A third way for Islam ?

Freedom, Modernity and Islam
October 9, 1998

The Ottoman Muslims, writes Richard Khuri, borrowed only tulips, the printing press and bayonets from Europe. Western modernity had about as much real impact on the House of Islam as "a paper rocket brushing the walls of al-Azhar", the Islamic university in Cairo. Secular modernity, he argues, was wrong to dismiss the depth and resilience of Islam, that most resolute of transcendent faiths. The version of Islam, born in reaction to this hostile western gaze, was as narrow and intolerant as the modernity it challenged. A more spiritual modernity would elicit a more authentically Islamic response based on the Koran's lasting standards and ideals.

Khuri has written a detailed defence of theism, especially Islam, against a modernity identified with secular reason and scientific method. Rejecting materialism and positivism, he exalts the spiritual and the transcendent. Reason is not sovereign even in the natural sciences let alone in the sciences of man. He admires Kant as the greatest thinker of modern times, a thinker who gave both reason and transcendence their due place, and rejects that version of modernity in which rational beings are self-interested materialists. There are, he urges, other and more humane ways of being rational. In its original impulse in the Renaissance, he believes, modernity had the potential for recognising spirituality too. He mocks modern scientists eager to exclude God from their theories: they have everything going for them except the evidence of their own theories. Modern science is full of counter-intuitive ideas, interested both in order and progress as well as chaos and regression.

Khuri urges those in the Third World to have second thoughts about freedom. Let us suppose the Arab Muslims eventually achieve true political freedom, he says. Free at last but free to do what? Freedom in western democracies, Khuri argues - unfairly - is either the freedom to earn lots of money and enjoy oneself or else a freedom to desecrate the sacred "in unimaginably vulgar" works of art. Islam, however, properly understood, offers Muslims a freedom to be fully human by responding to the transcendent. Muslims should be able to combine secular freedom with divine guidance. But the Muslims have failed; Islam is wasted on them. Encounter with the West makes Muslims either zealously secular or else defensively religious. Khuri offers a third way: let Muslims learn from the innovative resourcefulness and creativity of modernity while westerners learn to respect the high moral ideals of Islam, especially its commitment to the good of the community.

As with most books sympathetic to mysticism, there is insufficient intellectual rigour. Khuri carefully avoids propagandist vocabulary in discussing the political ambition of Muslims. But elsewhere there is jargon and many meaningless and repetitive passages. Transcendence, comments Khuri, is everywhere and nowhere; it is a "caring Infinity". What does that mean? To be sure, few would deny that everything is more than it seems. But it does not follow that "nothing, not even volcanic ash, is entirely devoid of spirit, of luminosity".

Kant wrote rigorous but passionless German prose and Khuri enlists him as a philosopher who knew the true status of reason. For Kant, the moral law requires the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God. So, God is a requirement of the moral sense: since we are free beings with a moral sense, therefore there must be a God who ensures that the virtuous are properly rewarded and the wicked punished. Khuri accepts Kant's reasoning as conclusive when it is not even persuasive. It is one thing to believe in doctrines in which we have a moral or sentimental interest, quite another to believe in these because we regard them as true.

Khuri writes clearly about Islam's involvement with power and he disapproves of it. He argues, correctly, that the state in Muhammad's day was a civilian community while the modern state is a violent organisation with the capacity to destroy civil society. A modern Islam, animated by the ideals of freedom, would voluntarily opt for a humble posture of powerlessness and do so for the moral reason that power corrupts. Khuri is a Christian though he does not say so.

The kind of modernity that Khuri wants for Muslims, then, turns out to be a western project. But the Muslims reject as a utopian delusion the Marxist prediction of the demise of the state; and they do not trust Christians who claim to admire a reclusive mysticism while vigorously pursuing the political kingdom. There is no doctrine more convenient to tyrants than the view that religion has nothing to do with political power.

Khuri discusses in detail the causes of unfreedom in the Arab Muslim world but says nothing about the regular intervention in the region by western powers. However, the issue is not about the need for power. Every creed survives courtesy of worldly power, though many religious people pretend to have set their hearts on another world. The question troubling Muslims is how to regulate the relationship between the state and the civilian population. Muslims have failed to create a civil society in which they obey the rules, not the rulers. All Islamic leaders have power at the expense of their people.

Modern Islam has failed to manage peacefully the dissent and diversity of opinion inside the household of faith. Leaders have actively prevented the emergence of a participatory politics fully representative of the varied groups in society. Muslims wrongly thought that all would be well once they adhered to the faith with sufficient zeal and sincerity. It did not work. They have ignored the heart's inner disposition. Khuri's goodwill is not in dispute but then Muslims are not short of western advisers. Khuri's voice deserves to be heard, but not heeded.

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

Freedom, Modernity and Islam: Towards a Creative Synthesis

Author - Richard Khuri
ISBN - 0 485 30085 0
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £45.00
Pages - 384

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