Not Shades of Grey

Muslims Under Progress makes an important point.

“Islamists”, we’re told, are out to create ‘barbaric’ and ‘undemocratic’ societies, where ‘human rights’ will be something of a heresy. “Modernists”, on the other hand, are the very people that are needed to free Muslim peoples from the tutelage of a “medieval religion”. Does that sound familiar? What, then, do we make of the “Islamist”, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who wishes to completely democratise Islamic society and introduce the language of ‘human rights’ into Islamic legal discourse, but is persecuted by secular Tunisia; and of the “modernist”, and former Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Chicago, Fazlur Rahman, who sought to use the state as an instrument of “moral-religious” values, but was driven from his home by conservative and fiery elements of Pakistani Islam?

The problem is that we view the world as black and white. All “Islamists” are supposed to be bad. This way of looking at the Muslim world misses a lot of details and nuances. There are lots of different viewpoints there. The Islamist/Modernist dichotomy is something I have used as well, but is generally not very illuminating.

Professor Abdullah Saeed uses 3 different classes. Here is the Head Heeb’s description of Professor Saeed’s ideas.

Al-Ghannushi is, in Professor Saeed’s taxonomy, a “neo-revivalist.” Saeed divides political Islamists into three groups – modernists, neo-revivalists and traditionalists. The traditionalist group can be considered “fundamentalist” in the same sense that the word is used with respect to Christians, in that their ideal state is founded on sharia as interpreted by the classical Islamic jurists. The neo-revivalists believe that “the Qur’an and the Sunna are the foundation texts on which a Muslim society and its institutions should be based” but are more flexible in scriptural interpretation. Modernists argue that “the priority in an Islamic state is the implementation of the clearly spelt out rulings and principles of the Qur’an and authentic Sunna” but “[t]he remainder of Islamic law is subject to change, requiring a new methodology to deal with the new problems and demands of a modern Muslim society.”

Read the Head Heeb’s post for some more details on Al-Ghannouchi and his view on citizenship in Islamic countries.

Even these three categories are extremely broad. For example, neo-revivalists would include Al-Ghannouchi as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and some less savory characters.

Brian Ulrich made a similar point about painting with a broad brush.

When one talks about “Islam,” one talks about 14 centuries of history and over a billion Muslims. With Christianity, there is even more history, and consequently far more believers. Anyone can pull examples of doctrines drawn up and applied in different times and places, but that doesn’t mean they are inherent characteristics of the religion in question. One can look at religious discourse as a conversation about values using particular sets of symbolism. […] Both Qur’an and Bible, and certainly the centuries of commentary, have provided ample ammunition for a number of views. The real questions are what views are rising to the surface and why in a given time and place, issues which often have little to do with the religion itself. Many Western commentators intuitively grasp this about Christianity, but don’t when it comes to Islam.

It’s not just that the world isn’t black and white, the world can’t even fit in sRGB colorspace. I hope Von, Tacitus and others who are planning a weblog on or about Islam or the Muslim world keep this in mind.

Author: Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer

8 thoughts on “Not Shades of Grey”

  1. Hi Zack. You have an interesting website. Glad you could come to the USA. Hope this move is permanent.
    I have founded a new religion, “The Florentine Order”….it is based upon “Faith in the Truths discovered by the Great Minds of Humanity”.
    The Mission of the Order is to bring world peace and cooperation…an end to war.

    Would appreciate any comments you would care to make as to why we still engage in the use of destructive wars. Join us on our forum, as we “follow the rising Star of Peace”.

    Everyone is welcome on “blacky2” and comments are not limited to any particular subject.

    We especially value Muslim ideas and opinions.

    Thank you.
    Wa Salaams, Nelson Horton

  2. …but there has been an example of an Islamic state in the time of Muhammad, with its own special rules; such as this one that the followers of other religions had to pay tribute to be protected (i.e. not being attacked!) by Muslims. For the Muslims nowadays, how it is possible to establish an Islamic state and not being faithful to the exemplary Islamic state?

  3. The problem is that we view the world as black and white. All “Islamists” are supposed to be bad. This way of looking at the Muslim world misses a lot of details and nuances. There are lots of different viewpoints there. The Islamist/Modernist dichotomy is something I have used as well, but is generally not very illuminating.

