A Chronological Diachronic Classification
In addition to this synchronic system of classification, a chronological, diachronic classification might prove more relevant, from the standpoint of this paper.
The old Islamic discourse. This emerged as a direct and immediate reaction to the colonial invasion of the Muslim world, and prevailed until the mid-1960s.
The new Islamic discourse. After an initial indefinite, marginalized period, this discourse began to assume a more definite form in the mid-1960s, and started to move gradually toward the center.
Both discourses endeavored to provide an Islamic answer to the questions raised by modernization and colonization. Nevertheless there are radical points of divergence between them that stem from two interrelated points:
Their respective attitudes vis-à-vis Western modernity.
The varying levels of comprehensiveness of outlook that each discourse has developed.
This paper focuses primarily on the old and the new intellectual Islamic discourses, and to a much lesser degree, on the political discourse. It tries to identify some of the salient characteristics of the new discourse. Any intellectual or political movement must pause from time to time to look critically at itself and to assess its performance so as to be able to abstract some of its own nascent traits and crystallize them into a relatively coherent system, then map its future course.
It is worth noting that the first generation of Muslim reformists came in contact with the modern Western cultural formation in a historical era that is considerably different, in many aspects, from the present one. It could be argued that the comprehensive secular paradigm, the fundamental paradigm underlying the modern Western cultural formation, has always occupied a central position in the conscience of the modern Western man and has always molded his view of the universe. It could also be said that the imperialist aspects of Western modernity manifested themselves only too clearly from the very beginning. All of these facts notwithstanding, modern Western civilization viewed itself as a humanistic, man-centered civilization, and for some time maintained, at the level of vision if not also at the level of practice, a sense of balance and faith in absolute moral and human values. At the structural level, Western societies long maintained a high level of social coherence and solidarity. Family values, far from being an empty social slogan remembered during election days, were a concrete social reality.
But things changed. It might be useful, in this context, to conceive of secularism not as a fixed paradigm, but rather as a dynamic paradigmatic sequence that unfolds progressively in time and space. One can say that by the end of the nineteenth century, many of the links that make up this sequence had not yet materialized. Man’s private life and many aspects of his public life were still beyond the reach of the processes of secularization. In other words, Western man was a secularist only in some aspects of his public life, but in his private life as well as in many aspects of his public
life, he was committed to moral and human values, and, more often than not, to Christian religious values and code of ethics. When the first generation of Islamic reformists, the bearers of the old Islamic discourse, encountered this modern cultural formation, they did not interact with a comprehensive secular civilization but rather with a partially secular one. Whereas partial secularism recognizes the validity and importance of values on the moral level, and of the idea of totality on the epistemological level, comprehensive secularism denies them as well as the very idea of transcendence. Many of the negative aspects of Western modernity, which later became more or less a recurrent pattern and central phenomena, were isolated events and marginal incidents that could be easily overlooked. Furthermore, the Western critique of modernity and the Enlightenment had not yet been crystallized, in spite of the fact that the voices of protest were becoming stronger. Western romantic literature, for instance, is in essence a protest against the negative aspects of Western modernity. The writings of some conservative Western thinkers, such as Edmund Burke, include references to many topics that were later developed by the Western critical discourse on modernity. Nevertheless, the shortcomings of modern Western civilization, whether at the level of theory or at the level of practice, were not yet obvious to those who observed or studied it.
