Difference Between Two Fundemental Points
It could be said that even though there are many points of agreement and disagreement between the old and the new discourses, the attitude to Western modernity and the level of comprehensiveness of the Islamic paradigm, as indicated earlier, are the basic points of difference that could serve as a basis for classification. The main distinguishing features of each discourse spring from these two fundamental points and can be outlined as follows:
The bearers of the new Islamic discourse are neither apologetic nor self-defensive. They are not interested in expending much energy on the attempt to “improve” the image of Islam or to “justify” themselves, even though they are interested in sending “a message” to the world.
The bearers of the new discourse neither reject nor accept the West uncritically. Ironically, total rejection, just like total acceptance, presupposes the West as a silent point of reference. What the bearers of the new Islamic discourse reject, in effect, are both the presumed centrality and universalism of the West, as well as its imperialism, which is closely linked to its claim of centrality. They reject the practices of spoilage, pillage, and repression that were perpetrated by Western colonialism in the past and that at present take new forms that are no less brutal than the previous ones. They also reject what they consider the negative aspects of Western modernity and fully realize its crisis.
But despite their awareness of the crisis of Western modernity, and their realization that there is no point in repeating the mistakes of others or proceeding along the same path that led to an impasse, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse do not resemble the Algerian shaykh who smelled the reek of gunpowder and saw nothing else in Western modernity. Indeed, they have read Eliot’sThe Waste Land , Becket’s and Camus’ absurd plays, and Derrida’s nihilist writings; and they know that the West constructed its material infrastructure through the process of pillage (which led to “imperialist” not “capitalist accumulation” as claimed). However, they also know Western theories of architecture, how to use the computer, various management theories, and the broad horizons opened up by Western modernity. They know the advantages of this modernity just as they know its destructiveness. They also know that Western modernity has raised certain questions that cannot go unanswered. They know that the Muslim mind is not a blank sheet, and that the Islamic starting point cannot be a hypothetical zero point. Hence the necessity, and even the inevitability, of engaging and interacting with Western modernity, and assimilating its achievements without adopting its value system. In short, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse do not see any justification for accepting Western modernity in its entirety. Instead, they stand on their Islamic ground and view Western modernity, opening up to it, simultaneously criticizing and interacting with it. This is what can be referred to as “the interactive critical response,” which is the very opposite of the “positive” unqualified acceptance or the “negative” unqualified rejection of Western modernity–two extreme points between which the old discourse oscillated.
The old Islamic discourse is an eclectic, cumulative discourse that imported constituent elements of Western modernity, without realizing their relation to the Western worldview, and at the same time adopted other constituent elements of the Islamic religio-cultural formation, without realizing their relation to the Islamic worldview. Having isolated these Islamic and modern Western constituent elements, the bearers of the old discourse tried to “add” the one to the other, creating a concoction rather than a totality.
The bearers of the new discourse, on the other hand, are not content with importing ready-made Western answers to the questions posed by Western modernity. They have developed a radical, exploratory, generative discourse that neither attempts to reconcile Islam with Western modernity, nor preoccupies itself with searching for the points of contrast (or similarity) between the two. Rather, it sets forth to explore the main traits of Western modernity, presenting a radical, yet balanced critique. In the meantime, the bearers of the new discourse go back to the Islamic worldview, with all its values and its religious, ethical, and civilizational specificities. They explore it and try to abstract an epistemological paradigm from it, through which they can generate answers to the problems raised by Western modernity. One can place the modern attempts aimed at revivingfiqh (jurisprudence) from within, in the context of this generative approach. Rather than impose Western analytical categories on the Islamic worldview, the bearers of the new discourse try to discover its fundamental categories. One can safely argue that the new Islamic discourse, issuing forth from an Islamic framework, opens the door ofijtihad regarding both the modern Western worldview and the Islamic religious and cultural heritage.
