I begin this talk by telling you a story, that of a Spaniard who was living in the Moroccan city of Tangiers. One day he came to see the president of the local Council of Ulemas and said to him : “I feel attracted to your religion. I would have embraced it already but for one thing which disturbs me.”

“What is it ?” asked the ’Alim.

“I am a musician by profession,” answered the Spaniard, “and Islam forbids music.”

“Who told you that ?” retorted the ’Alim angrily. The would-be convert didn’t reply, which he would have done nowadays, as I hear it in the news ; he simply pulled out of his pocket a sheet of paper and gave it to the man of religion who read it and understood everything. It was an ad for a book recently published by a local professor. The ’Alim began to explain patiently that the book was five centuries old and that it was about a theological controversy known as the Sama’ Dispute over the way the Koran should be read in public. What was forbidden, at least in the eyes of some clerics, was to sing the words of the Holy message because the listener would be more interested in the music than in the meaning. But it was soon clear for the ’Alim that he was speaking for nothing. His visitor had read in the article exactly what he was hoping to find, an Islam more rigorous, stern, severe than his own religion. Otherwise his conversion would be pointless. The kind of Islam the ’Alim was offering him, simple, moderate, conciliatory, Jesuitical in a word, wasn’t the real thing.

I am telling you this story because, with the recent development of the movement known as Islamic fundamentalism and the growing number of publications that aim to explain its meaning to anxious audiences in the West, I often cast myself in the role of that poor ’Alim confronting the Spaniard of Tangiers.

Western Orientalism

I have no intention to open a new chapter in the old and often gratuitous campaign against Orientalism. In my first book, The Ideology of Contemporary Arabs, I criticized the works of certain Orientalists, but not because they were of western inspiration. It was rather because they were showing to my taste too much sympathy for Muslim tradition. I was harsh on Hamilton Gibb and Cantwell Smith because I felt they were unfair in their treatment of such modernists as Muhammad ’Abduh and Muhammad Iqbal. Compare their haughty attitude and that more cautious, more balanced, of the late Professor Albert Hourani, and you will understand my overreaction.

What I mean by Western Orientalism is precisely the attitude of Gibb and his followers. I was never able to comprehend it properly and that’s why I decided to discuss it candidly before you.

There is, however, a more obvious reason to define a Western Orientalism and set it apart. There is now a substantial amount of work being done by Easterners, in many parts of the geographical East, far or near, and also in countries of the western hemisphere. Sooner or later there will emerge fundamental differences between the two groups going far beyond religious, political or methodological oppositions. The main divide, in my view, will be between those who take for granted certain values and ideals which are not so evident to the others. Many Easterners will undoubtedly share Western values and therefore will be counted among Western Orientalists, while many Westerners will be doubtful about their own heritage and will certainly be excluded from the congregation. Orientalism is Western, not because it predominates in the countries of the West, even if on the whole this is true today, but because it shares common epistemological assumptions.

Take a book published under the auspices of UNESCO, Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights. It contains two contributions about Islam, one by a well-known Egyptian professor of philosophy, the other by a prolific political analyst from East Africa. Both are decidedly Western in outlook, compared to others originating in India and sub-Saharan Africa. Nationality, religion, mother tongue do not count as much as does the perspective chosen by the writer. The African contributor, a Muslim, presented his negative remarks about historic Islam in the light of a general assessment of monotheism, but what is puzzling is that even that criticism is made in the framework of monotheism, ancient or modern. Up to now we had heard only three interpretations of the same concept. Even the so-called “paradox of monotheism,” used by our essayist in a sense different from that meant by Henry Corbin, is a polemical invention of Christian and ultimately Gnostic origin. What would be truly innovative would be a criticism coming from really exotic quarters having no previous relation with the myth of Abraham. That would be still Orientalism but non-Western.

Orientalism is Western when it takes the West not as an event, but as an idea preordained in all eternity, complete and final from the beginning. And if it starts from this point, it has to construct its subject-matter as an explicitly, totally different item, reduced to the form it had at its birth. The two assumptions are clearly related ; if the West is a fulfilled promise, the non-West has to be unfulfilled since unannounced. If the first is predetermined the second is necessarily accidental. In both cases no evolutionary process is ever conceived. Positive changes, when detected in the West, are predicated on preexistent seeds, and so are defects, flaws, wants in the non-West. One is a welcome miracle, which can change and remain the same, while the other, particularly Islam, is an unwelcome accident, not permitted to change without betraying itself.

