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Islam and dominion: a repugnant verity? Part one.

WHEN an authoritative tendency in Islam escalated its hostilities with the West to a level at which even Bill Clinton, if he had still been US President, would probably have summoned up a punitive and preventative response, it was reasonably predictable that warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq would quickly be complemented by another 'battle ground', that of the written word. However, the huge output of analytical and prescriptive publication has not fitted into easily predictable moulds.

On the Muslim side, even within the anti-jihadist category, one can take one's pick between 'cries of despair' for a religion betrayed by radical adherents, among others, and ideological work which insidiously blames Western civilisation itself for what it now faces. Thus, in one quarter, jihad generates repugnance and the urge to reform Islam itself. But in another, it is the notion of Islamic culpability and expansionism that is repugnant, in fact a symptom of that 'Islamophobia' which, in failing to grasp the 'innate and essential gentleness of Islam', is far more the cause of jihad than a justifiable, defensive response to it. Yet even this view may be held and propagated both by persons who, with apparent sincerity, believe what they say (one thinks of former Pakistan High Commissioner in London, Akbar Ahmed), and by others who employ the line as a devious instrument--of tactical reassurance but ultimate domination of the other civilization (one remembers the late leader of the Egyptian mission to the British, the scholar Zaki Badawi): in other words, a line of argumentation which confirms the objective of dominion even while, or precisely through, denying it.

As for the non-Muslim side, our proverbial 'visitor from Mars' would no doubt be quite struck by the prevalence of writing which, so far from evincing a defensive militancy around ethnic solidarity, seems to start virtually from premises which, in one way or another, affirm Islam's gentleness and the guilt of the West. Such writers could scarcely be enamoured of self-critical work from within Islam itself, contradicting as it does the functional stereotypes of these kafir writers' own chosen jihad, for they constitute a more receptive audience for the thesis of 'Islam as victim'. Their greatest repugnance, and compulsion to refute, is felt in face of any talk of a Muslim jihad beyond the strict bounds of personal piety and self-mastery. Whether such apologetics are a symptom of terminal decline in the West, or a glory of its Enlightenment heritage, is an irresistible question for philosophical reflection, though not within the confines of the present review article.

Suffice it, at any rate, to say (a) that Western work which sides, at least 'objectively', with an agenda of the Islamic forward movement spares Islamic propagandists most of the tribulations of getting their work translated into English, including texts whose alien idiom (being authentically Islamic!) would risk compromising their credibility in Western liberal eyes; (b) that it is a condition of success in such connivance that the Western work agrees with Muslim counterparts that Islam is not fundamentally pluralistic, but a religion with a single essence. Strangely, therefore, Islam is confirmed as being every bit as single-minded and one-track as Osama bin Laden's fatwas project it to be, except that bin Laden's version happens to be 'terribly wrong', and disqualified for consideration as 'Islam'--thus not of equal authenticity and authority, at the very least, with moderate versions, as the present writer would have it. And yet, it is perhaps not so strange, for the proponents of 'moderation' fully agree with their Islamist brothers that 'Islam' was given by Allah: a whole system legitimated by revelation, thus only at the extreme margins open to exploration and elaboration by mankind with an attendant propensity for pluralism, certainly no field for the infinite theological redefining of God's purposes which has characterised Christianity ever since Paul. In any case, how would an omnipotent and omniscient deity have bestowed on mankind a system of belief and conduct that was anything less than exact, anything less than correspondent to its preordained 'Platonic essence', as it were? Not for nothing or without comparatively powerful effect is Mohamed vaunted as the last Prophet, while even many non-Quranic dicta and later commentaries (not least significantly those which divide the world between an Abode of Peace' and an 'Abode of War' apt for subjugation by jihad) carry a seal of revealed truth.

A Spiritual Civilization Lost for Ever?

