Finding Islam’s Modernity

Recent Kabobfest post.

The Crisis of Islamic Civilization by Ali Allawi

This month’s issue of Prospect features a review by Robin Yassin-Kassab on former Iraqi Defence and Finance minister Ali Allawi’s new book, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization. The book delves into the thriving debate regarding Islam’s reaction to and role within modernity, shying away from the usual view that “ the Muslim world experiences backwardness to the extent that it resists secularisation.”  ali-allawi

Rather than sticking to this traditional view, which holds underlying assumption that there is an inherency within Islam to resist change, Allawi offers a more historical account, arguing that the decline of Islamic civilization and its descent into the rigid and poor socio-political and economic structures and conditions of today can be traced to the earliest contact between the Islamic world and Europe. With European colonialism came the complete dismantling of foundational and prosperous Islamic institutions in exchange for institutions which created the foundation for European civilization. 

Allawi argues that with the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, along with the onslaught of nationalism and statehood prospects as well as the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, came the additional replacement of Islamic values; he points towards the unapologetic luxury, consumer-worship and commercialism rampant throughout the Gulf region as an example of this severe void.

The solution thus for Allawi is not political reform within the Islamic world which pushes the faith more towards the private sphere, out of the public, but rather a greater presence, stating that “it is the absence of any formal and substantial Islamic political presence at the global level that contributes to instability and disorder.” An obviously, as Yassin-Kassab also notes, controversial opinion for the mainstream. He asserts that “since the loss of its multi-national empires, Islam…splintered between weak states lacking popular legitimacy and very often governed by client regimes. Muslim countries have thus become adjuncts of the established civilisational blocks—Morocco to Europe, for instance, or Malaysia to China—with no serious power capable or willing to defend suffering Muslims internationally. It is noteworthy that one of the only Muslim voices to have condemned China’s oppression of Uighur Muslims is al Qaeda.”

Rather than to emulate the Western build, it becomes dire for Muslims to return to Islamic values and institutions and rebuild their states in a fashion which hasn’t been bought secondhand. There must be a return to spirituality during what he believes to be the last phase of the Islamic civilization’s crisis.

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes an excellent summary of Allawi’s book, and addresses two major points of contention within the book. Allawi’s arguments are several, solid and often hit the nail on it’s head rather hard, but he does tread the dangerous Huntington civilizational-faultline thesis, pitting Islam against the West. Additionally, Yassin-Kassab also notes that the books serves to be more of a ‘lament than a program for renewal,” which offers much criticism and abstract ideas regarding the renewal of Islamic civilization but almost no real, concrete solutions.

9780300139310Allawi’s primary discussion is also on the Arab world, unsurprising considering how it is with which he is most comfortable and familiar. But he commits a great error in giving the Arab world Muslim leadership, when it only makes up around 22% of the global Muslim population. While things seem unfortunate within the Middle East, in places such as Indonesia and West Africa there is a strong and growing attempt to revisit the idea of Islamic revivalism and it’s being done through education. Even the Muslim population of North America and Europe has stepped up to the challenge and has begun to sow the seeds for educational Islamic revivalism. From institutions such as  Zaytuna and al-Maghrib, as well as the increasing presence of Muslim Student Associations and groups such as CAIR and ISNA, there is a very visible attempt by Muslims and Muslim leadership (at the civil society level, beyond state leadership) to bring Islam back into the lives of Muslims.

Allawi puts too much hope on the shoulders of the Arab Muslim world, when trends within Islamic revivalism, if we can even call it that, seem to indicate that if there will be a second-coming of Islam’s civilization prosperity it will be in the non-Arab world, and perhaps most likely even within the West (including Turkey, which has seen a strong incline towards a more public Islam in its non-urban populations) where Muslims have and continue to go beyond silly civilizational-faultlines,striving for an Andalusian sort of throwback to history. 

Creating an Islamic Modernity

One of Allawi’s underlying points is worth greater attention and is a perspective which isn’t often considered by the mainstream discourse on the topic of Islamic reform and modernity. Allawi essentially is challenging the notion of economic, social and political prosperity through our only understanding of modernity – as something equivalent to Westernization. Rather than Westernize and lose something original and integral to Islamic civilization – whatever Islamic civilization is – it becomes imperative that Muslims create their own modernity rather than abide by, as previously quipped, a secondhand modernity.

