Taking stock of contemporary debate between proponents of liberal Islam and Islamists to show how both camps are trapped within their dogmatic enclosures
“Consult thy reason and let perdition take others all: Of all the conference Reason best will counsel and guide.
A little doubt is better than total credulity.” — Abū al-Alā al-Maarr,
The emergence of Islam after the end of the cold at the centre stage of history poses several challenges for the social scientists because it defies all the existing frameworks of explanation. Since its emergence in Arabian Peninsula, Islam carved out its own historical trajectory, but in the subsequent centuries its destiny intermingled with destiny of other diverse civilizations, religions and ideas. What we are witnessing today as Islam is not an entity frozen in time and space; rather it is a product of factors, actors, ideas and experiences that are both indigenous and exogenous to its society and history.
One of the difficulties in explicating presence of Islam in the post-religion era stems from the fact that the dominant analytical framework is a product of disenchanted epistemology, but it is entrusted with the task of studying an enchanted worldview. This epistemological incongruity contributes to the failure of scholarship about Islam by what is labelled as liberal Islam. The engagement of Islam with history and profane affairs has also made it more terrestrial and less transcendental.
Unfortunately, the scholarship of what is termed liberals and Islamists fail to see involvement of transcendent in mundane, and influence of mundane on the representation of transcendent reality. This essay tries to take stock of contemporary debate between proponents of liberal Islam and Islamists to show how both camps are trapped within the dogmatic enclosure and unable to analyse factors emanating from not so much ideological and theological context than changing dynamics and objective realities in the Muslim societies.
Despite the heterogeneity of historical and social forces operating on Islam, the analysis, diagnosis and prognosis of modern scholarship on Islam suffers from essentialist, ahistorical and anachronistic view. It is owing to the fact that their scholarly view is still trapped in the classical frameworks that were evolved in the formative and consolidative phases of modernity. As a result the chasm between ways of seeing and reality is increasing. The liberal debate regarding place of religion in the public sphere also suffers from ossified mind that has taken liberal principles as the articles of faith. In other words both religion and liberalism cultivated a culture of total rejection by wiping out even the iota of doubt to establish enclosure for the truth of their respective worldviews.
Liberalism is a social and political thought that attaches importance to individual rights, and individual freedom of choice. It is this emphasis on freedom in various domains of personal and social life that enabled the West to create a new society and economy. Liberalism came to the Muslim lands in tandem with colonialism. Since colonial rule was based on the binary logic of the West versus the Rest, the liberal ideals including freedom of choice and decision were not extended to the colonialised. That is the reason a vanguard of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, refused to extend the liberal concept of liberty to Indians for he deemed “barbarians have no rights as a nation.”
Corruption of words precedes the eruption of violence. The proponents of liberal Islam and Islamism are strange bedfellows for they subscribe to the vocabulary employed for the war of ideas.
Also, the advent of liberal thought in Muslim societies coincided with the gradual decline of Muslim power in different parts of the world on the one hand, and ascendency of the Western colonial powers on Muslim lands on the other. So the first exposure of Muslims with liberalism was its material and military facets not intellectual. The Muslim intelligentsia started soul searching after witnessing disappearance of old order of things and withering away of their power. Impressed by military might, scientific achievements and impressive production of knowledge, the Muslim intelligentsia tried to make Islam compatible with liberal ideals.
At the core of liberal project of Muslim intellectuals in colonial period was deep sense of inferiority in terms of intellectual capital and economic prosperity. It was in that historical context, the structure of liberal thought in Islam took shape. With the passage of time the thought has taken an essentialist form in post-colonial period for the binary schema of thinking has become even more palpable and instrumental to universalise liberal agenda after the end of cold war.
The radical Islam of today is not a result of people’s love of some archaic Islam of the past, rather it is a product of modernity. But the reductionist view of liberals regarding Islam sees 1400 years of Muslim history through the experiences of the last 17 years after 9/11. Such a view reduces diversity of historical experiences and processes to single cause. As a corollary of teleological reasoning of liberalism, liberal scholarship tries to forge a false cause by explaining the effect. The dominance of teleology and diminishing of space for diversity in liberal discourse has given birth to a dogmatic enclosure of thought. This process denotes closing to liberal mind to pressing questions of the day that demands imaginative solution to intractable challenges of today’s world, including place of religion at what Francis Fukuyama calls, “The End of History”.
