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Islam and the Quest of Modernity

Today’s Muslims face a tremendous challenge to their faith and worldview. Their most noticeable response is known as Islamic fundamentalism. In 1979, the triumph of the Khomeini revolution gave this radical movement a powerful base. This coup galvanized the Shi’ite masses in Iran. One year later, it enabled them to withstand the Iraqi invasion, and to turn it into a jihad that lasted for eight long years. Before too long, the Iranian revolution was exported to Lebanon. It is no wonder that in 1987, a special stamp was issued in Iran to commemorate the martyrs of Hizbullah (Party of Allah) in Lebanon!

The majority of the Muslims of the world belong to the orthodox or Sunni branch of Islam; and within this part of Islam, radical fundamentalism (known nowadays as Islamism) has manifested itself everywhere from Indonesia to Africa. Just think of the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the horrific attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. Is it still appropriate to speak about Islam and modernity? When we take the long view, the answer is yes. While Islamism has captured the minds of many young Muslims, eventually, it leads to a dead-end. Thus, Muslims must face the challenge of modernity. Already, in the early days of 2003, the young people in Iran are manifesting their rejection of the utopian ideology of the Ayatollahs of the Islamic Republic.

We may summarize the thinking of the Islamists in this way: At the dawn of Islam (7th Century A.D.), God gave the Arabs His final and complete revelation. He launched them on a mission to spread the faith over the entire world. Their rapid success in building a huge empire from the walls of China to Spain was a sign of Allah’s approval and blessing. During the First Muslim Millennium, history was on their side. While they went through some violent internal upheavals, their belief in their divine mission was not shaken.

After the fall of Baghdad in the 13th century, and the demise of the Abbasid caliphate, the Ottoman Turks became the new defenders of the faith. They spread their empire into Eastern and Southern Europe. Constantinople fell into their hands in 1453. Islam was still on the march. There was now a Muslim caliph ruling from Istanbul, (Constantinople).

At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered by the European powers. Most of the Middle East came under British and French rule. During the 1920s and 1930s, most of the Muslim world was under the control of European powers with the exception of a major portion of Arabia, Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan.

This situation created a great problem for Muslims. How could they reconcile the finality and rightness of their faith with their contemporaneous history? It seemed as if Allah had forsaken them! Something must have gone wrong; they had forgotten Him and His Law. The cry went out, back to the fundamentals of Islam.

The period that followed World War II, saw the end of European imperialism. Muslim nations became independent. The last major Muslim land to throw off the shackles of colonialism was Algeria. Its eight-year struggle of liberation from France cost it 1,500,000 martyrs! But during those long years of colonialism, many Arabs came into contact with Europe. As a result, Arab nationalism was born. Its primary aim was to throw off the yoke of imperialism. It sought to borrow several features of Western civilization and blend them with the basic tenets of Islam.

The failure of nationalism to solve the economic problems of the masses, the population explosion, rapid urbanization, and the birth of the State of Israel, have contributed to the revival and spread of Islamic Fundamentalism. But we must not jump to the conclusion that the entire Muslim world is dominated by fundamentalism. A sampling of contemporaneous Arabic literature indicates that some Muslims today are seeking to find solutions to their problems from a non-fundamentalist perspective.

One author who has been very helpful in pinpointing the basic problem that faces the Muslims today is the late Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, an Egyptian scholar who taught for many years in Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. degree from a British university. He came to appreciate his Islamic heritage after his encounter with Western culture. He is representative of several lay Muslims who are working for the renewal of Islam through its modernization.

In one of his earlier books, Tajdid al-Fikr al-'Arabi (The Renewal of the Arab Mind), Dr. Mahmoud outlined the emergence of a contemporaneous Arab-Muslim culture in which the inherited culture of the past would co-exist in harmony with modernity. According to him, this goal would be attained if the modern Arab was willing to preserve from his cultural heritage the “general outlook” of his ancestors, provided it was purged of all those problems which were of no relevance to the Muslims of today.

Having set forth his thesis in the above-mentioned book, Dr. Mahmoud pursued his quest for renewal in another book, which was published in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1973. Al Ma'qool wa'l Lama'qool fi Tirathina al-Fikri (The Rational and the Irrational in Our Cultural Heritage).

The thesis of the book is that the Arab’s general outlook was fundamentally rational. The irrational outlook did impact individuals but what marked the life of the Arabs in general was a specific hikma or wisdom.

The author’s method is to take us on a “cultural journey” where we may visit the Arabs of the past taking note of both their rational and their irrational outlooks. He does not attempt to look at their problems through their own eyes. Rather, he keeps his own outlook, which is the product of our modern times. After listening carefully to the fundamental discussions that took place in the past, he would reflect on what he had learned in order to decide what must be accepted and what must be rejected from the cultural heritage of the past.

As an Arab-Muslim scholar, his research begins with the 7th Century and ends in the 13th Century A.D. As noted earlier, Arab Muslims consider the fall of Baghdad in 1258 as the beginning of their Dark Ages. They are unwilling to consider that the banner of Islam went to the newly converted Turks who enlarged the Muslim world and spread the faith into new regions never occupied by the Arabs.

During the 7th Century A.D. – 1st A.H. – the Arabs’ preoccupations were with the political and social realms. Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was the best representative of the Arabs. Ali’s book, Nahj al-Balagha (The Way of Eloquence), showed that the genius of the Arabs resided in their tongue. While the modern Arab may still appreciate the form of this cultural heritage and especially his beautiful language, he must not become a prisoner of the form or contents of this heritage.