It is clear that these assumptions are common to the Western Orientalist and the Muslim fundamentalist. The latter, ancient or modern, also refuses to take history seriously into account ; he apprehends the West as a concept given once for all, and compares it in every respect with what he calls true or pure Islam.

The direct consequence of such an anachronism is that the arguments on both sides are usually opportunistic. Eclectic subjectivism is more apparent in Islamic writings about the West, but it can be detected easily in Orientalist works as well, even when they are not openly polemical.

Having, I hope, made myself clear about what I mean by Western Orientalism, I go on now to state the main theme of this talk. Whoever affirms categorically that such and such Western value-system, be it liberalism, rationalism, humanism, etc., is incompatible with Islam is talking theology and therefore, while he may well be right in his domain—I mean theology—he is in no way entitled to translate his idiom into sociology or political science. His assertion means no more than that the West, as he defines it, is never to be found in the non-West. I see the same tautology behind the so-called uniqueness of Islam, and during the last two decades my main concern was to unveil it to Muslim audiences. I continue then the same battle, in different circumstances, using the same language, the same logic.

The nation-state

In order to clarify my position, I will take the example of the State in contemporary Islam.

Islam, we are told, came to destroy age-old world empires, unjust and corrupt, and replace them with a free, egalitarian, God-fearing community (Umma). Did it succeed in translating this lofty ambition into a durable reality ? A positive historian would immediately and emphatically answer, No, while a theologian or a jurist would simply turn a blind eye to the events of history and concentrate on analyzing the terms of the Da’wa (mission). We have on one hand a succession of historic states (Duwwal) called Islamic and on the other a beautifully articulated theory of the Caliphate. Even in the hands of a Mawardi, reputed to be a realist, it aims mainly at saving the appearances.

At present, as in the past, many refer to the theory in order to deny existent facts. During the colonial era, illiterate administrators and learned scholars were agreed that the Muslim sees nothing between tribe and Umma and that he will never heed the call of a westernized minority to set up an imaginary nation-state. Today there is in many parts of the Islamic world a powerful movement working hard for the demise of the territorial institutions and their replacement by a universal Islamic state. It seems therefore that there is indeed a case for claiming that Islam cannot, in theory and in practice, coexist fully, harmoniously, with the laws of a modern nation-state.

And yet we have today more than 40 states which we call Islamic either because the majority of their citizens are Muslims or because they are officially members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), and there is no way to understand how they work, efficiently or not. It is not for us to judge, if we start with the Islamic theory of state. We may stop here and ask : Who is foolish enough to take that line ? Well, in the current discussion about secularism, democracy, human rights, women’s emancipation etc., is it not rare to find people who speak about present constitutions and laws, jurisprudence, decrees enacted by contemporary parliaments, opinion polls etc. ? What is offered to us in most cases is the same old theory which, as I said, doesn’t even apply to the times of the first Caliphs. Muslim rulers, using the same tactics, keep saying : Islam allows this, forbids that, when 90 percent of their peoples disagree with them. This unhistoric, anti-empiricist bias is usually justified by the fact that the present State is the result of colonial rule and cannot therefore be called authentically Islamic. But this point is not always true ; in many instances we detect an undeniable historical continuity. After all, the Shu’ubiyya movement is much older than the colonial expansion of Western Europe.

The nation-state of today, created or not by colonialism, accepted or not by the majority of the population, legitimate or not in the eyes of many local ideologues, is very likely here to stay. Any judgment as to its inherent illegitimacy and therefore its political weakness, would be pure prejudice. Such an attitude so common among Westerners seems all the more strange when we compare it to that of scholars working in other areas, the ex-communist countries for instance. During the Bolshevik era also we had a political theory that refused to accept the reality of the nation-state which was in that area too the result of imperialist manipulations, even if in some cases such as Bohemia or Romania we find a degree of historical continuity. The communist universal state, that sort of cooptative atheist caliphate, ruled over the region for decades—in this century not in days long past—with the powerful means of modern technology, not with the limited resources of medieval times. And yet, even at the height of its power, Western scholars never forgot that the nation-state was there, shaping beneath the surface the future of the region. When the seemingly indestructible party of the proletariat finally and unexpectedly collapsed, they discovered what they always had suspected being there.