Given this radical generative approach, the new Islamic discourse is by necessity comprehensive. While at the grass roots-level the bearers of the new Islamic discourse raise the slogan “Islam is the solution,” at the philosophical level they raise a more complex one, “Islam is a worldview.” Theirs is a discourse that stems from a comprehensive worldview from which different ethical, political, economic, and aesthetic systems are generated. It is an Islamic discourse that deals with architecture, love, marriage, economics, city planning, the philosophy of law and history, modes of analysis and thinking, etc. It deals with the quotidian, the direct, and the political, as well as with the total and ultimate. Actually, the new Islamic discourse claims that it is addressed not to Muslims only, but to “all humanity.” In other words, it claims that its project for reform is an answer to the crisis caused by Western modernity. In this respect, its claim is similar to the claim made by the Islamic discourse that prevailed during the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
By virtue of their open-ended critical interactive approach to Western modernity, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse are able to benefit in a creative way from this modernity without being engulfed by it. Issues such as class conflict, the necessity of an equitable distribution of resources, gender issues, and the influence of the environment on shaping man’s personality had been debated by Muslims before. However, the sensitivity and intense awareness of the new discourse vis-à-vis these issues have been
enhanced, thanks to the interaction with Western modernity. The bearers of the new discourse do not object to benefiting from this modernity in discovering the mechanisms of the solutions for these problems nor the solutions themselves, as long as such solutions do not contradict the Islamic paradigm.
Opening up to the modern Western worldview and critically interacting with it have alerted the bearers of the new discourse to aspects that would otherwise have been difficult for them to realize. Issues raised by Western modernity such as international relations, globalization, the menace posed by the media and the central state to the human individual, the increasing amount of leisure time available to ordinary people, and the processes of standardization and leveling, were never raised by humanity in the past, and expectedly were not raised by the old Islamic discourse.
The bearers of the new Islamic discourse discovered that opening up to Western modernity and studying it in a critical and interactive manner may serve to sharpen the awareness of Muslims who would then come to know the nature of the crisis of Western modernity and its magnitude. Consequently, this may increase the Muslims’ knowledge of and confidence in, themselves, and may even help them discover the creative and generative potentials within the Islamic worldview. The bearers of the new Islamic discourse, having realized the wide gap separating science, technology, and democratic procedures from human values, try to address themselves to this issue. For instance, in the case of science and technology, they try to benefit from the technological and scientific achievements of Western modernity, without adopting its worldview and without accepting its claims of scientific neutrality and value-freedom. An attempt is made to incorporate these achievements within an Islamic value system (see below). The same applies to democracy. The attempt to distinguish between democracy andshura (consultation) is an attempt to incorporate democratic procedures within the Islamic value system, so that value-free democratic procedures do not become the frame of reference, and do not arrogate for themselves the status of an ultimate value.
The bearers of the new Islamic discourse realize that the human sciences are neither precise, nor universal or neutral, that they contain several human biases, and that they are fundamentally different from the natural sciences. However, the human sciences do not lose their value because of this lack of precision and neutrality. On the contrary, their ability to deal with human phenomena is thereby enhanced. The difference between the natural sciences and the humanities emanates from the fact that the basic subject of the humanities, that is man, cannot be reduced in his entirety to the natural-material system. Human reality is radically different from material reality, in spite of the existence of man in the natural-material world. Thus, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse attempt to establish human sciences that do not exclude the human element and that are, consequently, different in their basic premises, principles, ambitions, and criteria from the natural sciences. The main characteristic of the human sciences is that they are not, and cannot, be value-free, and that they have to be incorporated within a value system, which is the Islamic value system in
the case of the Muslims. This, indeed, is the basic premise of the Islamization of knowledge project, or the project for generating Islamic knowledge.
