Fauzi M. Najjar
Dr. Najjar is professor emeritus in the Center for Integrative Studies, College of Social Science, at Michigan State University.
For more than two centuries, Muslims have been struggling to cope with the challenges of the scientific, technological, political and cultural civilization of the West. Modernization has been thrust upon them by colonialism as well as by globalization in general. To modernize has been somewhat inescapable. The more pressing question agitating the Muslim mind has been how to modernize and remain Muslim, as Muhammad Abdou, a leading Egyptian modernist, put it more than a century ago.
The literature on the subject has been extensive by those who reject modernity and by the modernists who argue that there is no conflict between Islam and modernity. However, most of it has been defensive, apologetic and repetitive. Both sides have often articulated their attitudes following a severe crisis, whether a war or other radical change Muslims regard as a threat to their fundamental values. However, the extreme case of the attack by Muslim radicals on targets in the United States on September 11, 2001, was so embarrassing to members of the Muslim intelligentsia that it prompted calls for a reassessment of Islam's attitude toward the modern age. Islamic history has been a checkered one, moving from glorious achievements in culture and learning to decline and disintegration. The last few decades have witnessed the rise of a number of Islamic fundamentalist movements calling for the rejection of Western political and cultural institutions and values. Some have resorted to violence and terrorism, against not only Westerners and their civilization but also their own coreligionists, accusing them of being phony Muslims. They advocate a return to the time of the Prophet and the pious ancestors, the age of purity and religious authenticity. The behavior of such movements has caused serious harm, casting a shadow on the quality of life the modern world is striving to achieve.
Opposing these movements, Muslim modernists, including theologians, have been calling for a new religious discourse that would reconcile Islam to the modern world. While they acknowledge disagreements between Islam and modern civilization, the modernists recognize the importance and relevance of the West's contributions to the quality of modern life. Some call for separation of religion and state and adoption of Western civilization; others are reluctant to part with the most fundamental tenets and teachings of Islam, which are the "heart of our national heritage." This paper will analyze some of the major discussions.
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
As the Muslim empire extended its domain across three continents (seventh-eighth centuries), through conquests and other means, Muslims came into contact with different cultures and had to consider how to cope with the new challenges. In the process of adjusting to the new conditions of governance, they found it necessary to reinterpret Islamic rules and adopt new means of social interaction. New ways of thinking developed, some fundamentalist and defensive, others liberal and receptive to new ideas.
The first serious ideological/intellectual challenge to Islamic doctrine came from Greek science and philosophy, the result of a whole movement of translations of Greek scientific and philosophical works, performed by people who were neither Arabs nor Muslims. The Muslims were faced with teachings and values at odds with those of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran. Greek (pagan) philosophy was regarded as an innovation (bida) and a heresy. Those involved in the study of pagan philosophy and the sciences, the falasifa, were persecuted and disgraced, their books confiscated and sometimes burned.
As a consequence of this confrontation, various schools of Islamic thought and movements developed to defend Islam and ward off the invasion by foreign ideas. Islamic theology (ilm al-kalam) arose to defend Islam against the "atheism" of Greek philosophy. Those falasifa who sought to introduce philosophy and science into Islamic thought were forced to resort to what might be called "persecution and the art of writing." Two great Muslim philosophers, Abu Nasr al-Farabi (870-950) and Abu al-Walid Ibn Rushd (1126-98) — known in the West as Averroes — sought to restore philosophy to its original meaning after it was degraded by the theologians who had manipulated philosophical arguments, often to the point of sophistry, in defense of Islam. They also were concerned about the quality of Islamic culture being diluted by the misguided political and social activities of rulers. Both philosophers sought to enrich Islamic culture by reviving philosophy and restoring it to its original status, as understood by Plato and Aristotle. In their judgment, Islamic culture would not be able to cope with the changing world without being guided by philosophy and science.