Two different attitudes then : firm denial of the theory and easy acceptance of reality in one case, blind affirmation of the theory and constant refusal of facts in the other. These show another aspect of a fundamentalism I call Western even when it is practiced by Easterners.

The ordeal of Muhammad ’Abduh

In a book I wrote 30 years ago I selected Muhammad ’Abduh as the prototype of the Shaikh in opposition to Lutfy Sayyid the liberal politician and Salama Musa the eloquent advocate of scientism and technicism. I stressed at the same time that each one of the three ideal types necessarily undergoes many changes in proportion as the local State passes from colonial tutelage to independence and parliamentary institutions and at a later stage enters on the road of cultural nationalism and socialism. Under colonial rule the three are influenced more or less by the general climate of the age ; they are all imbued with liberal values. What characterizes the Shaikh is his constant effort to find a traditional basis for his newly acquired ideals. It is this permanent ideological twist which seemed unacceptable to Gibb and his students.

I never tried to hide this aspect that led ’Abduh to numerous inconsistencies, superficialities, and probably prevented him from contemplating a profound reform of Islam ; but these defects, which could be ascribed to the circumstances, were in my view largely offset by obvious qualities : commitment, independence and inquisitiveness of mind, steadfastness, etc. He had a detailed knowledge of the philosophical and theological tradition of Islam, which is no longer the case with many Shaikhs of today, and if his grasp of Western scholarship was shaky, at least he knew that and tried courageously to acquire some of it directly and with an open mind, which is more than can be said of most present Islamist ideologues. This positive view of ’Abduh prevailed in academic Arab circles when I wrote my first book.

Quite recently I returned to the same material and I was surprised to find a complete reversal of attitude. Naturally I knew beforehand that the solutions put forward by ’Abduh a century ago were no longer adapted to present conditions, and that the assessment of the younger scholars would be more critical, but what I found was of a different nature. Moral condemnation and political recrimination have replaced rational criticism. Inconsistent, defeatist, insincere, opportunist, collaborationist, unfaithful, free-thinker etc.—these are the mildest among the terms used by his detractors. He is presented now as if he had been the unique obstacle to a true and lasting Islamic reform, as if he had played deliberately into the hands of his faith’s enemies.

I am not saying that this violent reaction was triggered by the negative assessment of Gibb, in the celebrated 1947 book, even if many of ’Abduh’s critics rely heavily on that study in particular, without giving, as usual, the reference. What I do say is that Gibb’s negative view on the Islamic reformists of the Liberal age, as well as his denial of any originality to Ibn Khaldun, heralded a new era in Western scholarship. All of a sudden in mid-century the interest shifted from philosophy to theology, from literature to law, from marginal schools to orthodox Islam. It was discovered that the “Mu’tazila” were after all not so liberal as they seemed at first, that Ghazzali was an authentic philosopher and not only a powerful dialectician, that Ash’ari was more consistent in his thinking than his “Mu’tazilite” mentor, that the literalist Creed of Ibn Hanbal or Ibn Hazm was the only acceptable interpretation of the Koran and the Sunna, and thus the worst enemies of philosophy were given the status of great philosophers or profound thinkers. The rationale behind the shift is apparently convincing : Why should we set so much store upon schools that disappeared long ago without leaving any discernible mark on present Islamic life ?

However what should be emphasized here is that the same shift can be detected in Islamic circles as well. Is this pure coincidence ? It wouldn’t be easy to answer the question. I don’t refer here to the seats of traditional learning, al-Azhar or al-Qarawiyiri, but to the newly-established universities where many professors were European or educated in Europe. Who argues that the Falasifa, at least the Idealists (“Ilahiyun”) among them can be saved from eternal damnation ? ’Abduh the Shaikh. And who argues that they can never be redeemed ? Sulaiman Dinia, the able editor of Avicenna and Averroes. If there is indeed coincidence in this case, it is of an objective nature, originating in a widening knowledge of what really happened in history.

