Islamic Civilization in Peril
By Ali A. Allawi
I was born into a mildly observant Muslim family in Iraq. At that time, the 1950s, secularism was ascendant among the political, cultural, and intellectual elites of the Middle East. It appeared to be only a matter of time before Islam would lose whatever hold it still had on the Muslim world. Even that term — “Muslim world” — was unusual, as Muslims were more likely to identify themselves by their national, ethnic, or ideological affinities than by their religion.
To an impressionable child, it was clear that society was decoupling from Islam. Though religion was a mandatory course in school, nobody taught us the rules of prayer or expected us to fast during Ramadan. We memorized the shorter verses of the Koran, but the holy book itself was kept on the shelf or in drawers, mostly unread. The elderly still made the pilgrimage to Mecca to atone for their transgressions in preparation for death — more an insurance policy than an act of piety. I don’t recall ever coming across the word “jihad” in a contemporary context. The political rhetoric of the day focused on Arab destiny and anti-imperialism. A bit of religious fervor surfaced during the Suez crisis of 1956, when the radio broadcasts out of Cairo blared out martial songs calling for divine support against the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion, but that was an anomaly. Women, not only in my own family but also throughout the urban middle class, wore only Western-style clothes. They had long ceased to wear the hijab, or head scarf. My only connection to a premodern past was my grandfather, who continued to dress in the dignified robes and turbans of an old-line merchant.
Apart from religious holidays, there were few public observances of Islamic rituals. The rites of Muharram, a Shia Muslim practice to commemorate the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, during which participants often indulged in self-flagellation, was celebrated, sometimes wildly, but I was advised to stay far away; such ceremonies were considered unbecoming of genteel folk, who preferred to hold semiliterary soirees to remember the passion of the martyr.
Modernity was flooding in everywhere. Cinemas and snack bars; cabarets and country clubs, freely flowing alcohol and mixed-sex parties; Baghdad was turning into Babylon, its hedonistic predecessor of yore. Things were not much different, as memoirs of the era testify, in Cairo, Casablanca, Damascus, Istanbul, Jakarta, Karachi, and Tehran.
When I first left Iraq, in 1958, whatever lingering interest I had in religion was ground down further by my exposure to the stifling atmosphere of an Anglican boarding school in England. Enforced attendance at chapel and endless formulaic sermons helped nurture an abiding distaste for organized religion. But in hindsight, I can see that the seeds of my rekindled interest in Islam may well have been planted during this time. I instinctively reacted to the slights against Islam that ran throughout the curriculum — the depiction of the Crusaders as brave knights defending against marauding Saracens, for example, or the casual dismissal of the leaders of the so-called Indian Mutiny against 19th-century British rule as bloodthirsty barbarians.
There were other Muslims in the school, mostly from Britain’s shrinking empire. They were no different from me; we all came from the same type of secularized background. Despite our resentment at the depiction of Islam, our presence in England seemed proof that modern civilization was anchored firmly in the West. Our Islamic past may have been glorious, but it was just that — the past. The future was in the West — the more Western, the better. I spent most of my last year at school dreaming of America.
In 1964, when I began my studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was impossible not to be swept up in the cultural and political convulsions of the era, even if you were an outsider. I enthusiastically participated in sit-ins and teach-ins, civil-rights and antiwar protests. I was fascinated by the struggle for black empowerment in America, which demonstrated that a spiritually charged movement could effect great change. Martin Luther King Jr. was a far cry from the establishment churchmen I had encountered in England. And Malcolm X was a practicing Muslim. I began to think about Islam as a force for social transformation.
Later, like many young people during the 1970s, I was preoccupied with the search for a meaningful ethic to fill the spiritual and moral void of the times, to find an inner balance against the excesses of the counterculture. Those thoughts crystallized in the unlikely setting of 1976 London, amid a disintegrating British economy beset by labor strife and the first whiffs of hyperinflation. Between April and June, London was host to the World of Islam Festival, an event designed to convey to the West the richness and diversity of Islam’s culture and civilization. More important, it showed the unity of Islamic civilization across its component nations, languages, and cultures.
The festival was animated by the spirit of one of Islam’s great unsung heroes of modern times, the Raja of Mahmudabad, who had helped support the initial idea for the project. Muhammad Amir Ahmad Khan — or Raja Sahib, as we all knew him — died in 1973. In the late 1960s, I had befriended one of his relatives, who then introduced me to the Raja. While I was doing postgraduate work at the London School of Economics and Political Science, I frequently sought out his company at his small home, adjacent to the Regent’s Park Mosque and Islamic Cultural Center, where he was director. The raja was a deeply idealistic and egalitarian person; his Islam was anchored in a commitment to good works. To express his solidarity with the poor, he performed manual labor and frequently wore coarse homespun clothes and walked barefoot. He was spiritual, even mystical, in his leanings, and his passion came through during the evenings in his company. He somehow combined deep fealty to Islam with a radical and even revolutionary personal predisposition. The raja left a powerful imprint on me, but I would not appreciate its significance until the 1976 festival.
