Across the Bay

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Islamic Reformists

This is something I wanted to post last week, but was too busy to. For the first time in a long time, I found something truly refreshing in the discourse on Arab and Islamic reform.

An-Nahar had a summary (see also: day two) of a recent conference held in Beirut by several Arab and Islamic intellectuals. The conference was entitled “Modernization and Arab Modernization” and featured such bright scholars as Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid and Mohammed Arkoun. The conference also announced the formation of the Arab Foundation for Intellectual Modernization, which will be based in Switzerland, and will seek to publish and translate critical material dealing with Islam and Arabic culture.
Since I thought that the content was crucial, I decided to translate some parts of it here for those who don’t read Arabic (The Daily Star had a much shorter summary). This is the kind of stuff that the Arab and Islamic world needs, not the nonsense espoused in the US (cf. John Esposito) regarding “moderate Islam.” An example of that is this article in The Daily Star by Marc Lynch, which is misguided to say the least, if not paradoxical.

Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid wanted to break with the stagnant language that dominates Arab and Muslim circles:

"we should not let the fact that the US is making calls for reform rob us of our burning questions, the questions that have occupied our thinkers and intellectuals since the late 18th c. and early 19th c. until now: questions of progress and civilization, freedom and equality, justice and civil rights. These are our questions and our causes ... These are the questions that we hope to answer starting with the critique of ready-made answers, answers that are dictated to us by the mummified language, the language of the past which imprisons us, the language of dictatorships that crush us, and they are both two faces of one language."

Unfortunately, in his zeal to claim the causes away from America, Abu Zeid ignores the fact that those same 18th c. and 19th c. intellectuals were responding likewise to contact with Western powers! But that's forgivable. Take for instance this remark in reaction to a paper by Kamal Abdel Latif on that very subject, or what Abdel Latif calls the "dynamics of compulsory modernization":

"...we have to admit that colonial domination has helped in the modernization of the region, for the West carries a project that goes beyond itself. As Antoine Seif, who commented on the paper, noted: 'we are ruled by a dualism where the West is the model and the enemy at the same time, and we have to deal with this reality'."

Al-Afif Al-Akhdar's paper had the following to say on the movement from Salafism to Rationalism:

"[deconstructing] the educational discourse in the Arab world, especially the religious one ... open religious rationalism is what should be the basis of the religious education that we aspire to in the Arab and Islamic space, for it subjects the text to rational examination and research, because the assertion of [lit. believing] the text and the denial [lit. belying] of reality is insane. The Salafi school teaches religious fundamentalism which fears difference and denies the other to the death [lit. execution]."

Furthermore, Abdel Latif reportedly made an analogy to the Church:

"[saying that] the Church did not recapture its spirituality until after modernity separated Church from State. So Abdel Latif remarked that Islam will also not become a spiritual religion unless it separates, or is separated, from the State. The separation of the spiritual from the secular in Islam can be fulfilled on two conditions: the reconciliation of Islam with itself and the reconciliation of Islam with the Other. The reconciliation with the Self means admitting the humanity of women and their equality with men by replacing the Islamic laws which consider women incomplete rationally and religiously and therefore eternally minor. ... The reconciliation of Islam with the Other requires on the one hand, the implementation of modern constitutional law which admits the full civil rights of all citizens regardless of religion, instead of the dhimmi laws which still consider the non-muslim citizen half a citizen or a non-citizen. On the other hand, it requires the institution of international law in place of the Islamic legal division of the world into Dar al-Islam (The domain of Islam) and Dar Harb and Dar Kufr (domain of war and domain of apostasy)."

Similarly, Abu Zeid's paper called for:

"a full cessation of the re-division of the world into a domain of faith vs. a domain of apostasy, and a domain of peace vs. a domain of war. And a full break with with an Islam which presents itself as a legal guardian of the entire human race, carrying a divine dictum to free humanity from apostasy (kufr), polytheism (shirk), and waywardness by establishing an Islamic rule over the entire world."

The conference addressed issues of education in the Arab world and how it reflects official ideology, and the Arab obssession with "identity" where it needs to be asserted in all domains at all time. Both these issues impose homogeneity preventing the Arab from thinking as an individual. Also, the stress on "tradition" has been a deadly hurdle. This particular quote by former Tunisian education minister Mohammed al-Sharafi caught my attention:

"if a child learns an idealized view of the past that sanctifies its history and tradition, then looks around and sees in society what goes against what he's learned, he will have some sort of a schizophrenia that might lead to violence."

Apparently, the conference also touched on some aspects of historical criticism, which in my view is the single most important issue facing Islamic studies, and thus Islamic reform, today.

But contrast these positions with other voices from the Arab world. The first example is a piece in last week's Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat (May 2nd) on another conference in Beirut, by the League of Islamic Universities (I wonder if it was timed to counter the above-mentioned reformist conference). Many of its concluding remarks could in many ways be taken as the exact antithesis of the reformist conference. They are Islamocentric, defensive, and regressive. This quote sums it up:

"In the field of exegesis and Quranic studies: It should be made clear for scholars that ... exegesis has to be conceived as going beyond mere textual exegesis ... to a more objective analysis that aims to show the legal goal lying behind the text, and it should use scientific truths that have been revealed to scientists in several fields which show the miracle (i'jaz) of the Holy Quran and its prescience of the truths of the universe and its secrets. ... The truths that appear in the Holy Quran must be understood by all scientific fields which we teach..."

On the other hand, George Khodr kept on banging the Islamic conspiratorial drum in his regular column last Saturday. He asserted that America's war is against Islam, and how the US "created" an enemy in Islam after the fall of Soviet Communism. Much of his views actually mirrored statements by the eccentric Walid Jumblat. These statements by the way, made the top-ten list of Muslim conspiracy theories!

It's so tragic to see an oriental Christian (with a European education) effectively working against the progress and reform of Muslims while feeding their most destructive and regressive pathologies. Khodr, to use the wonderfully condescending words of Jacques Chirac, "missed a great opportunity to shut up."