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.
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.