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Features of the New Islamic Discourse (Part 2 of 4)

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As for the bearers of the new Islamic discourse, the situation is quite different. Most of them had their intellectual formative years in the fifties and had their first encounter with modern Western civilisation in the sixties.

That was the time when Western modernity had already entered the stage of crisis, and when many Western thinkers had begun to realise the dimension of this crisis and the impasse Western modernity had reached. (See Introduction to the Deconstruction of the Secular Discourse, 4 vols., Cairo, December 1997). The bearers of the new Islamic discourse realised, from the very beginning, the darker aspects of Western modernity.

It had embroiled the entire world in two Western wars, called “world wars” because the whole world was dragged into the arena of conflict. In the time of “peace”, the world was caught in a frenzied arms race. The centralised nation-state, growing more authoritarian and stronger, expanded and reached the most private aspects of man’s life, and, through its sophisticated security and educational apparatuses tried to “guide” its citizens! 

The media, another by-product of Western modernity, extensively invaded the private lives of citizens, accelerating the process of standardisation and escalating the consumerist fever. In the meantime, the pleasure sector became so powerful as to control people’s dreams, selling them erotic utopias and downright pornography.

The family as a social institution could not sustain the pressures and therefore divorce rates rocketed, reaching levels rarely witnessed before. The crisis of meaning, the epistemological crisis, anomie, alienation and reification became more pronounced. While the liberal capitalist project ceased to be the smashing success story it used to be, the socialist experiment collapsed and lost any vestige of credibility. 

Anti-humanist intellectual trends such as Fascism, Nazism, Zionism and Structuralism emerged and reached a climax in post-modernist thought. By the mid-sixties, the critical Western discourse on modernity had crystallised and the works of the Frankfurt School thinkers had become widely available and popular. Many studies, critical of the age of the Enlightenment, were published.

Writing about the standardisation that resulted from Western modernity and about its one-dimensional man, Herbert Marcuse sought to demonstrate the existence of a structural defect that lies at the very heart of modern Western civilisation in its totality, a defect that goes beyond the traditional division of this civilisation into a socialist and a capitalist camp.

Many revisionist historians, rewriting the history of modern Western civilisation, tried to underscore the enormity of the crimes committed against the peoples of Asia and Africa and of the colonial pillage of their lands. Many studies, radically critical of development theories, appeared during the same period. The New Left movement made a significant contribution in this regard.

Thus, whether on the level of practise or on the level of theory, it was not difficult for the bearers of the new Islamic discourse, those who studied Western modernity in the middle of the twentieth century, to recognise many of its shortcomings and to see it in its totality.

It was no longer possible for them to experience a naive infatuation of the type experienced by the intellectuals of the first generation. The Western modernity they knew, experienced and studied was, in many aspects, different from the Western modernity known, experienced and studied by the generation of the pioneers.

Muslim Intellectuals:
It should be pointed out that neither the new nor the old generation of Muslim intellectuals constructed their respective intellectual systems on the basis of the Islamic world-view exclusively. Their interaction with Western modernity was expectedly a very important formative factor.

After all, this was a civilisation that acquired centrality by virtue of its economic and military accomplishments, put forward its own view of the world as if it were the view of all human beings at all times and in all places, conceived of its knowledge as a precise science applicable to all communities, and set the challenge that every one else had to respond to.

Responses varied with the type of challenge and its intensity. The early reformists found many positive aspects in Western modernity. One may even go as far as suggesting that they were entranced by it. This is evident from Sheikh Muhammad Abduh’s oft-quoted remark that “whereas in the West he found Muslims without Islam, in the East he found Islam without Muslims”.

He wanted to say that in the West, he found people who manifested in their very conduct the ideals of Islam even though they were not Muslims, whereas in the Muslim world he found people who believed in Islam, but their conduct belied their belief. Consequently, the issue for many of the bearers of the old Islamic discourse was basically how to reconcile Islam with Western modernity, and even how to make Islam catch up with it, and live up to its standards and values.