The bearers of the new discourse are quite aware of what is referred to as “the new science” that comprises concepts such as indeterminacy and that does not move within the framework of the concepts of hard causality within which nineteenth century science moved. The bearers of the new Islamic discourse realize that the terms in the Western lexicon are not simple, for they are an integral part of a complex cultural lexicon that determines their purport and meaning. For instance the word‘aql (mind–reason) within the Islamic context has a specific and definite Islamic meaning. Having been so impressed by modern Western civilization, and having failed to master the subtleties of its cultural idiom, the former generation imagined that the word “reason” in the modern Western philosophical lexicon was synonymous with the word‘aql in the Islamic lexicon. Hence the deep admiration for, and even fascination with, Western rationality and the Enlightenment. On the other hand, the bearers of the new discourse have knowledge of the complexity of the category of the mind in the Western lexicon and the contradictions inherent therein. They are also familiar with the Western critique of reason, that is divided into “instrumental reason,” “critical reason,” “functional reason,” “imperialist reason,” “abstract reason,” etc. The critique also talks of “the negation of reason,” “destruction of reason,” “deconstruction of reason,” and “decentering reason.” Thus, it is no longer tenable to suppose that the word‘aql , as it exists in the Islamic lexicon, is synonymous with the word “reason,” as it exists in the modern Western lexicon. With the emergence of absurd, irrational tendencies in the West, the matter has become even clearer and more crystallized.
The bearers of the new Islamic discourse realize the cultural dimension of most human phenomena, religion included. The bearers of the old discourse stopped at the distinction between what ishalal (permissible) andharam (forbidden). The car and the hamburger are undoubtedlyhalal , and so is canned meat, as long as it does not contain pork. However, the pioneers did not grasp the cultural dimension of the commodity and its roots in a comprehensive worldview. (It should also be added that a full realization, on the part of many Western intellectuals, of the nature of the commodity as a cultural artifact was still quite rudimentary and nascent). Consider the car for instance: when a driver turns the ignition key, more often than not, he thinks he is handling a simple machine that transports him from one place to another, which of course is a fallacy. Driving a car is an act rooted in a whole worldview that manifests itself in a specific lifestyle; it necessitates prospecting for oil then drilling innumerable wells. Huge oil tankers cross the oceans to deliver huge quantities of oil to hungry gas-guzzlers and over-heated houses. That of course results in the pollution of the atmosphere, the land, and the sea. Troops are deployed to guarantee the flow of cheap energy and to protect the “national security” of the consumers. Speed gradually becomes the sole criterion for judging human conduct and city planning. Towns are planned in such a way as to facilitate
the movement of speeding cars; and consequently, old, traditional districts and buildings are demolished. The same can be said of the hamburger and the take-away food. The cultural dimension of these commodities, which seems perfectly innocuous, absolutelyhalal , and entirely unblemished from the purely religious point of view, is an organic part of a worldview that conflicts with the Islamic worldview and Islamic certainties.
The realization on the part of the bearers of the new Islamic discourse of the importance of the cultural dimension of all phenomena is manifest in their acceptance of the nationalist idea, and their refusal to take a confrontational attitude in relation to it. They accept cultural plurality within the framework of Islamic values, and realize the importance of forging an alliance with the nationalist elements in a common confrontation with the forces of hegemony and globalization that try to eradicate autonomy, specificity, and the very idea of absolute values and transcendence.
The bearers of the new Islamic discourse are perfectly aware of the problem of the environment and the ecological crisis. Concepts such as “infinite progress” (which are central in Western modernity) are deemed by them as hostile to the very idea of boundaries and therefore to the idea of man and nature, and, eventually, to the idea of God. Such concepts are atheistic, not only in the religious, but also in the epistemological human sense. Thus, the bearers of the new discourse persistently search for new theories of development and new concepts of progress. They argue that Islamic theories of development should be radically different from the generalist Western theories promoted by “international” organizations, for such theories have largely proven to fail, and have led to an environmental crisis and the impoverishment of the masses. This is linked to the continuous criticism by the bearers of the new discourse of consumerism (the invitation to accelerate consumption, the revolution of rising expectations, etc.) and their realization of its danger to the environment, natural resources and man’s psychological and nervous systems.
The new Islamic discourse is aware of the basic philosophical question in the modern world, that is, the question of epistemological relativism that leads to nihilism. It replaces it with what may be termed “Islamic relativism,” which asserts that there is only one absolute, the Almighty. But His absoluteness implies the relativism of everything else. However, by virtue of the presence of the absolute God outside relative time, He becomes the center of the universe, bestowing on it purpose and meaning. This means that while the world is itself relative, it does not fall into relativism, nor does it become meaningless. Islamic relativism is a “relative relativism,” not an absolute one. Thus, there is a simultaneous awareness of the irreducibility of truth to matter and of the relativity and impermanence of some of its aspects. In other words, there is an awareness of a certain interrelatedness between the absolute and the relative that does not necessarily result in a nihilistic negation of the absolute. Any human discourse, the discourse of the Muslims included, is primarily and ultimately a set of endeavors, assiduously exerted by human beings, living within time and place, to comprehend the world of man and nature, and for each to interpret his
sacred text. But human hermeneutics, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse would argue, is different from the sacred text.
All this leads to a belief in the idea oftadafu’ (gentle conflict–interplay) andtadawul (succession or alteration), and to a recognition of the dynamism of the world.Tadafu’ does not necessarily mean conflict, even if it occasionally takes that form.Tadawul implies that permanence is one of God’s traits and that everything else changes. It also implies that the world is not exclusively ours. On the concrete human level, this means accepting to co-exist with “the other” and to search for a common ground. Hence, the emergence of the modernfiqh of minorities, whether pertaining to non-Muslim minorities in Islamic societies or Muslim minorities in non-Muslim societies. Thisfiqh stems from the Islamic concepts of justice and equality.
The bearers of the new Islamic discourse are aware of the danger of post-modernism, which manifests itself in an onslaught on all human and sacred texts. The Quran, for instance, is seen as a historical text, that can be interpreted in its entirety with reference to certain temporal circumstances and events. I believe that Justice Tariq Al-Bishri has made a major contribution in this field. Through his work, he has attempted to assert the stability of the sacred text. He has explained that the disagreement among religious jurists, in most cases, does not stem from their interpretation of the text, but rather from their disagreement regarding the nature of the human incident for which they were asked to issue afatwa (legal judgment). This is a very important matter, because post-modernism involves an attack on anything stable or normative and involves a denial of any ultimate foundation.
I believe that the bearers of the new Islamic discourse are making a concerted effort to discover new middle analytical categories that distinguish the Islamic discourse from the discourse of Western modernity, characterized as it is by a feverish oscillation between two conflicting poles. The discourse of Western modernity demands either absolute certainty or absolute doubt; either a reason fully dominating the world, or a reason completely dominated by it (reduced to fluctuating matter and perpetual experimentation); and, finally, either a full presence (to use post-modernist idiom) or full absence. It is a discourse that shifts from rigid materialistic rationality to an equally rigid materialistic irrationality. The new Islamic discourse, on the other hand, tries to create a human space that goes beyond the materialistic extremes of Western modernity. In human matters, evidence does not have to be decisive and comprehensive, covering all possibilities and filling all gaps, and the chain of causality does not have to be organically or strictly linked. It is sufficient to marshal adequate evidence, and cause and effect need not be linked in a rigidly scientific, materialistic manner. This is what can be called in Arabic sababiyah fadfadah .
The closest equivalent to the wordfadfadah in English is the word “loose” or “wide,” neither of which truly expresses the meaning of the Arabic word that connotes a level of tolerance and a loosening of rigid organic unity, permitting a degree of freedom without necessarily leading to incoherence and fragmentation. This causality, in my view, is the essence of
the Islamic worldview; it asserts that A does not uniformly and absolutely lead to B, but that it does so by the will of God. “God willing” expresses the distance that separates the creator from the created, a distance which is actually a human space where man can exercise his freedom and use his reason, becoming thereby a responsible trustworthy creature. It is an affirmation of what is called in Islamic jurisprudencebayniyah , from the prepositionbayn , which means “between.”
Dr. Bashir Nafi' has made the important point that the Islamic discourse in traditional Islamic societies isshari’a (religious law).Shari’a is indeed the very basis of both the old and new Islamic discourses. However, the new discourse attempts to resolve the problem of what I call the “duality of idiom.”Shari’a , Muslims believe, is open and has been capable of generating answers to collective and ultimate questions that have faced both Muslim communities and Muslim individuals throughout history. But the idiom of theshari’a , due to the historical and cultural discontinuity caused by the colonial invasion, has become inaccessible to many people. The bearers of the new Islamic discourse are trying to decode this idiom, so that it would be possible to extract the wisdom inherent therein and apply it to modern realities. This is exactly what one Muslim scholar did when he described “enjoining good and forbidding evil” as the Islamic idiom for expressing the problem of power sharing. This does not mean that the Western and Islamic idioms are synonymous. All that this scholar tried to explain is that this modern issue, expressed in a modern idiom, is the same issue that was addressed by the Islamic tradition through its own idiom. Such anijtihad would undoubtedly help in increasing the generative power of the traditional religious worldview and help Muslims to stand firmly on their own doctrinal ground.
Due to the isolation ofshari’a from political and social realities, many Muslims have come to view it as if it were a set of disjointed verdicts and opinions. However, the process of generating new answers to new challenges requires an awareness of the interrelatedness and integrity of the components that make up theshari’a , as well as an awareness of the fact that it expresses a worldview. This is what the new discourse is trying to accomplish. Undoubtedly, the traditional discipline ofmaqasid (purposes) deals with this issue. It is through this discipline that it is possible to distinguish between the whole and the part; the final and the temporary; the essential and the contingent; the permanent and the impermanent; and the absolute and the relative. What is needed is to develop this traditional discipline so as to attain an Islamic epistemological paradigm emanating from the Quran (the Muslim’s sacred text) and thesunna (the Prophet’s traditions). Such a paradigm would be hierarchical, its crown is the testimony that there is no god but Allah; this is succeeded by the primary Islamic of justice and equality; and then by the various lateral precepts. The scope ofijtihad can then be expanded without much apprehension of going astray. After all,ijtihad would take place within the framework of the hierarchical epistemological paradigm extracted (through a continuous process ofijtihad ) from the Quran and thesunna . That paradigm would be
the only norm on the basis of which judgments are made and new interpretations are formulated.
One of the main traits of the new Islamic discourse is that its bearers realize the complex dimensions of the question of power, its various intricate mechanisms, and the relationship between local reality and international relations. The bearers of the new discourse also realize the complexity of the modern state as well as its power and ability to dominate and interfere in man’s private life. They know it has become an octopus that has its own quantifying logic, which goes well beyond the will of those who are supposed to be running it, be they Islamists, Marxists or liberals. The role of bureaucracy in decision making, and in manipulating the ruler according to its whims and purposes, is quite clear to them. They realize too that the state has a variety of “security” apparati (information, education, etc.) that maintain a tight grip over the masses through the pleasure industry, the bombardment of the public with information and songs, and the rewriting of history. Thus, taking over the state does not solve the problems of the Muslims, as some of the bearers of the old discourse used to imagine. The heart of the matter is the necessity of setting bounds on the state and trimming its nails to enable theumma to be restored to its role as vicegerent. Hence their interest in the notion of theumma and the increasing attention to civil society and to the role of theawqaf (religious endowment), and their growing interest in new theories of the state and administration.