Ali A. Allawi, the author of The Crisis of Islamic Civilization (New Haven and London. Yale University Press. 2009. Pages XVI, 304. ISBN 978-0-300-13931-0), is a former Defence Minister and Finance Minister in post-invasion but pre-election Iraq, and international academic eminence, largely diverts our attention from the historic jihad: a little by splashes of 'obligatory' rhetoric deploring Western Islamo-phobia (the idea of an Islamic world power is utterly absurd, and Western public hysteria fed into the 'vastly disproportionate' military and security responses to the attacks on New York, London and Madrid: pp. 139, 187), but mainly by dint of a consistent emphasis on the modern-ness of radical Islamism. He sees this phenomenon as a misguided reaction to the successive failures of Muslim states or reformist thinkers to fashion workable and virtuous forms of modernity for the Muslim world, much less as a response directly to Western imperialism, cultural penetration, or belittlement. But he leaves no doubt that this latest would-be solution to a profound, at least subjective, malaise gives the malaise a greater objective depth. However, his strictures on the mindless and self-indulgent imitation of the external forms of Western secular culture by Muslim elites are more caustic still. The loss of the spiritual dimension of Islamic civilisation has left it without the moral reserves to ride out the earlier, traumatic collapse of the old political dimension, notably the Ottoman Caliphate; even ritual no longer serves as a bridge between nation and individual. Even though, amazingly, an element of spirituality had survived into recent decades within the private sphere, it is above all political Islam that has stepped in to claim the legacy. Allawi perceives it as a monstrous betrayal that the Ayatollahs of Iran missed the opportunity to mould a unifying and revivifying Shia/Sunni consensus, by blazing instead a super-radical, neo-Shiite trail--the Rule of the Jurisprudent in one country--and thereby opened a wide door for Saudi Wahhabism to seize world-wide leadership and for those of Salafi ('Righteous Forefathers') persuasion to cynically apply ijtihad ('independent reasoning') to winding the clocks back instead of forward!

Meanwhile, the West has helped to sap self-confidence by alternately condemning Islam to perpetual paralysis by mocking it for being unable to change, and lately goading it to adopt Western-style liberal democracy, or if need be, some syncretic, not completely secularist version of it. This goes hand in hand with the provocative and alienating libel about a Muslim project for a world super-state--a feature which Allawi hotly denies, both as aim and possibility, even though admitting, passim, a pervasive Muslim nostalgia about the Ottoman Caliphate and the revivalist dedication of the Salafi in that respect, while himself positing something like the Ottoman framework as a political precondition for civilisational revival in the spiritualised form for which he yearns.

Allawi's work not only displays noble proportion but can be reckoned a piece of tragic literature, equal both to the nature of the author's life and times, and to the lives and sacrifices of epic figures from earlier history who have shared with him and among themselves a yearning for a sustainable Islamic civilisation. The tragedy lies, of course, in the repeated story of 'failure'. But a supplementary tragedy to be noted is that 'success' is judged so much by 'performance' in catching up with a constantly evolving alien model, one whose vices can only do more damage if accurately emulated. Such complexity and contradiction may remind us how unusual it is to meet a high-calibre critique of Islam from within its own ranks. Conceivably, in growing up as a Shia in Iraq the author developed a more acute sensitivity to the corrupting influence of modern state power and affluence, as well as the more subtle dynamics of doctrinal variation in religion.

Not the least moving aspect of the work is its poignant evocations of fellow-thinkers mostly of yesteryear, some more or less contemporary with Allawi's lifetime. Standard works deal more with the orthodox ulemas who 'made history' simply by association with established power. By contrast, Allawi presents a sort of 'Lives of the Saints' of those who strove for reform and normally failed, being always constrained in the end to watch their fellow believers (today especially the Sunnis), yield to the thrall of empty form, latterly to the entrancement of violence, instead of the embrace of creativity. A short listing of Allawi's pre-eminent cynosures (in their order of introduction, not by chronological sequence or salient affinities among some of them) may capture a little of the flavour of the author's versatility and inspiring humanism. (1) Franco-Algerian Muhammad Arkoun, a modern deconstructionist philosopher; (2) Algerian Emir Abd al-Qadir, noble fighter against early French intrusion, follower of the Ibn 'Arabi school of Sufism; (3) the cognate Imam Shamil who fought against Russian incursions into the Caucasus, a Sheikh of the Naqshabandiya Sufi order; (4) Sir Syed Ahmad Khan of India, advocate of reinterpretation of the Quran in the light of science and reason; (5) another Naqshabandiya luminary, Shah Waliullah Dahlawi of India, a master of mystical philosophy; (6) his son, Shah Abdul Aziz, also a noted scholar in the revivalist tradition (but in this connection an advocate of jihad to bring India back under 'proper Muslim control'); (7) Muhammad Iqbal of India, the great poet of modern Islam, a scholar of Persian metaphysics with a Western university education; (8) a similarly tireless worker for the restoration of the Muslim self-confidence in face of huge threats, the Kurd, Said Nursi of Turkey; (9) Algerian moral philosopher and educationalist Malek Bennabi; (10) Iranian Ali Shari'ati, creator of a new amalgam of Islam and radical Western social and political theory; (11) a fellow Shia but seeker for a more conservative synthesis, the Iraqi Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr; (12) Tripolitan Muhammed Rashid Ridha, who argued the harmony between Islam, science and reason (though too close to the Salafi persuasion for Allawi's liking); (13) Muhammad Asad of Saudi Arabia, re-interpreter of the Quran and author of a new translation into English; (14) Syed Naquib al-Attas, Javanese-Malaysian founder of a movement and institute for the Islamization of Knowledge; (15) another promoter of the Islamization of Knowledge but in a different format, the Palestinian-American academic, Ismail Raji al-Faruqi; (16) a theorist of Islamic knowledge to dwarf any other, Moroccan Muhammad Abid Al-Jabiri; (17) a major expounder of what is fixed and changeable in religion, Iranian Abd el-Karim Soroush; (18) Sudanese reformist thinker and political activist, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha; (19) philosopher of the wellsprings of Islamic culture and science, Iranian physicist Seyyed Hossein Nasr; and finally (20) the medieval political philosopher al-Farabi, whose Utopia drew not only on Islamic themes of relevation and prophecy, but also on the Greek philosophers of antiquity, in particular Plato.

