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Popular Education in the Thought of Rashid Rida and Said Nursi

(This is another essay I did during my masters. Enjoy!)

In this essay, the questions of why and how popular education was critical for both Rashid Rida, in Egypt, and Said Nursi, in Turkey, will be answered. This will be achieved through the framework of examining a combination of their historical context and parts of their thought regarding reformation of society. Rashid Rida, it will be argued, wished to preserve the temporal power of Islam, in case of Ottoman defeat, and that the basis of his ideas rested on an educated “religious society”. It will be asserted that Said Nursi, in order to combat the positivist materialism coming from the West, published short epistles addressed to common people. Through further analysis of these ideas it will be made clear why and how popular education was critical for, both, Rida and Nursi.

Rashid Rida was born in 1865 in a village in what was Ottoman Syria and died in 1935.[1] He would live to see the gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire before its eventual disintegration at the hands of Western colonial powers after the First World War.[2] This process, it could be argued, had an enormous effect on the thought of Rida and, by extension, the place of popular education within it. Indeed, within Rida’s life we can see different political ideals he subscribed to[3], some of which, it could be said, had a direct bearing on his views about popular education.

Rashid Rida saw two great dangers facing the Muslims, both from within the Islamic lands[4] and without. The threat from without was the imminent collapse of the last great Islamicate temporal power, the Ottoman Empire, defending the lands of Islam from European encroachment. This is why in Rida’s writings, during the pre-war years, we find an emphasis on preserving the temporal power of Islam in case the Ottomans were defeated.[5] Rida believed that an Arab Caliphate would be instrumental in preserving the power of Islam and that this caliphate would be based on a religious society which in turn would be based on various “programs” and “councils” such as the “program of the higher educational college where the caliphs and mujtahids graduate” and the “council of sermons, preaching, guidance and hisba”. [6] In order to achieve the reform necessary for this religious society Rida envisioned, he sought to use reason (ijtihad), the spread of mass literacy and education and a return to the sources of Islam.[7] Indeed, Rida saw the Muslim renaissance as depend on ijtihad which itself was dependant on the rise of a newly educated group, a “moderate party of Islamic reform”, who would combine European sciences with Islamic sciences.[8] Without this form of education, the necessary reforms would not take place thus consigning the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, due to their weakness in terms of knowledge, wealth and military ability, to life under colonisation by the powers of Europe.[9]

The threat within Islamic lands was defined by Rida as the presence of Christian missionaries and, more worryingly, the proliferation of Babism and Baha’ism. [10] Rida attributed the growing number of converts, to Baha’ism especially, as the result of a lack of comprehension of the classical Arabic upon which the Quran relies and a subsequent ignorance prevalent amongst Muslims regarding their faith.[11] As such, whilst he did put an emphasis foreign missionary work, as evidenced by his establishing of the “House of Mission and Guidance” in 1912[12], he devoted himself to the “internal strengthening of the community” and considered this more important in a situation where Muslims were economically and politically dependent on others.[13] Rida also showed a deep dislike for Babism and went as far as to describe it a “phenomenon typical of working-class” which was “alien to the literate Islam of the middle classes”. He argued that both Baha’ism and Babism could be combated through the spread of literacy and mass religious education.[14] This, it could be argued, would allow Rida to construct his “religious society” which would be the foundations of the new Arab caliphate he envisioned and which is the basis of his socio-political thought. Hence, we find that the notion of popular education, in Rida’s thought, is very critical indeed.

Said Nursi was born in 1878 in a small village in Anatolia.[15] His life, by his own proclamation, consisted of three parts: old Said, new Said and the third Said.[16] Like other reformists one of the problems he identified as in the Muslim community of his time was ignorance.[17] Exiled and imprisoned for vast tracts of his life[18], he died in 1960 in Urfa.[19] For the purposes of this essay, we shall be concentrating on new Said and the third Said.

Said Nursi lived in a time when religion and reason were seen as incompatible, the idea of assertive secularism was gaining popularity and Western scholars began to develop “scientific rationalism” as an alternative to religion. This was prevalent especially during the 1950’s during which time modernist positions were developed, or revived, by people of religion to show that reason and revelation were compatible.[20] It is to this school of modernism that Nursi belonged to. He believed that for Islam to become a vibrant, lived religion in a world of assertive secularism and criticism there had to be work on two fronts, the first being a strengthening of Islamic thought through the revival and reconstruction of “theoretical thinking” in Islam as attempted by Muhammad Abduh amongst others.[21] The second was to address himself to the common people in order to combat the marginalisation of Islam in Turkish society and build the inner strength of the Muslim community through the providing of answers to modern questions which trapped people between “new challenges and their traditional culture”. A core component of this was the shift on emphasis from imitative faith to an “actualised faith”. [22] This emphasis on the strengthening of the individual was reflective of Nursi’s “bottom-up” approach in dealing with the problems of his time.[23] In order to achieve this social resistance against the marginalisation of Islam, Nursi began writing short epistles which were collected to form the Risale-i Nur. Coming mainly in the form of Quranic exegesis, his epistles also dealt with common questions asked such as “why did God create Satan and why does he allow bad deeds?”. [24] He also cautioned his followers not to reject reason and science altogether and went on to show the harmony between “the book of the universe” and “the revealed book”. As such, Nursi suggested a curriculum based on both Islamic sciences and secular sciences. [25] In order to further clarify his position, he distinguished between two “Europes”:

… Europe is two. One follows the sciences, which serve justice and right… I am addressing the second corrupt Europe which… through… the philosophy of Naturalism… has driven mankind to vice and misguidance[26]

As such, it could be argued that Nursi employed the age old adage of “taking the good and leaving the bad” in his dealings with European thought.

In time, Nursi’s followers began to consider the Risale-i Nur as the essential work answering most of the questions of modern Muslim man or woman beset as they were by materialistic secularism and scientific rationalism.[27] This following developed into the Nurculuk movement which developed a network spanning all of Turkey[28]. This movement, it could be argued, could be seen as the fulfilment of Nursi’s goal of creating social resistance to the marginalisation of Islam in Turkish society.

In this essay, we have discussed both the historical context and parts of the thought of both Rashid Rida and Said Nursi. It is safe to assume that, although the problems they faced were different in that Rida faced physical colonisation whereas Nursi faced colonisation of mind, their methods in combating this colonisation was one and the same. For Rida, popular education was paramount to the creation of his religious society which in turn was the basis of his Arab Caliphate as discussed above.[29] In order to achieve this religious society, certain heresies, such as Babism and the Baha’i faith need to be combated through the spread of education and literacy.[30] Therefore, for Riḍā, it could be argued that popular education is the underlying concept of his socio-political thought at the very least. For Nursi, popular education is what he devoted himself to in order to strengthen the Muslim community against the attacks formulated by the rise of assertive secularism and scientific rationalism.[31] To in this endeavour, Nursi wrote short epistles answering the very questions which were troubling the Muslims of his time.[32] For this reason, it could be said that popular education is the central concern of Nursi’s thus making it highly critical for his cause.