After all, we know for a fact that Ghazzali won the day against his adversaries, that legalism (“Athar,” “Ta’sil”) defeated rational interpretation (“Ra’,” “Ta’wil”), that the sequence—”Hanafism,” “Malikism,” “Shafi’ism,” “Hanbalism”—in “Fiqh” history, betrays a growing ascendancy of the literalist and fideist schools. Historiography shows in every field a trend clearly opposed to what is usual in modern European history : the passing of time reinforces traditionalist thinking instead of weakening it, and this constantly revived tradition is ascribed to the very beginning, which makes time look immobile or circular. That kind of involution has to be discovered sooner or later. The Western scholars who at first were not aware of this particularity exaggerated the importance of currents of thought that sounded familiar to them, in which they recognized an episode of their own history, but gradually, forced to reconcile themselves with this specific reality, they tried to make sense of it.

From this sketch it would be easy to conclude that we have identified three independent movements. One is purely Islamic and took place in the distant past, another also Islamic but more recent, the third equally recent but concerning Western scholarship. All three point towards the defeat of liberal rational tendencies at the hands of the literalist tradition dominant today. Such an agreement is habitually seen as the criterion of objective truth. If that had been the case the occasion should have been ideal for a general reconciliation. Muslim scholars should have congratulated their colleagues in the West, and all the congregation should have continued ever since to work in harmony in defense of a pure unchanging Islam.

Why did we get a quite different picture ?

The other perspective

In history events are never unequivocal. The movements just mentioned are not as independent as they appear. Here we are not comparing religions as far apart in time and space as, say, Confucianism and Judaism, but Islam and Christianity always in contact, always in conflict. We cannot affirm simply : the Christian West evolved from tradition to liberalism, while Islam, by a kind of compensatory movement, took the opposite direction, because neither of these two assertions would be totally true.

Let’s for a brief moment imagine something quite possible, even if it is improbable at present, in the Arab lands at least : the creation of an institute for the study of the Western religious history. Let’s suppose moreover that the scholars who work in it are profoundly influenced by the metaphysical romanticism of Germany, by the vigorous neocatholicism of last century France and England. Would it not be natural for them to conclude that the Lutheran reformation has failed, that the system of the counter-reformation is intellectually more consistent, more gratifying to the human heart ? Moreover, seeing the pervasive influence of the Russian Orthodox thought among Western intellectuals during the second half of the 19th century, would not these scholars be tempted to go even further and state that the usually indulgent and compromising Roman Church has betrayed the true Christian message ? Something of this has in effect been explicitly asserted by Henry Corbin, who worked in an institute that was active in prerevolutionary Iran. Such a reconstruction of Western religious history is not purely imaginary ; it could be documented in many ways, supported as it is by great names in philosophy and literature. It would be acceptable to serious scholars in the West. The vast majority, however, would reject it. They would say, well, liberalism may seem inconsistent, may have been defeated in the judgment of many professors of philosophy, but it is still alive and well ; it has been during the last two centuries and still is the dominant factor in the economic, social and political fields.

But what does such an argument imply if not that there is no absolute correlation between logical inconsistencies, intellectual bankruptcy and historical prevalence and perdurability ? Liberalism expressed in religious terms as deism, secularism, individualism, moralism, may well be shallow and weak, and it may lose every battle in the classroom—in the “Madrasa” I should say—and still triumph outside, in the marketplace.

If such an argument is acceptable in a Western context, it should be received as well when Islam is concerned. No amount of evidence culled from works ancient or modern could ever justify the assertion that liberal Islam is improbable solely because it embodies a logical contradiction. Neohanbalism, so popular today among certain intellectuals, may be consistent in theory and yet prove inappropriate to our time, while Neomu’tazilism, logically contradictory in the eyes of many, may well be in conformity with our present situation.

If liberal Islam is nowadays silent or inarticulate, while it is probably the choice of the majority among the educated—those who can understand its idiom but, it should be conceded, count for less than half the population—it is not because experience has shown that it is incompatible with the Five pillars of the faith or that it disfigures the Prophet’s message of divine absolute transcendancy. In my opinion it is simply because until now it has never been able to rely on the joint support of wealth, positive science and technology, the three revolutionary forces that go along with any long-term economic development.

