Islam, the Self-Critical Version

Reforming Islam: Progressive Voices from the Arab Muslim World is an imposing anthology of articles taken from the reformist website www.almuslih.org, composed originally in Arabic  and translated accurately into English by Stephen Ulph. It contains dozens of articles, from three to 12 pages long, by contributors from across the Arab world including Lafif Lakhdar of Tunisia, Babikir Faysal Babikir of Sudan, Mohamed al-Sanduk of Iraq, and Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari of Qatar. Editors Stephen Ulph and Patrick Sookhdeo have added section introductions that ably summarize the content of each section and the work as a whole. A number of Arabic terms and concepts are expertly explained in a substantial glossary.

The large number of articles and contributors makes the anthology somewhat disjointed, but the editors have helpfully organized the volume according to theme. Those who prefer to read the anthology by author may easily do so by using the table of contents. In the space of this brief review, I will not be able to do justice to the authors’ individual qualities, but will confine myself to the general outlook of the volume as a whole.

The editors forcefully state in their introduction the argument that prevails throughout the book: Intellectual reform of Islam must precede social or political reform. They quote Syrian contributor Hashem Saleh, who warns that “If we do not win the intellectual battle for enlightenment against the fundamentalists, we will not at any day win the political battle.” (p. 6)  It is therefore in the interest of the West to “actively, and exclusively” support reformist voices. (p. 9)

Unfortunately, many of our policymakers and intellectuals are barely aware of the existence of these voices. By presenting the work of a large number of sincere and articulate Muslim reformers to a Western audience for the first time, this anthology will contribute to better informed debate about the future of Islam. To the extent that I criticize the work, I do so only with the aim of furthering its goals.

The first part of the anthology contains harsh critiques of the fundamentalist Islamic outlook and everything it represents. The second focuses on the gradual eclipse of reason within Islam over its long history. The third and final part offers a critique of the Muslim religious tradition and its authenticity. Let us consider each in turn.

The arguments in the first part are clear and cogent. It is refreshing and encouraging to hear such unconditional criticism of Muslim fanaticism from Muslims themselves. We need to be reminded how much hateful extremism continues to exist in Islam, but since we ourselves are not tempted by such pious rage we might simply find ourselves nodding our heads at the reformers’ scathing critique of it. The most interesting articles in this section present a positive view of what Islam should be alongside negative observations about what it has often become. For example, Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari invokes Qur’ān 17.70 on the honor accorded by God to all human beings in support of a Muslim teaching of universal human dignity and tolerance, (pp. 119-123) and Babikir Faysal Babikir cites a number of Qur’ānic verses to show that the holy book opposes the punishment of apostates in this world. (pp. 140-148)

The decline of rationalism within Islam is depicted in sweeping historical terms in the second part. The contributions here emphasize that the brief flowering, about a thousand years ago, of rationalist Mutazilite theology and Greek philosophy was followed by a complete loss of interest in them, lasting into modern times. (pp. 157, 164, and 178-81 inter alia) The recovery of the use of reason, with the help of European Enlightenment thought, is put forward as the key for revitalizing Islam today. (pp. 222-225)

Gratifying as it is to hear such uncompromising attacks on religious obscurantism from Muslims themselves, this part of the anthology tends to be somewhat lacking in precision. The contributors explain, albeit succinctly, what the Mutazilites thought, (pp. 174-175) but never specify what the philosophers thought, beyond suggesting that they were followers of the Greeks. (p. 179) Nor do the authors adequately distinguish between Mutazilites and philosophers. Alfarabi, Averroes, and Ibn Khaldun all attacked the Mutazilites as pseudo-rationalists whose dogmatism never questioned the essential premises of Islam and often provoked only strife; yet the contributors make no mention of this dispute, perhaps because they are overeager to present the denizens of reason with a single face.

Finally, European enlightenment is lumped together with medieval Muslim enlightenment, (pp. 199-201) even though European enlightener Francis Bacon decried the contributions of the Arab philosophers as worthless scholasticism, while many of his successors do not even appear to have read them. At the very least, we should not regard these two forms of philosophic rationalism born of two very different civilizations as identical or even compatible without further examination. The contributors may regard “reason” as so praiseworthy that they do not need to distinguish between the various philosophical and theological positions informed by it, but the result is that “reason”  is sanctified rather than explained.

The vagueness of this discussion may follow naturally from the educational curriculum in the Arab world, which tends to neglect philosophy. Their sincere and reflective rationalist tendencies notwithstanding, the contributors seem much more familiar with Muslim religious texts than philosophical writings. The one contributor to this volume whom I have met personally, in learning that I was studying Alfarabi, assured me that “We know what Alfarabi thinks already”—hardly a recipe for appreciating or understanding his thought. The support of philosophical thought offered by this anthology is highly encouraging, but we must hope that it will eventually translate into a more serious examination of its meaning.

In light of the critique of Muslim tradition that so profitably occupies the final half of the anthology, I wish to raise the following question: have the medieval Islamic philosophers already undertaken the critical interpretation of Muslim tradition? I believe that they have, and would adduce, as striking examples, Alfarabi’s hints about the gradual, human, and foreign origin of revealed religion in the Book of Letters and Book of Religion, as well as Ibn Khaldūn’s unorthodox history of the Caliphate and criticism of common historical errors in the Muqaddima.