Bibliography

Al-Jubouri, I, Islamic Thought: From Mohammed to September 11, 2001 (USA: Xlibris, 2010)

Cole, J, Rashid Rida on the Baha’i Faith: A Utilitarian Theory of the Spread of Religions, Arab Studies Quarterly, 5/3, 1983, pp. 276-291

Gunter, M, Historical Dictionary of the Kurds (Lanham :Scarecrow Press, 2011)

Haddad, M, Arab Religious Nationalism in the Colonial Era: Rereading Rashid Rida’s Ideas on the Caliphate, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 117/2, 1997, pp. 253-277

Ibrahim, Y, Rashid Rida and Maqasid al Shari’ah, Studia Islamica, 102/103, 2006, pp. 157-198

Kuru, Z and Kuru, A, Apolitical Interpretation of Islam: Said Nursi’s Faith-Based Activism in Comparison with Political Islamism and Sufism, Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, 19/1, 2008, pp. 99-111

Markham, I and Pirim, S, An Introduction to Said Nursi: Life, Thought and Writings (Burlington: Ashgate, 2011)

Ozervarli, M, The Reconstruction of Islamic Social Thought in the Modern Period: Nursi’s Approach to Religious Discourse in a Changing Society, Asian Journal of Social Science, 38, 2010, pp. 532-553

Vahide, S, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi: Author of the Risale-i Nur (Selangor: Islamic Book Trust, 2011)

Voll, J, Renewal and Reformation in the Mid-Twentieth Century:
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and Religion in the 1950’s
, Nur (online) 01/02/13 Avaliable on: http://www.nur.org/en/intro/nurlibrary/Renewal_and_Reformation_in_the_Twentieth_Century_252

White, P, Primitive Rebels or Revolutionary Modernizers: The Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Turkey (New York: Zed Books, 2000)

Footnotes

[1] Yasir Ibrahim, Rashid Rida and Maqasid al Shari’ah, Studia Islamica, 102/103, 2006, pgs. 167, 169

[2] Mahmoud Haddad, Arab Religious Nationalism in the Colonial Era: Rereading Rashid Rida’s Ideas on the Caliphate, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 117/2, 1997, pp. 263-270 (253-277)

[3] Ibid, pp. 254 – 273

[4] Juan Cole, Rashid Rida on the Baha’i Faith: A Utilitarian Theory of the Spread of Religions, Arab Studies Quarterly, 5/3, 1983, pp. 285-286

[5] Haddad, Rereading Rashid Rida, pg. 261

[6] Ibid, pgs. 263, 275

[7]Cole, Rida on the Baha’i Faith,  Pg. 289

[8] Haddad, Rereading Rashid Rida,  Pg. 275-276

[9] Ibid, pg. 260

[10] Cole, Rida on the Baha’i Faith, pg. 285-286

[11] Ibid, pg. 288

[12] I. Al-Jubouri, Islamic Thought: From Mohammed to September 11, 2001 (USA: Xlibris, 2010) Pg. 290

[13] Cole, Rida on the Baha’i Faith, pp. 284-285

[14] Ibid, pg. 288

[15] Ian Markham and Suendam Pirim, An Introduction to Said Nursi: Life, Thought and Writings (Burlington: Ashgate, 2011) Pg. 3

[16] Sukran Vahide, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi: Author of the Risale-i Nur (Selangor: Islamic Book Trust, 2011) pp. 187-188, 401

[17] Michael Gunter, Historical Dictionary of the Kurds (Lanham :Scarecrow Press, 2011)  pg. 234

[18] John Voll, Renewal and Reformation in the Mid-Twentieth Century:
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and Religion in the 1950’s
, Nur (online) 01/02/13 Avaliable on: http://www.nur.org/en/intro/nurlibrary/Renewal_and_Reformation_in_the_Twentieth_Century_252

[19] Markham and Pirim,  Introduction to Said Nursi, pg. 16

[20] Voll, Renewal and Reformation, http://www.nur.org/en/intro/nurlibrary/Renewal_and_Reformation_in_the_Twentieth_Century_252

[21] M. Ozervarli, The Reconstruction of Islamic Social Thought in the Modern Period: Nursi’s Approach to Religious Discourse in a Changing Society, Asian Journal of Social Science, 38, 2010  pg. 534

[22] Ibid

[23] Zeynep Kuru and Ahmet Kuru, Apolitical Interpretation of Islam: Said Nursi’s Faith-Based Activism in Comparison with Political Islamism and Sufism, Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, 19/1, 2008, pg. 102

[24] Ibid, pg. 102

[25] M. Ozervarli, The Reconstruction of Islamic Social Thought, pg. 541

[26] Quoted and Translated in M. Ozervarli, The Reconstruction of Islamic Social Thought, pg. 539

[27] Ibid, pg. 541

[28] Paul White, Primitive Rebels or Revolutionary Modernizers: The Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Turkey (New York: Zed Books, 2000)  pg. 36

[29] Haddad, Rereading Rashid Rida, pg. 275

[30] Cole, Rida on the Baha’i Faith, pg. 288

[31]M. Ozervarli, The Reconstruction of Islamic Social Thought, pg. 534

[32]  Kuru and Kuru, Apolitical Interpretation of Islam,  pg. 102

The Concepts of Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb in Medieval Islamdom

*This is part of an essay I did for my undergraduate degree. I feel understanding this issue is pertinent especially regarding ISIS’s usage of these terms. As presented here, traditionalists scholars cannot deny that ISIS’s division of the world into “us and them” is taken from traditional fiqh. This helps explain the reason traditionalist scholars cannot refute ISIS only offer “stronger proofs” (as Yaqubi states in his “refutation” of ISIS). A proper refutation of ISIS’s murderous beliefs is needed and it is hoped that this piece contributed towards that goal*

In the early Abbasid caliphate (established 750 CE), scholars began to study Prophetic conduct in the fields of the law of nations and military campaigns.[1] These fields were expanded upon greatly to the point where it started to cover the international relations practice of the time, in order to theoretically justify, from an Islamic viewpoint, this practice (Khadduri, 1966; Bsoul 2008). This chapter will try to understand this great tradition. In order to distinguish this school of Islamic international relations (IIR) from others, we shall call it “traditionalism”[2][3] as it is based on the three traditional classifications of states.