As for the bearers of the new Islamic discourse, the situation is quite different. Most had their intellectual formative years in the 1950s and had their first encounter with modern Western civilization in the 1960s. This was the time when Western modernity had already entered the stage of crisis, and when many Western thinkers had begun to realize the dimension of this crisis and impasse. (SeeIntroduction to the Deconstruction of the Secular Discourse , 4 vols., Cairo, December 1997). The bearers of the new Islamic discourse realized, from the very beginning, the darker aspects of Western modernity. It had embroiled the entire world in two Western wars, called “world wars” because the whole world was dragged into the arena of conflict. In the time of “peace,” the world was caught in a frenzied arms race. The centralized nation-state, growing stronger and more authoritarian, expanded and reached the most private aspects of man’s life, and, through its sophisticated security and educationalapparati , tried to “guide” its citizens! The media, another by-product of Western modernity, extensively invaded the private lives of citizens, accelerating the process of standardization and escalating the consumerist fever. In the meantime, the pleasure sector became so powerful as to control people’s dreams, selling them erotic utopias and outright pornography. The family as a social institution could not sustain the pressures and therefore divorce rates rocketed, reaching levels rarely witnessed before. The crisis of meaning, the epistemological crisis, anomie, alienation, and reification became more pronounced. While the liberal capitalist project ceased to be the smashing success story it used to be, the socialist experiment collapsed and lost any vestige of credibility. Anti-humanist intellectual trends such as Fascism, Nazism, Zionism, and Structuralism emerged and reached a climax in post-modernist thought. By the mid-1960s, the critical Western discourse on modernity had crystallized and the works of the Frankfurt School thinkers
had become widely available and popular. Many studies, critical of the age of the Enlightenment, were published. Writing about the standardization that resulted from Western modernity and about its one-dimensional man, Herbert Marcuse sought to demonstrate the existence of a structural defect that lies at the very heart of modern Western civilization in its totality, a defect that goes beyond the traditional division of this civilization into a socialist and a capitalist camp. Many revisionist historians, rewriting the history of modern Western civilization, tried to underscore the enormity of the crimes committed against the peoples of Asia and Africa and the colonial pillage of their lands. Many studies, radically critical of development theories, appeared during the same period. The New Left movement made a significant contribution in this regard. Thus, whether on the practical or theoretical level, it was not difficult for the bearers of the new Islamic discourse, those who studied Western modernity in the middle of the twentieth century, to recognize many of its shortcomings and to see it in its totality. It was no longer possible for them to experience a naive infatuation of the type experienced by the intellectuals of the first generation. The Western modernity they knew, experienced, and studied was, in many aspects, different from the Western modernity known, experienced, and studied by the generation of the pioneers.
It should be pointed out that neither the new nor the old generation of Muslim intellectuals constructed their respective intellectual systems exclusively on the basis of the Islamic worldview. Their interaction with Western modernity was, as could be expected, an important formative factor. After all, this was a civilization that acquired centrality by virtue of its economic and military accomplishments, put forward its own view of the world as if it were the view of all human beings at all times and in all places, conceived of its knowledge as a precise science applicable to all communities, and set the challenge that everyone else had to respond to. Responses varied with the type of challenge and its intensity. The early reformists found many positive aspects in Western modernity. One may even go so far as to suggest that they were entranced by it. This is evident from Shaykh Muhammad Abduh’s oft-quoted remark that “whereas in the West he found Muslims without Islam, in the East he found Islam without Muslims.” He wanted to say that in the West he found people who manifested in their very conduct the ideals of Islam even though they were not Muslims, whereas in the Muslim world, he found people who believed in Islam, but their conduct belied their belief. Consequently, the issue for many of the bearers of the old Islamic discourse was basically how to reconcile Islam with Western modernity, and even how to make Islam catch up with it, and live up to its standards and values. This was the core of Muhammad Abduh’s project, which predominated until the mid-1960s.
