Imam for all seasons

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World
September 15, 1995

In this encyclopedia, by a happy accident of the English alphabet, "Satan" rubs shoulders with "Al-Saud", founder of the Saudi dynasty. Medieval theology and modern politics are both here in disturbing proximity. We feel the vast - encyclopedic - pain in the attempt to manage the post-Enlightenment universe in terms of the innocent concepts of classical tribal Islam. The historicist temper notes that every faith begins as a heretical minority of precisely one. World religions are merely cults that have succeeded.

An agnostic child of the Enlightenment might think that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are merely three Semitic despotisms that have delayed the birth of empirical science and a rational political order. If so, might he see the appearance of this encyclopedia as a welcome hint of the decline of Islam, the beginnings of a legacy? After all, there is no need to cut open the bark of a living tree to see if the sap runs: no group of Muslims is compiling an encyclopedia of the secular western world.

This is an encyclopedia of the modern House of Islam; but there is much on the past because Muslims are still madly in love with their glorious past. Their present is without glory and they claim to be indifferent to the West's glorious present. But then their avowals are unconvincing. Minds, nourished on staid theological repetition, utopian simplicities, and an unacknowledged fascination for foreign exemplars cannot affect the future of the world. Such a tribe is naturally boxed into a four-volume set.

The chief editor, John Esposito, is a Christian and a professor of religion and international affairs in the school of foreign service, Georgetown University. Some American academics advise the state department and the CIA about Islamic matters just as some British academics at London University's School of Oriental And African Studies advise the Foreign Office. Such policy affiliations need not imply active hostility to Muslim nations but they do expose a scholar to the charge of being a politician.

Esposito's general article on modern Islam is uninspiring if sympathetic. Its central claims are not attributed to any particular source but presented simply as the beginning of all contemporary wisdom on the subject. The companion bibliography does not include any works by Muslim authors. Instead, recent stereotypical western scholarship is cited with approval. All the recommended books are either by Esposito or by authors who share his views. Such a bias would be inexcusable but for the fact that Esposito's general goodwill is not in dispute.

These volumes are, as it were, Esposito's Who's Who of the modern Islamic world. Regarding the contributors, one senses a personal choice hastily made: the project took only four years. There are few contributions from British Islamicists and none from independent British Muslims working outside the universities. In Britain, there is an honourable deposit of Islamic scholarship not associated with academic orthodoxy but found rather in the works of independent but accessible figures employed by research institutes. The editor's net is not cast widely enough.

The decision to include only some voices could seem to be justifying the status quo. There is no coverage of new Muslim thinking on Islamic policy or on planning strategies for the future development of recently independent Islamic nations. Merely describing the existing circumstances so elaborately could induce conservatism and despair. That may not be the intention; but the result is a western paternalism that desires to shield Muslims against any sharp criticisms of their current fantasies and historical excesses.

Nevertheless, an outstanding feature is the encyclopedia's accessibility to the educated general public. In four volumes, with entries arranged alphabetically, we have a clear overview of the whole edifice of modern Islam. Another merit is the comprehensive coverage of Islamic movements worldwide, for the first time. We learn about revolutionary movements in the Middle East. But Far Eastern Islam, living in the midst of the "pagan" Orient, is not neglected. Unlike the Middle East, there are fewer crises here but the pace of gradual reform is quick. For example, in Malaysia, the Shariah is being partly implemented through democratic procedures, not imposed by ideologues in the grip of a private vision.

There are, however, too many entries on Shia Iran. Post-revolutionary Iran is an influential state and Shi'ism has often been neglected as merely a heresy surviving in the marginalia of Sunni orthodoxy; but Esposito's consultant editors overstate their case. The entry on Ali, fourth caliph and alleged founder of Shi'ism, creates an imbalance because there are no entries on the three Sunni caliphs. All four men still inspire competitive political allegiances. Shi'ism began, after all, as a simple dynastic power struggle among northern Arab tribes at the dawn of Islam. Moreover, the biographies of Ali and his son, Husain, are by devout Shia writers whose personal commitment interferes with the demands of objectivity.

We encounter informative biographies of modern Muslim "reformers". Virtually all were lay people without official ranking in the religious hierarchy. Sayyid Qutb, a leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Abul Ala Maududi, the prolific Pakistani stylist who defended Saudi Islam, are both featured. Despite their secular education, both men insisted on Islam as the sole source of truth. They dismissed all secular notions of independent reason and democratic political organisation. Yet knowledge is multicultural: if one needs a prophetic sanction for this, we have Muhammad's remark: "Seek knowledge even unto China."