Siyar has been defined by many of the early scholars but the most authoritative traditionalist definition, in my view, is that given by Al Sarakshi. This is because whilst some scholars (Khadduri, 1966) gave a definition relating to just the Dar al Islam and/or Dar al harb, it is my view that Al-Sarakshi provides a much more holistic definition:

“…siyar… describes the conduct of believers in… relations with the unbelievers of enemy territory… with the people with whom the believers had made treaties, who may have been temporarily… or permanently (Dhimmis) in Islamic lands; with apostates… and with rebels…” (Khadduri, 1966: pg 40) 

The first generation of scholars discussed siyar but in the context of war booty, raids, covenants and treaties, jizya (poll tax for non-Muslims), safe conduct (for non-citizens of the state) and apostasy. However, it is widely held that the first jurist to treat siyar systematically was Abu Hanifah and that it was his students who spread the term (Bsoul, 2008).

Despite the fact that the dar al harb/dar al Islam classification was introduced before his time, Ibn Qayyim, in his seminal work Zad al Ma’ad (Provisions of the Hereafter), gave the classification a Quranic backing. He argued that relations between the Muslim community and the unbelieving community remained vague until the revelation of a part of surah (chapter) al-Tawba of the Quran (surah 9: verses 1-4). These verses split the non-Muslim community into 3 categories: those at war with the Muslims, those who are in a treaty with the Muslims and those who are protected with a treaty of surrender.[4] However, this has been disputed by scholars such as Ramadan (1991) and AbuSulayman (1993) and, therefore, siyar, by the vast majority of scholars[5], has been put firmly in the realm of fiqh[6] rather than Sharia.[7] (Al-Dawoody 2009; Bsoul, 2008; Bsoul, 2007; Khadduri, 1966).

Those who are at war with Muslims were normally put under the “dar al harb” classification of states. Under the rubric of dar al harb there are two types: dar al harb fi’lan (actual land of war) and dar al harb hukman (potential land of war). Many jurists have defined dar al harb in various ways, but the most common definition is non-Muslim territories which are hostile to Muslims and present a danger to Muslim security and freedom (Khalifah.com, 2007). Jurists regarded nations within dar al harb to be falling sort of the Islamic states’ ethical and legal standards and therefore referred to these states as being in a “state of nature” (Khadduri, 1966). However, we are not to assume that the dar al harb was considered no man’s land as laws were laid down with regard to the legal obligations the Muslims were under when dealing with members of the dar al harb. Between the dar al harb and dar al Islam there always existed a state of war (until the latter conquered the former or until the former paid jizya to the latter) and even when actual fighting did not take place this “perpetual warfare” was reduced to simple non-recognition of the legitimacy of any dar al harb state by the Islamic state (AbuSulayman, 1993). The fact that the relationship of dar al harb and dar al Islam is one of total warfare until one party conquers the other shows these classifications cannot be applied anymore. Most wars, in modern times, are fought based on certain objectives which may or may not be the complete defeat and annexation of a state.[8]

Those who were in a treaty with the Islamic state came under the classification of dar al ahd (or dar al sulh). This term was coined by al-Shafi’i, a very prominent jurist, and was a later addition to the two already established classifications. According to Shafi’i, these agreements extended Islamic jurisdiction to cover those within the allied states and in addition to this, payment was needed (normally relating to land) in order to fulfil the poll tax requirements of the Islamic state. With regard to the duration of a treaty, there has been considerable controversy with many jurists arguing and debating the issue. Al -Shafi’i is of the opinion that a treaty can only be for 10 years (following the Prophetic method) whereas Abu Hanifah was quoted as opining that a peace treaty could be extended much like a business contract. In addition to this, positions which have been attributed to Malik and Ibn Hanbal state that a treaty can be unlimited in length as called for by the interests of the Islamic state. There has also been some dispute over the circumstances in which a treaty can be cancelled. Al Sarakshi argued that it is possible for a weak Islamic state to make a treaty with its enemies and then break the treaty as soon as they are in a stronger position. However, the majority opinion is that treaties can only be cancelled when there is a “fear of treachery” as stipulated in the Quran (8:58) (AbuSulayman, 1993; Khadduri, 1966; Bonner 2006).

The last classification, dar al Islam, has been defined as those territories under which Muslims are free and secure. It has also been defined as Islamic and non-Islamic (i.e. Muslim minority) territories which operate under the sovereignty of Islam. It is this Islamic state which was considered the only legitimate ruling body within traditionalism as all other states are operating in a “state of nature” (Khadduri, 1966)  However, there have been disputes over what exactly constitutes dar al Islam and when it turns into dar al harb. In addition to this, there have been disputes over whether there can be two (or more) separate states within dar al Islam. According to Tadjbakhsh (2010), the existence of more than one Islamic state is unlawful and therefore Islam has not set rules for intra Islamic relations. However, Islamic history has shown that whilst the scholars were reluctant to give legitimacy to the various Islamic empires they adjusted themselves to their political reality. In addition to this, there were some jurists who did approve of “the existence of more than one legitimate independent political unit and authority”, especially when these units were far apart geographically and therefore hard to maintain under one administration (AbuSulayman, 1993; Hashmi, 2002; Khadduri, 1966; Proctor, 1965). The fact that traditionalists believe the Islamic state to be the only legitimate ruling body can no longer hold sway. Since the advent of globalisation, interdependence has become to be the norm and therefore the Islamic state must give full legitimacy to other rulers and other states.

Abd al-Rahman al-Haj (Al-Dawoody, 2009) argues that these three classifications are an oversimplification of the traditionalist theory. He argues that there were actually thirty four classifications, most of which have been ignored for various reasons.[9] In addition to this, Al Dawoody (2009) argues that there are two theories behind the separation of these states. The first theory divides the community of nations depending upon whether a nation is at peace or at war with Islam or has attacked dhimmis under Islamic protection. This theory does not account for the dar al ahd (or dar al sulh) because any state which has a peace treaty with an Islamic state is considered part of dar al Islam even if its population and government are non-Muslim. The second theory, held mostly by jurists following the opinion of Shafi’i, argues that the world is split on basis of belief and unbelief. The reason for the proposal of dar al ahd is therefore clear as treaties (under which jizya is negotiated) is the only way peace can punctuate perpetual war. As-Shafi’I’s opinion on this issue is normally the opinion taken by fundamentalists (Al-Dawoody, 2009).

If we look at the definitions of dar al Islam and dar al harb above, we find that in our time, a Muslim is often more secure in a Western country than he/she can be in so called Islamic countries. Therefore, if we are to take traditionalists literally, dar al Islam is actually in the West and dar al harb is in the East.  Ramadan (1999) supports this criticism by adding that the reason we have come to this conclusion (where Western nations are dar al-islam) is because we are attempting to apply outdated concepts onto a modern world.

