Towards A New Islamic Discourse
Wednesday, March 8,2006 00:00
By IslamOnline.net
Islam is portrayed sometimes as if it were a monolithic or uni-dimensional entity. Islam is undoubtedly the faith of transcendental monotheism , the belief in Allah (the one and only God), who transcends both man and nature. But monotheism does not lead to monism (the metaphysical doctrine that existence is a whole and one); on the contrary, it leads to pluralism and diversity. For from a strictly Islamic point of view, except for God, everything else exists in variety. Therefore, there is not one single Islamic discourse, but rather a variety of discourses that manifest various endeavors , or ijtihad, (personal reasoning) of the Muslim mind, within the boundaries of time and place, to understand the world and to interpret the Qur’an.
 
Towards A New Islamic Discourse

 Abdel-Wahab M. Elmessiri
 

 

Islam is portrayed sometimes as if it were a monolithic or uni-dimensional entity. Islam is undoubtedly the faith of transcendental monotheism , the belief in Allah (the one and only God), who transcends both man and nature. But monotheism does not lead to monism (the metaphysical doctrine that existence is a whole and one); on the contrary, it leads to pluralism and diversity. For from a strictly Islamic point of view, except for God, everything else exists in variety. Therefore, there is not one single Islamic discourse, but rather a variety of discourses that manifest various endeavors , or ijtihad, (personal reasoning) of the Muslim mind, within the boundaries of time and place, to understand the world and to interpret the Qur’an.

Islamic Discourses... Diverse Visions

One may classify the different Islamic discourse prevalent at the present as following:

  1. A populist salvationist "messianic" discourse: This is the discourse of the overwhelming majority of the Muslim masses that have realized through historical experience that the processes of modernization, secularization and globalization have done them no good and brought no real reform. They want to see the Islamic nation(s) (ummah) restore its religious and cultural heritage, and oppose Western neo-colonial hegemony .While these masses cry for change, and hope for salvation, they are incapable of contributing any new ideas or organizing any social nor political movements. Usually it finds a suitable platform in philanthropy, either at the individual level (charity and relief ), or at the community level (building mosques, hospitals and schools or providing hot meals to the poor).

    Such a discourse frequently expresses itself in the form of spontaneous and, at times, violent acts of protest ,but it is at essence pacifist. The populist discourse is mainly the discourse of the poor and the marginalized, but it is also sometimes the discourse of some elites in the society who re-discover their religious and cultural heritage, and who recognize that its loss would mean a loss of their identity that they attempt to re-build.

  2. The political discourse: This is the discourse of groups of middle class professionals, academicians, students and business people, who are aware of the need for an Islamic action that can help this ummah progress. These people, having realized that political action is the means for achieving their objective, have set up or joined political organizations that do not resort to violence--and out of which youth and educational organizations started developing. Some of the supporters of this political discourse harbor, at certain moments, the ideology that taking over the central government would be the long sought for panacea, and some of them did actually develop para-military organizations and tried to infiltrate the armed forces and to seize power by force. However, there has been, somehow, a general inclination towards working through the existing legitimate political channels with in the follower of this discourse. Most of the bearers of this political discourse, at the present time, tend to restrict their activity to the political and/or the educational sphere.

  3. The intellectual discourse: This is the discourse that deals primarily with the more theoretical and intellectual issues, and is dominant within the academics and intellectuals and has little influence on the masses yet remains influential in times of crisis when people turn to these intellectuals for guidance and when they voice the concerns of the masses in the intellectual arena.

This simple classification does not mean that the three discourses exist in total isolation, the one from the other. In fact, the populist and political discourses very often merge into one another, and the same can be said about the political and intellectual discourses, notwithstanding the common ground and frame of reference shared by the three discourse. Yet we deem it useful, from an analytical point of view, to assume their relative independence from one another.

In addition to this synchronic system of classification, a chronological diachronic one might prove more relevant--from the standpoint of this paper. We might also distinguish between:

  1. The traditionalist Islamic discourse: It emerged as a direct and immediate reaction to the colonial invasion of the Muslim world, and prevailed till the mid-sixties.