Indicative of the political and intellectual (religious) deterioration of the Islamic state was the desperate appeal by Ibn Rushd to his coreligionists to study the Greek sciences.1 By that time, the Islamic intellectual discourse had reached a low level following the "closing of the door of ijtihad (independent judgment)" by the jurists of Iraq. Only through the rule of reason will the revival of Islamic intellectual civilization and the social and political development of the Muslim world be possible, Ibn Rushd asserted. Muslim liberals and secularists who advocate integrating Western science and technology into their own culture have bemoaned the fact that Averroes, the champion of reason, had been recognized in the West but ignored and even condemned by the religious conservatives of Islam. Whereas the West adopted Greek ideas and incorporated them into the curricula of its universities, Muslim conservatives rejected them and condemned Averroes as an atheist and an enemy of Islam.2 Just as the "pagan sciences" threatened the political authority of the rulers, be they caliphs or emirs, they also threatened to deprive the clergy of their power to control education, family affairs and culture. It was natural that the rulers would join forces with the clergy to suppress the new ideas and institutions and silence their authors.
THE MODERN PERIOD
The confrontation between Islam and Greek philosophical culture resulted in the triumph of fundamentalist discourse, confirmed by the "closing of the door of ijtihad" fatwa, followed by the burning of philosophic treatises and the persecution of their authors. Instead of Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics, works such as al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers and Ibn Taymiyya against the Greek Logicians dominated the Islamic religious discourse. Fundamentalism has since become dominant, particularly in response to colonialism and the impact of Western Christian civilization on Islamic culture. This dominance raised the fundamental question of the secret of the West's superiority.
The Muslim community is still divided over the answer. However, a new liberal and secular class of Muslim intellectuals, educated in the West or in Western schools in the Muslim world, argued in favor of adopting Western science and technology as well as Western political and cultural institutions as the only way to revive the Muslim world. The period between the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt (1798-1801) and the 1952 Egyptian Revolution witnessed the birth of a "liberal age" in Egypt that set a pattern to be emulated by other Arab and Muslim countries. During the nineteenth century, a new Islamic religious discourse developed, accompanied by a number of Islamic reform movements. Quasi liberal-secular regimes were established in the Arab-Muslim world, sometimes with the help of the colonial powers. Instead of anti-philosophical treatises, books like Muhammad Abdou's Islam Is the Religion of Science and Civilization, Abbas al-Aqqad's Thinking Is an Islamic Obligation and Atif al-Iraqi's Reason and Enlightenment in Contemporary Arabic Thought, formed the hallmark of a new dawn and were read and discussed all over the Arab world.3
It was during this period that Muslim fundamentalist movements, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, emerged and, in time, dominated the Islamic discourse with the claim of warding off the Western cultural "crusade" against Islam. As fundamentalists sought to dominate the Islamic religious discourse, military regimes claimed to be fighting Western colonialism. However, in Egypt, as well as in other Arab-Muslim countries, military regimes perverted the liberal-secular tendencies that had sprouted in the Muslim world through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their abuse of power played into the hands of the fundamentalists, who have managed to become the largest political force in most Middle Eastern countries. It is the ascendancy of these Islamists that has brought forth a call for a "new religious discourse."
The resurgence of Islam in the second half of the twentieth century aroused serious apprehension in liberal-secularist circles in the Middle East and elsewhere. The new feature of this resurgence has been the advocacy of jihadist violence and terrorism against Westerners and "fake" Muslim regimes, calling for a return to the age of the Prophet Muhammad and the "pious ancestors." Most disturbing to the Muslim liberal-secularist intelligentsia has been the total rejection of modernity by all Muslim extremists in favor of a new order governed by the sharia. "No laws, no constitution, only the laws of God and the Quran" has been the platform of Islamic extremists.
In response, there have been numerous calls for a "new religious discourse," sometimes called "Muslim Renewal," stressing "Islam in Need of Modernization." In the early 1990s, a group of Egyptian scholars called for "A New Islamic Outlook" in a monograph of that title, edited by Dr. Kamal Abu al-Magd, a former professor of constitutional law and a former minister and former vice-president of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights.
