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Why Rigidity Won't Herald a
New Islamic Golden Age-An Essay

The "Islamic resurgence" is a fact of our time. As Muslims are a part of the world, and the Islamic resurgence shapes their relations with other nations and cultures, it is essential for them to listen to others' views of their revival. Most Muslims take westerners in general as the traditional opponents of the Islamic resurgence, since they established their "Renaissance" and "Enlightenment" on foundations of secularism in its broader sense. Besides, they - as well as Muslims - cannot forget the colonial era with its lingering effects on both sides. However, for those who are committed to Islam an ideological discussion of the Islamic resurgence is necessary and beneficial. It is helpful for Muslims themselves to hear what others think they should do in order to reach their glorious goal, which all Muslims believe requires intelligent and serious efforts to achieve. Some westerners are able to understand the concept of faith or life different from theirs, and not all Muslims can both maintain the obligations of Islam and cope with the needs of a contemporary society in the contemporary world. Unless they have a clear view of what is divine and permanent and what is human and changeable in their accumulated heritage, they cannot reach a true and lasting Islamic resurgence. Any serious and sincere approach from non-Muslim contributors - such as the following from Julian Crandall Hollick, the British radio journalist whom I have known through his genuine efforts as the executive producer of "The World of Islam" radio series - is most welcome. Represented here are some of his personal conclusions about the future of the Islamic revival.

                                                         - Fathi Osman
Arabia Magazine February 1985

There are broadly two ways of looking at the current Islamic revival or resurgence. Either it is a passing fad, blown out of all proportion by the western media and tied to the rise and fall of the price of oil; or it represents something altogether deeper and more permanent, if ultimately less spectacular. Or it might be a combination of both. The trouble is, there are as yet few easy conclusions and only half-answered questions.

For instance, is the Islamic revival merely a subtle new form of nationalism in the Islamic world? Or is it part and parcel of a much broader attempt to find solutions to the problems of modernization from within one's own traditions and cultures? And how are journalists and scholars supposed to measure the success of failure of this Islamic revival, to make sense of it for our western non-Muslim audiences - in terms of institutional change and political rhetoric? Or by mosque attendance and religious dress?

Is this something that will come to fruition in a handful of years, or should we be measuring it in terms of generations? Then again, are we too preoccupied with what is happening in the Arab and Iranian worlds, to the exclusion of the experiments in Sudan, Pakistan or Malaysia?

Thus far, it's probably fair to say that the record of solid achievement towards the goal of genuine Islamization has been mixed at best. Nowhere, for example, is there a state that is generally recognized by Muslims as purely Islamic. And while the Shariah or divine law has been reintroduced into several Muslim countries, too often the emphasis appears to be placed on the Hudud or penal punishments - such as amputation for theft - rather than on the liberating or merciful nature of Islam. There appears to be an equally excessive preoccupation with prohibitions in social and sexual matters.

In the economic field, the alms tax or zakat has largely been taken over by the state. While interest-free banks are established in several countries, few Muslim economists even believe that they alone can hold the key to sustained economic growth. Greatly simplifying, it seems that most Muslim thinkers acknowledge, openly or tacitly, that freedom from riba (usury) will probably have to be part of broader economic models that look to the realities of tomorrow's economy as much as to Islam's past.

All these points bring up three essential issues: first, to what extent is the current Islamic revival being expropriated and exploited by clever politicians for their own ends? Second, can Islam be a self-sufficient social and political whole today? Does it contain within itself answers to the problems of the Twenty-First Century, and are its principles sufficiently flexible to permit the necessary adaptation? Third, is there in fact a danger that in their impatience to Islamize their societies many Muslim countries may be over-emphasizing form at the expense of substance?

Merely to raise the second question is probably tantamount to heresy for most Muslims. I happen to believe that Islam does contain the potential to resolve many of our current problems - but the question is, whether Muslims understand how to use the principles of Islam to that end.

For Islam to meet the challenge of a rapidly changing world it must look more to the present and the future than to its past. Of course, one is talking of the need for renewal of Islamic thought or ijtihad. But what Muslims mean by ijtihad varies considerably.

