What is worse than 9/11 itsell, and its sensationalized aftermath, is what is made of iL The publications on Islam, in the wake of the tragedy, cover a specious gamut, but they also suffer from many flaws, blind-spots, and ideological reinventions. The majority of these works are scholastic articulations of half-ideas, over-stretched footnotes, and self-promoting and theatrical editorials. Still, Islam was being “covered”. As Edward Said might have said, it was being covered, though, in the double sense of the word. Covered by agents of numerous agendas: the slanted perspective of the Orientalist, the myopic yet sincere outsiders, or indigenous Muslims with a far from adequate understating of the Western mind.
This volume, however, aims to make a difference. All the contributors to the volume come from Western backgrounds; they are well-versed in Western thought, and understand it on its own terms. This is the main advantage of the intellectual labor of the authors – being Western allowed them to dig for answers not only in the Muslim and Islamic realms, but in the Western as well. The book does not retell the story of how “fundamentalism” is the harvest of the American hegemony, or the direct product of the socio-economic environment, in a victimized tone. It does not vehemently criminalize the West alone for its disfiguring the image of Islam without a proper analysis of the relationship.
Another unique facet of this book is the unearthing of intellectual cores of Islam as a traditional world view, and as a modern worldview. The “Islam” in its modernist version is often mistaken to be the true Islam. The argument here is: it is not. In an honest tone of self-criticism, the authors approach the root-problem. To tailor an “Islam” to answer “modern” intellectual, existential, and ideological questions is a practice that has been overdone by Muslims and sponsored by modern forces, in many shapes. It is only proper, then, that someone usher in the “traditional” response to the modern world.
The content and main contention of the book may be seen clearly by the structure of the work. Its conceptual edifice takes us from a “Religious Foundation”, to the “Historical Dimension” and on to the “Political Dimension”. David Dakake’ s Myth of Militant Islam takes one by surprise. The article is a true “hands-on” example of the traditional approach. Even if what he does in his work is conceptually uncomplicated, his findings are striking. One of the book’s major theses cannot be made more clear: literalism is not an authentic practice in traditional intellectual Islamic history.
What Dakake is able to demonstrate is the “traditional interpretation” of jihad along with other verses concerning Muslim, Christian and Jewish relations. He points to a cardinal principle in using Qur’anic quotes which, unlike the bible, is like a “flowing stream” in its narration; emphasizing that to properly understand verses from the Qur’an one must couple the text with the “knowledge of the commentary tradition”, and the history of the revelation. In Muslim terminology the principles of tafsir(the commentary tradition) and asbab al-nuzul (the occasions for God revealing particular Qur’anic verses) in addition to the hadith and the dynamics of classical Arabic grammar and syntax. A case in point is how Dakake applies this conventional hermeneutic method dealing with the verses of the Qur’an – ironically enough used by both militant Islamic fundamentalists and Western popular polemics alike – against Islam. Take the controversial “slay them wheresoever you find them”, for example, and see his findings on a traditional reading of such verses.
Dakake states: “Al-Tabari tells us that this verse is not to be read as a carte blancheto attack any and all non-Muslims: rather, he says, the verses was revealed specially in relation to fighting idolaters of Mecca, who are referred to in Arabic sources by the technical term mushrikun or mushrikin . . . this term comes from a three-letter Arabic root “sh-r-k” which means to associate or “to take partner unto something” … that is to say “polytheists” or “idolaters” … the injunction to perform jihad against polytheists does not pertain to either Jews or Christian. Neither Jews nor Christians are ever referred to within the Qur’an by the terms mushrik or musrikun. Indeed, this understanding is accepted not only by Al-Tabari but, he says, is the view of most Qur’an interpreters.”
After that, a more decisive explaining and contextualizing of the proposed Islamic “tradition” seems to be needed. If it was just for the title of Lumbard’s work in that aspect, which highlights the heart of the problem, it would have been enough: The Decline of Knowledge and the Rise of Ideology. It is the current “ideological” trends within Islamic intellectualism to try and conceal the knowledge produced throughout its history for the sake of reconciling Islam with modernity. In that, both camps he points out – the dogmatic literalists and the modern secularist – are guilty of submerging the intellectual heritage. He focuses on one dimension of that heritage which “has been abandoned, rejected, and forgotten for much of the modern period”, otherwise known as the “ihsani intellectual tradition”. He goes on to explain the definition in Arabic, meaning “making good, beautiful and lovely” and relates countless references to its significance. In essence, the ihsani tradition of Islamic civilization is Sufism.
And here is a significant turn of the work. An epistemological identification of this tradition is explained: “[Perception and understanding are not merely a way of knowing, they are moreover a way of being, any form of perception and understanding which is not informed of God’s omnipotence and omnipresence is not keeping with the ultimate purpose of being human.”
