Islamic Studies

On Engaging Modernity: Beyond Symbolic Critique Towards A Robust Assessment (Part III)


By Abdel-Wahab M. Elmessiri

Towards A New Islamic Discourse

By the mid-sixties, the critical Western discourse of modernity was crystallized and the works of its critics, such as the Frankfurt School thinkers, had become widely available and quite popular. Many studies revising of the notions of the Enlightenment were published. Works on the standardization that resulted from Western modernity and about its One-Dimensional Man, such as Herbert Marcuse, sought to demonstrate the existence of a structural defect that lies at the very heart of modem secular project of the Western civilization–a defect that goes beyond the traditional division of its ideologies (and stretches itself into a socialist and a capitalist camp). Many revisionist historians, rewriting the history of modem Western civilization, tried to underscore the enormity of the crimes committed against the peoples of Asia and Africa and of the colonial pillage of their lands. Many studies, radically critical ofdevelopment theories, appeared during the same period. The New Left movement made a significant contribution in this regard.

Thus, whether on the level of practice or on the level of theory, 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 admiration and amazement experienced by the intellectuals of the early twentieth century generation.It should be pointed out that neither the new nor the old generation of Muslim intellectuals based their respective intellectual constructs on the basis of an Islamic worldview exclusively, nor in an exclusivist manner. Their interaction with Western modernity was expectedly a very important formative factor, and their ideas were aspiring universal causes and virtues. It was an inclusive vision–different from the knowledge claimed by modernists–to be a science applicable to all communities, and later suggested to be the final answers, declaring the end of history . Responses of Muslims varied according to the type of challenge they faced and its intensity.


The early reformists found many positive aspects in Western modernity. This is evident from Sheikh Muhammad Abduh’s frequently quoted remark that “whereas in the West he found Muslims without Islam, in the East he found Islam without Muslims”; he wanted to stress 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 Abdu’s project, which predominated the reformist discourse until the mid sixties of this century. Had the experience of Sheikh Muhammad Abdu with Western modernity been different, he would have hesitated long before making this remark and before proposing his project for progress.The following incident might explain this point further. In 1830, Sheikh Rifa’ah At-Tahtawi, whose admiration of the Western civilization is well-known, was in Paris. In that same year, the French cannons were pounding unsuspected Algerian towns and villages reducing them to rubble. Sheikh At-Tahtawi could only see the bright lights of Paris and could only hear the urbane and sophisticated rhythms of Western modernity.


In a different encounter with the French, the Algerian sheikhs, who were subject to a brutal colonial attack using the most sophisticated military technology available at the time, could only see the raging flames of fire and could only hear the racket of bombs. One of these sheikhs was once told that the French troops had actually come to Algeria so as to spread Western civility and modernity. His response was cryptic as it was significant: “But why have they brought all this gunpowder?”. Like this Algerian sheikh, 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 on everything. Then they saw the gunpowder becoming omni-present, for it was transformed into all kinds of weapons of mass destruction and extermination: bombs, missiles, biological and nuclear weapons. et cetera. (how relevant to our current Pax -Americana!). 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 to be the most important industry of our enlightened rational times, and humanity, for the first time in its long history, allocated more funds for the production of weapons than for the production of food.


It is interesting to note that all the trends and movements, religious or secular, irrespective of their ideological inclinations and social or ethnic backgrounds, had turned the West into a silent and ultimate point of reference.The traditional 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 at competing with it according to its own terms. The liberals called for the adoption of the full modem Western outlook–with “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 modem 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, had turned the West into a silent and ultimate point of reference.As a result of this attitude towards Western modernity, the authentic Islamic worldview retreated, its dimensions shrunk, and it lost its comprehensiveness.


Instead of providing a universal Islamic frame of reference for Muslims (and non-Muslims too) in a complex modem 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 deemed inappropriate or contradictory with Muslim ethics and prohibited by Islamic law, without any addition, innovation or even constructive synthesis. And this inevitably meant the eventual atrophy of those aspects of the Islamic worldview that have no equivalent within the modern Western worldview.


Ironically, those aspects constitute the very essence and source of supreme contribution of the Islamic worldview to the universal civilization….religious fundamentalism emerged as a populist extension of these intellectual concerns, forming only one version of a wider resurgence that is in its mainstream moderate and even progressive in its own terms.

The bearers of the new Islamic discourse do not have the same fascination with Western modernity. Actually, a radical sophisticated critique–not simple rejection–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 different forms of modernity and new models of sustainable development .They also do not differ much from many important trends in the West that are critical of Western modernity. Marxism created a form of critique of modernity, and romanticism, as indicated earlier, was also created a form of protest against its capitalist system. More recently, religious fundamentalism emerged as a populist extension of these intellectual concerns, forming only one version of a wider resurgence that is in its mainstream moderate and even progressive in its own terms. All of these trends, in one way or another,show an increasing doubt that Western modernity can provide man with enough sources to fulfill his true human essence.


The critique of the new Islamic discourse of modernity overlaps with other parallel discourses. It recognizes and emphasizes the inextricable ties between Western modernity and Western imperialism as Marxism does. Imperialism was after all the first encounter with modernity. Yet unlike the Western critique of modernity, which is in many cases nihilistic and pessimistic, the Islamic critique is optimistic by virtue of the fact that it proposes a project for reform and does not fall in nihilism.

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