Something which is modern is contemporary, reflective of the present and in vogue. The dictionary tells me this. But when we look at the words Modernity and Modernism (this time with the intentional capital M’s) we’re looking at two words which carry more than Oxford or Merriem’s take on them. Within most scholarship, the Modern Period refers to a shift within Western thought, governance and life. It spans the 16th century up until the 19th. During this period, there was a rationalization of Europe. In arenas where God (and the ever omnipotent clergy) once dominated, human reason and intellect came to conquer. Ideas regarding individualism, liberties, freedom, government; the separation between the public and private sphere; the rise of nationalism and the subsequent formation of the nation-state. The Modern period also saw the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the French, American and Russian revolutions. It was a period of change: the West leapt out of the Dark Ages, and entered a period of rejuvenation and rebirth. It was a period in which rejuvenation and rebirth meant that there were new and better ways of living life.

Unsurprisingly, everyone had their own conception of how the good life should manifest itself – more government less government, and so forth.  But general principles were agreed upon. Also unsurprisingly, with the onslaught of colonialism, these ideas of how the good life is achieved were taken to the conquered territories. Slowly but surely these modern ideas, seen as progressive, became international institution and eventually an international ethos. Thus to progress within this world meant to fall into the governing ethos put in place by those who had come to dominate the international seas; to modernize, meaning to progress, has become synonymous with Westernization.

But can we stop there? And can we believe that the only good way to progress is through Westernization?

No. Definitely not.

The period following the European Dark Ages, up until the late 20th century, saw different attempts to create a state, the creation of a more powerful bureaucracy; greater military might; strict territorial lines based on ethnic homogeneity; the construction of the modern citizen and the institutionalization of education as a means through which a homogenous and obedient citizenry was created. And these were all common within the different system of governance which emerged – from republics to liberal democracies to socialist states. Without a doubt, some forms of governance came to dominate others. Most today consider liberal democracies to be the best route for governance, pointing towards the Democratic Peace theory, which posits that democracies will never fight one another as much power lies within the populace who will be more hesitant to go to war (amongst other factors). Rather than fight one another, they’ll fight non-democratic states and rape and pillage their economies and political institutions. Yeah. 

The point being made here is that modernization, in terms of socio-political and economic progression, has seen different faces and phases. While liberal democracies are currently in vogue we cannot, especially intellectually, succumb to such a system as the pinnacle of good governance, at least in the universal sense.
Historical Islamic governance holds values and traditions similar to modern day ideas: federalism, small government, welfare-state (through the Waqf endowments, one of the first institutions dismantled/reformed under colonialism), multiculturalism, minority protection, education, and ethical consumerism and trade. What is now required is that Muslims themselves, with or without their state leaders, continue to educate themselves about the good which Islamic history has seen and created and bring this spirit back, fitting into the modern mould without having to sacrifice core and essential values and beliefs.019517111X.01.LZZZZZZZ

In a recent lecture I attended, Dr. Jamal Badawi, a Canadian Muslim leader and scholar, discussed the issue of reforming Islam. He poignantly expressed the need for not reform of Islam itself as a belief system, but rather the reform of Muslims and their relationship with their faith. He spoke of tajdeed – or rejuvenation – through ijtihad, a legal process which involves individual interpretation on matters by scholars. You may have heard the term “the gates of Ijitihad” and how they have been closed within Sunni Islam for about 1200 years. An Orientalist propagation, it has been refuted time and time again, as it is a process built into the Islamic legal system, which still sees the use of ijtihad till this day. As Dr. Badawi points out, there needs to be greater education amongst both the Islamic scholars and the global Muslim populace. Scholars, in particular, need to associate themselves with the ever-changing state of the world and need to practice individual interpretation on new and important matters unseen to the Muslim world. It is through this that Muslims can begin to reform and modernize themselves, on their own terms and without sacrificing the essentials of their faith. This is not something new to the Islamic community, the process of social evolution has been integral to the history of Muslims; unfortunately it is one which has become overshadowed by the attempts to Westernize by the governments of Muslim lands. Badawi, along with other scholars such as Tariq Ramadan, seem to agree with the notion that Islamic revivalism will come not from the Middle East, but from non-Arab lands, especially within the West where Muslims find values and institutions identical to those within Islamic belief and history.

It’s not an easy road, or one which even guarantees success, but it’s the only option which perhaps remains for Muslims. Either Muslims succumb to the slow crumbling of their faith vis a vis political and social corruption or they take action which may not return the community towards the greatness it once experienced, but saves it from potential and further disintegration. Muslim societies need to modernize, but they, just like any other “civilizational faultline,” do not necessarily have to answer to any international authority. They need to fix themselves spiritually and their countries politically. They need to determine their own good life based on their own needs, not the demands of others. And this life does not need to be the antithesis of any one else’s take on the good life.

Especially Kanye’s.

[tarboush tip: Elizabeth]