This was the core of Muhammad Abdu’s project, which predominated until the mid sixties of this century.
Had the experience of Sheikh Muhammad Abdu with Western modernity been different, he would have hesitated long before making this remark and before proposing his project.

The following incident may explain this point further. In 1830, Sheikh Rifa’ah AtTahtawi, whose infatuation with Western civilisation is a well-known affair, was in Paris. In that same year, the French cannons were pounding unsuspected Algerian towns and villages reducing them to rubble.

Sheikh At-tahtawi could only see the bright lights in Paris and could only hear the urbane and sophisticated rhythms of Western modernity. On the other hand, the Algerian sheikhs, who were subject to a brutal colonial attack using the most sophisticated technology available at the time, could only see the raging flames of fire and could only hear the racket of bombs.

One of these sheikhs was once told that the French troops had actually come to Algeria so as to spread Western civilisation and modernity. His response was cryptic as it was significant: “But why have they brought all this gunpowder?” Like this Algerian sheikh, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse smelled the reek of gunpowder, saw the flames of fire, heard the racket of cannons and watched the hooves of colonial horses tread on everything.

Then they saw the gunpowder becoming omnipresent, for it was transformed into all kinds of weapons of destruction and extermination: bombs, missiles, biological and nuclear weapons, etc. Huge budgets were allocated for the production or purchase of these weapons first by Western, then Eastern, Southern and Northern governments.

In fact, the mass destruction weapons industry has grown to be the most important industry of our enlightened rational times, and homo sapiens, for the first time in his long history, allocates more funds for the production of weapons of destruction than for the production of food.

The old Islamic discourse was neither unique nor isolated in its advocacy of Western modernity: it was, in a sense, part of the general outlook that prevailed in the third world since the beginning of this century. Efforts were directed at catching up with the West and at competing with it according to its own terms.

he liberals called for the adoption of the modern Western outlook in its totality, “both its sweet and bitter aspects”. The Marxists rebelled slightly and suggested that the peoples of the third world could enter the promised land of Western modernity through the gates of Marxism and social justice.

The Islamists, in their turn, imagined it would be possible to adopt the Western modern outlook or rather adapt Islam to it. It is interesting to note that all the trends and movements, religious or secular, irrespective of their ideological inclinations and social or ethnic backgrounds had turned the West into a silent and ultimate point of reference.

As a result of this attitude to Western modernity, the Islamic world-view retreated, its dimensions shrunk, and it lost its comprehensiveness. Instead of providing an Islamic frame of reference for Muslims in the modern age, the issue became how to “Islamise” certain aspects of Western modernity.

The Islamisation process would, in most cases, take the form of “omitting” those aspects of Western modernity deemed haram (prohibited) by Islamic law, without any addition or innovation, underscoring those aspects of Western modernity deemed halal (permissible) by Islamic law, and searching for those aspects within the Islamic world-view analogous to some aspects found within Western modernity.

This inevitably meant the eventual atrophy of those aspects of the Islamic world-view that have nothing analogous to them within the modern Western world-view. But ironically, those aspects constitute the very essence and source of the specificity of the Islamic world view.

New Islamic Discourse
The bearers of the new Islamic discourse do not have the same fascination with Western modernity. Actually, a radical critique of Western modernity is one of their main points of departure.

They too are neither unique nor isolated in their critique, for they do not differ from many of the thinkers and political movements in the third world at the present time who try to evolve new forms of modernity, nor from many important thinkers in the West who are critical of Western modernity. Marxism was a form of critique of modernity, out of which sprung the Frankfurt School, which further deepened the critique.

Romantic literature, as indicated earlier, was also a protest against Western modernity. The protest of modernist literature, however, is even more profound and radical; it tries to represent the reified world of modernity, where the chain of causality is either completely broken or becomes so hard that man becomes completely determined.

