Conversation with Ebrahim Moosa (1).

by Farish A. Noor (2)


You are mostly known for the work that you have done on contemporary Muslim thought and Muslim thinkers of the 20 t h century. Yet despite the enormous changes that have taken place all over the Muslim world, we see that Muslim intellectual activity has arrived at an impasse. Muslim societies seem to be caught between the so-called ‘Traditionalists’ and ‘Modernists’ and the space of Islamic discourse itself seems to be split thanks to the policing of discursive frontiers between the two. How and why have we come to this?

Well, part of the problem lies in the fact that the momentum of change and development among the Muslim reformers and modernists itself has died down. Over the years, we have seen how even the Islamic modernists have become sacralized and how the ideas of progressive Muslim thinkers and scholars have been turned into canonical bodies of thought that seem immov- able and static.

That such a development has come to the fore today is not all that surprising when we look at how the modernist school of Islam first developed in the 1 9t h century through people like Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and others. It must be remembered that these Muslim thinkers were themselves located between two traditions: Islamic conservatism and secular modernity. In their attempt to modernize and reform Islam, many of these reformist thinkers ended up internalizing the values of the modernist project. So it is hardly surprising for us to read how people like Al-Afghani, Abduh and Maudoodi were concerned about economic development, material progress and catching up with the Western world. But in the process, many of these modernist thinkers also ended up inheriting the prejudices and biases of the modern era. So much of their work and so many of their ideas are shaped by notions of modernity, enlightenment, rationality, and progress that were guided by the tradition of positivism. Because the Western modernist project was grounded on a colonial discourse, many of the Islamic modernists of the 19 t h century also ended up internalizing and reproducing these prejudices. Their views towards folk beliefs, ancient traditions, the status of women, etc., were all shaped by this.

The Islamic modernists of the 19 t h century were thus a hybrid constituency and they were liminal figures both in Western secular and conservative Islamic circles. The conservative ulama opposed them because they were seen as too ?Western-oriented’ while the secular Westerners saw them as apologists for Islam. Today, those who want to defend the Islamic modernist project are at a loss over how to defend some of the ideas and positions held by these modernist thinkers. As a result, much of what they said and wrote has been taken at face value, and the impulse towards critical thinking and self-reflection has been sidelined .

It seems that according to you the development of Muslim thought has come to a virtual stand-still with different individuals and schools of thought taking up fixed subject-positions. How would you sum up the situation we see around us today?

Like I said, we are now witnessing the strengthening of these inter- nal boundaries within the space of Islamic discourse itself. In most Muslim countries today, we see the growing division between two specific camps: the Muslim modernizers who want to develop Islam into a modern, up-to-date and progressive way of life; and the Muslim conservatives who wish to maintain, if you like, the purity and sacred status of Islamic discourse by turning back to authentic sources and an authentic way of life. The picture, we must remember, is not as simplistic as that: caught in between these two rival constituencies is an innumerable amount of other groupings, including Muslim intellectuals.

Due to the fact that nearly all of the Muslim countries in the world today were once colonized by the West, the project of modernization itself, which is seen as being ‘Western’ by the conservatives, has become problematic. In the face of rapid modernization, in many contemporary Muslim societies we see the emergence of counter-modern forces led by the spokesmen of religious communities. This is true of Islam as it is of other religions.

A reaction against modernity and the modernization process couched in terms of traditionalism or a search for cultural authenticity rooted in the past is, of course, not unique to the Muslim world. We can see the same happening in many other parts of the world from Africa to Asia, and this has been with us since the 1960s. But how would you characterize the specifically Islamic reaction against the state and the project of secular modernity? Where does it come from and what are its resources?

Much of the reaction and resistance to the project of modernity and the modernizing impulses of the state is based on a discourse of authenticity which reduces Islam to positive signifiers and values. For those conservatives who pose Islam as the counterbalance to modernization and modernity itself, Islam has been endowed with all kinds of positive attributes which are denied to modernity. Islam is seen as compassionate, humane, civilized, etc., while the project of modernization is seen as secular, materialistic and even evil in some cases .

Now this sort of thinking only gets off the ground because so much of tradi- tional Muslim thought today is couched in what I call a ‘theology of empire’ which dates back to the time when Islamic civilization was at its peak and when Muslim theologians, scholars and doctors of law viewed the world and their own status within it in dialectical terms. It was the theology of empire that created categories of radical outsiders and ‘grey’ categories like munafiqin [ h y p o c r i t e s ] . The net result of this mode of thinking was the creation of an elaborate hate- machine where Muslims viewed outsiders as potential threats or enemies. The fact that this sort of thinking is still alive and well today is beyond doubt. Look- ing at the sort of propaganda that you get from Islamist movements in coun- tries like Pakistan today, all we see is the obsession with Islam’s supposed ‘ene- mies’ who are said to be everywhere. Recent catastrophes that have befallen Muslim communities in countries like Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya and others have been turned into collective tragedies by Muslim demagogues, so that they can mobilize more supporters behind them and serve reactionary ends instead. This has created a paranoid, introverted and defensive school of thought among the Muslim conservatives worldwide.

The other feature of conservative thought at the present is that so much of it is static and incestuous. One of the saddest things about the development of Islam in recent times is that it has not developed at all intellectually. In many parts of the Muslim world today, Islamic thought has been left to traditional scholars and theologians who are trained in the school of conservative herme- neutics. As hermeneutists they dwell almost exclusively within the world of the book and the law, and not the realities of the world outside. The better they are at such conservative hermeneutics, the more they can make the Qur’an and the legal texts of Islam speak for them and their interests. Having a monopoly over such sacred legal texts also enhances their power and status even further, without necessarily improving the lot of ordinary Muslims elsewhere.