But we should not need that warrant. Common sense does not require religious sanction. Most Muslims, however, scour scripture and tradition in the hope of finding, in the infallible mind and policy of Muhammad and the Koran, a revealed authorisation even for self-evident truths. Much ingenuity is wasted in proving that every acceptable new initiative has already been anticipated by tradition. How, then, is one to think afresh or even catch up on facts? And should one rescue orthodoxy even at the expense of sacrificing reason and good sense?

There are Muslim thinkers who wish to abolish the division between religious and secular knowledge. Esposito himself provides a laudatory biography of the late Ismail Faruqi, a Sunni scholar who tried to "Islamicise" all knowledge. The mere record of Faruqi's activities is exhausting: he wrote and taught and preached tirelessly. Esposito does not stop to assess Faruqi's project. Is knowledge intrinsically religious or secular? Surely knowledge is knowledge. One civilisation sends out the space probes while another consults its scriptures on earth. If the secular West produces new knowledge while Muslims Islamicise it, is that not an unfair division of labour? A Christian could equally argue for a Christianisation of knowledge: the Holy Spirit underwrites the truth of every true proposition no matter who discovers it.

In discussing Islamic theories of knowledge, one contributor laments that Sunni philosophy, inspired by the Greeks, terminated with the death of Averoes. But his claim that the philosophical tradition continued among the Shi'ites is questionable. If philosophy means the liberty to use exalted phrases of unclear meaning, then the metaphysical Sufism of many Iranian writers would qualify for the title. Philosophy, however, is an apology for truth, with independent reason its main guide. The Greek curiosity that fathered philosophy was no part of normative Islam, Sunni or Shi'ite. Heretical Muslim rationalists, not orthodox Shi'ites or Sunnis, inspired the Renaissance in Europe.

The lack of an extant philosophically reflective culture among Muslims may explain the poverty of their political thought. Reading here the history of the Islamic polity headed by an autocratic caliph (God's deputy), one senses that vulgar political instincts are capable of as many disguises as Satan in medieval Christian legend. Although the Caliphate was abolished in 1924 in Turkey, many Muslim sovereigns are still attracted to the idea of behaving as arbitrarily as the omnipotent God they claim to represent and worship. (After 1924, King Faud I of Egypt had his eyes on the title.) To appoint a man, even a saint, as God's deputy is to invite him to become a megalomaniac. Sensible citizens demand accountability, not perfect virtue, of their rulers. And good rulers know that private virtue becomes socially prevalent only if enough individuals are already virtuous. The religious idealism of Muslim activists is touching but it is no guarantee of political humility. The lust to institutionalise revealed certainties is the shortest route to fascism. These are truisms but we must pay a high and bloody price to learn them.

Shi'ites, even more than Sunnis, emphasise the superiority of individual "inspired" leadership over consensus and socially approved power. Both insist on the dramatic and sycophantic ritual of the oath of allegiance to a chief. Yet excessive confidence in the moral authority of one man's cause makes it impossible to effect any intelligent management of dissent. The Koran favours the charismatic model of authority suitable for a tribal society. It contains isolated appeals for deciding affairs by mutual consultation but the dominant emphasis falls on obedience to infallible leadership. In democracy, however, we concede political difference as legitimate and thus pre-empt society's capacity to divide. A committee of fallible prophets with different opinions is not a scriptural notion.

Reading this compendium, we see the irrelevance of tribal practices as traditional Islamic societies become modern administrative states. They are now sovereign nations effectively committed to secular principles, not empires based on religion. Classical Islamic law, in principle still valid, is often ignored. Its fossilised terminology still speaks of the duty of expansionist jihad in the pursuit of empire; the tax on camels remains part of a ritual obligation even though camels are no longer part of the trading life even of tribal Arabs; and patriarchal customs such as slavery, concubinage, and polygamy are still authorised by sacred law.

If Islam is to survive, Arab tribalism will have to go. We cannot defend racism and sexism as ideals. Leaders must be democratically elected and held accountable. We should reject the potentially racist view that lineage from Muhammad makes one intrinsically suited to be a virtuous leader (sayyid). (By a miracle of demography, entire Muslim nations are comprised of sayyids!) The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World is a virtually comprehensive reference work enabling the reader to understand the current Muslim predicament as it has been shaped by events in the past three centuries. The orthodox Muslim, often in error but never in doubt, may still make camp all by himself, while Muslim leaders will continue to dismiss what they cannot accept. "Islam says . . . " is a phrase often found on their lips. But Islam says nothing; it is Muslims who say many things. For how long will too many of them patch up their ignorance with the covering phrase, "God knows best"?

Shabbir Akhtar teaches at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World

Editor - John Esposito
ISBN - 0 19 506613 8 (set)
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £295.00
Pages - 1,904 pp (4 volumes)

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