Printer Friendly


Richard K. Khuri. Freedom, Modernity, and Islam: Towards a Creative Synthesis. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998. Pp. xli, 384. $59.95.)

Ever tried to persuade westerners, especially Americans, that Islam--of all traditions!--might have something to teach them (us!) about freedom? In this first book, Richard Khuri spends six fascinating initial pages telling us what brought him to undertake such a daunting task. His Lebanese background, coupled with the intellectual stimulus of London, including a shaping friendship with Albert Hourani in the final decade of that distinguished scholar's life, launched him into depths which should have overwhelmed the most intrepid of graduate students. Yet he received the critical encouragement needed to pursue this ambitious project--from Serif Mardin and Sayyed Hossein Nasr, among others--and brought it to completion himself with perspicacity and grace. It must also be said that his ideas have found the right time, for we who might until recently have thought ourselves experts in freedom have lately been found caught short: can freedom be exhausted by choices? Are the priorities upon which we need to exerci se choices part of freedom: If so, are they chosen as well? If not, then a plethora of choices leads inescapably to anomie.

Utilizing the time-honored distinction between negative and positive freedom allows Khuri to contrast Western (modem) with Islamic (traditional) society in customary ways, but following Charles Taylor's lead he forbears identifying modernity with negative freedom. Rather he notes how a preoccupation with the negative dimensions of freedom in the West--"freedom from"--had contributed to building institutions whose effect has been to restrict human freedom to choice (of means), inducing a pervasive insouciance about ends or goals, which tends to trivialize our existence. On the Islamic side, an enduring concern for proper social order has promoted an undue tolerance for apolitical structures, often enjoying religious sanction. Unyielding in his criticism of this penchant of Islam to be uncritical in accepting authority, as well as other features impeding human flourishing, he still contends that the inevitable effect of reason given sovereignty can only be an instrumental reason contributing to directionless f reedom.

So this extended essay offers a trenchant critique of the ways in which modernity has betrayed its singular promise in the West, been co-opted as a neutral instrument of material progress in the "Arab-Muslim world" (p. xxxvii), and so fomented the backlash of "Islamic revolutionaries" (p. 26, n.50). Against that volatile background he then dares to sketch out the resources of an Arab Muslim intellectual and spiritual tradition for returning Western freedom to its original transcendent dimensions. At least readers who resonate with the diagnosis of modernity having betrayed its own promise are invited to explore the rich worlds of al-Ghazali and of Ibn Arabi to gain a feel for what they are missing. How that same spiritual dimension is to be restored to Western thought and practice, however, remains obscure. And rightly so, for part of the thesis is that the negative effects of negative freedom, now virtually identified with modernity, have effectively hijacked the authentic modem intellectual tradition which animated philosophical and political modernity, leaving us quite unfree in the name of freedom. Economic institutions, reinforced by a technological reason, have virtually eclipsed the practical reason which should guide the proper exercise of our freedom, yet we have no one to blame but ourselves: we gave it up precisely in increase our choices!

Indeed, this study is directed to showing us that freedom cannot be identified with choosing, that in "libertarian freedom" the adjective so restricts the noun that the result is a random set of aimless choices--and no coherent self. For identifying freedom with choosing leaves one no direction regarding what to choose, and leaving oneself prey to one's desires cannot result in a coherent agent. So if the West has effectively abdicated the freedom its intellectual tradition offered to the world, how can Islam offer a salutary corrective? The best a philosopher can do is to delineate those features of Islam which provide a context for instrumental reason, offering the rich view of human nature in community already evidenced in Muslim civil society, if not in its underdeveloped political structures. Here the author's perspective will certainly resonate with anyone who has participated in the Arab Muslim world: the sketches offered are factual, not speculative. And so are the diagnoses of the negative impacts o f a truncated modernity on that very society, as evident in Kemalist reforms in Turkey. All that is missing are the practices and what fuels those practices: a vital faith in divine unity coupled with an abiding trust in divine providence. Here an even more explicitly comparative theological analysis would be useful: as both Christianity and Islam aver that the universe is the result of God's gracious free creation, so both contain the seeds of directing human life to its corresponding goal of returning everything to the One from whom we have receive everything. What Khuri calls "directed boundlessness" (p. xxxi) is just that, yet it is more than a concept or even an horizon; it is a way of life, indeed one as open to Christians as to Muslims. Yet it would be ironic were the "Christian" West to rediscover it through Islam.

DAVID B. BURRELL, C.S.C., is the Theodore M. Hesburgh Professor of Theology and Fellow of the Kroc Institute for Peace in the University of Notre Dame.
COPYRIGHT 2000 University of Notre Dame
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:Burrell, David B.
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Previous Article:EUROPE DE-CENTERED.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters