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Features of the New Islamic Discourse (Part 1 of 4)

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Some people tend to view Islam as if it were a monolithic or uni-dimensional entity. Islam is undoubtedly the faith of transcendental monotheism, the belief in Allah, (the one and only God), who transcends both man and nature. But monotheism does not lead to monism; on the contrary, it leads to plurality and diversity.

For from a strictly Islamic point of view, except for God, everything else exists in variety. Therefore, there is not one single Islamic discourse, but rather a variety of discourses that manifest the various endeavours (ijtihad) of the Muslims, within a specific time and place, to understand the world around them and to interpret the Qur’an.

One may classify the Islamic discourse prevalent at the present time in the following manner:

1. A Populist Salvationist “Messianic” Discourse:
This is the discourse of the overwhelming majority of the Muslim masses that have instinctively realised that the processes of modernisation, secularisation and globalisation do the ummah (Muslim community) no good and bring no real reform.

These masses have observed that these processes are in essence nothing but processes of westernisation, that rob the ummah of its religious and cultural heritage, giving it nothing in return, and that have only led to more colonial hegemony and to more class polarisation within society. Adhering and clinging to Islam, which they know real well, the masses encapsulated themselves within their Islamic heritage, cry for help, and hope for salvation from Allah. But they are incapable of contributing any new ideas or organising any political movements.

Such a discourse frequently expresses itself in the form of spontaneous and, at times, violent acts of protest against all forms of radical westernisation and colonial invasion. But more usually it expresses itself in the form of philanthropy, either at the individual level (giving money to the poor), or at the community level (building mosques, hospitals and schools or providing meals to the public especially in Ramadan, etc.)

The populist discourse is mainly the discourse of the poor and the marginal, but it is also the discourse of those wealthy members of society who appreciate their religious and cultural heritage, and who recognise that its loss would mean a loss of everything.

2. The Political Discourse:

This is the discourse of some middle class professionals, academicians, students and traders, who perceive the need for an Islamic action that can protect this ummah. These people, having realised that political action is the means for achieving their objective, have set up or joined political organisations that do not resort to violence, and out of which youth and educational organisations may branch.

Some of the bearers of this political discourse harboured, at one time, the illusion that taking over the central state would be the long sought panacea, and some of them did actually develop para-military organisations and tried to infiltrate the armed forces and to seize power by force. However, as of 1965, as will be shown later, there has been a general inclination toward working through the existing legitimate political channels. Most of the bearers of this political discourse, at the present time, tend to restrict their activity to the political and/or the educational sphere.

3. The Intellectual Discourse:
This is the discourse that deals primarily with the more theoretical and intellectual issues.

This classification does not mean that the three discourses exist in total isolation, the one from the other. In fact, the populist and political discourses, more often than not, merge into one another, and the same can be said about the political and intellectual discourses. Notwithstanding the common ground shared by the three kinds of discourse, we deem it useful, from the analytical point of view, to assume their independence from one another. In addition to this synchronic system of classification, a chronological diachronic one might prove more relevant, from the standpoint of this paper:

A. The Old Islamic Discourse:
It emerged as a direct and immediate reaction to the colonial invasion of the Muslim world, and prevailed till the mid sixties.

B. The New Islamic Discourse:

After an initial period of indefiniteness and marginalisation, this discourse began to assume a more definite form in the mid-sixties, and started to move gradually toward the centre. Both discourses endeavoured to provide an Islamic answer to the questions raised by modernisation and colonisation. Nevertheless there are radical points of divergence between them that stem from two interrelated points:

1. Their respective attitudes vis-à-vis Western modernity.
2. The varying levels of comprehensiveness of outlook that each discourse has developed.

This paper primarily focuses on the old and the new intellectual Islamic discourses and to a much lesser degree on the political one. It tries to identify some of the salient characteristics of the new discourse. Any intellectual or political movement must pause from time to time to look critically at itself and to assess its performance so as to be able to abstract some of its own nascent traits and crystallise them into a relatively coherent system, then map its own future course.

Position from Western Modernisation:
It is worth noting that the first generation of Muslim reformists came in contact with the modern Western cultural formation in a historical era that is considerably different, in many aspects, from the present one. It could be argued that the comprehensive secular paradigm, the fundamental paradigm underlying the modern Western cultural formation, has always occupied a central position in the conscience of modern Western man and has always moulded his view of the universe.

It could also be said that the imperialist aspects of Western modernity manifested themselves only too clearly from the very beginning. All of these facts notwithstanding, modern Western civilisation viewed itself as a humanistic, man-centred civilisation, and maintained, for some time, at the level of vision if not also at the level of practice, a sense of balance and faith in absolute moral and human values.

At the structural level, Western societies maintained, for a long period of time, a high level of social coherence and solidarity. Family values, far from being an empty social slogan remembered during election days, were a concrete social reality. But things changed. It might be useful, in this context, to conceive of secularism not as a fixed paradigm, but rather as a dynamic paradigmatic sequence that unfolds progressively in time and space. One can say that by the end of the nineteenth century, many of the links that make up this sequence had not yet materialised.

Man’s private life and many aspects of his public life were still beyond the reach of the processes of secularisation. In other words, Western man was a secularist only in some aspects of his public life, but in his private life as well as in  many aspects of his public life, he was committed to moral and human values, and, more often than not, to Christian religious values and code of ethics.

When the first generation of Islamic reformists, the bearers of the old Islamic discourse, encountered this modern cultural formation, they did not interact with a comprehensive secular civilisation but rather with a partially secular one. Whereas partial secularism recognises the validity and importance of values on the moral level, and of the idea of totality on the epistemological level, comprehensive secularism denies them as well as the very idea of transcendence.

Many of the negative aspects of Western modernity, which became later on more or less a recurrent pattern and central phenomena, were isolated events and marginal incidents that could be easily overlooked. Furthermore, the Western critique of modernity and of the Enlightenment had not yet been crystallised, in spite of the fact that the voices of protest were getting stronger. Western romantic literature, for instance, is in essence a protest against the negative aspects of Western modernity. The writings of some conservative Western thinkers, such as Edmund Burke, include references to many of the topics that were developed later by the Western critical discourse on modernity.

Nevertheless, the shortcomings of modern Western civilisation, whether at the level of theory or at the level of practice, were not yet obvious to those who observed or studied this civilisation.

Abdelwahab Elmessiri -

Abdelwahab Elmessiri [‘Abd Alwahhaab Almiseery] is an Arab thinker and writer.Read More >>

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