Arguably, the underlying principle governing relations behind the three classifications (and indeed the other classifications) is jihad. This view is held because the “other” in traditionalism is always defined in terms of whether or not it is at war with dar al Islam.  Jihad is a concept shrouded in mystery for the Western reader and has been the cause of many misunderstandings with regard to Islamic practice in international relations. There are people who believe that jihad is proof of Islam’s violent nature and there are others who argue jihad is a defensive principle or, at its extreme, pacifist (Pipes, 2002; Bonner, 2006).

The word “jihad” actually comes from the Arabic root “jahad” meaning to strive or exert an effort. In the first instance it is used to describe a Muslim’s struggle to better themselves and their community. Its second meaning can be likened to the word “crusade” but it is used with more of a political connotation than a religious connotation unlike the usage of “crusade”. This is in stark contrast to its popular meaning of “holy war” which is used to subjugate all non-Muslims (Al-Dawoody 2009; Esposito, 2003; Lewis, 1988).  With regard to its usage within the classical theory of Islamic international relations, it is alleged that jihad was seen as a permanent obligation on all Muslims to engage in the various forms of warfare (psychological, political etc) with the dar al harb until dar al Islam covered the globe. Many classical scholars saw this “permanent obligation” as coming in stages via certain Quranic ayahs: the first stage was seen as non-confrontational and was contained in verses 15:94-95. The second stage was “defensive warfare” as seen in verses 22:39-40. The third stage was “attack initiated according to and within ancient rules” as seen in verses 2:217 and 2:191. The fourth and last stage was “unconditional fighting against all unbelievers” as seen in verses 2:216 and, the most infamous verse relating to jihad, 9:05 (Firestone, 1999).[10] As has been mentioned before, there are differences between scholars regarding how long peace treaties can be and these were considered the only times of peace allowed between dar al harb and dar al Islam. It is widely recognised that Ibn Taymiyyah was the first scholar who dealt with the issue of what actually justifies war in siyar. However, Quranic casus belli had already been identified by many different scholars before him. The majority of jurists take the opinion of Hanafi, Ibn Hanbal and Malik (founders of three of the four modern schools of Islamic law) which is to interpret the Quran as saying that only in conditions of aggression and “fitnah”[11] can an Islamic state engage in warfare. To support their claims they cite Quranic ayahs 2:190, 2:193, 22:39-40 amongst others. The jurists who follow this position also believe that war should not be used to propagate religion as it infringes the Quranic ayah 2:256. In addition to this, these scholars quite clearly set out who were defined as “combatants” and who was not (Al-Dawoody 2009). However, a criticism of Al-Dawoody could be that he does not present the other view of traditionalism which has been presented above (Khadduri, 1966) which is ascribed to Shafi’i. Indeed the only mention he makes of Shafi’i’s position regarding this issue is a quote taken from Ibn Najim, a Hanafi jurist:

“[T]he reason for jihad in our [the Hanafis] view is kawnuhum harba alayna [literally, their being at war against us], while in Shafi’I’s view it is their unbelief.” (Al-Dawoody 2009: pg 137-138)

With the question of jihad naturally came the question of neutrality. Could a nation be neutral in the world of dar al harb and dar al Islam? Khadduri (1966) states that neutrality was not an option in the classical Islamic order. This was because jurists believed that seeing as though dar al Islam did not recognise any authority outside its own, no state could be allowed to enjoy the privileges of neutrality and thereby escape from jihad. However, Khadduri believes that contrary to the theory, in reality there existed a dar al hayad (abode of neutrality) in which were grouped countries which due to their attitude towards the Prophet or their inaccessibility have been immune to the effects of jihad (Bouzenita, 2011). Therefore according to Khadduri, pragmatism was the reason for historical cases of neutrality and he adds:

“The law of neutrality… was designed to serve a temporary purpose… until the entire world would become Islamic… But there is no reason why the law of neutrality could not be revived if circumstances which permitted its applicability should reappear.” (Bouzenita, 2011: pg 11)

Khadduri has been criticised for relying too heavily on only one jurist (Al-Shafi’i) and ignoring the opinions of other jurists (AbuSulayman, 1993). There were many jurists who advocated a more peaceful and defensive position and among these were Al Sarakshi, Al Thawri and Ibn Shibrimah. They were quoted as saying:

“Fighting the idolators is not an obligation unless the initiative comes from them. Then, they must be fought in fulfillment of His (Allah’s) clear instructions: ‘If they fight you, kill them’ and His saying: ‘And fight all the idolators as they fight you’” (AbuSulayman, 1993: pg 23)

This quite clearly shows that there was more than one position on the issue of neutrality within the traditionalist school of thought. Despite the scope this seems to be offering, traditionalism appears to be very one dimensional in its classification concentrating on whether a state is at war with the Islamic state, neutral or at peace. This does not account for circumstances where there may be tensions between two countries. A pertinent example of this is the current tension between Britain and Iran. If Iran was an Islamic state then where would it place Britain according to the classifications of states as given above? One could argue that the traditionalists do provide dar al hukman (potential land of war) as a way of getting out of this problem. However, the category of dar al hukman can be criticised here also. What is meant by “potential land of war”? Anyone can be a potential enemy just as anyone can be a potential ally.

Footnotes

[1] These were known as siyar and maghazi respectively (Bsoul, 2008)

[2] Traditionalism has been presented here as a spectrum of opinions which cover a wide range of issues. Some of these will be contradictory because of the differing opinions of scholars.

[3] Traditionalism’s modern day advocates have been labelled “fundamentalists”. This distinction is made because of the way fundamentalists pick the opinions they follow and ignore others (from within traditionalism) which contradict their opinions. Hizb ut-Tahrir and Al-Qaeda are amongst the fundamentalists.

[4] This group is known as “Dhimmis” in traditionalism (AbuSulayman, 1993)

[5] Consensus of this scale is known as “ijma”. It is considered a source of law (Hallaq, 2005).

[6] Fiqh is seen as Islamic law derived from the Sharia so therefore man-made (Hallaq, 2005).

[7] Sharia is seen as guidelines for jurists take from the divine sources (i.e. Quran and Sunnah) (Hallaq, 2005).

[8] An example of this is the first Gulf war when George Bush sr. pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait but did not press on to conquer Baghdad  (Montgomery, 2007).

[9] Among these classifications are dar al shirk, dar al riddah, dar al baghy, dar al dawah, dar al Arab and dar al dhimmah. All of these categories together reflected a much broader reality than the one which is commonly presented to us by fundamentalists (Al-Dawoody, 2009).

[10] This is the justification that fundamentalists give for attacking the perceived enemies of Islam even they include women and children. This process of abrogation has been appropriated by fundamentalists, especially Al-Qaida and its off- shoots, in other areas of Islamic law also (Holbrook, 2010).

[11] Fitnah here is defined as where Muslims are persecuted for their beliefs (Al- Dawoody, 2009)

Charlie Hebdo, Double Standards, and the Issue of Blasphemy

At times like these I feel that cool heads must persevere. It is very easy for both sides to get caught up in a mud slinging contest. For fear of falling into this trap myself, I have put off writing this post for as long as I could.

I am not going to talk about whether Islam has within it, something which resembles the modern Western concept of freedom of speech. I believe my previous post, Scepticism and Heterodoxy in Medieval Islamdom (to be found here)  has more than adequately shown that even those who denied the most basic tenants of Islam could rise to the loftiest positions and whilst they were attacked for their beliefs, they were never physically harmed or killed.

This raises an interesting question… if, in the past, people such as Al-Ma’arri, Al-Biruni and more recently, Allama Iqbal were allowed to continue teaching and holding positions in high society whilst voicing opinions which many Muslims would be vehemently against, where did all this “blasphemy” stuff come from? Furthermore, in light of recent events regarding the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, there is more than ample evidence that shows us that medieval Islamdom (and even some modern day Islamicate states) have had no problem with the depiction of Prophet Muhammad. Indeed, there is an excellent website here , which shows depictions of the Prophet Muhammad from both Sunni and Shia sources as well as one from Algeria which is dated 1920. It would seem, at the very least that there is a difference if opinion regarding any depiction of the Prophet.

Sardar, in a recent article in the Independent, puts the appearance of modern blasphemy laws in the Islamicate world on the influence of colonial powers. Indeed, he writes:

“As for state-sanctioned blasphemy laws – now regarded as sacrosanct in Pakistan, Egypt and other Muslim countries – they were actually first introduced by the colonial powers in the 19th century, to keep the peace between the different religious communities that they ruled. In Pakistan, for example, blasphemy became a crime in 1860, when the territory was still part of a greater India. Inherited after partition in 1947, in 1982 the statutes were expanded and their penalties made harsher by the military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to bolster support from ultra-conservative religious parties. Now they are seen as divine revelation!”

It is this colonial legacy of subjugation of the people, which these blasphemy laws were a part of, which is now being taken up by the new dictators in the Middle East and Sub-Continent in order to gain the support of the religious hardliners. Unfortunately, this strategy is highly effective as has been proved by General El-Sisi of Egypt, by his partnership with the Ulema of Al-Azhar university.

So why was Charlie Hebdo attacked, if Muslims themselves have been depicting the Prophet for centuries and there is at least a difference of opinion on the matter? There are two main arguments about why this occurred. The first is that it was the manner of the depiction of the Prophet, which was sometimes obscene and lewd and this, in of itself, forms the main motivation for the attack. The second argument is that the cartoons are seen to be inextricably tied up with the broader War on Terror and everything which has come from it. The cartoons are simply seen as a further weapon in the arsenal of this war and not the main reason for the attack. From court records, we can see that Cherif Kouachi himself, in a 2008 trial, has been quoted as saying it was the detainee abuse in the Middle East which prompted him to take an extremist path with no specific mention of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons which had been published three years earlier. This seems to conclusively prove that it is the second argument which the terrorists themselves would use.

However, some further digging into the lives of the Kouachi brothers shows that they were far from the religious warriors they have been made out to be. A 2005 Pittsburgh Tribune Review report, citing Kouachi’s lawyer, asserted that the terrorist in training smoked marijuana, drank alcohol and had pre-martial sex with his girlfriend. Normally when one defends something, one usually believes in it themselves. This has been taken as further proof that, instead of a purely religious motivation, the attacks were carried out, primarily, in retaliation for the attacks on the Muslim world past (Eliza Berman, of Time magazine, highlights the French-Algerian war in the 19th century as a possible connection)  and present. It is my belief that any attempt to take these attacks out of the context of Western foreign policy or the War on Terror amounts to a whitewash of the activity of Western powers in the Middle East for the past 14 years (at the very least).

The levels of hypocrisy which were shown in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings also serve to add fuel to the fire. Within days of the attack, it was revealed that in 2005, a cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo had been fired for making what was deemed an anti-Semitic remark.  In addition to this, amid his calls to defend free speech in France it was revealed that the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had had a rapper indicated for insulting the “French Republic”. All of this hypocrisy serves to highlight the theoretical black hole that Muslims have been placed in by the various governments of Europe. Whilst it is illegal to make racist remarks that incite to violence and/or hatred, it is commonly asserted that “Muslims do not constitute a race” and are therefore bereft of any protection. This lack of any work to protect their Muslim populations has left Europe wide open to accusations of hypocrisy whenever case such as these erupt. This situation needs to be remedied if we are to move forward and defeat the terrorists and extremists on both sides.

It is my belief that as a starting point, all peoples should condemn these attacks. Whatever the reasoning behind the attacks, there is no justification for slaughtering the defenseless in Islam. However, this condemnation should not in of itself be used to place the blame entirely on one community. The level of attacks on Muslims both in France and in Britain, has skyrocketed since the attacks took place with many articles being devoted to the topic of mosques being attacked or British Muslim schoolchildren facing a rising tide of Islamophobia. There are terrorists and extremists everywhere who will be happy and excited that these attacks occurred and may be even more ecstatic with the aftermath of attacks on the Muslim population of Europe. In times like these it is paramount that we remain united in the face of the extremists and terrorists on both sides who wish for nothing except “to watch the world burn”.

 

Religious Knowledge and the “Crisis of Authority”: Who Speaks for Islam?

Apparently there is an intellectual “authority crisis” in the Islamicate world. When asked “Who speaks for Islam?” the Muslim can give no answer without being immediately refuted by either a fellow Muslim or a reference to the myriad of terrorists groups claiming to represent Islam. Recently, a certain picture has come to my attention, through its circulation on social media sites, which sums up one viewpoint onto this so called “crisis”.

photo

As can be seen in the above picture, the scholars of old are contrasted with the scholars and “scholars” of new in terms of both the level of learning and the methodology that they used in order to acquire knowledge. I believe that the overall message of this picture is fundamentally correct. A person, with only quick cursory glance over the works of a certain scholar to guide him, cannot then claim to refute that scholar’s arguments in their entirety. This is wrong and has been the cause of much harm in our community, both in the UK and abroad. However there is a subtle subtext to this picture which I disagree with entirely.

Under the the picture of the old scholars are written the words: “our life-long dedication to knowledge into volumes of textbooks which will last for hundreds of years and teach future students of ilm”. One must be very careful when saying things like this because, if one was so inclined, one could interpret from this sentence that we should do taqlid of the great scholars of the past. Taqlid amongst the learned is a sign of digression and a sign of decay in a community. The more widespread taqlid is, the more widespread ignorance and intolerance to the views of others is. This is something we need to avoid at all costs and to stamp out of our community.

The caption to the picture is the words, “A sign of the times”, which links back to a perceived “crisis” in “intellectual authority”. One thing which many Muslims with whom I speak and debate with are proud of is the fact that Islam is not afflicted with the kind of clergy that stopped progress and science in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. Hand in hand with this pride comes the belief that once a true Islamic state is established, the question of intellectual authority will also be resolved. This, in my opinion, is a case of imposing a false cause and effect relationship (i.e. we have no political leadership and that is why we have no intellectual leadership) and mistaken view (or selective memory) of Islamic history (i.e. during the Caliphate there was intellectual unity).

It is well documented that, during the Golden Age of Islam, there was no intellectual or political unity amongst the Muslims of the world. The four schools of thought which have come down to us are but a tiny pinprick of the hundreds of schools of thought which existed before and which died out partly because of a political attempt to try to unify the intellectuals through the establishment of four schools of thought in Cairo by the Mamlukes (even this attempt resulted in four separate schools of thought being established). The context of the Middle Ages had a big part to play in this unification attempt, knowledge was not as widely available as it is today. As the picture above points out, scholars had to travel thousands of miles just to check the validity of a single hadith. Thus, in an age where unification was relatively easier to achieve, it still eluded our community.

Now we come to present day. Technology is rapidly moving on, showing us new and exciting ways to connect with each other and with the vast array of knowledge that is stored on cd’s, books and the internet. Rather than having to travel for months on end to hear a hadith, I can install a program called “Al-Alim” which has every single hadith ever recorded on its database as well as the most famous commentaries on each of those hadith. This expansion of the availability of knowledge means the shrinking of time it takes for us to surpass the great scholars of the past in knowledge. This is a fact that the Muslim community needs to get used to. Whilst we acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of giants, we must recognize that we are indeed standing on their shoulders and not on the same ground they are standing on. In this era, with the level of the proliferation of knowledge quickening day by day, Muslims are finding that there are disadvantages to not having a hierarchical clergy. Who has the authority to tell that modern day person in the picture above that he is wrong? Without proof to the contrary, he will continue to hold onto his position which he decided upon after seven minutes of research. However, as soon as we bring in proof to try to dissuade him, this is a tacit acceptance of his position as legitimate. This is the problem which we face. What we face is a problem of defining what a scholar is (for the modern era) rather than hoping for an united intellectual authority. No one in the history of Islam (apart from the Prophet pbuh) has held undisputed intellectual authority. If we can systematize the category of “scholar” whilst taking into account the amount of information available to even the laity, I believe this will go some way in helping our community get rid of the “seven minute” shaykhs which are distressingly all too prevalent.

As always sources are available upon request. All Good is from Allah and all mistakes are my own.

The Main Differences between the Three Schools of Usul al Fiqh

(This is an old essay of mine which will nicely provide background to a post I have planned for the future on the Hanbali school (hence its omission in this piece) Any feedback on this is appreciated)

In this essay, the three main schools of usul al fiqh will be discussed and their differences will be highlighted as the work progresses. This will be achieved by analysing the Shafi’i, Hanafi and Maliki schools of thought and comparing their stances on issues such as how to derive laws, their views on istishan and their view of the Sunnah and its rightful place. It should be noted that although Abu Hanifah lived and taught chronologically before Shafi’i, it was not until the advent of Shafi’i’s methodology, and after, that the Hanafi and Maliki methodology was systemised and formalised. For this reason we shall be discussing the Shafi’i method first.

The Shafi’i school of Usul al Fiqh was founded by its eponym, Muhammad ibn Uthman ibn Shafi’i, in the pages of his seminal work al-Risala.[1] This work was primarily concerned with justifying the Sunnah, ijma (consensus) and qiyas (analogy) as sources of law.[2] Indeed, Shafi’i saw problems in the way scholars before him were dealing with the Sunnah and qiyas.[3] His defence of the Sunnah ensured that it would receive due respect in the formulation of law and his defence of qiyas ensured that scholars knew that reason did have a say in the formulation of law.[4] It is this usage of qiyas which gives use a glimpse into the deductive approach Shafi’i took to deriving laws from scriptural sources. Shafi’i justifies his use of qiyas from the verse which exhorts Muslims to pray towards the Ka’ba and states that just as Muslims as bound to use their reason to find the direction of the Ka’ba, if they are not in its vicinity, they are also bound to find the sometimes hidden legal values found in scripture.[5] Shafi’i then goes on to explain that when an issue arises for which the Quran has no answer we can use a parallel ratio legis to provide us with a ruling.[6] An example could be that the ratio legis of the ban on alcohol is its intoxicating effects. Heroin is not mentioned in the Quran but also intoxicates so therefore heroin is forbidden. However, sometimes the ratio legis may not be identifiable and in this case, Shafi’i recommended finding a similar case in the Quran and Sunnah and then applying the ruling of the existing case to the new case.[7] A third way Shafi’i used qiyas is based on the inference that a ban of something in a large amount amounts to a ban of it in small amounts also.[8] This focus on the scriptural sources as both the source and method of Shafi’i’s approach led him to claim that no ruling can be considered worthy without a basis in the Qur’an and Sunnah.[9] This view also led to his denouncing of istishan (personal judgement) as “free human reason led by personal interest” and an “indulgence in base pleasures”.[10]

The Hanafi school of thought was established by Abu Hanifah who was a merchant by trade and who lived, unlike Shafi’i, away from the main centres of Islamic learning of his time. Born in Kufa, Iraq, Abu Hanifah was part of the ahl al ray[11] and this could be said to be proven through his fondness for devising hypothetical situations and then engaging a process where he would have to continually justify his actions.[12] He identified three main secondary sources of law which supplement the three core sources of law of his time (Qur’an, Sunnah and ijma): qiyas, istishan and urf’. These Hanafi sources of law show that whilst the scriptural sources remained primary for Abu Hanifah, the context also had a say in the formulation of law.[13] Because of his reliance on istishan, Abu Hanifah faced criticism of relying on his own opinion too much and neglecting the Sunnah, a criticism which he answered by stating that whatever came from the Prophet he accepted as truth.[14] He also defended his use of istishan by contending that it is a self-sufficient tool and could be used as a safeguard against strict analogies which contradict the objectives of law.[15] As mentioned above, it was only after the advent of the Shafi’i school and his methodology of deriving law that the students of Abu Hanifah began to formulate their own methodology. This was achieved by working inductively from the ruling to the methodology used to derive the ruling. A famous student of Abu Hanifah’s, al-Bazdawi, used this inductive approach to discover the seven sources of law in the Hanafi methodology: the Quran, Sunnah, sayings of the Companions, ijma, qiyas, istishan and urf.[16] These sources of law further reflect the fact that the context held import for the Hanafi methodology. Indeed when deriving a ruling from a verse, Hanafi methodology exhorts a jurist to extract the ratio legis of the legal ruling but also the context of the verse itself.[17]

As we can see from the above discussion, Abu Hanifah and Shafi’i differ on many points. The most prominent of these could be said to be their methodologies, their views on istishan and their views on the sunnah. Regarding the last difference pointed out, it could be said that their differing level of emphasis on the sunnah could be a reflection of the fact that Abu Hanifah lived earlier which means that the canon of hadith was not yet formalised and was not as proliferated throughout the Muslim world as in Shafi’i’s time. Indeed, it is said that Abu Hanifah only had a small number of hadith at his disposal and even the validity of those was questioned by later hadith critics.[18]

The maqasidi school of thought within usul al fiqh could be said to rest upon the field of al-masalih al mursalah (societal issues about which the scriptural sources say nothing). This field gave rise to the principle of al-istislah (reasoning relying upon public interest)[19] which could be said to be the foundation of the Maliki school of usul. Because of this principle, the maqasidi scholars had to constantly refer to the objectives of a verse in order to be able to deal with new cases in a logical way, consistent with the spirit of the Qur’an.[20] This consideration for the objectives eventually grew into what is now known as the maqasid al shari’ah system. There have been many contributors to this school, most notably Al-Juwayni and his student, Al-Ghazālī, who formulated a list of five objectives: faith, the soul, intellect, lineage and wealth.[21] However, this work shall focus solely on the contribution of al-Shatibi to the Maliki school.

Al-Shāṭibī, unlike Al-Ghazālī and Al-Juwayni, was trained in the Maliki school from an early age[22] and was destined to integrate both the deductive approach of the Shafi’is and inductive approach of the Hanafis.[23] In addition to this, it is al-Shāṭibī who is credited with the first attempt to characterise the maqasid as fundamentals of law.[24] Based on the fundamental nature of the maqasid, al-Shāṭibī argued that the general categories of necessity, needs and embellishments cannot be overruled by a specific partial ruling.[25] In Shatibi’s works, this constitutes a break from the traditional Maliki school which always gave precedence to the more specific rulings.[26] Lastly, Al Shāṭibī remains a towering figure with usul al fiqh because of his attempt at arguing for the ‘certainty’ of the inductive methods used to derive the maqasid.[27] Indeed, Shatibi declares that:

What we have induced from the Law is that it was established to preserve human interests.[28]

It is through induction that Shatibi arrives at his categorisation of human interests as mentioned above and the same five categories which al-Ghazālī mentioned as the primary maqasid.[29]  Despite the primacy of the inductive approach in Shatibi’s methodology, he also makes use of the deductive approach. Speaking about how to deal with revealed rulings, he follows the deductive methodology laid out by Shafi’i (explained above).[30]

As can be seen the maqasidi school differs significantly from both the Shafi’i and the Hanafi schools of usul. The maqasidi school integrates the methodology of both the Hanafis and the Shafi’is into a completely new methodology. It is clear that the Maliki school is closer to the Hanafi school in their views on istishan and al masalih al mursala. It could be said, however, that the biggest difference between the Maliki school and the others is the attempt to place the maqasid amongst the fundamentals of law. However it is interesting to note that two of the greatest contributors to the Maliki school, al-Juwayni and al-Ghazālī, were of a Shafi’i background but agreed with Maliki thought regarding the masalih.[31]

In this essay, the three main schools of usul al fiqh have been discussed with the aim of uncovering the differences between them. As has been seen, all three of the schools differed on the methodology used to derive laws and the Shafi’i’s school disagreed with the Hanafi and maqasidi schools regarding the position of istishan. In addition to this, the emphasis placed on the sunnah as a source of law is also a point upon which the three schools differ. Indeed, the maqasidi school differs from the others in that it fully takes into account the objectives of the law and places them amongst the usul al fiqh. Whilst Abu Hanifah did also bear the maqasid and the masalih in mind, it could be said that the Shafi’i limitation of ijtihad to qiyas only stopped the majority of Shafi’is from aiding in the development of al masalih al mursala and maqasid theory. Despite this, it could be said that it is the maqasid theory which holds the most promise as a foundation for an ethics-based Islam in the modern era.

Footnotes

[1] Anon, The Biography of Imam Ash Shafii, shafiifiqh.com [website], 10/05/13, http://www.shafiifiqh.com/the-biography-of-imam-ash-shafii/

[2] Wael Hallaq, A History of Islamic Legal Theories: An Introduction to Sunni Usul al Fiqh, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) pg. 22

[3] Ibid, pg. 21

[4] Ibid, pg. 22

[5] Ibid, pg. 23

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid, pg. 29

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid, pg. 23

[11] Tariq Ramadan, Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) pg. 49

[12] Ibid, pg. 51

[13] Ibid, pg. 51

[14] Ibid, pg. 53

[15] Ibid, pg. 56

[16] Ibid, pg. 54

[17] Ibid, pg. 55

[18] Hallaq, History, Pg. 17

[19] Ramadan, Reform, pg. 60

[20] Ibid

[21] Jasser Auda, Maqasid al-Shari’ah as Philosophy of Islamic Law: A Systems Approach (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2008) pg. 18

[22] Ahmad al-Raysuni, Imam al-Shatibi’s Theory of the Higher Objectives and Intents of Islamic Law (Herndon: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2005)

[23] Ramadan, Reform, pg. 65

[24] Auda, Maqasid, pg. 20-21

[25] Ibid, pg. 21

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Raysuni, Shatibi, pg. 283

[29] Ibid, pg. 283-284

[30] Ramadan, Reform, pp. 68-69

[31] Ibid, pg. 61

No Facts, Only Interpretations: Nietzsche and Claims of “Going Back to the Sources”

The famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is reported to have said:

it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations…

(The Portable Nietzsche, pg. 458)

Here, it would not be unseemly nor a misrepresentation of Nietzsche’s intent, if we replace “facts” with “truth” and treat them as lexically equivalent. What would be a misrepresentation of Nietzsche would not to point out the fact that what he is dealing with here is truth (facts) with a capital “T”: “Truth” (“Facts”) in its absolute form.

What I believe Nietzsche meant by this statement was that the Truth is unknowable to us. To borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein, if we were to know the Truth it would be like pouring a gallon of water into a teacup. Since we cannot comprehend the Truth, all we are left with are interpretations which are “truths” measured according to a predetermined criterion (i.e. the discourse of “truths” we have already accepted) which we hold.

