Thursday, February 3, 2011

Modernism and Fundamentalism in Islam. Part 1

I am fairly ignorant of recent history (from the 19th Century onward), and of social issues in general. That's not self pity - I'm trying to fix that bit by bit by reading what I can. I'm just stating this upfront so I wouldn't be thought of as some sort of an authority on the issues I'm about to write about. For the same reason, I want to state that I'm even more ignorant when it comes to Islam and the social issues connected to that religion.

I did read the Quran some years ago, in a Finnish translation, and I have read some books about the history of Islam, so I'm not totally ignorant of these issues. But to get to the point, I just picked up a book titled Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam. A Reader from the library. Edited by Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof, and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2002, it seemed like a book I should read.

After all, Islam is a very popular religion on a global scale, and (so far) since at least the beginning of this millenium, it has been the subject of news headlines almost daily. And usually not in what might be called "a positive light". Most of what I've heard about the religion and its adherents has been scary and/or depressing. Yet, it is a popular religion. If the religion is really as bad as it seems, it sounds like getting rid of it altogether would be a good idea. But also, a very implausible one.

So, if all the Muslims of the world are not going to discard their religion, and that religion seems to be hindrance to the development of their societies, and a global threat to the security of individuals and even to world peace, is there something we could more realistically strive to achieve to remedy the situation? Well, at least according to some defenders of Islam, it is a rational religion. I am unwilling to go as far as to accept that oxymoron, but I want to grasp on the hope that at least it could be more reasonable than it often seems in the depictions of the various media, and possibly it could even be compatible with reason and science somehow. The same way that the most common form of religion in Europe, i.e. (very much secularized) moderate, liberal Christianity can, when cleaned up of the most blatant irrationality usually associated with that religion.

Wanting to understand Islam and hoping to find interpretations of the religion more suitable for this global era and for a better future than the versions of the religion usually presented in the media, I decided to start reading this book and blogging about what I found in it. What follows should be a series of short blog texts based almost completely on this one book. If I choose to use any other sources, I will make that clear. If not otherwise indicated, references will be to Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates. In fact, I will begin by quoting the very first lines of the introduction:

This book presents a series of articles, treatises, and exposés on historically significant issues written by prominent theologians, scholars, and academics in the Islamic world from the last quarter of the nineteenth centyry to the late twentieth. (p. 1)

The articles were selected "to represent two distinct and contrasting episodes in Islam's historical development". The first period (from the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century) covers discourses that "sought to bridge Islam with modernity". This work was done mostly by Muslim theologians in India and Egypt. I think I'll just have to quote at lenght this next bit, because it's fairly important:

These scholars critically examined the classical conceptions and methods of jurisprudence and decised a new approach to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis. This new theological movement, which was nothing short of an outright rebellion against the Islamic orthodoxy, displayed an astonishing compatibility with the nineteenth-century [sic] Enlightenment. The central theological problem that engaged its thinkers revolved around the question of the validity of the knowledge derived from soureces external to Islam and the methodological adequacy of the four traditional sources of jurisprudence: the Quran, the dicra attributed to the Prophet (hadith), the consensus of the theologians (ijma), and juristic reasoning by analogy (qiyas). They resolved to reinterpret the first two sources and transform the last two in order to formulate a reformist project in light of the prevailing standards of scientific rationality and modern social theory. Such prominent intellectuals and theologiansa as Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Chiragh Ali, Muhammad Abduh, Amir Ali, and Shibli Nu'mani, and their associates and disciples presented Islamic theology in a manner consistent with modern rationalist ideas and deist religion. These theologians were impressed by the achievements of the West, ranging from scientific and technological progress, the Newtonian conception of the universe, Spencer's sociology, and Darwinian evolutionism, to Western style of living. They all argued that Islam as a world religion was thoroughly capable of adapting itself to the changing conditions of every age, the hallmarks of the perfect Muslim community being law and reason. (p. 1 - 2.)

