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Book Review

Imposing western concepts of freedom distort Islam’s reality

FREEDOM, MODERNITY AND ISLAM: TOWARDS A CREATIVE SYNTHESIS By Richard K. Khuri, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY, US. 1998. pp.384. US$37.00.
Dr Othman Ali

Many Muslim scholars and statesmen viewed the decline of the Ottoman and Mughal Empires as the Reform has always been a major concern of the Muslim Ummah, and many reformers (mujaddidun) have appeared. However, with the decline of the Ummah as a world power the issue of reform took on a new significance.ult of internal political decay and intellectual stagnation, and reform, which previously had meant striving to eradicate jahili or other non-Islamic ideas and practices from the beliefs and customs of the Ummah, increasingly came to signify reconciling or even compromising Islam with western ideologies.

This book by a scholar of Arab Christian background aims to assist reform-minded Muslims in developing a ‘creative synthesis’ between Islam and modernity. Khuri believes that neither Islam nor modernity is about to disappear, and that both will become further intertwined. Moreover, the cause of freedom will best be served if a viable synthesis between Islam and modernity can be achieved.

The book is divided into seven chapters. In the first chapter, the author presents what he considers to be the ‘well-intentioned but shallow and improperly conceived’ attempts at modernization which were forcibly implemented by the Ottoman and Egyptian governments in the nineteenth century. Khuri believes that these schemes failed because they conflicted with local values and traditions, and thus undermined the societies in question instead of strengthening them.

In the second chapter, Khuri discusses the significance of modernity by exposing the myth of sovereign reason and its alleged singular contribution to scientific thought. He attempts to show that there is no theoretical basis for modernization programmes equated with rationalism, stating that even at the highest level of science much more than the exercise of reason is involved. Chapter Three gives an overview of how freedom is restricted to narrow domains because of ‘dogmatic adherence to the primacy of sovereign reason’, giving the transcendent no place and depriving morality of any foundation. The result is that the natural environment and human society become subjugated to the wishes of individuals to gain wealth and satisfy desires regardless of the consequences.

In the fourth chapter, the author points to a ‘more salutary conception of modernity’ by discussing the different elements of freedom. Khuri maintains that a secular approach to modernity results in a freedom which has no purpose, which delivers the liberated ‘straight into the grinding mill of hyper-consumerism and frenetic technological progress.’ However, freedom and belief in the transcendent can coexist, for freedom is related to ‘the expansion of the realm of human existence to its furthest limits,’ and knowledge of the transcendent, revelation, broadens human understanding of life and freedom.

Chapter Five focuses on the degree of freedom traditionally available in Islamic societies, while the sixth chapter is a critique of the secular Arab poets’ attack on prominent historical figures in Muslim history whom they claim have curtailed individual freedom. Khuri seems to sympathize with the poets’ views of most of them; however, he regards their criticism of al-Ghazali as unfair and states that the latter could not be blamed for the socio-political decay of his time. Khuri attributes the lack of intellectual freedom in the Muslim world to such factors as: the triumph of Islamic orthodoxy, the influence of extremist groups, community defensiveness resulting from Mongol and Crusader aggression, and internal threats posed by several violent revolts.

In the seventh chapter, Khuri suggests ways of increasing freedom on ‘Islamic’ grounds. He maintains that the major changes brought by modernity have altered the main injunctions of Islam about the state, and modern state-craft therefore should be left to secular politicians. Moreover, while Islam itself does not suppress freedom, traditional interpretations of the Qur’an limit freedom, encourage quietism and the acceptance of despots. Therefore, a ‘new reading’ of many Qur’anic injunctions is needed for Islam to be relevant to our age. He refers to the opinions of Muslim modernist writers to support these contentions.

Khuri concludes that freedom will continue to increase in the ‘Arab Muslim’ world for five main reasons:

l) Relations between Islam and modernity are becoming less confrontational, as Muslims see the need for change and proponents of modernity see their ideology’s ‘moral and spiritual failings’;

2) In this more relaxed atmosphere, Muslims will gradually reinterpret concepts such as bid’a (innovation), obedience to authority and the indivisibility of religion and state in accordance with the needs of the age; 3) The majority of Muslims will increasingly ignore the pronouncements of the ulama which are ‘irrelevant’ or ‘in error’ without regarding themselves as compromising their faith;

4) Muslim intellectuals are increasingly distinguishing between the ‘principles of the Qur’an’, which are eternal and specific laws derived from them, which are not eternally valid; and,

5) Sufis and other mystically-inclined Muslims ‘embody Islam’s greatest virtues and manifest the highest realization of freedom in an Islamic context.’ They have a ‘central role’ to play, as they see Islam in ‘livelier and more imaginative terms than those excessively bound by the legal heritage.’

The book is certainly well-researched, with numerous references to primary sources. The author intends westerners to see Islam as a generally positive force rather than as a challenge, and calls into question some negative stereotypes of Muslims. On the subject of the rights of non-Muslims, he points out that, in general, Muslim states have been much more tolerant of other faiths than have Christian states. Moreover, using the Islamic revolution in Iran as an example, he points out that the coming to power of an Islamic government can better the position of women rather than the reverse. However, Khuri’s overall analysis is flawed for several reasons.