The festival has since been criticized for being elitist and insufficiently representative of the social and political dimensions of Islam. In retrospect, some of that criticism may have been valid. The political dimension was overlooked partly because the Muslim diaspora in the West was not yet controversial, and partly because political Islam had not yet exploded on the scene. The festival was wide ranging, but the mark of the traditionalists — the philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the art historian Titus Burckhardt and the museum curator Martin Lings — was clear in a number of publications and events, which had a sharp tilt toward the inner dimensions of Islam. Traditionalists, who followed in the path of the French metaphysician René Guénon, linked the creative vitality in Islamic civilization primarily to its spiritual core, to the drive that propelled the believer to seek, find, and then express the manifestations of God in the outer world. To them, the heart of Islam resided as much, or more, in its spiritual dimension than in dogma, doctrine, or the sacred law, the Shariah. Traditionalist thought has not been free of controversy, either then or now, especially in its eclectic understanding of Islam and other world religions, and in its assertion that all great religious traditions meet at some commonly shared higher principle of spirituality. But at the time, it was a very unexpected, novel, and refreshing treatment of Islam.
Without actually seeking it, I had stumbled across an entirely new perspective on Islam, one no less resonant with possibilities for the future than the gathering forces of political Islam, which accelerated throughout the 1970s as Islamist movements began to rise up in the Middle East and beyond.
Often conflicting, those two currents of Islam have dominated my life ever since — the mystical, inner dimension of the faith, and the outer political and social expressions of it. But it is the eclipse of the former, and the way in which Islam is increasingly, even exclusively, understood in political and doctrinal terms, that makes me fear for the future of Islamic civilization.
A few years after the London festival, the world was turned on its head by the Iranian revolution. Political Islam burst on to the global stage, and whatever we may think of it, the Shiite-led revolution embodied the hopes and fears of millions of people around the world. Meanwhile a parallel upheaval was engulfing Sunni Muslims.
The jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan marked the rise of an extreme brand of militant Islamism. The people of the world — and Muslims in particular — were confronted with a host of questions and assertions about the proper place of Islam in society. Must Muslims strive for the establishment of an Islamic state? Is the Shariah compatible with modernity, democracy, and human rights? I daresay that every Muslim has been exercised in one form or another by the ascendance of political Islam — whether recoiling in alarm, perplexed and anxious, or enthusiastically embracing a more assertive role for religion in politics.
For a long time, the two worlds of Islam, the outer world of political and social action and the inner world of spiritual and moral realization, seemed entirely at odds with each other. One was angry at Islam’s subordination, insistent on recognition and power, on challenging the status quo; the other was serene, introspective, and immersed in the intangible. The canvas of the first was societies and nations; of the second, the self and the individual.
The rituals of worship in Islam were supposed to bridge those disparate worlds, but they were quickly bent to suit the demands of one or the other. Mosques became recruiting grounds for jihadis, while repressive governments manipulated Islam, often by demonizing other Muslim groups to cement their control and power.
The essential unity of Islam was greatly diminished, if not quite yet destroyed. People could no longer move effortlessly between the two realms of Islam. Muslims divided into warring sects, and the closing of the Muslim mind was an inevitable consequence of the growing significance of an intolerant and exceptionally doctrinaire strain of Islam, Wahhabism, cynically fueled by the largess of Saudi Arabia.
The Islamists have been strengthened by the momentous crises that have shaped the Muslim world over the past few decades. As I became more involved in politics, through writings, speeches, and then as an active member of the opposition to the Baathist regime in Iraq and subsequently as a cabinet minister in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, it became clear that few of the Muslims I encountered in the political arena were concerned with the spiritual aspects of Islam. In practice, Islamists behaved no differently, and often worse, than their secular counterparts. Abuse of power, squandering or outright theft of public resources, and corruption were all endemic to Islamist-led governments. Their brand of Islam was largely devoid of any deep, ethical content and was at odds with my understanding of Islam’s own legacy.
The preoccupation of the vast majority of Muslims with their outer material conditions, or often just survival, is not in any way reprehensible, but it is deficient. The crises that Muslims face cannot be addressed solely by the political, social, or jurisprudential aspects of the religion. The moral education of individual Muslims does not much interest the leaders of the Muslim world, whether in power or in opposition, in mainly Muslim lands or in the West. Muslims may have been overwhelmed by the scale of the real or imagined disasters befalling them — the legacy of colonialism and Western intervention, and their relative underperformance in a globalizing world — but that should not have prevented them from holding a mirror up to themselves. That mirror would have revealed a fading of their own civilizational drive and an increasingly obvious indifference to, and often abandonment of, the ethical and spiritual foundations of their faith.