Muhammad died in 632 A.D. without leaving any specific instructions about his succession. Thus the first major problem that confronted the Arab-Muslim community was who was to be the legitimate successor or khalifa of the Prophet? For about a quarter of a century, the Islamic Umma chose its caliphs by the consensus of the leading members of the community in Medina. But this system broke down when there was no unanimity in the choice of Ali, the fourth caliph. Mu’awiya, the governor of Damascus, claimed that Ali was implicated in the murder of ‘Uthman, the third caliph. He wanted the caliphate for himself. War broke out between Ali and his opponent. There was call for arbitration. Not all parties agreed on the results of the arbitration. The Islamic Umma split into three parties: the followers of Mu’awiya (known as Sunni Muslims,) the followers of Ali (known as Shi’ites, i.e., Partisans of Ali,) and the Khawarej or Dissenters. Both Ali and Mu’awiya claimed the caliphate on grounds of kinship to Muhammad, the Khawarej put forth the thesis that it was not heredity, but ability and capability that mattered in the choice of the caliph.

One may see a rational approach in the position taken by the Khawarej, yet their conduct in the history of the Muslim community shows their inconsistency. Irrationalism triumphed in their camp. One of their men murdered Ali. They became notorious for their cruelty to those Muslims who did not adhere to their extremist positions. Dr. Mahmoud maintains that the basic political theory of the Khawarej is forgotten or neglected in the history of the Arabs, the right to revolt against the imam, (the leader,) when he betrays the trust granted to him by the Muslim umma. The Khawarej sinned against this great political principle when they surrounded it with religious fanaticism.

The first lessons we learn from the research and reflection of Dr. Mahmoud is this one: during the first period of the Islamic history, the rational approach had its champions, at least theoretically, but its champions were inconsistent, and their behavior was utterly wrong.

During the second period, 8th Century A.D. - 2nd A.H., certain theological problems came to the fore. For example, there was a debate about the ‘great sins.’ Can a Muslim, who committed one of the great sins, still be considered a true Muslim? Furthermore, discussions relating to predestination and human responsibility, and the attributes of God, occupied the attention of the Islamic community. These subjects dealt with deep theological matters. It is in his comments on this period that Dr. Mahmoud manifests his lack of interest in theological topics. He does not think that the Arabs of today are able to identify with those discussions. He makes one exception however: the subject of man’s freedom and responsibility.

At this point, one cannot help but notice that Dr. Mahmoud, who is a leader in the cause of the modernization of the Arab-Muslim mind, exhibits a bias for the horizontal aspect of the faith. He considers subjects that are purely theological, or those that deal with the supernatural, of no relevance today!

The “liberals” of that period were known as the Mu’tazilites. They taught man’s full responsibility for his actions. Their thesis was: a man is able to create his own deeds; otherwise, there would be no foundation for justice. The theological discussions were live and dealt with concrete problems that surfaced as a consequence of the wars of succession. The opponents of the Mu’tazilites were known as the Jabirites. Their thesis was: a man is mujbar, i.e., he is forced to do what he does. He has no capability to create his own deeds.

The third period, 9th and 10th Centuries A.D. - 3rd and 4th A.H., ushers us into the Abbasid era with Baghdad as the new center of the Arabic/Islamic culture. In commenting on this chapter in the history of the Arab nation, Dr. Mahmoud writes: The accession of the Abbasids “teaches us a lesson that our ancestors were not perfect.” These words were undoubtedly prompted by the blood bath that took place when the Abbasids wrested the caliphate from the Umayyads in 750 A.D.

But as things began to settle down, Baghdad became the center of learning and the cultural life of the Arab-Muslim community reached its zenith. There was a great deal of freedom for the airing of various theological and philosophical views. Both Muslim and Christian scholars participated in this movement. The impact of Greek culture was great, but according to Dr. Mahmoud, only a small group of intellectual elite felt it; the masses in Baghdad, and throughout the vast empire, were not influenced by Hellenism.

In contrast with those times, today, the influence of the outside world on the Arabs is total. All aspects of life – culture, economics, military, commerce, government – have come under the impact of non-Islamic worldviews. A new situation is at hand that has never happened in the previous thirteen centuries of Islam!

Going back to the Mu’tazilites, Dr. Mahmoud appreciates their rational approach: they believed in free will and responsibility and in playing an active role in the life of the Muslim community. One of their theses was: God cannot do evil.

Time and again, as one accompanies our author on his intellectual journey in the early centuries of Islam, one takes note of the vigor of the intellectual activities of the times and the relatively free atmosphere within which they were pursued. There were, for example, the rationalists known as Ikhwan al-Safa. Their thesis may be summarized as follows: There is no conflict between Islamic Shari’a and Greek philosophy. Religion is for the sick, while philosophy is for the well. They championed the belief that man is perfectible by wisdom. They were tolerant to those who did not hold their views. They taught that all religions were helpful! They wrote 51 or 52 epistles. In one that had the title Discovery of the Truth, their account of the fall of Adam is closer to the Biblical one than to the traditional Islamic view of the fall.

Dr. Mahmoud is perplexed by those who claim that nothing is left for us to discover or accomplish, since the salafs (ancestors) have discovered everything. This view was not shared by some of the Arabs’ intellectual giants of the past. For example, the famous Syrian poet Abu’l ‘Ala’a taught: “It is possible for any person to become his own imam (leader), if he did his research and reflection well.”

This is a very important observation: rigidity within the Arab-Islamic culture occurred later on. During the first five hundred years, it was otherwise. There was freedom of thought, expression and discussion.

When we arrive in our cultural journey at the fourth period, 11th Century A.D. - 5th A.H., we are still preoccupied with Mu’tazilite teachings. They were involved in the Mihnat al-Qur’an, i.e., the Ordeal of the Qur’an. They had enjoyed the favor of three successive caliphs: al-Ma’moon, al-Mu’tasem and al-Watheq. This theological controversy is of great importance in the understanding of the problems that confront every monotheistic faith.

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