The predominantly religious focus of the curriculum in the Muslim world contributes to the strength and precision of the articles that make up the third part of Reforming Islam. The reformers’ knowledge of Islamic philosophy may be shaky, but their grasp of the Muslim religious tradition is quite firm. Approaching this tradition from a skeptical, modern standpoint, they show how the very things held sacrosanct by the fundamentalists, such as Qur’ān, ḥadith, sīra, and sharīa, are the result not of direct divine revelation but a murky, all-too-human historical process.

The revelation heard by Muhammad was memorized and transmitted in several different versions. These oral reports were codified, controversially and in some cases arbitrarily, nearly two decades after his death, when the Caliph Uthman feared that those who had reliable oral memory of the revelation were dying off. (pp. 343-52, 393-97) Unfortunately, the written text of the Qur’ān as standardized by Uthman did not provide enough information about the prophet, his life, or his views, to develop a complete religion on its basis alone. To fill in its gaps, a vast literature of ḥadith, sayings attributed to the prophet, and sīra, narrations about the prophet’s life, emerged in the next three centuries.

As contributors such as Riyad Hammadhi convincingly show, these texts inevitably absorbed foreign influences and reflected the stormy political and religious disputes of their time; indeed, they often conflicted with the Qur’ān itself. (pp. 380-92) Yet Islamic jurisprudence has frequently treated the ḥadith as equal in value to the Qur’ān. The divine rule and wisdom on which fundamentalist Muslims base their understanding has not escaped a human filter. The contributors believe that a critical approach to Islam, incorporating history and archaeology, and incorporating textual criticism, will eventually transform the religion in the way that Biblical criticism transformed Judaism and Christianity. Lafif Lakhdar recounts appealing to Saudi rulers for help with such a project, thus far to no avail. (pp. 254-55)

The focus of Reforming Islam comes to light not only through what it includes, but also through what it omits. The mighty non-Arab dynasties that governed the Islamic world so successfully into the 18th century are ignored. Presumably this is due to the Arab authorship of this book, and to its authors’ belief that Islam’s irreversible decline began with the eclipse of reason in the 12th century. (p. 164) But even if the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals did not revitalize Mutazilism or philosophy, are we sure that contemporary Muslims can learn nothing from these worldly, sophisticated dynasties? Their empires flourished for centuries, kept bloody extremism mostly at bay, and produced masterful works of art.

It is true, of course, that these dynasties were ultimately no match for European colonial powers, but neither was China or India. None of the ancient civilizations of Asia stood any chance of competing with the modern technologies and nations that emerged so suddenly in Europe, and all have endured at least a century of humiliation. If China and India have in fact turned a corner, they did so only very recently. I question the assumption of some of the contributors, that Islam has been uniquely stagnant since the 11th century. (p. 202) It might be more accurate to say that Europe has been uniquely dynamic. While we should appreciate the contributors’ critique of their own civilization, we should not encourage them to sell it short or overlook historical resources for future development.

Social and political issues particular to the various contributors’ countries occasionally arise here, but mostly as mere illustrations; they seldom receive sustained attention. Steering clear of local concerns no doubt reflects a central thesis of the work: Meaningful reform within particular Islamic societies and states will not succeed without pan-Islamic religious reform. But given how little interest most Arab dictators have shown in genuine religious reform, couldn’t one argue that such reform is more likely to occur within a more open society? If countries such as Tunisia succeed in becoming stable democracies, this question will be put to the test. Meanwhile I see no contradiction between supporting both pan-Islamic religious liberalism and local political reform, under the assumption that the two are mutually reinforcing.

Finally, the contributors warmly praise European enlightenment, but are silent about its negative consequences. They barely address the question of colonialism and, on the few occasions that they mention it, incline toward the view that their backward ancestors deserved it. (pp. 233, 242) Can they win over their compatriots, most of whom still regard European colonialism as a great crime, without taking up this question in greater detail?

The contributors also omit any mention of the two world wars and the Holocaust, and the devastation that they wrought in Europe. (pp. 201-02, 233) These cataclysmic events certainly cast some doubt on the ability of Enlightenment thinking to improve human societies, and indeed have led to great uncertainly about its value in Europe and the West more generally. The contributors’ avoidance of these horrors gives their work a strangely anachronistic feel, as if they were clinging to a 19th century European view of progress that many Europeans have long since abandoned. Perhaps that indicates the peculiar predicament of the Muslim world: having failed to embrace the European Enlightenment when belief in it was still strong, they find themselves caught between a traditional past that recedes as rapidly as ever and a “postmodern” future that no longer beckons as brightly as it once did.

None of these criticisms is meant to detract from the importance of this book; my purpose, rather, is to encourage further debate on the questions it raises. The editors have performed an immense public service in making a large quantity of contemporary Muslim reformist literature available to the English-speaking public. Reforming Islam will be of interest to the general reader as well as university professors, who might wish to include some material from it or from the Almuslih site on Islamic Thought syllabi.