Across the Bay

Monday, August 23, 2004

The Arab Renaissance... Again?!

From Martin Kramer's Sandbox comes this piece (in Arabic) by Syrian thinker Hashem Saleh on, to steal Bernard Lewis' infamous title, "what went wrong?" with Arabo-Islamic civilization after its renowned golden age.

Martin Kramer rightly notes that what's depressing about this piece is that those same kind of debates and questions were being circulated at the turn of the last century! It's a point I've made several times on this blog, noting that the Arabs are basically running in circles repeating and arguing with dead arguments.

But to be fair to Saleh, his position is one that I'm sympathetic to, because it's anti-Islamist and anti-Arabist. His position, if we want to pursue Kramer's analogy with the late 19th c. - early 20th c. thinkers, is most similar to Taha Hussein's, as opposed to an Abduh or Afghani, let alone the useless Rida or his likes. For instance, notice whom Saleh quotes approvingly: "Orientalists" Kramer and Lewis!

Furthermore, the solution that Saleh proposes is pretty much what Taha Hussein tried to do -- with the available set of ideas and methods of his time, themselves now in need of serious updating and critique -- and that is applying historical criticism (what Hussein called "rational" or "scientific" criticism, based on Descartes. See his classic On Pre-Islamic Poetry). Saleh writes:

"As long as we refuse to apply the methodology of historical criticism to the heritage of the past, as did the Europeans from the time of Spinoza and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, then I don't know how we will be able to get out of the mess that we're currently in."

Saleh also departs from Arab nationalists and Islamists (but not so much from Abduh, as he was, I believe, influenced by the Reformation's break with the Catholic tradition in order to break away from established interpretation of scripture) in calling for a clean break with the past, and its opiating grip on the Arabo-Islamic imagination. Instead, through historical criticism he calls for it to be seen, in von Rankean terms, "as it really was," not as they fantasize it to be. It's a noble call, but the over-optimistic Saleh fails to realize that some in that Western scholarship he (rightly) holds so dear are in fact more interested in perpetuating this fantastic delusional look at the Arabo-Islamic past, and are calling to legitimize this fantasy, in Third-Worldist terms, as "the way Muslims view their own history." I.e., that we should swallow whole the legends or what Wansbrough called Islamic "salvation history" as reality. That would be the equivalent of uncritically accepting Christian hagiography or Jewish Haggadah as "truth" in positivist terms! If you think I'm making this up, check out the two articles by Muhammad Abdel Rauf and Fazlur Rahman in Richard Martin (ed.), Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies (2nd edit. Oxford, 2001). Let me quote a bit from Abdel Rauf's miserable article:

"Could the inimitable noble text of the Holy Qur'an be simply a trading of words and ideas from the Bible? Even Muhammad's enemies, who refused to acknowledge God but who were endowed with a sense of stylistic appreciation, recognized the Qur'an was not the product of a human mind.
Muslims of all generations have believed that the entire text of the Holy Qur'an was revealed by God to the Prophet and transmitted to his contemporaries, the vast majority of whom entrusted it to memory tout à fait within the lifetime of the Prophet. It was also written down during his lifetime according to his wishes. Being the Word of God to man recited in prescribed diction and sounds, the Holy Qur'an is inimitable and not subject to the limiting dimensions of space and time.
[S]erious attempts are still being made to advance accusations, often based on linguistic errors and inappropritate assumptions, claiming that some parts of the text of the Holy Qur'an were added or altered as a result of a putative process of editing.
Why have certain orientalists wasted so many precious years of their lives trying to reorder the text of the Qur'an chronologically under the assumption that a human hand played a role in the formation of the text? Such programs of research are not merely an offense to the consciences of millions of Muslims, but are also misleading and thus unworthy to be considered as scholarship.
These works [i.e. the genre of asbab al-nuzul, "the occasions of revelation"] present a 'history' of revelation that stands to conformity with the life of the Prophet, not a destructio of the tradition.
pp. 186-87 (Emphasis added.)

I will contrast this attitude with a recent interview with a more serious Islamic scholar, Mohammed Arkoun, in an upcoming post.

But back to Saleh for a second. Despite Kramer's valid remark, the revival of an approach that was silenced by the insanity of Arab nationalism and Islamism, is a refreshing sign of the emergence of alternatives. The fact that the nostalgia is for a tradition of Western liberalism is a very good sign. It's not restricted to Saleh either. A recent article in the Daily Star reported the formation of a new liberal party in Egypt called Hizb al-Ghad, the Party of Tomorrow (whose secretary general is a Coptic, Harvard educated, woman), which claims as its inspiration that liberal era before the complete dominance of Arab nationalism and Islamism and the silencing of alternatives:

""The prevailing feeling in the country is that change is inevitable. It is out of frustration that a powerful wave of nostalgia in Egypt has emerged for the liberal period of the country's politics (from 1920 to the 1952 revolution)."

Makram-Ebeid and many members of the new party are children of Egypt's Wafd Party, a liberal party that emerged in the 1930s and eventually led the way to Egypt's independence. Leading members during Al-Wafd's heyday included such famous nationalists as Saad Zaghloul, Lufti Sayed, Taha Hussein, Qassim Amin and Mohamad Hussein Heikal. The Wafd, credited for defining Egypt's "liberal age," was weakened by the 1952 revolution of Free Officers, which ultimately brought Gamal Abdul Nasser to power and socialism to Egypt.

The challenge to the narrative of Arab nationalism was also voiced by liberal Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, who resurrected the early Egyptian narrative of "Mediterraneanism" which was also championed by Taha Hussein. Needless to say, a similar narrative was and remains strong in Lebanon. I will be writing on this latter point in a shortly upcoming post on identity narratives, that will hopefully pick up a discussion with Joshua Landis. Stay tuned!

So in conclusion, while all this might be quite fruitless as such voices are usually silenced or overpowered, it's always refreshing to hear voices critique the dominant myths that have brought misery and retardation to the region.