  2. The new Islamic discourse: After an initial period of indefiniteness and marginalization, this discourse began to assume a more definite form in the mid-sixties, and started to move gradually toward the center.
Both discourses endeavored to provide an Islamic answer to the challenges posed by colonization, modernization and the post-independence era. Nevertheless, there are radical points of divergence between the two that stem from two interrelated factors:
  1. Their respective attitudes vis-à-vis Western modernity.

  2. The level of comprehensiveness that each discourse and outlook has developed.
Here we will primarily focus on the traditional and modern intellectual Islamic discourses, and to a much lesser degree-–against the current of research on contemporary Islam--on the political one. I will try to identify some of the salient characteristics of the new discourse. Any intellectual or political movement must pause from time to time to look critically at itself and to assess its performance in order to be able to abstract some of its own nascent traits and crystallize them into a relatively coherent system, then map its own future course.

It is worth noting that the first generation of Muslim reformists came in contact with the modem Western cultural formation in a historical era that is considerably different, in many aspects, from the present one. It could be argued that the comprehensive secular paradigm, the fundamental paradigm underlying the modem Western cultural formation, has always occupied a central position in the conscience of modem Western man and has always moulded his view of the universe. It could also be said that the imperialist aspects of Western modernity manifested themselves only too clearly from the very beginning. All of these facts notwithstanding, modem Western civilization viewed itself as a humanistic, man-centered civilization, and maintained, for some time, at the level of vision--if not always at the level of practice--a sense of balance and faith in absolute moral and human values. At the structural level. Western societies maintained, for a long period of time, a high level of social coherence and solidarity. Family values, far from being an empty social slogan remembered by conservatives during election days, were still a surviving social reality.

But things did change.

It might be useful, in this context, to conceptualize secularism not as a fixed paradigm, but rather as a dynamic paradigmatic sequence ,and an unfolding process, which takes different models in time and space. One can say that by the end of the nineteenth century many of the manifestations that mark this sequence had not yet been materialized. Man’s private life and many aspects of his public life were still beyond the reach of the power of the process of secularization. In other words, the Western man was secularized only in some aspects of his public life, but in his private life as well as in many aspects of his social public life, he was committed to moral and human values, rooted in Christian morality and codes of ethics. When the first generation of Islamic reformists, the bearers of the old Islamic discourse, encountered this modem cultural formation, they did not at that time interact with a comprehensive secular civilization but rather with a partially secular one. Whereas partial secularism recognizes the validity and importance of values on the moral level, and of the idea of totality on the epistemological level (that which deals with the theory of knowledge), comprehensive secularism denies them as well as the very idea of transcendence. Many of the negative aspects of Western modernity, which became later a ’recurrent pattern’, were isolated events and marginal incidents that could be easily overlooked. Furthermore, the Western critique of modernity and of the Enlightenment had not yet been crystallized at that time, in spite of the fact that the voices of dissent were getting stronger. Western romantic literature, for instance, is in essence a protest against the anti-humanist aspects of Western modernity. The writings of some conservative Western thinkers, such as Edmund Burke, include references to many of the topics that were developed later by Western discourses that are critical of modernity. The shortcomings of progression Western civilization, whether at the level of theory or at the level of practice, were, nevertheless, not yet obvious to those who observed or studied this (increasingly in the urbanized capitalist model).