What is peddled today as moderate Islam by scholars, popular writers, public speakers and liberal intellectuals is a product necessitated by the needs of will to power not will to knowledge. Now the proponents of liberal and Islamist narratives are trapped in the straight jacket of binary logic. Both see the world in black and white, and thereby close the possibilities for emergence of critical reason and creative imagination.
Both liberal Islam and Islamism feed on each other to perpetuate their hegemony on truth about Islam. In their recently published book Islam After Liberalism, Faisal Devji and Zaheer Kazmi have brilliantly exposed the intellectual hegemony of liberal Islam. According to Devji and Kazmi, “The intellectual hegemony of liberal Islam has also placed limits on any alternative, even nonviolent vision of Islamic thought and practice that challenges the liberal state.” They are of the view that “This has also bolstered institutional orthodoxies that have little room for the free expression of ‘heretical’ religious tropes and impulses. In this way, rather than expanding the sphere of Muslim liberty, Muslim liberalism can act as a disciplining force, buttressing religious orthodoxy together with the authority of the state.”
The ideological war that is being fought on binary trenches of liberals and Islamists create a zone where every thought that ventures to leave its position is killed. Algerian scholar and thinker, Muhammed Arkoun, declares such unthinkable zone in Islam as ‘Official Closed Corpus”. Like religion, liberalism has also created its own official closed corpus where all the possibilities of burgeoning of the flowers of creative, aesthetic, hermeneutical and critical thought are nipped in the bud for the liberal theology follows the rule of either with us or them.
Due to its strong soteriological and theological character in late modernity, liberalism can be included among what German philosopher Karl Jaspers calls post-axial age religions. The situation is worsened because of neoliberalism’s thrust to impose its monolithic political and economic agenda across the globe through ideological apparatus and war machine. Hence, we see great leveling of diversity across the globe through liberal wars for salvation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and other parts of the world.
In the post 9/11 period, liberal Islam found a new life with emergence of an array of institutions and actors that want to infuse a moderate version of Islam. The liberal tendency to see supporters of the ideology of radical Islam as the followers of ancient-cum-tribal Islam of Arabia is a mistaken view. The new cadre of actors and writers espousing liberal Islam have not emerged on the intellectual scene due to an intellectual urge for empathetic understanding, but because of the fact that moderate Islam sells well in the market of ideas of today.
Faisal Devji and Zaheer Kazmi think that intellectual hegemony of liberal Islam is consequence of commodification of Islam. “This has been in no small measure a consequence,” claim Devji and Kazmi “of the state’s role in the construction of ‘moderate’ Islam and the immense governmental resources ploughed into the counter-extremism agenda, which has helped commodify it.”
A common strand between the thought of different actors and institutions projecting moderate Islam is the binary nature of their discourse and belief in linear view of history. They interpolate the philosophy of linear history of liberalism to define the historical trajectory of other societies including Muslim societies across the globe. Under the guidance of linear view, the liberal Islam tries to divert multiplicity of historical trajectories into the single path dictated by essentialist liberalism.
Today the reductionist view of history has permeated into intellectual discourse among Muslim intelligentsia of liberal persuasion. An oft-repeated mantra of liberal scholarship is the dire need for reformation in Islam. The movement of reformation took place in the Western historical context where social, economic and political contradictions and dynamics necessitated a movement that called for reforms. It succeeded because there was an intellectual homework behind that provided alternate ways of dealing with self, society and the universe. Subsequently, the intelligentsia in the West created an intellectual space where issues related to private, pubic, state and religion were scrutinised through philosophical lens. It was the expansion of horizons of mind that subsequently paved the way for expansion of pubic sphere for other spheres of life and entities, institution, ideas and actors of society.
Unfortunately, the very foundation of liberalism in Islam during early modernity is marked by imitation and instrumental approach to create space for Muslims within new web of power relations created by colonial structure. Thus, the tendency among the liberals to mimic the outward manifestation, and proposing reforms in Islam on the same line as Christianity. Such an approach was nonstarter for the reason that reforms or revolution is demanded when old order either disintegrates or cannot cure the ailments begotten by it. Montgomery Watt in his books Muhammad at Mecca and Muhammad in Madina attributes startling success of Islam in Arabia within the short period of 19 years to the disintegration of tribal system, and iconoclastic message of the prophet Muhammad.