As you might guess, I was happy to finally hear that such ideas actually had been advanced more than a century ago. There are those who still try to present interpretations of Islam along those lines, and possibly the majority of Muslims actually adhere to views similar to those. But there are those other views too, the opposite views held by terrorists, radical islamist organizations and preachers that usually make it over the threshold of what qualifies as newsworthy in "Western" media. They are the offsprings of what the editors of the book call the "second period" (from between 1930s and 1950s depending on the country to at least the end of that century). It was connected to the decline of liberal nationalism and usually came about "through right- or left-wing military coups".
In marked contrast with the previous ideologies, this new discourse categorically rejected the Western model and outlook. Such precursors of fundamentalism as Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Motahhari from Iran, Hasan al-Bana and Sayyid Qutb from Egypt, Abul Ala Maududi from Pakistan, Mustafa as-Siba'i from Syria, Abbasi Madani, Shaikh Nahnah, and Ali Belhaj from Algeria insisted on unconditional fealty ti Islam and questioned the validity of any sources of learning that were outside the Islamic cosmological doctrine. Ayatollah Khomeini advanced a theory of Islamic State based on the governance of the jurisprudent. While Islamic modernism aimed at rationalizing religious dogma to show its consonance with modernity, fundamentalism aimed at Islamizing all social institutions. And, while Islamic modernism had a predominantly social orientation, a distinctive feature of the fundamentalist movement was a high level of political activism aiming to seize state power. In fundamentalism, the political reorganization of society is the necessary step in its overall Islamization project. (p. 2.)

The editors note the problem with using the term 'fundamentalism' in this context (as opposed to the Christian context, where it is obvious at least to those familiar with the relevant discourse), but stick to it for lack of a better term. For, as they point out, other suggested terms have their problems as well. For example, 'Islamist' can equally refer to pro-West and anti-West Islamic thinkers. I suppose we'll have to just use the terms 'modernist' and 'fundamentalist' here, even if we only have a vague idea (based on the above quotations and what follows) of what they mean, instead of a clear-cut definition. That is how it is with most things anyway (to the chagrin of philosophers). Some further elucidation of what the ideas of these two opposed views espoused is provided by the following quote:

Generally, the Islamic modernists: accepted an evolutionary view of history with the West being at the pinnacle of th eworld civilization; praised the Western model; in varying degrees subscibed to the Newtonian conception of the universe; reformulated Islamic methodology in a manner congruent with the standards of nineteenth-century social theory; and affirmed the validity of the scientific knowledge, even though it was not based on Islam; favored democracy and constitutionalism, and the de facto separation of religion from politics; and formulated a modernist discourse on women by rejecting polygamy and male domination. The Islamic fundamentalists, in contrast, rejected the notion of social evolution and portrayed the West as having an aggressive political system, exploitative and materialistic economic institutions, and decadent culture. Rather than attempting to reform and modernize Islam, they aimed at Islamizing virtually all social institutions. They rejected the separation of religion from politics, defended Islamic political hierarchy in society, and male domination and polygamy in the family. (p. 3 - 4.)

Islamic modernism originated with the breakdown of traditional order of the old regime, and the formation of modern states in India, Egypt, and Iran. "It involved the integration into the world economu, the development of capitalism, and the emergence of the modern social institutions" (p. 5). Islamic fundamentalism was produced in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Pakistan "following the military coups that effectively ended the period of somewhat liberal nationalism" (p. 6). Those countries were now authoritarian states. The exception to the revolution model is Jordan, where the Society of Muslim Brothers was kept peaceful by a government that maintained a working relationship with them, instead of blocking their political participation, as happened in other countries, with violent repercussions (p. 7).

The Introduction also contains short introductions for the books "contributors in context" that should be useful for anyone with more than passing interest in this subject. I will continue writing about what I learn from this book as I read on, unless it gets too boring.

Continue to Part 2.

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