Yet for the bearers of the new Islamic discourse, the situation is quite different. Most of them had their intellectual formative years in the fifties and had their first encounter with modern Western civilization in the sixties and seventies. That was the time when Western modernity had already entered the stage of crisis, and when many Western thinkers had begun to realize the level of this impasse that the Western modernity had reached. The bearers of the new Islamic discourse realized, from the very beginning, the dark aspects of Western modernity. It had embroiled the entire world in two Western wars (called "World Wars" because the whole world was dragged into the arena of conflict). The promise of modernity to stop violence historically triggered by religious sentiments was not fulfilled , and modern regimes could commit genocide more professionally than ever thought of. Reason could commit its own crimes too--not only religion. In the so-called the time of "peace", the world was caught in a frenzied arms race. The centralized nation-state, growing more authoritarian and stronger, expanded and reached the most private aspects of human life, and, through its sophisticated security and educational apparatus, tried to "guide" its citizens! The media, another by-product of Western modernity, extensively invaded the private lives of citizens, accelerating the process of standardization and escalating the consumerist fever. In the meantime, the entertainment sector has became so powerful as to control the dreams of the masses, selling them erotic Utopias and downright pornography. The family as a social institution could not sustain the pressures and therefore divorce rates rocketed, reaching levels rarely witnessed before. The crisis of meaning, the epistemological crisis, anomie, alienation and reification became more pronounced. While the liberal capitalist project ceased to be the smashing success story , the socialist experiment collapsed and lost any vestige of credibility. Anti-humanist intellectual trends such as Fascism, Nazism, Zionism and Structuralism emerged and reached a climax in a late-modernist condition.

Beyond Modernity: The Turn of the Sixties

By the mid-sixties, the critical Western discourse of modernity was crystallized and the works of its critics, such as the Frankfurt School thinkers, had become widely available and quite popular. Many studies revising of the notions of the Enlightenment were published. Works on the standardization that resulted from Western modernity and about its One-Dimensional Man, such as Herbert Marcuse, sought to demonstrate the existence of a structural defect that lies at the very heart of modem secular project of the Western civilization--a defect that goes beyond the traditional division of its ideologies (and stretches itself into a socialist and a capitalist camp). Many revisionist historians, rewriting the history of modem Western civilization, tried to underscore the enormity of the crimes committed against the peoples of Asia and Africa and of the colonial pillage of their lands. Many studies, radically critical of development theories, appeared during the same period. The New Left movement made a significant contribution in this regard. Thus, whether on the level of practice or on the level of theory, it was not difficult for the bearers of the new Islamic discourse, those who studied Western modernity in the middle of the twentieth century, to recognize many of its shortcomings and to see it in its totality. It was no longer possible for them to experience a naive admiration and amazement experienced by the intellectuals of the early twentieth century generation.

It should be pointed out that neither the new nor the old generation of Muslim intellectuals based their respective intellectual constructs on the basis of an Islamic worldview exclusively, nor in an exclusivist manner. Their interaction with Western modernity was expectedly a very important formative factor, and their ideas were aspiring universal causes and virtues. It was an inclusive vision--different from the knowledge claimed by modernists--to be a science applicable to all communities, and later suggested to be the final answers, declaring the end of history . Responses of Muslims varied according to the type of challenge they faced and its intensity. The early reformists found many positive aspects in Western modernity. This is evident from Sheikh Muhammad Abduh’s frequently quoted remark that "whereas in the West he found Muslims without Islam, in the East he found Islam without Muslims"; he wanted to stress that in the West he found people who manifested in their very conduct the ideals of Islam even though they were not Muslims, whereas in the Muslim world he found people who believed in Islam, but their conduct belied their belief.

Consequently, the issue for many of the bearers of the old Islamic discourse was basically how to reconcile Islam with Western modernity, and even how to make Islam catch up with it, and live up to its standards and values. This was the core of Muhammad Abdu’s project, which predominated the reformist discourse until the mid sixties of this century. Had the experience of Sheikh Muhammad Abdu with Western modernity been different, he would have hesitated long before making this remark and before proposing his project for progress.