The fact that a number of those described suffered exile, assassination or judicial murder can only confirm the insidious imperative of power for elites of any complexion, against which Allawi rails. One also gains the distinct impression that thinkers of more mystical inclination or Sufi pretension have proven to be less compatible with modern power structures, both secular-modernising and religious-reactionary, even than others have done (in this connection the way Syed Naqib al-Attas fell foul of the Malaysian premier, Dr Mahathir, is instructive). One senses a Sufi allegiance just below the surface when Allawi appeals, as he repeatedly does, for a restoration of the status of 'the Unseen' in Muslim public life--though, sadly, if appropriately, the nature of this unseen quantity and how it would be introduced and wholesomely cultivated is itself left intangible. He does not need to condemn the Sharia as a source of backwardness, for while in rigid formulations it is somewhat ossifying, the real source of Islam's malaise lies, he maintains, in the spiritual sphere as of now, not the administration of rules of conduct. Meanwhile, rationalism has to be part of the salvation agenda, in the path blazed, it is claimed, by Islam's greatest scholarly figure, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, b 1058. And yet, 'Ghazzali also attacked the use of rationalistic Hellenistic philosophy as a yardstick by which to gauge the veracity of religious faith' (p. 103); while, as Allawi had expounded it most tellingly in setting out his stall, 'to claim the right and possibility of autonomous action without reference to the source of these in God is an affront, and is discourteous to the terms of the relationship between the human being and God' (p. 11); moreover, as this Visiting Fellow of Princeton states with due academic ambivalence, 'the western system of knowledge acquisition is based on a constant challenging to the prevailing verities' (p. 93); whereas manifestly and gratifyingly, on the other hand, 'the bedrock of any Islamic sensibility must be the textual certainty of the Quran as the unaltered and unalterable word of God. Irrespective of how it is read or interpreted, the Quran necessarily introduces the divine into the actions and choices of human beings' (p. 12).

Allawi concludes on a deeply pessimistic note, in terms of his own ideal for the revival of his civilisation by way of rediscovery of God and spiritual self-discovery, infused with such elements of modernity as may be necessary, in partnership, to ensure the viability of the ummah for peaceful progress in a Western-dominated world. He sees the permanent ascendency of political Islam as a far more likely evolution. The warning seems salutary, and gains credibility from the coincidence of the author's conviction of the defective spirituality of that strain of the religion (persuasively authentic though it is) with our own suspicions. It is truly tragic that one may also be inclined to agree with Allawi's lurking fear that his own prescription is too other-worldly to have a hope of realization in the state of human society and world politics as they now generally are. It is also truly ironic if, as in effect he argues, the most corrosive fear in the world is not ours, of their jihad (whose historical existence as a world-dominating movement is essentially denied: e.g. p. 158; and why should it not be if, more typically since Ibn Taymiyyah, b 1263, its target has been alleged apostates: cf p. 117?), but the purported, centuries-old Muslim fear of being outclassed by us on non-spiritual criteria. One might say that this perspective is positively 'flaunted' by the book, had not its author, a master of elegant and lucid English prose, discovered an obscure, esoteric meaning for this very word (pp. 13, 208, 245).