Where does the Muslim intellectual come into the picture? Obviously as intellectuals they are part of the élite system and the intelligentsia. The fact that they are Muslim intellectuals also means that they are rooted in the same cultural system that has been used by the traditionalists and conservatives as the base of their discursive strategies. If Muslim intellectuals cannot locate themselves at some Archimedean point that is radically outside the discourse, what can they do in the midst of all this?

Well, it’s true that we cannot and should not alienate ourselves from the constituency we are trying to address. But for a start they [Muslim intellectuals] can say something different. Rather than presenting the sorry state of the Muslim world today as a cause for a jihad against all things un- Islamic, we can argue that the present state of affairs can be turned around to empower us. Looking at the way in which Muslims have been persecuted all over the world today should encourage us to rethink our relations with others in rad- ically different ways. We could, for example, occupy the moral high-ground and open the way for a new ethics of dialogue between cultures and religions. There are many other things that we can do, but few intellectuals are doing them.

Why have Muslim intellectuals not come to the fore then? Why have they allowed the space of Islamic discourse to be dominated either by secular or conservative reactionaries instead? What is stopping them from speaking out?

Modern Muslim intellectuals in particular are faced with a serious problem today. In the past, many if not most of them have tended to side with the state. This was due to the fact that Muslim intellectuals have by and large been supporters and advocates of the modernization process and have often regarded the state as the primary agent responsible for modernizing society. But Muslim intellectuals have also been called upon to give a defence of Islam on rational terms. So how can they do it? If Muslim intellectuals continue to use the tools available to them, such as the discourse of modernity, develop- ment and progress, then they would be repeating the errors and contradictions of their intellectual predecessors.

But Muslim intellectuals cannot accept the theology of empire or the discourses of authenticity offered by the conservatives either. They have to be honest with themselves and admit the fact that they are not the products of traditional schools of religious thought and education. They need not apologize for being educated in the West or for being more open to other cultures and worldviews.

Faced with the painful realities of the Muslim world, contemporary Muslim intellectuals have little choice but to reinvent new categories, ideas and formu- lae of their own. We need to invent new theoretical and discursive tools for the new age in which we find ourselves. Traditional theology as espoused by the conservative ulama cannot provide us with the solutions we need, for the sim- ple reason that their way of looking at the world as a battleground between ?good’ Muslims and ‘bad’ outsiders is both useless and morally repugnant to us.

So you are basically saying that if Islam and Muslim identity are to be defended today we need to find a way out of the trap of oppositional dialectics that continues to set us apart from the Other. The same concerns have been raised by many Western intellectuals—Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas and Julia Kristeva come to mind—who have argued that the West also needs to re- evaluate its understanding of itself and its relationship with the non-West. The bottom line is that our very notion of identity, along with the categories and hierarchies of differentiation that support it, needs to be radically questioned and reformulated.

That’s right. The modern Muslim intellectual needs to serve his or her community by being openly critical of its shortcomings. He or she needs to open the way for Muslims to be able to see themselves and others better, and needs to facilitate the development of a new conception of the Other that endows the latter with integrity and respect. In short, the challenge that faces the contemporary Muslim intellectual is to find the means to help Muslims live in the real world of the present that is complex, heterodox and confounding. Being an intellectual also means that one bears a great moral burden: some- times the truths that need to be said are painful and difficult to accept, but the true intellectual would be prepared to pay the price for speaking the truth to power under whatever circumstances.

It’s fine for us to say that critical thought is good and necessary, but we both know that in real life critical thought can also lead to lives being endan- gered. At the moment, independent Muslim intellectuals are in short supply and they seem to be on an ‘endangered species’ list. You yourself happen to be one of them. What do you have to say about all those independent Muslim thinkers who have come to their untimely end?

What you say is true. The persecution and hounding of independent Muslim intellectuals and scholars like Abdolkarim Soroush, Abdullahi An-Naھi m and Nasr Abu-Zaid is going on all the time. In some cases, like that of Mahmoud Muhammad Taha of Sudan, the ending can be a tragic one as well.

But this is because for many conservatives and reactionary Muslims, any kind of critical thinking on Islam is seen as a threat to Islam itself. This shows just how far and deep the sort of theology of empire I have spoken about goes among conservative and reactionary circles. But this does not change the fact that much Muslim thought today is still predicated on religious metaphysics that dates from the time of the Muslim empires of the past. The disjunction between the present and the past is too painfully obvious for us to ignore. It is precisely because the Muslim world is in such a state of political, economic, cul- tural and intellectual crisis today that we need to think critically and come up with some new paradigms and solutions. We need to invent new intellectual tools for the difficult age in which we live.


1- Professor Ebrahim Moosa is currently based at the Department of Religious Studies, Stanford University Originally from South Africa, he was forced to relocate to the United States when the working conditions he faced in his own country badly deteriorated. 4 Over the years he has written extensively on the subject of Islamic thought and Muslim intellectuals in the modern world and is regarded as one of the leading experts on the developments within contemporary Islamic scholarship. His forthcoming book is entitled Ghazali of Tus: The Poetics of Imagina- t i o n. In this interview, Ebrahim Moosa talks about the difficult role of the Muslim intellectual, Islamic hermeneutics and the need to extend the boundaries of Islamic discourse in the light of present-day realities.

2- Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. This interview was conducted at a workshop on Muslim intellectual trends in 2000. It is part of a series of interviews published under the title “New Voices of Islam” (Farish A. Noor, (ed.) ISIM institute, Leiden, Netherlands, 2002.)