The concept of ‘freedom’ is derived from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke (1632-1704), who believed that all men are equally free in the state of nature. They form social groupings while remaining equally free, and therefore if the ruler becomes tyrannical the ruled have the right to remove him. In such a world-view, the state can only prohibit acts obviously harmful to society or infringing upon the rights of its members such as theft or improperly disposing of toxic waste.

Legislation of belief or morality is seen as unjustifiably limiting freedom. Muslims have traditionally seen ‘freedom’ as a relative notion. One can be ‘free’ as opposed to ‘enslaved’ on the socio-economic plane, but all people are in the end ‘slaves of God’ (ibad Allah), as He gives them life, sustenance and death. Those who rebel against this basic truth and freely indulge their desires are ‘enslaved’ by their passions, while acknowledging it opens up the possibility of achieving inward ‘freedom’.

Imposing the modern notion of freedom on Muslim history results in serious distortions and perpetuates outdated Orientalist misconceptions. For example, the claim that the triumph of Ashari theology over Mu’tazili ideas in the Abbasid era is the victory of reaction over reason and moderation trivializes an intellectual debate.

The Mu’tazila were not the standard bearers of freedom; they persecuted those who disagreed with them. The Ashariya wanted to check the tendency of those influenced by Greek philosophy to rationalize Islam; their concern was not ‘freedom’ as such. The constraints on ‘freedom’ which appeared in this era were due mainly to the increasing militarization of the state, itself the result of attacks by the Buwayhids, the Seljuks, and later by Turkish and Circassian Mamluks.

In a similar vein, Orientalist stereotypes of legalistic, unbending and militant literalists and eclectic, compassionate, peaceful Sufis distort Khuri’s analysis. In reality, the Sufis and the literalists were not two mutually exclusive camps. Sufis could and did belong to literalist schools of law; some led jihad movements and many advocated implementing the Shari’ah as vigorously as any literalist. Those who had a more eclectic world-view often helped perpetuate limitations on freedom by upholding pre-Islamic customs which denied the rights of women and the poor.

Khuri claims that a synthesis between modernity and Islam is possible. Borrowing from Leo Strauss, a major western critic of modernism, he notes that while the 18th century Enlightenment thinkers gave absolute power to reason, Renaissance thinkers gave equal importance to reason and revelation. Moreover, Strauss’s ideas were influenced by the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who was in turn influenced by Muslim philosophers. This dubious silsilah (chain of authority) is not convincing, especially given the fact that in the west the supposedly equal partnership of reason and revelation ended with the dominance of reason.

Religion was confined to the realm of personal belief and ethical teaching, and then induced, on the grounds of reason, to surrender even this. The result is that today increasing numbers of clergy publicly deny key church doctrines and many churches ordain homosexuals. Such a compromise between Islam and modernity would be likewise inherently unstable. If it is maintained that reason and revelation are equal, what is the basis for such an assertion? Revelation makes no such claim; therefore, it is reason which has decided that they are equal. It follows that reason is already the dominant partner, because it has decided the status of revelation.

Given Khuri’s rather negative description of classical Islamic thought, one wonders what kind of Islam he would like to synthesize with ‘modernity.’ It is definitely not the Islam of the contemporary Islamic movements. He considers Islamists as the intellectual descendants of literalists such as Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328). The literalists championed what he calls communal extremism, and their rule was ‘oppressive’ and ‘occasionally murderous.’ Modern Islamists, he contends, are ‘shallow.’ Usually graduates of medicine or engineering and hostile to traditional ulama, their movement is ‘intolerant’ and ‘intellectually bankrupt.’

His description of modern Islamist movements relies on outdated stereotypes and ignores movements such as an-Nahdah in Tunisia, whose leader, Rashid Ghanoushi, is a graduate of philosophy, and the increasing number of Islamist intellectuals with academic backgrounds in the arts and humanities writing about Islam and contemporary issues. Moreover, the Islamic revolution in Iran, as well as some movements such as Hizbullah are led by traditional ulama.

It is also not clear why literalists should be seen as the sponsors of ‘communal extremism’ and, implicitly, the forerunners of some groups in North Africa accused of committing atrocities in the name of Islam when such acts have historically been more characteristic of the Khawarij as well as of some ghulat (extremist Shi’a groups). It was the Khawarij who justified the killing of any Muslim who did not share their views.

The type of Islam Khuri considers relevant to the present age is the ‘moderate’ Islam of modernists such as Ziya Gokalp, described as ‘Islam’s most influential thinker’ (p. 306), Fazlur Rahman, and Muhammad Arkoun. Although these men have left the mainstream of Muslim thought and have limited influence on it they are evidently considered relevant (while all Islamist thinkers are not) because they agree with Khuri’s claim that modern states differ so radically from the state founded by the Prophet, upon whom be peace, in Medina that modern Muslim states should be secular. The ‘creative synthesis’ in the end seems to demand political capitulation.

Khuri’s book provides much food for thought, especially his exploration of the significance of modernity and his discussion of negative and positive freedom. It is unfortunate that his analysis cannot break free of secularism to see the modern world on more lively, imaginative and inclusive terms.

Muslimedia: August 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 11

Rabi' al-Thani 19, 14201999-08-01

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