The theatre of the absurd is part of this Western protest against the dead end Western modernity has landed mankind into. More recently, religious fundamentalism emerged as a populist extension of this intellectual trend. All of these trends, in one way or another, show an increasing, if implicit, realisation that Western modernity strips man of his specificity and subverts his human essence.

The new Islamic discourse is only part of a wider global trend. The perception of the crisis of Western modernity has taken different forms in different parts of the world. In the Muslim world, the perception has taken an Islamic form.

Nevertheless, the critique of the new Islamic discourse of modernity is characteristically different from the other critiques. For one thing, it recognises and emphasises the inextricable ties between Western modernity and Western imperialism. Imperialism was after all our first encounter with modernity, and Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine is the last. Furthermore, unlike the Western critique of modernity, which is nihilistic and pessimistic, the Islamic critique is optimistic by virtue of the fact that it proposes a project for reform.

It could be said that even though there are many points of agreement and disagreement between the old and the new discourses, the attitude to Western modernity and the level of comprehensiveness of the Islamic paradigm, as indicated earlier, are the basic points of difference that could serve as a basis for classification. The main distinguishing features of each discourse spring from these two fundamental points and can be outlined as follows:

1. Rejecting Centrality and Universalism of the West:
The bearers of the new Islamic discourse are neither apologetic nor self-defensive. They are not interested in expending much energy on the attempt to “improve” the image of Islam or to “justify” themselves, even though they are interested in sending “a message” to the world.

The bearers of the new discourse neither reject nor accept the West uncritically. Ironically, total rejection, just like total acceptance, presupposes the West as a silent point of reference. What the bearers of the new Islamic discourse reject, in effect, are both the presumed centrality and universalism of the West, as well as its imperialism, which is closely linked to its claim of centrality.

They reject the practises of spoilage, pillage and repression, that were perpetrated by Western colonialism in the past and that take at present new forms that are no less brutal than the previous ones. They also reject what they consider the negative aspects of Western modernity and fully realise its crisis.

2. Objective Criticism:
But despite their awareness of the crisis of Western modernity, and their realisation that there is no point in repeating the mistakes of others or proceeding along the same path that led to a an impasse, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse do not resemble the Algerian sheikh who smelled the reek of gunpowder and saw nothing else in Western modernity.

Indeed, they have read Eliot’s Waste Land, Becket’s and Camus’ absurdist plays, and Derrida’s nihilist writings; and they know that the West constructed its material infrastructure through the process of pillage (which led to “imperialist” not “capitalist accumulation” as claimed).

But they also know Western theories of architecture, how to use the computer, various management theories, and the broad horizons opened up by Western modernity.

They know the advantages of this modernity just as they know its destructiveness. They also know that Western modernity has raised certain questions that cannot go unanswered. They know that the Muslim mind is not a blank sheet and that the Islamic starting point cannot be a hypothetical zero point. Hence the necessity, and even the inevitability, of engaging and interacting with Western modernity, and of assimilating its achievements without adopting its value system.

In short, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse do not see any justification for accepting Western modernity in its entirety. Instead, they stand on their Islamic ground and view Western modernity, opening up to it, simultaneously criticising and interacting with it.

This is what can be referred to as “the interactive critical response”, which is the very opposite of the “positive” unqualified acceptance or the “negative” unqualified rejection of Western modernity–two extreme points between which the old discourse oscillated.

The old Islamic discourse is an eclectic cumulative discourse that imported constituent elements of Western modernity, without realising their relation to the Western world view, and at the same time adopted other constituent elements of the Islamic religio-cultural formation, without realising their relation to the Islamic world view. Having isolated these Islamic and modern Western constituent elements, the bearers of the old discourse tried to “add” the one to the other, creating a concoction rather than a totality.

Abdelwahab Elmessiri -

Abdelwahab Elmessiri [‘Abd Alwahhaab Almiseery] is an Arab thinker and writer.Read More >>

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Last Updated on Sunday, 07 January 2007 20:35  

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