The following incident might explain this point further. In 1830, Sheikh Rifa’ah At-Tahtawi, whose admiration of the Western civilization is well-known, was in Paris. In that same year, the French cannons were pounding unsuspected Algerian towns and villages reducing them to rubble. Sheikh At-Tahtawi could only see the bright lights of Paris and could only hear the urbane and sophisticated rhythms of Western modernity. In a different encounter with the French, the Algerian sheikhs, who were subject to a brutal colonial attack using the most sophisticated military technology available at the time, could only see the raging flames of fire and could only hear the racket of bombs. One of these sheikhs was once told that the French troops had actually come to Algeria so as to spread Western civility and modernity. His response was cryptic as it was significant: "But why have they brought all this gunpowder?". Like this Algerian sheikh, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse smelled the reek of gunpowder, saw the flames of fire, heard the racket of cannons and watched the hooves of colonial horses tread on everything. Then they saw the gunpowder becoming omni-present, for it was transformed into all kinds of weapons of mass destruction and extermination: bombs, missiles, biological and nuclear weapons. et cetera. (how relevant to our current Pax -Americana!). Huge budgets were allocated for the production or purchase of these weapons first by Western, then Eastern, Southern and Northern governments. In fact, the mass destruction weapons industry has grown to be the most important industry of our enlightened rational times, and humanity, for the first time in its long history, allocated more funds for the production of weapons than for the production of food.

The traditional Islamic discourse was neither unique nor isolated in its advocacy of Western modernity; it was, in a sense, part of the general outlook that prevailed in the third world since the beginning of this century. Efforts were directed at catching up with the West and at competing with it according to its own terms. The liberals called for the adoption of the full modem Western outlook--with "both its sweet and bitter aspects". The Marxists rebelled slightly and suggested that the peoples of the third world could enter the promised land of Western modernity through the gates of Marxism and social justice. The Islamists, in their turn, imagined it would be possible to adopt the Western modem outlook or rather adapt Islam to it. It is interesting to note that all the trends and movements, religious or secular, irrespective of their ideological inclinations and social or ethnic backgrounds, had turned the West into a silent and ultimate point of reference.

As a result of this attitude towards Western modernity, the authentic Islamic worldview retreated, its dimensions shrunk, and it lost its comprehensiveness. Instead of providing a universal Islamic frame of reference for Muslims (and non-Muslims too) in a complex modem age, the issue became how to "islamize" certain aspects of Western modernity. The Islamization process would, in most cases, take the form of "omitting" those aspects of Western modernity deemed inappropriate or contradictory with Muslim ethics and prohibited by Islamic law, without any addition, innovation or even constructive synthesis. And this inevitably meant the eventual atrophy of those aspects of the Islamic worldview that have no equivalent within the modern Western worldview. Ironically, those aspects constitute the very essence and source of supreme contribution of the Islamic worldview to the universal civilization.

The bearers of the new Islamic discourse do not have the same fascination with Western modernity. Actually, a radical sophisticated critique--not simple rejection--of Western modernity is one of their main points of departure. They, too, are neither unique nor isolated in their critique. For, they do not differ from many of the thinkers and political movements in the third world at the present time who try to evolve different forms of modernity and new models of sustainable development .They also do not differ much from many important trends in the West that are critical of Western modernity. Marxism created a form of critique of modernity, and romanticism, as indicated earlier, was also created a form of protest against its capitalist system. More recently, religious fundamentalism emerged as a populist extension of these intellectual concerns, forming only one version of a wider resurgence that is in its mainstream moderate and even progressive in its own terms. All of these trends, in one way or another, show an increasing doubt that Western modernity can provide man with enough sources to fulfill his true human essence.

The critique of the new Islamic discourse of modernity overlaps with other parallel discourses. It recognizes and emphasizes the inextricable ties between Western modernity and Western imperialism as Marxism does. Imperialism was after all the first encounter with modernity. Yet unlike the Western critique of modernity, which is in many cases nihilistic and pessimistic, the Islamic critique is optimistic by virtue of the fact that it proposes a project for reform and does not fall in nihilism.

Re-capturing the Islamic Paradigm

The Islamic paradigm that developed over the last four decades is not as simplistic as it is usually portrayed in the dominant Western academic literature or media features. It is rather comprehensive and profound, and many voices that mirror that level of sophistication are either ignored or silenced in favor of more extremist ,stereo-types matching, et cetera. It is "an interactive critical response", which goes beyond the "positive" unconditioned acceptance or the "negative” rejection of Western modernity—two extreme points between which the old discourse oscillated. In accordance to this paradigm, ready made Western answers to the questions posed by Western modernity are avoided, and a radical exploratory generative discourse--which neither attempts to reconcile Islam with Western modernity, nor does it preoccupy itself with searching for the points of contrast emerged.

