out that this was a problem for Islam, and put forth Turkey as a possible candidate for that role, as a state which could defend Islamic interests but also check the aggressions and ambitions of smaller Islamic states.  Allawi must surely know the book, since he quotes Huntington from it.  He rightly points out that fears of a pan Islamic state are unrealistic, given the actual weakness of most Muslim states, but nonetheless admits that “the loss of territorial empires has not been matched by the complete displacement of Muslim’s loyalties in favour of the nation-state. Islamic political unity, no matter how chimerical or utopian, continues to exert a powerful political influence.” (142)  He recognizes that this loyalty to a “political community” sets Islam apart from “other major religions” (although he makes an exception for Judaism, which I am not sure is accurate for most Jews, even observant ones), though he does not seem to appreciate that it is precisely this fact that makes Westerners suspicious of Islam.   He seems to think that Western nations and other world powers unfairly stigmatize Islam as disruptive and seek to keep it disempowered, so that the “world system is not based on equity and fairness, but the absence of these factors is a major source of instability and extremism.” (143) 

I agree with him that it is hypocritcal to call Islam disruptive while not recognizing that it needs to have a powerful international player to protect the interests of its weaker nations, and I would agree with him and Huntington that such a state would in fact be a good thing for Islam and the world at large.  But I have to say, I foundsome of his arguments on the instability of Islamic civilization to be the least convincing in the book, since he appears to place most of the blame for Islamic “extremism” on factors external to Islamic civilization, without ever considering that it might have its roots in Islam itself—that is, it may be an internal rather than an external problem.  He never makes it clear why the “extremist” versions of Islam that Al-Quaeda and others espouse are illegitimate according to the basic tenets of Islam, and his apparently more moderate beliefs are authoritative.  He does criticize Wahhabism and other “Islamist” sects, not for their violence against non-Muslims, but for that against other Muslims, which indeed violates the basic tenets of Islam.   Whether using violence to subdue non-Muslims is such a violation is another matter.  It is not obvious why the more severe surahs in the Qur’an (9:5, 25) or hadiths of Muhammad cannot be interpreted as sanctioning the use of force to make non-Muslims submit to Islam (or to punish apostates from Islam, for that matter).  Until Muslims can say unequivocally that it is not legitimate, they will continue to face suspicion and even hostility from Westerners and other non Muslims.  

This is the real question, at least to my mind, and it is not merely the product of right wing “neo-conservatives” bent on smearing Islam, but of real disagreements and difference of belief both between the Muslim and Western worlds and within the Muslim world itself.  That such an intelligent and articulate advocate for Islam such as Allawi does not even address it is disappointing, and as a result many of his objections in these two chapters (6&7) sound rather like special pleading.  His chapter on Islam and Human Rights (chapter 8) does nothing to mitigate this reaction on my part.  For example:  he cites the efforts of Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian, to get the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed in the 1940’s, especially its provisions on religious freedom, as being aimed at Muslims, and that he “knew very well that an act of renunciation of Islam by a born or converted Muslim would have problematic consequences.” (192)  Allawi does not spell out what these “problematic consequences” are, but that they can include death among other punishments is well known.  Allawi cites medieval skeptics of Islam who were never punished for their unbelief, as a rejoinder to those who say Islam doesn’t tolerate diversity of beliefs, and cites religious violence in the West (the Crusades, the Wars of Religion, violence against heretics, etc.) to point out the supposed hypocrisy of Islam’s  accusers.  But his defense largely misses the point:  such violence is an ancient memory to people in the West, and no Christian group or body would ever sanction such punishments for apostasy today.   Again, the issue here is not whether Islam demands political loyalty, that it is a “total way of life” or whether it has a different understanding of rights or freedom than that prevalent in the West (I agree with some of his critiques on these points actually), but rather the use of violence or matieral coercion for specifically religious religious reasons—for extending the dominion of Islam or Islamic states, and for keeping Muslims from converting.  All these things may very well be a corruption of true Islamic teaching, but people of goodwill, such as Allawi, are going to have to convince first fellow Muslims who disagree, and then skeptical Westerners that this is so, before the whole “clash of civilizations” paradigm of relationships w/the West will ever lose its importance.  

That said, what these chapters do accomplish is to once again put into relief the different ways in which the “inner” and “outer” aspects of Islamic and Western civilization contrast.  It very much appears that the inner life of Islam cannot, at least according to Allawi, exist independently of Islamic political power, as his rather poignant discussion of the plight of Muslim immigrants in Western or other non-Muslim countries illustrates. (173-78)  For Allawi, the discussion of the health of Islam’s political life cannot evidently be severed from the health of its spiritual and moral life as it often is in the West.  Different also is the fact, at least according to Allawi, that Islam recognizes nothing like the “individual” in modern Western terms, and so helps explain why it does not see religious freedom in the same way, and so as a result sees the policing of religious belief in quite a different light at a societal level.  The relationship between the inner and outer aspects of an individual person’s life are seen differently according to the different visions of Islamic and Western civilization, where internal belief seems much more an object of scrutiny (for good and for ill) than it does in Islamic civilization, whose religion do seeme to me to be as concerned with individual belief.  On the other  hand, the idea of rights as he describes it is very much like the classical, Western idea of rights derived from duties, and there is perhaps some room for common ground on this point.    Thus even when I find some of his conclusions doubtful or objectionable, Allawi brings into focus important questions regarding the contemplative and active life of civilizations.