In a declaration issued at that time, the participants stressed that the Islamic principles set forth in the Quran and the hadith must, "explicitly and implicitly," be the first and foremost point of departure. The most important of these principles are (1) shura (consultation) in regulating social affairs, (2) accountability of rulers, (3) rule of law, and (4) respect for human rights and freedom. In addition, the declaration stresses other important points — the necessity for national unity and brotherhood, public freedoms and the position of women in society — as preconditions for progress.4 The "New Outlook," promising as it may have sounded, does not represent a radical departure from the traditional Islamic stance. It fails to question some of the fundamental postulates of religious dogma, leading Sayyid Yasin, a columnist for Al-Ahram, to wonder why the participants regard these principles as specifically Islamic, since they are incorporated in most constitutions, including Egypt's. This being the case, why call the declaration "A New Islamic Outlook"?5 It is possible that the participants seek to show that there is no contradiction between Islam and modern values.
In the declaration mentioned above, Dr. Abu al-Magd lists three crises confronting today's Muslims: (1) Failure to make any serious contributions in science and technology, as the West has done. "We have been consumers, not producers," he laments. (2) Muslims are a divided nation; they cannot agree on anything, despite the pressing need for unity. (3) Muslims suffer from great cultural confusion and perplexity, such as emulating the ancestors in the literal interpretation of religious texts. He then calls for elevating the role of reason and the pursuit of science as preconditions for progress. He calls for the development of educational and informational programs, as well as for the encouragement of inventiveness and creativity in the Muslim world in order to face the challenges from the West. He stresses that Muslims should be prepared to enter the twenty-first century. They can no longer evade realities by excessive apologies for the deficiencies of Muslim society or by vaunting past glories. He urges studying what other nations have achieved in science and technology. "We ought to face realities and get rid of the negatives of our social order and move along with the rapid change taking place in the world," Abu al-Magd averred.6
The gist of this statement is that Islam is not a rigid system, bound by a single formula that can be deduced by contemporary Muslims from a single experience in their history. Rather, a regime is Islamic insofar as it is bound by the fundamental principles set forth in the Quran and the sunna. The statement rejects violence, sudden change and the disregard of social realities. It stresses that the most serious defect of revolutionary change is that it speeds up reform and imposes solutions of unpredictable consequences, all in the name of Islam. It is not difficult to detect a sense of reluctance on the part of enlightened Muslims in accepting unqualified Western values and institutions.
In addition to stressing the importance of education and culture, the statement calls for the elimination of the duality in the educational system, one branch religious and the other secular. It also calls for greater interest in the arts, which reinforce the "most virtuous of human values," indicating that this subject should no longer remain outside the scope of interest of those who advocate an Islamic system. The institution of dhimma, whereby "the people of the book" (Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) are treated as "protected" minorities, less equal than the Muslims, which Islamic fundamentalists still invoke, is rejected in favor of the modern notion of citizenship. There must be complete equality between Muslims and non-Muslims as well as between men and women. The conclusion: "We declare without equivocation or obsequiousness before God and the people that we do not advocate freedom for one group and deny it the other. Respect of human rights and the defense of the rights of the politically and socially wronged must assume priority in the concerns of the new Islamic current."7
Similar calls for a new Islamic religious discourse abound. However, the pattern has remained the same: no radical reforms have been fostered by governments or social organizations that seriously challenge the conservative religious authorities. Most constitutions, wherever they have been promulgated, stipulate that Islam is the official religion of the state and that the sharia is the primary source of legislation. For example, on January 24, 2011, a new document for the renewal of the religious discourse was issued on the website of the Egyptian magazine al-Yawm al-Sabi (The Seventh Day), staking out new positions on 22 crucial issues in Islam. Described as "revolutionary," it was condemned by 88.25 percent of commentators.8
The document was described as "revolutionary" not only because of the kinds of issues it suggested for revision, but also because of the kinds of signatories who endorsed it: professors, theologians and Egyptian imams like Dr. Nasr Farid Wasel, former mufti of Egypt, Safwat Hegazi and Gamal al-Banna. "The recommended issues for renewal range from reviewing the books of the Hadith, Islamic vision of women, concept of Jihad, to evolving the teachings of al-Azhar." While the majority of commentators condemned the document, "only a handful congratulated the authors." Again and again, we observe that Muslims, no matter how liberal-minded, are reluctant to question what is in the Quran and the sunna.9
AHMAD ABDEL MUTI HIGAZI
There is an exception in the commentaries and writings of Ahmad Abdel Muti Higazi, an Egyptian poet and columnist for Al-Ahram, who is the most outspoken critic of the contemporary Islamic religious discourse. In a series of daring columns on the need for a new Islamic discourse, he criticizes al-Azhar University, the highest Islamic authority, "for producing terrorism." In commentary on a conference held in Cairo by the Egyptian Writers' Association, he refers to religious authorities like the late Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi (Shaykh al-Azhar) and Mufti Ahmad al-Tayyib, as follows: "Those who quote [religious scriptures] and impose [their word] are the ones responsible for producing fundamentalist terror; it is they who kill thought and the development of a language of dialogue, and who eradicate democracy."10
Higazi is especially critical of the fundamentalists "who call for the return to the rulings made under the conditions of another generation…because they transform Islam from a living and constantly self-renewing experiment to mummified texts." Texts are subject to interpretation, reexamination and criticism, he avers, calling for a true revival based on the assumption that Islam could not have included all possible questions and the answers to them for all times and places, as the fundamentalists affirm.