Since the inception of Islam, Muslim societies witnessed collapse of the systems of thought and power structures myriad times. Subjugation of Muslim societies to colonial power was also a result of disintegration of old system of power and worldview. The question arises here is: Why Muslim societies failed to reform or form themselves anew by equipping with new paradigm of seeing and managing the world? They failed to develop a new paradigm in modern age because of intellectual deficit. When the objective conditions were ripe for change and the old order was disintegrating, the Muslims did not have an alternative worldview because Muslim intelligentsia had not done their intellectual homework. Take the example of Mughal Empire. When the empire collapsed, it left only the rubble of old edifice and poetry not a philosophical legacy to make sense of the new age.
Today the situation is similar, as the Muslim scholarship has failed to craft a vocabulary that resonates with their existential condition. Even than the conceptual categories of modern knowledge are not invested with thought that connects concepts with the lived experiences of Muslims. Hence, the intelligentsia resorts to alien words that carry their own historical bag, baggage and bigotry. This tendency to rely too much on alien terminology without investing thinking in it is due to intellectual lethargy. Appropriation of terminology is a normal practice but it is employed to ground claims in the historically contingent contexts. It is important to merge experience of contingent in the universal vocabularies so that the conceptual categories loose their timelessness quality to capture lived experience of the life world.
Orientalist scholarship is criticised not only for its reductionist and essentialist approach, but also for its impacts on perception and representation of people about themselves. Once the spurious scholarship is accepted without the knowledge of actors and factors contributed to discursive formation of object of the knowledge, then it is internalised and the understanding is communicated through same categories that at the same time defame and distort. The movement for reform and revival of learning of Eastern knowledge in colonial India was initiated not because of relevance or their intrinsic worth. It is started because the Eastern knowledge was instrumental to colonial policy of subjugating the mind.
According to Nasir Abass Nayyar the Eastern knowledge was beneficial for the reason that through this knowledge the colonial power can subjugate the mind. Nayyar in his Urdu book “Mabad Nau Abadiat: Urdu Kay Tanazur Mein (Postcolonialism: the Context of Urdu)” claims that it was not a novel idea. Actually, it was derived from Royal Asiatic Society whose purpose of overall research about Eastern knowledge was to establish hegemony over the Eastern mind.
The conceptual blunder of liberal scholarship about Islam is that it has propensity to conflate political Islam with theological Islam. Therefore, every political or militant facet of Islam is attributed to Islamic theology. This conceptual mistake leads to analytical error of reading religious phenomenon in essentialised way at the expense of rootedness of religious practices in the complexity of socio-political and economic processes. It is very important to take into consideration the nuances that contribute to analytical edifice of scholarship on Islam. But sifting of each category in the modern discourse about Islam is a daunting task. So the easy way out is to employ ready-made terms without the operation discursive analyses. It results in the failure of imagination and forces mind to take refugee within the comfort of ideological cocoon.
Marshall Hodgson was one of the exceptional scholars who invested deep thinking into analytical categories employed for the study of Islam. Whenever a word fails to define a phenomenon or process suigeneri to Islam, he coined words to avoid conceptual pitfalls. In his magisterial book The Venture of Islam, Hodgson identified the problems with the use of analytical categories without taking into consideration the locale, context and relationship of sacred to contingent. His repertoire of conceptual categories is rich because of intellectual rigour and clarity. Unlike liberal scholarship that treats Islam as theology and society confusingly, Hodgson restricts “the term ‘Islam’ to the religion of Muslims, not using that term for the far more general phenomena, the society of Islamdom and its Islamicate cultural traditions.” Islamicate refers to the Islamdom of the society, which “has been naturally shared in by both Muslims and non-Muslims who participate fully in the society of Islamdom.”
Corruption of words precedes the eruption of violence in society. The proponents of liberal Islam and Islamism are strange bedfellows for they unconsciously subscribe to the vocabulary employed for the war of ideas. Conflation of categories proves beneficial to the Islamicists because they interpreted every political issue related to Islamdom to Islam as religion and vice versa. The repertoire of vocabulary in the ideological arsenal of liberals and Islamists has turned into sanguinary concepts because they have assumed timeless characters to serve the will of power. There is no denying the fact that Islam contains elements of violence in its theology, but at the same time it has creative, aesthetic, literary, artistic and other dimensions as well.
Most of the “analysts” especially those associated with think tanks tend to see strong causal link between Islamic religious injunction and practices of Muslims. In reality, like other ideologies and beliefs, there is a huge chasm between theory and practice among Muslims. This is evident from social behaviour and civic norms of Muslims in Muslim societies, and the Muslims living in non-Muslim societies like the West.
By: Aziz Ali Dad