The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation

This was published in Prospect Magazine.

meccaThe contemporary religious revival is a complex business. In the same period that Muslim societies, in their weakness, seem to have re-embraced Islam, America, in its strength, has re-embraced Christianity. Western Europe remains avowedly secular. Despite the contradictions within the West, mainstream Orientalism holds that all cultures are developing towards the universal (or, more specifically, globalised) model of secular modernity and the market. The Muslim world experiences backwardness to the extent that it resists secularisation.

“The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation”, a subtle and erudite book by former Iraqi minister Ali A Allawi, challenges this thesis. Surveying the Muslims’ social, economic and moral failures, and the terror espoused by certain Islamist groups, Allawi suggests the problem might not be too much Islam, but too little.

He argues that privatised religion cannot work in Islam, a civilisational framework which rests on the tripod of private ritual, public ethics and individual spiritual striving. The three must feed into and balance each other, but the current ‘revival’ operates only in the field of religiosity, focusing on naked symbols and rules, proclaiming the superiority of Islam while adopting wholesale, and indiscriminately, the technology, economics and cultural products of the West. It emphasises the Sharia as a set of fixed punishments rather than as a framework of legislative principles. (Allawi perhaps doesn’t explain the distinction thoroughly enough). For the revivalists, the public sphere is too often reduced to the state, and their political project is simply to seize control of repressive state apparatuses.

The result is a discomforting disjunction between inner and outer worlds, symbolised by contradictory Muslim landscapes: home interiors spotlessly clean, while the streets outside are strangled by plastic bags. For Allawi the courtesy, hospitality and warmth still met with in the Muslim world are the mere remnants of Islamic civilisation, and the religious revival may be its last gasp.

So what happened? Allawi doesn’t romanticise the Islamic past, yet he rejects the Arabocentric myth of continual decline since the Mongol destruction of the Abbasid empire. A dynamism and internal coherence – and a universalism which allowed Ibn Batuta, trained in Tangiers, to find work as a judge in the Maldives – lasted until the European penetration. Then the first response to Western imperialism came on Islam’s own terms, from leaders such as Chechnya’s Imam Shamil or the Algerian Abd el-Qadir, whose legitimacy derived from their ethical Sufism as much as from their championing of law. Abd el-Qadir waged jihad against the French, and also saved thousands of Christians from the mob in his Damascene exile.

After military defeat the Sufi orders degenerated (Allawi concedes they were in many cases already mired in superstition), were co-opted by imperial powers and encouraged to ignore the problematic public realm. As a result, the tariqat became irrelevant, and the Muslims lost the heart of their tradition. Sadly, the process continues today, as illustrated by New Labour’s romance with the tame and supposedly Sufi-oriented Quilliam Foundation, whose spokesmen opine on “the racist Arab psyche” and teach, for instance, that rejecting Zionism on principle is a sign of Islamic extremism – news to the anti-Zionist Christians and Marxists of the Arab world.

Almost everywhere, Allawi maintains, Islam experienced a traumatic rupture rather than an evolution into modernity. Colonial powers and then westernised ruling classes dismantled the institutions of Islam, from seminaries to the Caliphate. The work ethic disappeared with the guilds connected to urban Sufi orders, leaving a corrupt marketplace and a culture of backstabbing. Islam’s collapse in confidence has been so severe that elites in north Africa and Pakistan no longer speak the same language as the masses. Kemalist Turkey not only substituted more ‘modern’ Roman letters for Arabic script, but even criminalised reading Osmanli Turkish (contrast this with the self-consciously modern and Western state of Israel, which re-established Hebrew script).

Allawi holds up Japan’s Meiji Restoration as a modernising response to external challenges, but on the basis of Japan’s own cultural framework, and wishes the Muslims had managed something similar. He points out that where Islam did evolve towards modernity in countries beyond Western control, the results were encouraging. During the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 – 09, for example, Najaf-based ayatollahs promoted “the liberty of the general public from arbitrary and unaccountable government by force,” and described freedom as “a rational process and one of the pillars of the Islamic faith.”

Despite the existence of Islamic concepts allowing for democracy (shura), freedom of speech (naseeha and ra’i), and social justice (’adl), voices such as those from Najaf have been exceptions to the rule of defeat and stagnation.