For Higazi, the contemporary religious discourse has discussed religion but has failed to discuss the creed (al-aqeeda) itself. He says it is time to discuss our problems (qadaya) with the greatest degree of frankness, seriousness and responsibility. What we (Muslims) need is a discourse that accords with reason, agrees with logic and responds to the needs of the present, its development and vital requirements. Muslims since the beginning of the nineteenth century have been facing the challenge of moving out of the age of decline without moving out of all of their history, of entering modern civilization without melting away into others or becoming alienated from themselves. "We want to reserve the living roots and the active elements in our national heritage, because they constitute the foundation of our [national] personality and the precondition for our independence and freedom." Here Higazi is responding to a charge by the fundamentalists that adopting Western values and institutions would undermine Islam and its history. He goes on to urge, "We must adopt what is humane in Western civilization, which is no longer the preserve of its original creators, just as Islam is no longer the preserve of the Arabs."11
Higazi understands civilization to mean "the principles and laws that conform to reason and to the means and mechanisms that sustain the life of every society." Seeking to refute the fundamentalist claim that Western civilization is alien to Islamic civilization, he argues that Western civilization is by nature humane, because the human being is by nature rational. Therefore, democratic systems that are good for Britain and France must be good for Egypt and the Sudan. The same thing is true regarding human rights. He calls the question of the renewal of religious discourse the "pivotal issue of our culture."12
In one out of his series on the need for change in Islam, Higazi asserts the need for a new fiqh, a new interpretation of the religious texts to "free ourselves from ancient and out-dated discourse that is misleading and does not really represent Islam or the spirit of Islam, because it is, in the final analysis, destructive, condemning us to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world, proclaim war on it, and fail to live harmoniously and productively in the present age." In his judgment, the rise of fundamentalism is due to the fact that Muslims have become alienated from modern civilization. In fact, the "cancerous" terrorist organizations have become so alienated as to declare war on the capitals of modern civilization (a reference to the September 11, 2001, attack against the United States), even to destroy Buddhist temples in Afghanistan, kill Western tourists in Luxor, in Upper Egypt, and commit other atrocities, declaring to the world that this is done in the name of God.
Higazi suggests that the first step to confront this situation is the separation of religion and state. Secularism is the primary condition for the establishment of a national state, based on the democratic principles of freedom of thought and action, in which the laws reflect the will of the people. Higazi rejects the axiomatic statement, "Islam is a religion and a state." Most Muslims espouse this as they do the fundamentalists' motto, "Sovereignty is God's alone." Both are dominant in Islamic religious-political culture, but they are the negation of democracy in an Islamic society. He describes as "medieval" the thinking that Islam is a complete system of life in all its aspects and offers this counsel:
We must be liberated from the prevailing discourse by declaring war on it, because it is old and has been overtaken by time and change. It is a misleading discourse which does not truly reflect the spirit of Islam and would condemn us to be isolated and alienated from this world.13
The prevailing discourse is embodied in the unfortunate maxim, "The door of ijtihad is closed," which goes back to the third century A.H. It is a condemnation of independent judgment or opinion. It was encouraged by the rulers, with the connivance of jurists to keep the public docile under a tyrannical Islamic system.