The return to the sources of Islamic belief and civilization is not an anti-historical approach , but rather an attempt to explore and abstract an epistemological paradigm in order to generate a renaissance from within. Rather than imposing Western analytical categories on the Islamic worldview, the bearers of the new discourse try to discover its fundamental categories. One can safely argue that the new Islamic discourse--issuing forth from an Islamic framework--opens the door of innovative thinking, Ijtihad (personal/juristic reasoning) regarding both the modem Western worldview and the Islamic religious and cultural socio-logic.

Hence two fundamental criteria for this line of thought can be outlined:

  1. The approach of the new Islamic discourse is neither apologetic nor self-defensive. Its advocates are not interested in spending much energy on the attempt to "improve" the image of Islam or to "justify" themselves, even though they are interested in sending "a message" to the world.

  2. The bearers of the new discourse neither reject nor accept the West uncritically. Ironically, total rejection, just like total acceptance, presupposes the West as a silent point of reference. What the bearers of the new Islamic discourse reject, in effect, are both the presumed centrality and universalism of the West, as well as its imperialism, which is closely linked to its claim of centrality. They reject the practices of spoilage, pillage and repression, that were perpetrated by Western colonialism in the past and that take at present ’globalized’ new forms that are no less brutal.
Yet contrary to the Algerian sheikh who smelled reek of gunpowder and saw nothing else in Western modernity, they have read Eliot’s Waste Land, Becket’s and Camus’ absurd plays, and Derrida’s nihilist writings. They studied Western theories of architecture and computer skills, applying various management theories, and live within the broad horizons opened up by Western modernity. They know the advantages of this modernity just as they know its anti-humanist implications. But they also know that the Muslim mind is not a blank sheet, and that the Islamic starting point cannot be a hypothetical zero point. Theirs is a discourse that stems from a worldview from which rich ethical, political, economic and aesthetic systems are generated.

Issues such as class conflict and social justice, the role of the state and the limits of the secular social contract, the need for an equitable distribution and allocation of resources, power and values, the woman question, and the influence of the environment on shaping the future of the world are issues that had been debated.

The relation between science and technology, and ethics and morality is also a major concern, as well as the form of democratic governance that is most suited for the Muslim world, separating here between democracy and liberalism and opting for a just politics of presence. The attempt to distinguish between democracy and shura (consultation) is an attempt to incorporate democratic procedures within the Islamic value system, so that value-free democratic procedures do not become the frame of reference, and do not arrogate for themselves the status of an ultimate value.

The new Islamic discourse advocates consider developing a complex cultural lexicon that defines their conceptual structure and spaces of meaning an urgent and important task, as concepts are the keys of understanding and the analytical and explanatory units guiding the mind towards understanding and wisdom. For instance, the word (mind-reason) within the Islamic context has a specific and definite Islamic meaning. Being such a central notion to modernity , the word "reason" in the modem Western philosophical lexicon was conceived as synonymous with the Arabic word ’aql in the Islamic lexicon. Hence the deep admiration for, and even fascination with, Western rationality and the Enlightenment project. Gradually Muslim intellectuals developed their own notion of the limits of reason and even the crimes reason committed in contemporary history , and also became familiar with the Western critique of reason, a critique that distinguished between "instrumental reason", "critical reason", "functional reason". "imperialist reason", "abstract reason", "the negation of reason", "destruction of reason", "deconstruction of reason", and "decentering reason". Thus, it is no longer tenable to suppose that the word ’aql as it exists in the Islamic lexicon, is synonymous with the word "reason", as it exists in the modern Western lexicon.