The new Islamic discourse, by virtue of its universality and interest in the cultural dimension of human phenomena and on the basis of its awareness of itself as a comprehensive worldview, pays great attention to aesthetics. It is not content with ahalal/haram categorization of things. In fact, the bearers of the new Islamic discourse endeavor to develop a comprehensive vision of Islamic arts based on the Islamic worldview. Hence the new theoretical formulations, and the many applications in the field of architecture and various arts. This aspect of the new Islamic discourse is an expression of its creative critical approach to Western modernity and its generative approach to tradition. Many Islamic artists in the modern age, studying either in the West or in the East, have been exposed only to Western artistic views and methodologies. Nevertheless, many of them seek to break away from the modern Western worldview. While directing their critique to it and benefiting from the knowledge they acquired thus far, they attempt to generate artistic criteria and norms from within the tradition that translate themselves into Islamic artworks and buildings that follow an Islamic style, yet respond to the needs of the modern age. It is notable that these artists study the Islamic heritage from new angles; they rediscover it and its theoretical bases, using the analytical tools they learned in the West. They have also started showing interest in classical Islamic writings in this field.
One of the important aspects of the new Islamic discourse is the way its bearers read history. There is a rejection of the idea of unilinear concepts that presume the existence of a single terminal point and a finaltelos toward which the entire history of mankind is moving. This makes viewing the histories of all men through a single viewpoint and judging them through
one and the same standard inevitable. But this single viewpoint and standard are not, in reality, universal (as claimed), it is actually the viewpoint and standard of modern Western man. I believe that Dr. Bashir Nafi’ has given us a concrete example of this rejection of unilinear history by presenting a reading of Islamic history from within, without importing analytical categories from outside the system The reading process here is at once explanatory, empathetic and critical. Dr. Bashir has read the documents that Western historians have not read, or probably have read but marginalized, for they deemed them unimportant. Thus, he has succeeded in offering a new view. This includes his emphasis on the role of Sufism and the Sufitariqa (guild) which other historians, trained within the secularist tradition, usually unconsciously overlook or consciously disregard. They view Sufism as mere superstition, whereas Dr. Bashir Nafi’ finds the study of Sufism and Sufi schools an essential prologue to understanding Islamic history. In some of his studies, Justice Tariq al-Bishri also explains the importance of studying the Sufitariqas in order to comprehend the history of modern Egypt.
One can say that there are scores of the bearers and promoters of the new Islamic discourse including Malik Bennabi, Naquib al-Attas, Fahmi Huwaidi, Rachid Ghannouchi, Munir Shafiq, Adel Hussein, Tariq Al-Bishri, Dr. Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim, Dr. Rasim Badran , Dr. Salim Al-’Awwa, Dr. Bashir Nafi’, theIIIT group including Dr. Ismail Raji Al-Faruqi, Dr. Taha Jabir Al-’Ulwani, Dr. Abdulhamid Abu Sulayman, Dr. Hisham Al-Talib and Dr. Jamal Al-Barzinji, who are the founders of the Institute. Of those associated with IIIT, one can also mention Dr. Muna Abulfadl, Dr. Dr. Sayf Yusuf, Dr. Nasr Arif, Dr. Usama Al-Qaffash, Ms. Hiba Ra’uf, Dr. Al-Bayumi Ghanim, Fuad Sa’id, Hisham Ja’far, Dr. Aly Gomaa and Dr. Lu’ay As-Safi. The bearers and promoters of this discourse also include: Dr. Jamal `Atiyah (and the contributors to Al-Muslim Al-Mu`asir), Azzam Tamimi, (and Liberty for the Muslim World group), and Al-Habib Al-Mukni (and Al-Insan group). There are, undoubtedly, scores of others inside and outside the Arab world who are contributing to the crystallization of the new discourse. It is also notable that many intellectuals among the Islamic minorities in the West have started to contribute quite creatively to this new Islamic discourse. One may count in this category Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ziaudin Sardar, Ali Mazrui, and Parviz Manzur. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list. Such a list would be compiled by a research institute that can assign the task to a group of researchers. Perhaps what is required now is to deepen our understanding and knowledge of the central premise of this discourse, and to initiate a process of epistemological condensation by listing the names and publications of those who bear or promote this discourse.
This Paper Translated from Arabic by Azzam Tamimi.
Cairo, 15-23 February 1997
© 21st Century Trust