Cultural Decline and the Last Crisis

In any case, it is not merely the political weakness of Islam that concerns Allawi, or at least not primarily; or perhaps it would be better to say that because of the cultural weakness of Islamic civilization, the emphasis has to be on its outer, political manifestation, as he admits towards the end of the book that “the fortunes of Islamic civilization are linked more to the success or demise of political Islam” than to any demise of belief among the masses as has occurred in the West.  (252)  This may sound contradictory, for how can Islam be culturally weak if there is no loss of  committment among the vast majority of its adherents?  But Allawi is more concerned with what Muslims are adhering to, and it is here that the contradiction is resolved, for Allawi points out that in the most basic of ways, the economic life of Muslims, have been altered subtly by the growth of a global economy.  The globalized economy based on ideas of liberal economic theory are according to Allawi, “is antithetical to the fundamental features of an Islamic economic and social order,” which stresses “duty, charity and solidarity” over self interest in economic matters. (216)  His description of the effects of modern economics on traditional Muslim societies sounds a lot like Aristotlean or distributist critiques of modern economic practices.  He also notes that attempts to create an Islamic economic bloc, or create Islamic banks, for example, have largely been swallowed up by globalization. (225-28)

The displacement of the oikos as the locus of wealth in the Muslime world is paralleled by a loss of cultural vitality.  The “decline of creativity” that Allawi mentions in chapter 10 he attributes to a loss of a “traditional” persepective or “perennial philosophy” he associates with the Muslim “traditionalist” Seyyed Hossein Nasr, which he again identifies with Sufism, and which he notes has its parallels in the monastic and contemplative traditions of Christianity.  This traditionalist view connected science and the arts to the “sacred” in Allawi’s telling, and he wants to stress how all the areas of life in the traditional world view of Islam simply could not be disconnected from it, and that the impetus to separate science, for example, from its mooring in the “sacred” had to “come from somewhere else,” i.e. the West. (252)  The decay in the urban centers of Islam predates the arrival of the great European empires, as once great cities such as Cairo and Baghdad were reduced to the status of provincial backwaters, but Allawi sees this as less signficant than the imposition in a later period of a different sense of space and social organization that was brought into the Muslim world by Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries, but also by certain Islamic leaders, particularly the Wahhabi rulers of Mecca and Medina, who have removed many of the historical Islamic buildings in these cities and replaced them with modern high rise buildings and shopping centers. (239)  The pressures to alter the historic face of Muslim cities comes both from within from fundamentalist visions of Islamic society, and from the more commercial ideals of a global liberal order.  (242-45) Though he never explicitly says so, he seems to admit that the “disenchanting” of Islam that took place in the 19th century succeeded partly because of a decline that had already beset the Muslim world (Wahhabism, after all, was an 18th century phenomenon, and so preceded the full scale colonization of the Muslim world by the West), but which evidently required the outside element to make the rapid decline in Islamic creativity that Allawi sees as having taken place.

And so this finally brings us the to “last crisis” referred to in Allawi’s final chapter, in which Allawi surveys the damage done to Islamic civilization and takes stock of its capacity to reverse and correct the damage.  He is not particularly hopeful.  He sees the various attempts to reform the Islamic world in the last fifty years or so as having failed, and the remaining vestiges of classical Islamic civilization have shrunk to basically two: the religious faith of the pious and the political power of government.  And the piety itself is not what it used to be, having been drained of much of the spiritual wisdom, mysticism, and metaphysical subtlty of classical Islam, and often left with little more than the stringent and sometimes barbaric enforcement of religious dress, religious festivals and a sort of politicized Muslimi identity, which Allawi does not think has the force to survive the pressures that are currently eroding the foundations of Islamic civilization.  (251)  This is doubtless why he puts so much emphasis on the political aspects of Islamic civilization, but he likewise does not see much hope for the revitalization of Islamic civilization in the various politicized forms of Islam practiced by various “Islamist” groups (his term), for he sees them as too shallow and too invested in enforcing the mere outward forms of Islam to have much effect.  As for the violent manifestations of Islam, such as al-Quaeda et al, he predicts that they will be defeated in the near future, and sees the only hope in revitalizing it and contributing something to the new world that is developing without Islam as a major factor at the moment is to reconnect with Islam’s mystical and “intuitive” knowledge of the transcendent, which might help contribute to the overcoming of the malaise of meaninglessness that seems to beset modern societies which are dominated by a scientific, techological mindset. (256-59)  And it should be clear he is not talking about some sort of religious public policy, but rather a reconstruction of Islamic societies from the ground up.  He compares the type of society he envisions with the “traditional societies of medieval Europe, in which the sacred was fused into the ordinary lives of the faithful,” and that is precisely what he thinks “modernity” has sapped from modern Islamic society, the “natural sense of the sacred in people’s daily lives.” (267)  He does not really suggest any concrete way that this might be achieved but does mention the Sufi tariquas, which once numbered adherents from all walks of Islamic life, and whose raison d’etre was the personal perfection of its followers. (268) 