Over the past 30 years, the divisions within Islam have triggered paroxysms of violence. Sectarian, ethnic, and racial hatreds have trumped the ideal of Islamic unity. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and the internecine struggle that accompanied the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan, are a few such examples. In post-Saddam Iraq, however, the full extent of the dissonance between Islamic political and religious life was laid bare. The murderous violence that was unleashed by radical Wahhabi-inspired Islamists was sanctioned with laborious jurisprudential “justifications” from leading religious figures. Saudi-based clerics applauded the egregious acts of violence and mayhem perpetrated by the Al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq, especially when they targeted the Shiites, a heretical group in Wahhabi demonology. Those rulings were accepted by many Muslims around the world, and they legitimated the slaughter of innocent civilians. The brutal response of the Shiite militias that followed, a counterterror in its own right, focused on the Sunnis of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed and millions displaced or exiled. The country descended into chaos and strife.
Political Islamists of all stripes jettisoned entire ideologies supposedly based on an Islamic reading of politics and ethics — for which many of their allies had given their lives — in indecent haste as they scrambled for political advantage in the post-Saddam order. Not once during my three-year stint in the Iraqi government did I witness an Islamist party, Sunni or Shia, promote an Islamic cause that they had earlier propounded in their manifestoes. Gone were their proposals for an Islamic economy, an Islamic system of laws, or an Islamic state. For example, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party, from which emerged consecutive prime ministers, Ibrahim Jaafari and Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, showed no interest in pursuing any even mildly Islamic program once they were installed in office. The ruling parties were driven by an obsessive desire for material gain and a desire to keep in the good graces of Washington.
A sad and dispiriting spectacle, it was evidence that Muslims had become divorced from the wellsprings of Islamic ethics: the search for a felicitous life, a harmonious and just society, and moral virtue, which in turn is a pathway to the Unseen. Isn’t the entire Koranic message addressed to “those who believe in the Unseen”? I began to systematically reflect on this dilemma, to try to understand the factors behind the decay of the spirit of Islam, and what the future might entail if that process is not halted or reversed.
Islamic civilization has its own perspectives on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the powers and responsibilities of the state, and the appropriate balance between human rights and duties, as well as the nature of justice, freedom, and equality. Such views are different from those held by other civilizations, and in particular from the dominant, Western-style world order. Almost by definition, Islamic civilization has to acknowledge the role of the transcendent (or the sacred or divine — call it what you will). If that element is absent, Islam cannot modernize without diminishing the integrity of the faith.
In classical Islamic doctrine, individual autonomy is constrained by the individual’s ultimate dependence on God. Consequently the entire edifice of individual rights — derived from either man’s natural state or a secular, ethical, or political theory — is alien to Islamic thought. The individual Muslim generates within himself or herself the virtues of the community, and vice versa. The result, ideally, is a bond between the individual and the group, with little possibility of ethical atomization at the individual level or an oppressive conformity at the group level.
The crisis in Islamic civilization arises in part from the fact that Muslims have been unable to chart their own path into contemporary life. Islam as a religion — or even as a remnant of a civilization — has never fully surrendered to the demands of a desacralized world. Those who rule over Muslims may behave atrociously, continuing a venerable tradition of misrule, violence, and corruption that has long plagued the Muslim world, but tantalizing thoughts of “what might be” still reverberate among the masses — and even among some of the elite.
In the past, the Shariah connected Muslims’ outer world with their inner realities. The eclipse of the Shariah by secular civil, commercial, and criminal law severed that connection. Some people see a desacralized world as a fertile ground for nurturing the private faith of the individual. Other religious traditions, especially those that form the basis of Western civilization, long ago withdrew from the public arena, effectively putting their seal of approval on the separation of church and state. But Islam cannot easily coexist with a political order that takes no heed of its inner dimensions. The integrity of Islam requires a delicate balance between the individual’s spirituality and the demands of the community as a whole.
Islam’s encounter with the West and the ascendant forces of modernity have made deep inroads into the outer world of Islam and, equally important, into the minds of Muslims. Some may deny it and fight numerous rear-guard actions, but this reality cannot be effaced until Muslims confront another harsh fact: All civilizations have an inner and outer aspect, an inner world of beliefs, ideas, and values that inform the outer aspects of institutions, laws, government, and culture. But the inner dimensions of Islam no longer have the significance or power to shape the outer world in which most Muslims live. Most Muslims — knowingly or not — have lost sight of the centrality of sacredness to their historic civilization. The Muslim world has effectively become desacralized, and that has changed how Muslims think, believe, and behave. Islam’s outer expressions — laws, institutions, governing structures, economic and cultural principles — have been in constant retreat.