For the conservative, emotionally committed to the status quo and a return to the comfort of past certainties, ijtihad may merely mean a concept to which one should pay lip service and very little else. For the conservative, the revival of Islam means a literal return to the status quo ante, to society and values as they existed before the colonial interruption. This is literal revivalism. But it is not tajdid or renewal.

There's nothing reprehensible about such attitudes; the question is really whether return to the past, to the Golden Age, is possible, and whether it is in the long-term interests of Islam as a living faith.

The neo-traditionalist accepts the need for ijtihad in theory, but in practice seems a prisoner of the "Pandora's Box" complex: if he accepts a small change here it may unleash an uncontrollable torrent of change elsewhere. I don't doubt the sincerity of almost all these neo-traditionalists. And I believe they are in the ascendant. But I do question whether their cautious opening on the future is sufficient to allow suitable answers for today's world.

The modernist or reformist, on the other hand, accepts modernization and non-Islamic influences but believes that these can be integrated into the broad principles of Islam to form a new, relevant and dynamic Islam that will give Muslims everywhere the necessary tools and self-confidence to renew their faith. The danger is that he may be discredited for his pragmatism or associations with the West. He can be attacked for his radicalism in the name of Islam even if committed to true Islamization, but that is the lot of all innovators.

Most of the Muslims I talked with in the course of the past three years accepted the need for rethinking, or ijtihad. But when pressed, the differences soon emerged. Some differences were of temperament and upbringing, others were due to cultural influence that seemed only loosely connected with Islam.

I was struck by the sincere but dogmatic insistence in many non-Arab countries that social customs practiced in the more conservative Muslim societies (such as veiling or segregation of women from men, the ban on music or figurative representation) were in fact clearly spelled out in the Quran when, of course, they are not! Or, at the very least, they are subject to contradictory and ambiguous interpretations. Many of these customs reflect the values of pre-Islamic societies. Their elevation over the centuries to absolute truths has vastly complicated the task of would-be Islamic reformers - a task that is already sufficiently difficult when so few Muslims seem to be able to even agree on a definition of Islam beyond its broad principles.

I'm not sure that these disagreements need necessarily be a bad thing if Muslim intellectuals show tolerance of diversity and experimentation. Just as there may be one spiritual umma (community) but many different Islamic societies, reflecting local traditions and temperaments, so there are probably many paths to Allah.

One sees this tolerance, this self-confidence in the notion of unity in diversity in Islamic art or architecture throughout the Islamic world. Indeed, it's perhaps the base of Islam's cultural genius. I suspect, however, that it's much easier to adopt an ideological view of Islamization than the pragmatic alternative. Similarly, given recent history, it is probably also inevitable that most revivalists regard borrowing from the West as unacceptable.

Unfortunately, attitudes towards the West or towards anything that might be construed as westernization become ideological litmus tests of whether one is or is not a true Muslim. The memory of the "Westoxification" of the Shah's Iran is too recent for most Muslims. Using the West as whipping boy for all the ills of the Muslim world is natural and convenient. But, after a while, it becomes an alibi. The classic example is the tendency to see all failures in terms of "capitalist" or "imperialist" conspiracy theories. Most of us are simply not clever enough to carry off one-tenth of the elaborate plots and schemes that are credited to us in the Third World.

While the West may have many faults, it also has much to admire and learn from. Muslims can afford to take generously from the West. And if Muslims don't spit in the West's eye maybe the West will learn to respect Islam and learn from Muslims. Maybe western media will learn to look beyond sensationalism, demonstrations and violence to examine what is happening in the Muslim family or school. And Muslims won't confuse the promiscuity and sensationalism of the spoilt few with any generalized breakdown of western civilization.

The search for "true" Islam often appears to be a search for the mythical Golden Age, a society and government that existed in the nation-state that was Makkah or Madinah but which is totally impossible in practical terms today. Muslim revivalists are correct that the principles on which those early Muslim communities were organized are those which must be resurrected. But while many Muslims swear that it is only the principles which they want to follow, in practical terms they cannot accept the degree of ijtihad necessary to translate those principles into modern values and institutions.