Nobody cares about a possible awakening of Shintoism, Buddhism or Confucianism in Asia because everybody can see for himself that the peoples of the region have other concerns. “God has never put two hearts within one man’s body,” says the Koran (XXXIII, 4). On this premise was based the benevolent policy of the West towards its past enemies there, policy which until now seems to have worked perfectly. Why not enlarge it to other areas ?

Liberal Islam

What I am trying to say is simply this : Such statements as, “Islam and democracy are incompatible,” or, “Islam is intrinsically, while any other religions are only occasionally, fundamentalist,” mean nothing more than “Liberalism contradicts Dogmatism,” which is true and trivial. Trivial since it is always true and since it says nothing about the future. A pure idea, potent as it might have been in the past, influential as it may still be at present, cannot by itself prevent a people from adopting liberalism and democracy. Only a material force can stop other forces working in a giving society.

In my view liberal Islam means more than tolerant or moderate Islam ; that is the reason why I cannot say in good faith that it exists already, or is imminent, somewhere in the Islamic world. People focus their attention on particulars like marriage, human rights, secularism etc. and seem to think that these are the content of what a liberal Islam should be. Here lies in my opinion a confusion between religious reform and political revolution. Even when dogma and law are closely linked, there are ways to introduce under the veil of temporary necessity (“Darura”) or expediency (“Maslaha,” “Istihsan”) topical reforms without tampering with the dogma (“Aqida”).

By liberal Islam I mean something quite different, which does not require me to detail the reforms I should like to see taking place in Islamic societies.

I define as liberal a situation in which society is set free to operate according to its own rules ; I don’t say its specific rules because this is a trick familiar to traditionalists. I think that in circumstances of rapid change we need only to open our eyes to be convinced that society doesn’t obey our orders, even when we believe that these come ultimately from God. Miracles just do not occur. To acknowledge the fact amounts to a mental revolution, what I call “Qati’a” (rupture, divorce), which opens all doors. Everything becomes possible. I don’t understand otherwise what occurred lately in Russia and before that in Spain. What economists and statisticians call transition in these countries seems to me the mere translation of the following statement : Ideology is, in the long term, less powerful than sociology. As soon as this fact is recognized the reforms just mentioned become inevitable because they serve the interests of all, including those who oppose them for ideological motives. From this standpoint I don’t see in Islamic countries so much the preeminence of a “Da’wa” (religious message) or the ascendancy of a clerical elite, as the direct consequence of poverty and economic backwardness.

Here many would take exception. Aren’t the nations with powerful Islamist movements precisely those that have gone through an excessively rapid development ? My feeling is that the economic development of those countries, strong and rapid as it certainly was, didn’t last long enough to make change general and irreversible. Moreover, it was, inadvertently perhaps, weakened by a discordant cultural policy. Political Islam was encouraged there long before the local leaders became aware of their error and fell out with its advocates.

However, the West doesn’t pursue the same policy as regards the economic development of non-Western nations. It is seen as a necessary step towards liberalization and therefore is actively sought in China, Eastern Europe etc., whereas it is felt as a threat when Islamic countries are concerned, even before the ambitions are translated into reality.

The collapse of the Berlin wall was not due to the policy of containment, blockade, propaganda as much as to a wise policy of easy term loans, free trade and enhanced cultural exchanges. The same strategy should secure the same results elsewhere. Sooner or later a developing society frees itself from ideas and ideals that do no longer correspond to its new aspirations.

For reasons I need not detail here such an evolution will probably occur more easily in the “Ajam” countries of Asia than in the Arab Middle East and North Africa, not because the former are less religious but simply because the latter are on the whole less fortunate. Seeing that happening some time in the future, somewhere in the vast Islamic world, seeing that the law of society has at last prevailed over the orders of tradition or the commands of ideology, many will, I am sure, cry out, as they do now, facing the staggering performances of some Asian nations : Well, the seeds were always there ; we failed to see them before, but now we take notice and we cheer.

[b]Source : [/b][url=http://fp.arizona.edu/mesassoc/Bulletin/laroui.htm]The Middle East Studies Association Bulletin[/url], Vol 31, No. 1, July 1997