    I agree with the point that the terminology needs to be tightened up and the appropriate differentiations made; but there are certain basic continuities. From an effective secularist-pluralist viewpoint, there is really a way in which all ‘Islamists’ and other advocates of some sort of Christian state or Hindu rashtra are indeed quite bad and this lies the fact that while important differences exist between these streams of politico-religious thought; they do base their conception of the polity on certain notions of history and religious philosophy which creates two immediate problems: what happens to those who don’t share these traditions and how to arbitrate those who claim similar religious sanctions in political spheres but which rely on a more rigid interpretation of texts, canons etc. The typologies that Al-Ghannouchi outlines do have some solutions to this, but I am unconvinced that they really provide an effective bulwark against fundamentalism or sectarianism, historically the record here has been really poor; Gandhian Nationalism and the neo-revivalism of Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghosh et al. are a good indication of even how religious traditions that prided themselves on their past syncretism, tolerance and ability to resolve conflict peacefully can degenerate into more intolerant and aggressive religious nationalisms under the right conditions. A similar analogy can be held for more moderate Islamists, who while they shouldn’t be clubbed in as fundamentalists or extremists, still retain I think some problematic notions of how to base political legitimacy in the public sphere.

  4. I’m in agreement with Talal Asad, Professor of Anthropology at CUNY, that the frequent use of the word “fundamentalist” is the product of lazy thinking.

    Fazlur Rahman made a good case to say that modern “fundies” are actually “neo-fundamentalists”; because “fundamentalism” has been the hallmark of the renewal of religion (a belief popular among all Muslims) throughout Islamic history: al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Sirhindi, Shah Walli Allah.

    I would add that traditionalists are more then happy to cosy up to the state (e.g. Egypt) in the modern age; this has helped protect their monopoly on “true” Islam, as well helping the state stamp out dissent.

  5. I’m in agreement with Talal Asad, Professor of Anthropology at CUNY, that the frequent use of the word “fundamentalist” is the product of lazy thinking.

    Fazlur Rahman made a good case to say that modern “fundies” are actually “neo-fundamentalists”; because “fundamentalism” has been the hallmark of the renewal of religion (a belief popular among all Muslims) throughout Islamic history: al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Sirhindi, Shah Walli Allah.

    I like Talal Asad’s writing and respect his scholarship but I mostly disagree with his approach to this issue. It is not the use of words themselves that is the problem but how they are used in context and what they are meant to represent where difficulties and confusions arise. This is not a matter of simple binaries, but what certain types of thought share in common. Rahman’s point is valid but still retains certain problems, ‘renewal’ of religions as far as the Semitic traditions go, tend to have certain common characteristics which is why they are called ‘fundamentalism’ a strict reading of selected texts, canon of carefully chosen religious teachers for inspiration/guidance and a particularistic emphasis on some periods of history over others and a sacred geography that needs to be verifiable are amongst these features (though not all are operative in every manifestation obviously). Moreover, I remain unconvinced by this demarcation of Muslims as somehow being singled out in this; this kind of fundamentalism has existed in other Semitic religions as well, Christianity being an important one (which is where the term comes from of course) and where for Protestant sects, textual interpretation is a primary source of legitimation in a manner not too dissimilar for many Muslims. The only major difference is that with the arrival of modernity and the concept of secularism; what before could be seen merely as waves of religious revivalism are now seen as something else entirely; understandable since there was no real competitor to religious world views of one kind or another, on a global scale until a few centuries ago. With the quite considerable far-reaching changes that have occurred since then, it is not surprising that what in the medieval ages would just have seen as a reinterpretation of religion accompanied by increases in religious fervour, is seen as something else entirely now; it is also not surprising, I suppose, that this change is something religiously inclined people frequently tend to deny or overlook.

    Not to say there are not important differences between the religious-political thought of someone like Rahman and the actually applied political Islam of a dictator like Zia; obviously they are. But why either should be condoned or accepted by secularists is not clear to me; the idea of setting up ‘good religion’ against ‘bad religion’ is not what secularism is about and not what I think makes for an stable and attractive political model; in our time period such attempts have been made and they have not generally been successful at solving or mediating inter-religious conflict.

  6. Jonathan: I left out secularists since they sort of fall outside the spectrum of religion. But thanks for the reminder.

    Nelson: Thanks for your comment.

    Ken: While the original Islamic state can be an example, I don’t think a modern Islamic state can or should be exactly like that simply because we can’t recreate 7th century Arabia.

    Conrad: As a secular guy (who identifies as a Muslim), i mostly agree with you about the continuum. However, Islamists or Hindutva adherents, moderate or extreme, can’t exactly be ignored. There are lots of trends to watch for, some of which are good and others are bad. For example, there are some conservative to moderate neorevivalists who are bringing women out in a way that traditionalists have opposed all along. While I disagree with a lot of their beliefs on women’s rights, there are some positive moves as well.

    Like I said in a previous post of mine, I think instead of condemning the whole spectrum or even a branch, we should focus on specific actions.

    Thebit: I am not exactly sure of the distinction here between fundamentalism and neo-fundamentalism.

  7. Secularism, Islamism

    It seems I wasn’t exactly clear in my post where I argued that there is lots of diversity among “Islamists.” Ideofact writes about some statements and ideas of al-Ghannouchi which do seem quite bad to me. My point in my…

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