In one of its most engaging sections, the book focuses on Islam’s urban crisis. The colonial separation of ‘old’ and ‘new’ cities epitomised the civilisational rupture, and post-colonial regimes have committed even greater vandalism. The Wahhabi House of Saud has demolished 95% of historical buildings in the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina for fear of idolatry, and to make way for the true idols of the time: consumer outlets and gated accomodation. Meanwhile Gulf city-states are characterised by “rampant commercialism, brand worship, gigantism, strict class segregation and a calendar of ‘festivals’ and ‘events’ designed by marketers.”

The economic news is worse still. For all the oil wealth and untrammelled capitalism, the member countries of the OIC account for 22% of global population yet generate only 6% of world GDP. An Islamic alms tax (zakat) of 2.5% on the sovereign wealth funds of Gulf countries would produce an annual $75 billion wealth transfer to the poorest Muslim states, but this isn’t on the agenda. Key Islamic values like justice, fairness and education have been ignored, and an illusory counter-movement to the collapse has been led, in the Sunni world, by Wahhabism. This puritanical reform movement is painfully literalist, unimaginative, and viciously sectarian. As anti-intellectual as it is anti-mystical, it rejects the flexibility of the traditional schools of law. Its influence has been projected far beyond the central Arabian desert by oil money and the ungodly Saudi-US alliance. The result is a schizophrenic response to the West – passivity and collaboration on the one hand, nihilistic terrorism on the other.

Unlike those (such as Hazel Blears) who assume all visions of a potential Islamic superstate can be equated with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s, Allawi suggests that “it is the absence of any formal and substantial Islamic political presence at the global level that contributes to instability and disorder.” Chinese-Confucian and Indian-Hindu civilisations have, more or less, territorial contiguity. The West is represented by two powers – the EU and the US – and by institutions from NATO to the World Bank. But since the loss of its multi-national empires, Islam is splintered between weak states lacking popular legitimacy and very often governed by client regimes. Muslim countries become adjuncts of the established civilisational blocks, Morocco to Europe, for instance, or Malaysia to China, and no serious power is capable or willing to defend suffering Muslims internationally. It is noteworthy that the only Muslim voice to have condemned China’s oppression of Uighur Muslims is al-Qa’ida.

Allawi could be criticised for skirting too close to Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis. His constant application of the “Judaeo-Christian” epithet to the West is slightly annoying – surely the West is Hellenistic too, and for that matter Islamic, through Spain and the scientific heritage. But he avoids the fallacy of absolutely discrete cultures, and it is refreshing to read a Muslim participating in a ‘civilisational’ discourse which has usually targetted Muslims.

The book’s insistence on the role of the divine in public life will be controversial in the West, but not in most of the Muslim world. 79% of Pakistanis, 70% of Moroccans and even 43% of Turks consider themselves to be Muslims before citizens of their respective nation states. Again, Allawi’s argument is not theological but civilisational: he calls for a culture confidently aware of its core values and able to act upon them.

“The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation” offers a comprehensive sweep of Muslim world issues, from banking to human rights and the role of Muslim migrants. It introduces some remarkable but little known Islamic thinkers such as Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss), Pakistan’s first ambassador to the UN, Iranian dissident Abd el-Karim Soroush, and the Sudanese Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, who understood those sections of the Quran revealed at Mecca to be of universal spiritual relevance, but the Medinan verses to be limited to the Prophet’s specific moment. In its rich and diverse portrayal of Muslim thought, the book is a corrective to the simplistic orientalism of the Bernard Lewis school.

Allawi tries hard to find positive signs. He praises the anti-sectarian Amman Message, the work of architect Hassan Fathy, and the current resurgence in Sufism even in the Wahhabi heartland. He mourns missed opportunities such as Mahathir Muhammad’s proposed gold-based currency for intra-Islamic trade, and stresses these ideas are still there for the taking. But ultimately, the book is more a lament than a programme for renewal. Waiting for the renewal, the Muslims suffer with Libyan novelist Ahmad al-Faqih, who wrote, “A time has passed and another time is not coming.”

2 thoughts on “The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation”

  1. Turkey did condemn it. When I wrote the review the condemnation still hadn’t been made. The correction has been made in Prospect magazine.

    However, I don’t think that Turkey condemned it quickly. At a state level, I believe the condemnation took a week to come. Also, Turkey condemned not out of Muslim solidarity but out of pan-Turkic nationalism (which doesn’t discredit the condemnation, of course).

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