Some of Higazi's views were voiced in a conference held in July 2003, sponsored by the Egyptian Supreme Council for Culture and attended by more than 100 Arab intellectuals. The attendance reflected their deep feeling about the need for a new culture, including a new interpretation of Islamic teachings. In a period of three days, the conference discussed issues such as these: a critique of Arab cultural discourse; renewal of religious discourse, freedom and creativity; regional Arab political regimes and Arab culture in the age of knowledge. It issued the "Cairo Declaration on Culture," which criticized Arab regimes for restricting freedom of thought, opinion and literary and artistic creativity, calling for the liberation and democratization of Arab political systems. In particular, the declaration stressed the need for separation of religion and politics, a view championed by Higazi and endorsed by Gamal al-Banna, a brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood who is known for reform-minded views about Islam. "Islam is one thing, the state is another," as he put it. The conference condemned authoritarian regimes and called upon intellectuals to speak out.14
Similar views have been voiced by reformist organizations and secularist writers, all focusing on the need for reform, which somehow has eluded its authors. Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, a former dean of Islamic Law at Qatar University and a liberal scholar of Islam, argues that the current religious discourse has failed to realize the aims and purposes of Islam. "It has failed to present a positive discourse that is reconciled with the spirit of the age and its demands and which can express the true essence of Islam." In his judgment, "The ills and ailments of contemporary religious discourse are many…. [They] embrace the very infrastructure of religious discourse, its content, its components and its purpose. Its greatest flaw…is inherent, a deep structural weakness." Al-Ansari puts the blame on the discourses of preachers, sermonizers, muftis and scholars, as they are broadcast and published. They contribute "overtly to the formation of the Muslim's conscience." He accuses Muslim leaders of using the claim that the demand for the renewal of religious discourse is being dictated by the West and America in order to reject reform.15 He concludes that when the renewal of religious discourse came to an end (and the door of ijtihad was closed), the Islamic mind became "enveloped for a millennium in rust."
CRITICS OF RENEWAL OF THE DISCOURSE
Just as there are Muslim liberal thinkers calling for the renewal of Islamic discourse, there are many more voices opposing it. In addition to the "pulpit preachers," theologians, scholars and writers of all sorts have mounted a relentless campaign against the advocates of reform. They claim that the call for renewal is dictated by the imperialist Christian West, in particular the United States, in order to undermine Islam. Westerners are accused of seeking to cancel out the Quranic verses of jihad and obliterate Islamic identity. They interpret the movement for reform as a kind of "malevolent Crusader" against Islam and Muslims.
More serious are the criticisms of Muslim thinkers and writers, usually identified as "enlightened Muslims." One such "moderate" is Fahmi Huwaydi, columnist for Al-Ahram, who is quite influential in Arab journalism. In a column published on September 30, 2003, he sought to belittle the Paris Declaration on How to Renew the Religious Discourse, issued by a conference held in the French capital, August 11-12, 2003. The Declaration calls for "a thorough review of the role of the religious discourse in education, religious sermons and the media." The conference was organized by the Cairo Center for Human Rights, with the cooperation of the International Federation for Human Rights, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network and the European Union.16
Dismissing the arguments in favor of reform as irrelevant, Huwaydi maintains that the renewal of religious discourse has become the "talk of the town" and a legitimate subject for all. Moreover, "a bunch of extremists" have used the renewal platform to justify excess and, occasionally, blasphemy against Islam, defaming religion and stirring sedition. They intend to keep the people busy in false debate, away from more pressing and serious challenges, he avers. He accuses the Paris conference of defaming and weakening Islam to promote secularism.
Stronger condemnations of reform come from al-Azhar, Islam's highest religious institution. In an interview published in Sawt al-Azhar (Voice of al-Azhar), Grand Mufti Ali Gumaa admonishes that secularists have no right to practice ijtihad, because this "would lead to the development of views on Islamic issues that diverge from, and go beyond the scope of, religious knowledge." He adds, "Confronting this matter [the movement for Islamic reform] would require its rejection and treatment as a crime."17 Simultaneously, Ahmad al-Tayyib, president of al-Azhar University, describes statements made by the reformers as "destructive." He implies that no new ideas are needed; the existing schools of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) "have the answers to our present problems," adding, "I do not accept that those who do not have the knowledge delve into the subject of the renewal of Islam." The Sawt al-Azhar blames the Egyptian Ministry of Culture for "welcoming the enemies of the Arab and Muslim heritage…and allowing them to spread their poison."18 It is clear that the higher religious authorities in Islam, in addition to some of the so-called "enlightened Muslims," and most Muslims for that matter, do not welcome change; rather they accuse secularists, liberals and Americans of seeking to alter the form and content of Islam under the guise of "renewal," calling it ijtihad.