The work then reviews the development of the intellectual tradition in Islam. While it is commonly held that Sufism is a separate island from mainstream Islam, here it is demonstrated to be an integral part of such movements as hadith and fiqh. One would be surprised by the names of the scholars and jurists generally not thought to be associated with Sufism which are cited here.
The work stops at two main icons in the tradition, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali also known as the Proof of Islam – and the Sheikh al-Akbar, lbn al- ‘Arabi. This section of the work illustrates their conceptual frameworks and their contribution to Islamic scholarship.
Upon embarking upon the modern period, an analysis is given of two major trends on stage in the Muslim world, one is the “puritanical reformist” camp – with an influence on religious interpretation – and the other is secular, with a quasi-deconstrutionist agenda.
A great example of the engagement of these two camps is found in Fuad Naeem’s enjoyable: “A Traditional Islamic Response to the Rise of Modernism”. A defacto triumph of the tradition school against what is, in essence, two faces of the same modernist coin; the secularists and the militant fundamentalists.
Maulana Thanvi’s response to modernist penetration in the Muslim mind is a case in point, highlighting the influence of British colonialism on education and intellectual agendas. Scientism, positivism, rationalism – all such concepts were intellectually challenged by both the Deoband tradition, a center of Islamic traditional education – and the modernist camp, epitomized by Sayyid Ahmed Khan and the discourse of the Aligarh University, perceived as modern kalam (speculative theology). The arguments of Maulana Thanvi’, prominent scholar, prolific writer, and Sufi saint, are insightful and quite capable of philosophically and dialectically shaking the ground under the modernists and their worldviews.
In the historical section the work gives a serious account of periodicalization. The position of both the modern “jihadist” and Western pundits of Islam is revised. If “Recollecting the Spirit of Jihad” is an insightful revitalization of its substance, then “Roots of Misconception: EuroAmerican Perceptions of Islam Before and after September 11” is first-rate and meticulous research discussiong how Islam along with jihad are to be viewed.
In the piece by Ibrahim Kalin, a sophisticated researcher, we find a renegotiation of the critique of Orientalism which takes a leap ahead of Edward Said’s monumental work of the same genre. It is not only meets the demands of post 9/11, but also demonstrates an adept understanding of Islamic philosophy in principles and theological and cultural studies. It has an edge over other works by other Muslim scholars like A. L.Tibawi, and Anwar Abdel-Malek, for example, since it is far more involved in Occidentalism as well. The mutual perception on both sides is proven to mirror the reflection of the selfimages of both the Muslim and the Western historical experiences. Urged by the post-9/11 order and dramatized by the media, the literati, and academia, a “selfunderstanding” of both worlds is presented as a relevant solution.
I was troubled initially by the first piece in the third section, “Political Dimension”. “The Economics of Terrorism: How bin Laden is Changing the Rules of the Game” by Waleed el- Ansary is an application of the “game theory” to the current state of affairs concerning terrorism. It seemed very “un”- traditional. After a while the dialectical method of systematically weighing contradictory facts reminded me of the traditional fiqh approach since fiqh is in essence a problem-solving methodology which aims at arriving at a synthesis as its goal. Quite unlike the unfortunate modern use of fiqh as a tool of projecting and superimposing sterile and non-contextual knowledge, Ansary’s work is exceptional in his detailed analysis of Bin Laden’s strategic judgments, vis-à-vis, the Game Theory.
The final essay: Ejaz Akram’s The Muslim World and Globalization: Modernity and the Roots of Conflict is a “must read” for Muslim scholars and specialists in understanding the notions and ideologies involved in contemporary international crises. After examining the modern economic, social, and intellectual order of things under globalization, the thesis of Lumbard is echoed in his conclusion:
“Recent history has demonstrated that ideologies are the work of ideologues and marginal intellectuals, and are based upon the reduction of truth to whim, conjecture and passional proclivities. Ideologies purport to have knowledge about science and religion but they are actually based on distorted view of human nature. Since ideologies are evanescent they have no answer to existential dilemmas of humankind and cannot deliver the spiritual nourishment that is absolutely vital for a healthy human life. In contrast religion is universal and it is the primordial tradition of humanity.”
The book closes with T. J. Winter’s celebrated The Poverty of Fanaticism as epilogue. All in all, this undeniably ihsani work makes it clear that Sufism can be the last frontier in solving the intellectual and theological malaise in the Muslim world. The work, far from being an anti- wahhabi polemic, identifies the deficiency and impotence of such a movement and its influence.
The introduction of such a level of intellectual endeavor is one of the best responses by Muslim scholars to redress Western modernity and puritanical reformists in recent memory. It seems that the marginalization of the Sufi voice is a systematic act of modernist Muslims, secularists and literalists alike, in order to bury the trans-rational and mystical dimensions of Islam. Perhaps out of a sense of shame over being “unexplainable” and “irrelevant” to the modernist mindset and its world of meaning. This anthology amply proves that such thinking and policy making is nothing more than a betrayal of Islam.