The idea of the nation-state challenged the traditional notion of the Islamic political entity. The cohesion of families was threatened by shifting economic foundations and the advent of women’s rights. The Shariah had to acquiesce in the new canons of secular civil and criminal law. The open marketplaces of bazaars and traditional exchange patterns gave way to the international corporation, interest-based finance, and foreign investment. Those are the arenas in which the debate about the future of Islam is typically waged. But the answer to the question of whether a uniquely Islamic order can ever be recreated again does not lie only there.
The insatiable pursuit of ever-rising standards of living, coupled with an almost fetishistic belief in science and technology, is a nearly universal condition. The West has accepted secularization as an inevitable consequence of increasing wealth and power. That same recipe is now being offered to Muslims. Liberal reformers in the Muslim world, and their allies beyond, are in effect calling for a Christianization of Islam: concede the public arena to secularism and acknowledge that the break between Islam’s sacred interior world and the profane external world is definitive and legitimate.
The reformers, advocates of Muslim liberal democracy, are at least honest in that they forthrightly call for the wholesale adoption of the institutions and processes of modernity. But their vision of Islamic civilization is empty — a vague spirituality wafting over a society with a shallow cultural distinctiveness, one that has effectively merged with the dominant order.
The radical Islamists, on the other hand, and even the rank and file of so-called “rationalist” Muslims who insist that Islam has all the elements of Western-style humanism already embedded in it, suffer from a different conceit — namely that a happy compromise can be fashioned between Islam and modernity simply by running modern ideas through the filter of the Shariah: What is acceptable will be embraced, and what is not will be rejected. That approach, which has been entertained for more than a century, has produced neither material progress nor the foundations of a revivified Islamic civilization. The fundamental conundrum facing both rationalists and radicals is that the forces of modernity are the product of a different and ascendant civilizational order. Those forces can be internalized successfully only if they are refashioned, and then transcended, in a uniquely Islamic framework.
Such a framework must be rooted explicitly in the Islamic virtues of justice, moderation, the respectful accommodation of other cultures and religions, and the rejection of oppression and gross inequalities. Those immutable principles are spelled out in the Koran. They are milestones for the believers’ pathways to God. They should guide an ethical rereading of the Shariah that will not only revitalize Islam’s outer world, but also bring Islam closer to providing a new, constructive, and potentially appealing response to the growing problems facing humanity — including environmental degradation, the coarsening of public life, economic inequity among nations and peoples, and overconsumption. The Shariah has traditionally been pitted against modern practices and values, with the implication that it should give way to the prevailing ethos. Or the Shariah has been seen in entirely static terms, a blueprint for reviving some golden age of Islam. The latter is the approach of fundamentalist Muslims.
But an Islam reimagined along the lines sketched above can go beyond the travesty that is “Islamic banking” and produce institutions and enterprises that emphasize risk-sharing and cooperative finance. It can push for technological innovations that focus on conservation. In the hard sciences, Islam can privilege research that seeks to reveal the unseen substructures that underlie the physical world — what the great theoretical physicist David Bohm called the “implicate order,” which has not been investigated with the necessary energy because it counters the prevailing methods of scientific inquiry. Islam can open up entirely new vistas to find unity and wholeness in the natural world.
Muslims cannot simply partake of the technological fruits of modern civilization while simultaneously rejecting or questioning its premises. That makes them nothing more than inert consumers of the effort and creativity of others — even if they continue to smugly assert the superiority of their spiritual ways. That is the ultimate fallacy of the Islamists. Alternatively, Muslims might choose to package the products of Western civilization in ways that are culturally or politically acceptable to their own societies. They can even participate in the dominant civilizational order and risk fatally undermining whatever remains of Muslims’ basic identity and autonomy. That appears to be the path of the Gulf states, which have exuberantly embraced a frantic hypermodernity that is scantily garbed in Islamic idioms. This path also appeals to the Westernized professional classes who view their Islam as little more than a cultural ornament.
If Muslims want an outer life that is an expression of their innermost faith, however, they must rescue their own civilization from years of inactivity, lassitude, and indifference. Such an achievement requires overcoming conditions of great imbalance and adversity. The challenge is not insurmountable, but it will test to the limit Muslims’ commitment to Islam as a complete way of life. Muslims must invent a new means of expressing the outer dimensions of their religion, a new Shariah — ethics-based rather than rules-based, tilted toward social action rather than preserving the status quo. Muslims must confront the twin temptations of seeing the Shariah either as a malleable garb for whatever modernity throws their way, or as a fixed creed of intricately detailed rulings.
I have no doubt that Islam as a religion or as a code of outer conduct and transactions will continue. But I cannot say the same about Islamic civilization — a universe that is recognizably Islamic and that draws its vitality and inspiration from the inner and outer aspects of Islam and the bridge that connects the two. It is that world that is in danger of disappearing.