Allawi sees the choice confronting the Muslim world in stark terms:  if Muslims really want to inhabit and be a serious part of the new world order, they will have to embrace not only the technological and economic manifestations of the Westernized global civilization that has come to dominate the world, but also the underlying premises that sustain it as well, and which are contradictory to that of Islam, and which will destroy Islam if they are so embraced.  (270-71)  The only other alternative to this fate is to embrace the inner resources of Islam again, and do the hard work of restoring its moral and spiritual qualities to a place of centrality in the lives of ordinary Muslims, then all of the resurgence that Islam has experienced in the last thirty years or so will come to nothing, and instead of its rebirth, it will become “instead the final act of the end of a civilization.” (273)

Final Thoughts

What I found striking about Allawi’s book, looking back at it in retrospect, is how much it seems to parallel Western critiques of contemporary Western civilization, going back at least to the Romantic period.  The loss of wholeness, of the interconnectedness of the various branches of learning, of the mechanization of space which robs public buildings of meaning, the betrayal of traditional values by the clerical elite—all of these complaints have been registered in the past 200 years by thinkers as diverse as Friedrich Schiller, Joseph de Maistre, John Ruskin, Julien Benda, T. S. Eliot, Alasdair MacIntyre, and others, against changes in Western society.   I mention this because, not having any experience of any Islamic societies to draw on myself, I can only judge Allawi’s critique by comparison.  My thinking on the whole notion of secularization has undergone a great deal of change over the years during graduate school, and I won’t bore you with the details, but I have come to be skeptical of its claims to completely erode religious belief, and in particular the types of subgroups and subcultures that can foster a kind of religious life which he sees as embodied in the tariquas of Sufism.  I have not been to more than a few European countries (three to be exact), but the ones I have visited seem to have pockets of religious believers who, though a tiny minority, seem to have retained something of the contemplative yearnings associated with the monastic life, for example.  I presume this is why, in the Catholic world, an organization like Opus Dei has been so successful, since it seeks to foster a contemplative life of prayer by laymen in the world, something that many seek in this dizzying age.   My point is not that public life in these countries will ever again be Christian in any forseeable future, but that such life can exist apart from that public world, and even flourish, in a society that might to all appearances seem “disenchanted” to use Schiller’s and Weber’s term.

What has this to do with Islamic civilization?  Well, I think perhaps Allawi may be overdoing the catastrophic effects that globablization has had on Islam, and that it may not have lost as much of this total vision of life as thinks.  This doesn’t mean that he is not right to fear that Islamic civilization in a classical sense may suffer irreparable changes at the global level, such that someone like Allawi might not consider it to be authentically Islamic anymore, and yet still go on under the label of  “Islam” for many centuries to come.   This indeed has happened in the west, but such a process can never be a total, and there may always be, until the world passes away, some pockets of life where this element was not done away with.  This might be cold comfort to Allawi (and its not optimal for me either, in terms of my view of Western society) but it still leaves a flicker of hope.  I believe this partly because I believe the contemplative yearning is intrinsic to human nature, and partly because the ideals which in the past have cultivated this yearning have had a long shelf life in terms of human culture, and it is my experience that, whether they be for good or ill, ideas once thrown into the maelstrom of human history and civilization, have a tendency to never really go away, but instead are recycled from time to time in different guises (I’m thinking here mostly of bad ones, like religious dualism, which never seems to die for whatever reason).  I’m not really sure, to be honest; perhaps I just want to see some hope for Islamic civilization so that I can claim it for my own.  One thing Allawi’s book has convinced me of is the need for some sort of contemplative life is needed to sustain the world’s great religions; without it, I’m not really sure they could survive.  And Allawi makes a good case that the civilizations that are built on them probably won’t survive that long without it either.


~ by Alypius on February 18, 2010.

One Response to “Crisis of Contemplation, Crisis of Islam (III)”

  1. Have not the opportunity to acquire just yet this book, that’s the reason for surfing the Internet to see comments and reactions to Ali Alawi’s work.

    Good to read your comments and coming from somebody who likes “St Augustine” to say, “St Aquinas”.

    It might be of interest to you to CONNECT Ali Alawi’s writing to Professor Dr Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas work from which must have inspired him to pen this book.

    See also Ali Alawi contribution in Festscrift of Al-Attas just published 2010.

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