Crusades and Curiosity: England Encounters Islam

Christopher J. Walker Islam and the West. A dissonant harmony of civilizations. Stroud, Sutton Publishing. 2005. Pages x, 278. ISBN 0-7509-4104-9.

For any anti-imperialist literary activist fired up by 'George W. Bush and Iraq', especially a protagonist of what might tartly be called 'the school of longer-term comparative historical method', the Crusades may seem to present a perfect opportunity for getting at the psychological roots of recent inter-civilizational conflict, beyond poetical, cross-generic analogy and colourful Gibbonesque simile.

After a first chapter in which the historical writer Christopher Walker is at pains to illustrate the normally placid relations between the religions of the Arabian Peninsula, built on long mutual interaction and a soothing eclecticism as well as the exemplary conduct of Caliph Omar at the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, we learn that the first essential disruption of Eden was wrought by crusaders from the West. But we were given advance warning, in a sense, by the reference to the rise of Jerusalem as a centre of Roman pilgrimage from about AD 326, which showed that 'Christianity had evolved from being a faith of the oppressed into a triumphant imperial religion' (p. 1).

We read in Chapter 2 how in contrast to the dignity of Omar's takeover of Jerusalem, the crusaders of 1099 gave themselves over to an ecstasy of blood-letting: 'Here was the raging darkness of a Europe unwarmed by the south since the coming of Islam: Charlemagne's northern empire, but without his political genius, hurling iron shafts of ignorance against a sun-filled civilisation of the south' (p. 24). Nor should the medieval aristocratic thirst for glory and fame be seen as overly quaint by our modern eyes, or now merely the stuff of history, for 'in modern leaders' recent troubled confusion of Afghanistan with Iraq (a confrontational mentality which sometimes extends to Iran), the idea of warfare in a nameless Overseasville has taken on a new lease of life, embodying the notion of an alien 'them', 'out there', a formless shadowy Eastern other, where half-realised identities merge into one another, and where enemies are created and kaleidoscopically attacked for the deeds of others, and all resemble the shadow-self of some carefully preserved, wholesome, noble and knightly Western ideal' (p. 26). One awful Western misconception of our time, reputedly, is to take seriously the medieval Muslim separation of the world into an Abode of Peace and Abode of War: this was purely notional, not a basis for practical relations between Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb, until the militarisation of Christianity in the eleventh century (p. 27). At least one hundred years of warfare between the expanding empire and Byzantium (the key century in which the theo-political division of the world was consolidated as orthodox doctrine) seems to have been brushed out of the record.

Tangentially linked to this 'radical new assessment' of what gave substance to Islamic political geography is a dictum relating to the impact of Papal ambition in another quarter of the East, the Eastern Church. Here we learn (p, 31) that the filioque controversy was merely a pretext for the deteriorating relationship. Be that as it may, Walker defines the controversy as being as to 'whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Son as well as the Father'. This seems in order, if he means (and is correct in assuming that all his readers know) that it was the Eastern Church that was maintaining the opposite, i.e. that the Holy Ghost owes his origin only to the Son, thus is merely 'created'. But as, later in the book, Walker brings in some quite stimulating commentary about the doctrine of Trinity keeping Christianity and Islam apart until advanced Christian thinkers began to rethink, this would have been a not unsuitable place to point out that Islamic incompatibility indeed has roots partly separate from the experience of Western expansionism, not least in the Muslim failure to understand that the Nicene Creed does not define Jesus separately from God (whereby God would 'divide Himself, polytheistically), even if it is ambiguous as to whether Jesus himself was 'created'. But whether Jesus was divine in any way is of course another absolute sticking point for Islam. However, at this juncture Walker is all too focused on the ills of the West--a moral position which seems to take some strength from a typically modern failure of empathy with, indeed downright repugnance at, aspects of the medieval Christian and knightly worldview, complemented if not reinforced by a converse indulgence vis-a-vis medieval Islam. In short, in Walker's presentation of the subject, the West tends to represent the 'dissonance', Islam the 'harmony', of his title.