The situation of ideas within the boundaries of time and space, at the same time that they have universal legacy is also in interesting point of view of the new Islamists. They shift from an absolutist discourse to a transcendental one; one that is rooted in existential concerns, and while they give weight to revelation to guide humanity and give meaning to existence they also acknowledge the cultural dimension of most human phenomena, religion included. Hence their view is complex. The bearers of the old discourse stopped at the distinction between what is halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden) according to divine laws. The new discourse extends the meaning of the divine guidance beyond the rules of law to embrace an epistemological view of Islam that places law on a wider map of ethical, moral, social and political conceptions, giving the civic virtues, the question of the logic of the state and the empowerment of the people, and the rights of nations and individuals (vis-à-vis the New World Order) more thought. It is then a question of the empowerment of the consumer to boycott certain commodities that is at stake at certain times even if these commodities are in principle halal that matters, rendering personal choices in the capitalist market Islamic or non-Islamic according to a deep understanding of the global economic system rather beyond the simple understanding of the religious and ritual rights and wrongs. The "national security" of the consumers is understood in a holistic manner, and new ideas are emerging to empower the disempowered . Islam becomes in this context and according to this understanding a power for liberation and a source of an alternative to globalization.

Cultural plurality is also accepted and national culture seen as a form of cultural diversity within Islam--not in contrast with an Islamic league or a notion for a Muslim nation (Ummah) though. Historical confrontation and hostility with the nationalist movements is no more a dominant political and social reality. Intellectual gaps are bridged, and coalitions are established, to face common threats and build a common ground to face forces of rigid globalization and capitalist hegemony.

Not only has the socio-political environment been re-visited, but also the ecological one rethought and its dilemmas addressed. Concepts such as "infinite progress" (which are central concepts in Western modernity) are deemed by the new discourse as hostile to the very idea of boundaries of human power and therefore to the transcendental idea of man and nature, and, eventually, to the idea of omnipotent God. Such concepts are anti-humanist, not only in the religious, but also in the epistemological human sense. Thus, the bearers of the new discourse persistently search for new theories of development and new concepts of progress. They argue that Islamic theories of development should be radically different from the secular Westerntheories, and join larger movements in the South in the search for an alternative development and their attempt to revive and build on their traditional sustainable environmentally sensitive modes of consumption and production.

Human Endeavors…Transcendental Aspirations

Any discourse--the discourse of the Muslims included--is primarily and ultimately a set of endeavors, exerted by human minds, shaped within time and place, to comprehend the world of man and nature, with an attempt of each discourse to interpret its own sacred text and re-examine its own hidden assumptions and philosophical/epistemological underpinnings. Yet human hermeneutics, we would argue, is different from the sacred text it attempts to understand and explain.

This leads to the Islamic idea of Tadafu’ (constructive interaction/interplay) and tadawul (succession or alteration), and to a recognition of the dynamism of this world. Tadafu’ does not necessarily mean conflict, even if it occasionally takes that form. Tadawul implies that permanence is one of God’s traits and that everything else changes. It also implies that the world is not exclusively ours. On the human level, this means accepting to co-exist with "the Other" and to search for a common ground. Some conceptual frames of reference are nearer to Islam than others, and religions and humanist discourses are closer allies and partners than other ideologies.

Humanist discourses that root themselves in the early notion of modernity that was not hostile to religiosity as such and that considers the human nature to be transcendental at essence are very relevant discourses to the new Islamic intellectuals. On the other hand, postmodern ideas are seen with a bit of criticism. The Qur’an, for instance, if seen according to the deconstructionists as a historical text that can be interpreted only with reference to some temporal circumstances and events, loses meaning and legacy as a revealed text. A denial of any ultimate foundation shakes the pillars upon which Islam is founded and can lead to nihilism and ultimate relativity.

Finally, the discourse of Western modernity demands either absolute certainty or absolute doubt, either a reason fully dominating the world, or a reason completely dominated by it (reduced to fluctuating matter and perpetual experimentation), and, finally, either a full presence (in the post-modernist idiom) or full absence. It is a discourse that shifts from rigidly materialistic rationality to an equally rigidly materialistic irrationality. The new Islamic discourse, on the other hand, tries to create a human space that goes beyond the materialistic extremes of Western modernity. It is neither lucid nor rigid, and tries to offer a complex matrix of notions and conditions that can keep the human agent active, rational and transcendental at the same time.

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