Islam has been in crisis since Western culture first impinged upon the Muslim world. Reaction to this "invasion" has been varied. There are Muslims who have expressed the desire to Westernize, and they have done that to a large extent. No Muslim country has totally rejected all Western ideas and institutions. Military techniques were the first to be adopted, by the Ottoman Empire, then by Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali, followed by other Arab states. Social, political and cultural ideas have not been readily accepted to the same degree as armaments and other Western industrial methods, or technology and practices. Even where such institutions as elections, constitutions, political parties and parliaments have been adopted, they have not become an integral part of Islam's political culture. They are barely skin deep and in some regions have collapsed in the face of conservative or authoritarian coups. Under fundamentalist attacks, even Western fashions and social habits are frowned upon. Consider the Taliban's policy of keeping women indoors and denying them schooling and even minimal freedom.
The recent fundamentalist resurgence has been so widespread that no country in the Muslim world is free of Islamist organizations. Democratic elections have actually helped foster such organizations by providing them freedom to operate. Secular and liberal voices seem to have been silenced or tuned out except by a minority of the intelligentsia.
There is no general agreement on what is behind the phenomenon enabling fundamentalists and Islamic conservatives to gain the upper hand in interpreting Islamic law and influencing education, social values and even political culture. It is often argued that there is no priesthood in Islam. Although the ulema, unlike the Catholic clergy, have never been organized in any sort of hierarchy, Islamic religious authorities have organized, exerted political pressure and exercised great influence on education, culture and society. Moreover, as a result of the increasing adoption of Western values and institutions, the Islamic religious institution feels that Islamic values have been weakened and its authority eroded. Just as Greek philosophy and science were seen as a threat to Islamic teachings and practices, modernization is seen as undermining Islam's monopoly on social and political influence.
Muslims believe their religion is superior to other religions, that the Prophet Muhammad is the seal of prophets, and that Islam is the culmination of the two monotheistic religions preceding it. Consequently, Muslims are very suspicious of any change that may affect their beliefs and way of life. "Islam has always been religion-conscious; today it is more so than ever. [It] has during the last century steadily grown stronger and more conscious of itself," wrote Sir Hamilton Gibb in the early 1930s.19 This is truer than it was a century ago.
Furthermore, there is in Islam a relationship between religion and politics that does not exist in any other great religion. For Muslims, religion is regarded as necessary for the organization and integration of society. Just as in Byzantium under Justinian, the state in Islam is regarded as a sacred instrument for forging God's kingdom on earth. Religion and state unity are one and the same. This is the divine purpose in sending prophets, according to the Islamic sharia.20The faith, therefore, finds its ideal expression in a political community such as the theocracy of Madina under the Prophet himself and, after his death, the caliphate. As Joseph Schacht put it, "The religion made possible the political organization of Madina, so that the state grew out of a congregation."21 The early transformation of the community of the faithful into a state was formative of everything else in the history of Islam. Thus the Sharia is meant to regulate all human activities, including affairs of state. Hence, it is theoretically impossible to separate the "religious" from the "political" in Islam. The elevation of political rule to the level of holiness produces the potential for an authoritarian regime. The more Muslims feel they are put upon, the more they become attached to their religion and defensive about it. It is difficult to anticipate any liberalization or genuine political reform, not to say a secularist outlook, in the foreseeable future.
No wonder then that one of Egypt's leading writers has raised the question whether enlightenment in his country is at an end. In a series of editorials entitled "Has the Enlightenment Age Come to an End?" Gabir Asfour, one of the founders of the Egyptian Enlightenment Movement, sees the danger of the Islamic resurgence in its blind fanaticism, rigid fundamentalism, narrow literalism in interpreting religious texts and authoritarian patriarchy that dominate society. He adds a list of shortcomings that afflict Arab society, in particular political authoritarianism, injustice, inequality and the "absence of reason."