One cannot turn back the clock of history. Nor does one need to! If you do, it suggests that you have little faith or confidence in your ability to build an Islamic society or state. This translates into a fixation with an idealized blueprint of the Islamic state of 1,400 year ago transposed through rose-colored spectacles into the Twenty-First Century. The danger with this ideological daydreaming is precisely that it neglects any objective analysis of society and economy today and how one might practically achieve the desired Islamic society. Some of the more vociferous conservatives and neo-traditionalists seem more intent on maintaining their own ideological purity and denouncing pragmatists like Anwar Ibrahim or Hasan al-Turabi than on getting their hands dirty in the messy world of practical politics.

If Islamization is to come about, and not be a superficial Islamization of slogans and symbols, then Muslim leaders must work for development aid for schools where Islamic studies are part of the curriculum. That takes time. The Islamization of the substance of modern knowledge will probably take much, much longer and prove far more difficult to realize.

There is no real reason why there cannot be an Islamic science in the Twenty-First Century. But that does not mean repudiating the achievements of the West in the name of doctrinal purity. Take the case of Professor Abdus Salam. Is his scientific stature really lessened in the eyes of many young Muslims studying to become scientists because he is working in the West and pursuing a western scientific agenda and tradition? I doubt it. Just as attempts to smear Professor Salam because he is an Ahmaddiyya are really beside the point. Here is a Muslim who has renewed the self-respect of a great Islamic scientific tradition. The real issue is that Muslim countries don't spend very much on science, whether pure or applied

An Islamic society will take generations to achieve and will probably only last if built from the bottom up. Ideological blueprints imposed from the top down rarely last.

Similarly, while a riba-free economy is ideologically attractive, is it really relevant to the problems of economic justice and development? Doesn't the ban on riba really mean a ban on usury and not interest as we understand the term? And are risk-taking partnerships between investor and banker really feasible on a sufficiently large scale to be the motor for economic development? Aren't the real problems of development elsewhere?

The economic principles found in the Quran would seem to be sufficiently flexible and dynamic to permit development along the lines of a Hong Kong or Singapore. Forget Dependency Theories and the evils, real or imagined, of capitalism. Most Islamic economies are state-run, semi-feudal, not capitalist. But capitalism is used as a great alibi for failure.

Education, freedom to innovate and take risks, equality of men and women in the workforce: these are more likely to produce human dignity and progress than trying to fit economic realities into the old strait jackets of models devised centuries ago. Take the principles but forget the details and one may achieve a modern, egalitarian and Islamic economy. Islam's great strength was the breadth and generosity of its principles. It was dynamic precisely because it allowed different cultural forces to come together and produce new syntheses.

I am convinced that a preoccupation with abstract or historical blueprints, adherence to the literal word of the text will not produce this second great Islamic civilization which all Muslims so ardently desire. Only intellectual daring, pragmatism and a new self-confidence towards the West can do that. Unfortunately, the obvious need for renewal of thought and institutions has to contend with the political manipulation of Islam by politicians, kings and autocratic dictators in search of legitimacy. The obvious question is has the Islamic revival been expropriated and manipulated by clever leaders, eager to secure popular approval for their un-Islamic ways?

It can be argued, on the contrary, that rulers can only co-opt something which is popular and deep-rooted. So co-option may be a two-way street - the ruler may end up encouraging that which he seeks to manipulate. Secularist critics within the Islamic world see only this manipulation and the negative Islam on display in certain countries. They therefore conclude that the revival is at best temporary - once tried it will be exposed, goes their argument. Many of the Islamic reformers whom I most admire seem to agree that mere harping on Islamic slogans and the use of Islamic labels have very little to do with Islamization.

I understand and respect the position of the conservative and the neo-traditionalist. Nevertheless, I do believe that there are sufficient grounds for radical reinterpretation of the Quran and the Hadith in the light of Islam's general principles.

I also believe that only the courage to experiment, whatever the risks, will produce a durable and dynamic Islamic society relevant to the lives and concerns of Muslims, most of whom live, let's not forget, in poverty, ignorance, inequality and oppression. I suspect that this is what the Prophet Muhammad would have wanted and some if he was alive in the late Twentieth Century!

© Julian Crandall Hollick
Arabia Magazine February 1985