DEFORMIST THINKING The reason for this dilemma is that a strong trend rejecting critical methods of analysis, contextual thinking, and rational modes of discourse has spread within many Muslim societies today. This trend promotes ananti-intellectual minimalism , and is now often referred to by the label “Salafi” or “Salifist”—yet it may fairly be described as the ‘Deformist ’ trend. [The venerable termSalafi> [^3] should properly be reserved to refer to Muslims advocating social and intellectual reform and renewal, not intellectual stagnation and reactionary imitation.] The Deformers’ response to the plight of modern Muslims is reactive and politicized, rather than rational and critical, and receives financial and ideological backing from several Muslim regimes. They privilege doctrinal conformity and uniformity of thought, for their worldview and way of speaking and thinking is rooted in a very narrowly defined traditionalist past. They are uncompromising in condemning the diversity of views, broad range of thinking and differing levels of rational discourse found in the wide variety of intellectual Islamic disciplines cultivated in the past.
The intent of the Deformists is to monopolize and control the thinking of Muslims through a dogmatic tyranny that is in reality a serious abuse of authority. The single most distinctive feature of this mindset is their ignorance of the essential Islamic insight taught by the Qur’a>n concerning thehierarchical scale of knowledge that varies in degree of certainty and grasp of truth. Corresponding with this vertical scale of knowledge is thehierarchy of human knowers differentiated by their increasing capacity of attainment and intensity of understanding.[^4] Instead, the Deformists actively work to undermine the legitimate authority of Islam’s intellectual heritage and to trivialize its potential to provide guidance for thoughtful Muslims. They impoverish thinking Muslims by stripping them of a powerful weapon for combating the inverted values of secular materialism and pervasive effects of globalizing culture.
It is as if these intellectual minimalists were telling us:The Muslim mind has no need of critical rationalism! This internal deformation across a broad range of Muslim societies is the most important factor, coupled with the passivity and heedlessness of most Muslims, for forcing the issue ofthe concept and the role of reason and rationality within Islam onto the forefront of Muslim concerns. Indeed, the question of Islam and rationality has the greatest significance for re-constructing and reforming Islamic civilization in order to ensure its future relevance and viability as a world force for peace, stability and material and spiritual growth. But here we face a subtle and often overlooked point: Islamic teachings and thinkers conceived of ‘rationality’ in ways that vary from the present western conception, employing modes of conceptualization and discourse that at times depart radically from those now accepted by the West. The great irony is that almost all Muslims today have forgotten this and unconsciously adopt the prevailing western conception of ‘reason’ as their conceptual default or format, oblivious of their own legacy and teachings on this central feature of human existence.
There are many causes for this failure to cultivate and nourish the critical traditions of Islamic rationality among today’s political and religious elites within Muslim societies, some internal and others external. One important factor involves the unthinking reception of types of Islamic discourse among a semi-educated constituency of Muslims heedless of the abuse of Islamic authority operated by religious or educational leaders uprooted from any recognizable historical intellectual tradition. More pervasive in Muslim popular culture is the manifestation and acceptance of the stifling authoritarian Deformist discourse that seeks to enforce a type of narrow ‘intellectual despotism’ and consciously attempts to strangle any recourse to the intellectual legacy of Islamic rationalist disciplines.
Furthermore, the fragile and still marginalized attempts among certain circles and isolated efforts by individuals to promote a critical understanding facilitating an authentic re-appropriation and transformation of Islam’s legacy of faith-rationality and rational spirituality, still awaits the achievement of a critical mass with enough leverage to affect the popular culture of Muslim societies in all their varieties of social, educational, economic and political conditions. Nor can such attempts be said to enjoy truly effective financial and institutional support from the governments of leading Muslim states, the few existing exceptions only serving to prove the rule.[^5] More often than not, nurturing these efforts institutionally falls prey to co-optation by state powers and cliques (the paymasters), while they also tend to suffer deflection towards the prevailing cultural limitations of specific social identities or parochial ethnic preferences having a tenuous connection with Islam. Nevertheless, there are some promising signs with the increasing appearance of intellectual projects among Muslim intellectuals in the western diaspora, including recent journals such as Islam and Science in Canada, and Transcendent Philosophy in the UK.