Had Shaykh Muhammad Abduh's experience with Western modernity been different, he would have hesitated long before making this remark and before proposing his project. The following incident may explain this point further. In 1830, Shaykh Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, whose infatuation with Western civilization is well-known, was in Paris. In that same year, French cannons were pounding unsuspecting Algerian towns and villages, reducing them to
rubble. Shaykh al-Tahtawi could see only the bright lights in Paris and could hear only the urbane and sophisticated rhythms of Western modernity. On the other hand, the Algerian shaykhs, who were subject to a brutal colonial attack using the most sophisticated technology available at the time, could see only the raging flames of fire and could hear only the racket of bombs. One of these shaykhs was once told that the French troops had actually come to Algeria to spread Western civilization and modernity. His response was as cryptic as it was significant: “But why have they brought all this gunpowder?” Like this Algerian shaykh, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse smelled the reek of gunpowder, saw the flames of fire, heard the racket of cannons, and watched the hooves of colonial horses tread over everything. Then they saw gunpowder become omnipresent, transformed into a variety of weapons of destruction and extermination: bombs, missiles, biological and nuclear weapons, etc. Huge budgets were allocated for the production or purchase of these weapons, first by western, then eastern, southern and northern governments. In fact, the mass-destruction weapons industry has grown into the most important industry of our enlightened rational times, and homo sapiens, for the first time in his long history, allocates more funds for the production of weapons of destruction than for the production of food.
The old Islamic discourse was neither unique nor isolated in its advocacy of Western modernity; it was, in a sense, part of the general outlook that prevailed in the Third World since the beginning of this century. Efforts were directed at catching up with the West and competing with it on its own terms. Liberals called for the adoption of the modern Western outlook in its totality, “both its sweet and bitter aspects.” The Marxists rebelled slightly and suggested that the peoples of the Third World could enter the promised land of Western modernity through the gates of Marxism and social justice. The Islamists, in their turn, imagined it would be possible to adopt the Western modern outlook or rather adapt Islam to it. It is interesting to note that all the trends and movements, religious or secular, irrespective of their ideological inclinations and social or ethnic backgrounds, turned the West into a silent and ultimate point of reference.
As a result of this attitude to Western modernity, the Islamic worldview retreated, its dimensions shrunk, and it lost its comprehensiveness. Instead of providing an Islamic frame of reference for Muslims in the modern age, the issue became how to “Islamize” certain aspects of Western modernity. The Islamization process would, in most cases, take the form of “omitting” those aspects of Western modernity deemedharam (prohibited) by Islamic law, without any addition or innovation, underscoring those aspects of Western modernity deemedhalal (permissible) by Islamic law, and searching for those aspects within the Islamic worldview analogous to some aspects found within Western modernity. This inevitably meant the eventual atrophy of those aspects of the Islamic worldview that have nothing analogous to them within the modern Western worldview. But ironically, those aspects constitute the very essence and source of the specificity of the Islamic worldview.
The bearers of the new Islamic discourse do not have the same fascination with Western modernity. Actually, a radical critique of Western modernity is one of their main points of departure. They too are neither unique nor isolated in their critique, for they do not differ from many of the thinkers and political movements in the Third World at the present time who try to evolve new forms of modernity, nor from many important thinkers in the West who are critical of Western modernity. Marxism was a form of critique of modernity, out of which sprung the Frankfurt School which further deepened the critique. Romantic literature, as indicated earlier, was also a protest against Western modernity. The protest of modernist literature, however, is even more profound and radical; it tries to represent the reified world of modernity, where the chain of causality is either completely broken or becomes so rigid that man becomes completely determined. The theater of the absurd is part of this Western protest against the dead-end Western modernity has landed mankind in. More recently, religious fundamentalism emerged as a populist extension of this intellectual trend. All of these trends, in one way or another, show an increasing, if implicit, realization that Western modernity strips man of his specificity and subverts his human essence.
The new Islamic discourse is only part of a wider global trend. The perceived crisis of Western modernity has taken different forms in different parts of the world. In the Muslim world, the perception has taken an Islamic form. Nevertheless, the critique of the new Islamic discourse of modernity is characteristically different from the other critiques. For one thing, it recognizes and emphasizes the inextricable ties between Western modernity and Western imperialism. Imperialism was, after all, our first encounter with modernity, and Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine is the last. Furthermore, unlike the Western critique of modernity, which is nihilistic and pessimistic, the Islamic critique is optimistic by virtue of the fact that it proposes a project for reform.