Meanwhile, a slow process of recivilization (learning Plato and Aristotle from the Muslims, while bringing Aristotle into line with monotheism) is elaborated in Chapter 3. But had we not already learnt, to our relief (p. 43), that 'In Europe the dawn of the Renaissance was glimmering on the horizon' by the mid-thirteenth century? By the time of Bodin, an appreciation of the monotheistic qualities of Muslim theology, and the parallels of Muslim rejection of the divinity of Christ with Arianism, were beginning to seep through. In the next three chapters the focus shifts a little abruptly away from ideas to the more pragmatic calculations of statesmen. Chapter 4 observes the shifting alignments of Venice and other Western states with Turkey and other Muslim powers in the sixteenth century. The book then examines the English search for advantageous connection with the Ottomans as a counterbalance to Spain with one chapter devoted to an Elizabethan adventurer family who discerned and developed commercial and diplomatic opportunities in Persia.

Later the author returns to ideas, and presents an England with which he can more readily identify because by now a new breed of scholar-gentleman was looking at Islam in an open-minded way verging on sympathy. The greatest name of the period is Oxford's first Professor of Arabic, Edward Pococke. Of particular significance in connection with openmindedness towards Islam was the development in England of Unitarian ideas and interest in Deism. The latter dimension is more particularly elaborated in 'Islam and Europe in the eighteenth century', where the name of the intrepid traveller in Ottoman lands, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (wife of a British ambassador), ranks large. But sadly, the increasing weakness of the empire by the end of the century, one hundred years after the siege of Vienna, exposed Muslims to disrespect and satire, as in Mozart's Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (p. 196).

At the same time, there was a misguided willingness in Europe to see Islam as an uncompromising, austere, faith of the desert, this perception being especially restimulated early in the nineteenth century by the Wahhabi takeover in Arabia, as is explained with remonstration. Another critical perspective was that which was beginning to classify Islam as incompatible with the political freedom principle proclaimed in Beethoven's Fidelio (p. 212). Greece was duly liberated, and it was only British uncertainty whether Ottoman tyranny was worse than the Czars' autocracy, ambivalence about the example of nationalism and constitutionalism (including, later, Turkey's own) for the British Empire, and of course fear of Russian advance southwards to the Mediterranean, that kept Britain on board, more or less, with Turkey until the First World War (pp. 213-233). Finally, Arab dreams of a return to traditional enlightenment and independence were stifled by Britain and France at and immediately after the Versailles Conference. 'The region and its people deserved better', is the concluding punch-line (p. 234).

While the book is undeniably a trove of historical gems, they have not been sorted with the rigour of an exhibition. Continuity is diluted most of all by the attempt to bring in practical geo-political relationships as evidence of underlying compatibility between two civilisations. With respect, these relationships are viable because theological difference lies mainly beyond the ken of merchants and statesmen, or certainly takes very low priority. At the same time, the discovery of theological or ideological affinity with Islam by Western clerics or illuminati may be very slow to penetrate the popular mind, especially in times when this mind is assailed by 'dramatic evidence to the contrary' and democratic states become targets of aggression motivated precisely by a shift to rampancy by a pole in the theological spectrum. In such a situation geo-political calculation can walk in step with awareness of theological difference and draw rationalisation from it. In fact, the suggested dichotomy between 'geo-political' and 'theological' is not the easiest to maintain in the case of Islam because its theory about warring camps is built into its scripture.

At any rate, no doubt there is a danger in the contemporary international situation of over-rationalisation of the geo-political imperative by the Right, by exaggerating the associated religious difference. Yet one may discern in Walker a tendency to rationalise his hostility towards the United States and its strategy by exaggerating affinity between (true) Western interest and (essential) Islamic thought-cum-behaviour, begging key questions and dispensing cliche rather than proffering solid research in support (p. 211 will illustrate this characterisation). It seems particularly misplaced to emphasize one or two strands of pacific doctrine, even if verified, from the distant Muslim past. And in connection with the reality of political behaviour on the Muslim side, do we also detect an inclination to divert attention from Muslim imperialism by treating the defeat of the Turks at Vienna in 1683 as quasi-inevitable, not quite with hindsight but at least because Ottoman government was already showing 'manifest' symptoms of dysfunction and decay and could no longer be taken seriously (pp. 199-200)?
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Author:Kershaw, Roger
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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