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Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change.

Tibi's book is a fascinating study of Islam using the Geertzian model of religion as a cultural system. He argues for a dynamic, mutually affective relationship between the cultural and historical dimensions of a society. In particular, this book is thus an attempt to assess the extent to which Islam as a religio-cultural complex can accommodate change within its dogmas and doctrines so that they reflect changing social and material conditions.

Tibi describes the varying nature of Islam in its geographical and historical expanse with a dominant orthodoxy that emanates from the central Islamic regions and slowly and imperfectly filters through to the remotest parts. It is this orthodoxy that is held up for critical assessment in its inability to accommodate changes in the modern world. It is found wanting for the modern world in its legal framework, its language construction, and its institutions of learning.

The modern world in turn is understood in the process of globalization emanating from Europe, with a universalizing world market armed with industrialization and rationalization as its tools and secularization as its ethic. Needless to say, the new "orthodoxy" is much more spectacularly successful than the earlier Islamic one.

Like the earlier Islamic world that Tibi characterizes, the modern world allows for varieties but not contrasts. Moreover, there is an asymmetrical development between the North and the South which cannot be wished away. But for Tibi this is a historical anomaly that will unfortunately continue for some time. More important, Tibi argues that any romantic notion of "ghettoization" or "dissociation" from the world market and culture is doomed to fail.

Tibi's position on the historical asymmetry and his plea for some form of cultural "biding of time" reminds me of a valid criticism he makes of Muslim practice. Muslims are aware of a wide chasm separating their ideals, represented in their religious texts, and their actual practice. The difference is often attributed to their sinful unwillingness to conform to Divine legislation, and to the fact, less willingly admitted, that the divinely perceived legislation does not reflect historical circumstances any longer. Tibi correctly recognizes it as a "behavioral lag" between the pious Islamic formulations by elites (traditional and modern) and actual practice. Yet, he too expects Islamic culture to ignore the asymmetry, a euphemism for European cultural and economic hegemony, between the Islamic world and the rest of the world. He argues for a "normative orientation" in favor of a future "egalitarian international society" where we have to assume literally and historically that the asymmetry does not exist.

The difficulty of Tibi's position may be illustrated with Tibi's excellent portrayal of the tribal Islamic monarchies of Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Allegiance to the royal house, religious legitimacy, and tribal loyalties are coming under severe challenges from the avalanche of modern ideas. Tibi fails to indicate how modern ideas sometimes come fused in a new religious garb. The monarchies may not be able to sustain these; but it is hardly credible that the global civilization will watch quietly on the sidelines without intervening in the interests of global stability, strategic resources, or human rights, or all three combined! (ch. 11).

Tibi presents a normative orthodoxy of Islam and its text and pre-texts. He then shows rightly how this model is deficient in "factuality" vis-a-vis the modern world, in its legal system, its educational institutions, and its linguistic composition. But there is another modern formulation, ranging from Khomeini's creative restatement of the "guardianship of the jurist" to Bani Sadr's, and Rajawi's "cultural revolution" to the Egyptian Islamic opposition's "Islamic system" (ch. 9), all of which Tibi rightly argues are not true verbatim reflections of traditional Islam.

Two glaring difficulties stand out in this conceptualization. Once Tibi has formulated a strong monolithic Islamic historical orthodoxy out of the particular schools in Islamic history, these new formulations will certainly stand out as anomalies. However, Tibi's treatment of Sufism, Sunnism and Shi ism are caricatures of the historical complexities within which they emerged. Sufism, in particular, is restricted to Nicholson's immortal construct of this phenomenon (p. 23 and ch. 2). Modern Islam is not simply a replication of an older orthodoxy. In fact, it must be seen as a struggle to formulate a new orthodoxy situated in the modern world and projecting another "reality." Its tendency to "ghettoization" or "dissociation" must be seen as a product of modern history in a global sense as well as its own regional cultural past.

Secondly, Geertz' "model for reality" continues to hold for the politicized Islam that we see today. It is a model for a new reality and we may even argue how it accommodates changes even if it does so in a convoluted sort of way. But Tibi has unfortunately attacked this model for not adequately reflecting a reality that he has conceptualized. In order to deal more "realistically" with reality, he argues, among other things, that "the reformation in Christianity was a process that at once both assimilated and made possible the rise of modern society. A similar substantive renewed understanding of Islam has so far not been forthcoming".

In fact, Muslim fundamentalists have failed to provide a "framework for ... modernizing interpretation of Islam" and shown that while it may be "possible to achieve a fanatical mobilization of the people solely with the traditional methods for fostering religion, it is not possible to achieve a solution to the conflict between Islam and development that has dominated the Islamic Middle East since the nineteenth century". I agree with Tibi's assessment of this new model; but I don't think he has perceived it as a model relating to modernity. He is quite happy with regarding it as some form of anachronism.

There are three Islams in the modern world that Tibi is dealing with: a dying traditional orthodox Islam, a revitalized modern orthodoxy of fundamentalist Islam, and a renewed struggling realistic Islam waiting to be born. Tibi aspires to be the midwife for the last, and I wish it a healthy future and hope that its symbols can create a more real "aura of factuality."

Throughout the book Tibi tries to balance authenticity with realism. Using Bendix, he proposes a solution that "fu(ses) historically handed-down structures ... with the effects and technique coming from the outside". Tibi sets out the major obstacles of traditional orthodoxy toward this fusion. He then shows how more recent attempts in Iran and Egypt (fundamentalism) have been unfaithful to both the new reality and the old orthodoxy. However, he himself does not point to any substantial milestones indicating how this can be done.

But perhaps the most revealing weakness of this book by a self-confessing Muslim dealing with these issues is that the book is "addressed to a Western scholarly readership by way of developing an inter-culturally comparative sociology of development and of religion--but not because these readers are the ones to whom these efforts at reform are directed". Fortunately, Tibi does not, I believe, maintain this objective purpose; but he does maintain it uniformly enough to paint himself into a corner.
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Author:Tayob, Abdulkader I.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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