After discussing the origin of the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, Asfour recalls how the ideas and institutions of the Enlightenment were introduced into Egypt by shuyukh al-Azhar (ulema), in particular, Rifat al-Tahtawi, the first pioneer of Enlightenment thought, under Muhammad Ali. Many others followed, including scholars and theologians like Muhammad Abdou, Taha Husayn and Ali Abd al-Raziq, who adopted and adapted Enlightenment ideas in politics, education, culture and the economy. Their message: Egypt must learn from the West how to cope with modernity. They favored a new interpretation of Islam, a new discourse, stressing one of Abdou's fundamental principles, "giving priority to reason over the sharia, in case of conflict between them." This was a uniquely daring statement, and it irritated the conservative members of the religious institution.
Asfour maintains that the 1919 Egyptian Revolution was the product (thamarat) of Enlightenment thought. The revolution led to the promulgation of the 1923 constitution, which guaranteed freedom, justice and equality for all Egyptians. More important, it sanctioned the principle of the nation as the source of power, the rule of law and the separation of powers. In contrast, he describes fundamentalist thought as "rigid tradition" (jamid), "petrified literalism" in interpreting religious texts, and in its opposition to artistic and literary creativity and to any daring ijtihad in the human sciences. He bemoans the fact that, while liberal-secularist thought, as well as enlightened civil discourse, have become marginal, the fundamentalism of the Muslim Brotherhood or that of the salafi (ancestral) movements, nourished by Wahhabism and oil money, have become dominant in the Egyptian parliament. In Asfour's judgment, Enlightenment thought and institutions cannot survive in an intellectual, social and political climate dominated by an authoritarian state and the rule of one individual. Students of Arab affairs know the price the Arab people have paid under the authoritarian rule of the military, conditions that indirectly enhanced the resurgence of Islamic extremism.22
There are many Muslim scholars and writers who, like Asfour, are fully aware that the dominant Islamic discourse will lead nowhere. They argue that Muslims must fully grasp the meaning of the civil state, based on democracy and the rule of law, before they can join the twenty-first century. Laws must be legislated by the representatives of the people, freely elected, and not dictated by authoritarian regimes or the guardians of the religious institution. So long as the Islamic discourse insists on sharia as the primary source of legislation, the Muslim world is heading into a dark period.
1 Abu al-Walid Ibn Rushd, Fasl al-Maqal fi ma Bayna al-Hikma wa al-Sharia min al-Ittisal. Translated version by George F. Hourani, Averroes: On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy (London: Luzac and Company, 1961), 44-45.
2 See Fauzi M. Najjar, "Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and the Egyptian Enlightenment Movement," British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 31, no. 2 (November 2004): 195-213.
3 For the Liberal Age, see the seminal work of Albert F. Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).
4Al-Ahram, August 1, 2003.
5Al-Ahram, May 30, 1994.
6Al-Ahram, August 1, 2003.
7 The first edition of the Declaration as reported by al-Ahram, October 8, 1991.
8 Catholic News Agency, January 31, 2011.
9 Help Asia News, January 26, 2011.
10 Ummah Forum, July 11, 2002.
11Al-Ahram, July 16, 2003.
13Al-Ahram, August 13, 2003.
14Al-Ahram, August 6, 2003; and Cairo Times 7, no. 33 (October 23-29, 2003).
15 Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, "On the Revival of the Religious Discourse," Al-Muslih, September 30, 2011.
16Cairo Times, 7.
19Whither Islam: A Survey of Modern Movements in the Moslem World, Sir Hamilton A.R. Gibb, ed. (London: Victor Gallancz LTD, 1932), 344.
20 See Hasan al-Mawardi, Adab al-Din wa al-Dunya (Cairo: Mustafa Halabi Press, 1955), 29.
21 Joseph Schacht, "Islam," in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 8 (1932) 338.
22 Jabir Asfour, "Has the Age of Enlightenment Come to an End?" Al-Ahram, February 20-March 26, 2012.
Middle East Policy is fully accessible through the Wiley Online Library
Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal content.