Many Muslims would agree with the above. The common argument goes as follows: Truth, in its absolute form, is the sole property of God Almighty, this being reflected in the fact that one of His names is Al-Haqq, “The Truth”. Therefore any claim (on the part of non-Prophetic human beings) to know the Truth can be construed as a form of shirk (associating partners with God). Regarding the Quran and Sunnah, what we have is a series of criterion, each as fallible as the next and a series of interpretations, each as fallible as the next. This is why Islam can be used to justify the indiscriminate killing of civilians as well as the call for freedom and democracy. It is the common thread uniting all of these interpretations and its meaning cannot be formed outside the interaction between men and women in a social context. It is these agreements amongst the followers of Islam on certain doctrinal issues which provides the stable points in a sea of ever changing and clashing interpretations. But even these fixed points are liable to change (albeit more slowly) as Islamicate legal theory has shown time and again (a prime exmaple of this being attitudes towards more than one Khalifah).

Having accepted the above, we now come to those who routinely claim they are “going back to the sources” or “going back to the origins” of Islam. What can we make of such claims and do they give any extra legitimacy to their propagators’ claims?

Going back to the sources/origins of Islam can mean any one of two things, depending on the subject of the discussion at hand. It can either mean going back to the Quran and Sunnah holistically or it can mean (as is usually the case when politics is at the heart of the discussion) referring back to the practice of the Prophet in Medina. Whichever one is chosen, however, it still remains an impossibility for the propagator to deal with the issue which Nietzsche outlined. Declaring loudly that one is “going back to the sources/origins” does not give one’s project any extra legitimacy or grounding beyond the force of the argument behind it. This is because all interpretations ultimately can lead back to the Quran and Sunnah thus all interpretations are a return to the origins/sources. It is therefore nonsensical for anyone to claim for any project, political or otherwise, that it is their project alone which truly goes back to the origins/sources.

An example may help in the exposition of this point. As I have mentioned (and listed) in a previous post, there are many verses in the Quran which can be interpreted as pointing to the purely religious function of the Prophet as a conduit of the Message. There are others which can be interpreted as pointing to the dual religious/political role of the Prophet. So we can equally say that both secularists and Islamists can equally claim to go back to the sources/origins. How can we determine legitimacy or force of argument based on this consideration alone?

It is useful, I believe, at this point to consider the ideas of Richard Rorty regarding the use of vocabularies. Rorty argues that many of the theoretical problems we have are not perennial problems, but arise out of a vocabulary which is currently prevalent in the world. The perfect example of this is the religion/politics divide that Muslims grapple with. When it is learnt that religion itself is a very specific Western construct which was then expanded to cover non-Western “religions” this religion/politics dichotomy collapses and  leads further to the collapse of the sacred/mundane dichotomy which underwrites it.

A further exploration of this point is beyond the purview of this blog. However, I would suggest those wanting to know more about thistopic, read “The Western Construction of Religion” by Daniel Dubuisson, “Philosophical Investigations” by Ludwig Wittgenstein and “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” by Richard Rorty.

 All Good is from God, all mistakes are my own.

The Demise of “The West and the Rest”

Since Columbus’ voyage in 1492, and the subsequent discovery by Europeans of the peoples of the Americas, the world has been marked by a dichotomy of “the West and the Rest”. This dichotomy is based upon a series of binary distinctions in which the West is seen as the holder of enlightenment values and the East is seen as its diametric opposite. Examples of this can be found in many works within the field of post colonialism, but the binary most commonly invoked is that of the West as “free” and the East as under the sway of “Oriental Despots”. This binary has been taken for granted in all forms of literature and entertainment that originates within the West. A good example of this is the movie “300” in which the Greeks constantly refer to themselves as free men who are fighting against the slaves of Xerxes, the oriental despot. The example of the enforced poisoning of Socrates, and the reasons behind this, points to a different reality that Frank Miller has painted.

In an excellent article, entitled, “West and the Rest”, Stuart Hall traces the lineage of the terms “West” and “Western”. He argues that the terms “West” and “East” no longer simply connote geography. An example of this is that Japan is considered Western but the countries of  South America, even though they are in the western hemisphere, are not. Instead, Hall argues that these terms are used to categorize states in terms of haves and have-nots. In this light the definition of “Western” is a society that is developed, industrialized, urbanized, capitalist, secular and modern. The “Rest” are those societies which are deemed to be the opposite of the West. In addition to this usage Hall argues that the concept of the “West” is also used:

– as an image or set of images which condense many different characteristics together. It functions as a “system of representation”.

– as a standard or model of comparison. It helps explain difference.

– as a criteria of evaluation against which other societies are ranked. It functions as ideology.

It is this false binary, between the West and the Rest, which is the heart of the sweeping generalizations which make up what can be called orientalist representations of the East and Eastern peoples.

Times, however, are moving swiftly on. As Hamid Dabashi recently argued in an interview alongside Marwan Bishara and Slavoj Zizek on “Empire”, the “West and the Rest” paradigm is now untenable as a method of analysis. We are swiftly moving towards a decentred world in which many peoples will be presenting their “universal values” in the hope that they will shape the world in their image. We are moving towards (if we aren’t already there) a world in which the players will be many and none will be able to impose his will on all. We are at an ethical and conceptual ground zero. A good example of this is the the fact that Russia, with a surprising degree of impunity was able to annex Crimea and is continuing its “adventures” at the gates of Europe. In addition to this, the increasing tendency of scholars to refer to the West as a set of plutocracies (rule by a group of rich men)  is also undermining the democratic credentials which the West claims to hold. The protests of the 99% across the West supports the assertion that plutocracy has replaced democracy in the West.

The main driving force behind the decentring of the world has to be the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The fact that these countries are setting up their own world bank type of institution points to the shifting of economic power from “West” to the “Rest”. In addition, the fact that Russia and China are now starting to use rouble-yuan swap facilities in order to bypass the until now standard dollar also points to a massive shift. All of this has been underscored by the fact that Vladimir Putin himself has declared: “The unipolar model of the world is over… The global picture has completely changed”.

So where are the Muslims in all this?

There two simultaneous currents in the Muslim world at the moment. The first is a swift return to the old authoritarianism after the blip that was the Arab Spring (Hell?). No where is most epitomized than in Egypt. After a year of progress towards freedom and democracy, Egypt has reverted to the old ways through the rise of El-Sisi to the post of dictator. As well as this rise of authoritarianism we have the rise of religious extremism in the form of ISIS. Feeding on the delusions and frustrations of many young Muslims, ISIS is cutting a wave of violence across the fertile crescent claiming that it is heralding a return to pure Islam and the ways of the Salaf.

The second current only becomes clear when we scratch at the very worrying surface of the Muslim world. There is a conscious movement amongst the “silent majority” towards a more balanced Islam in the form of post-Islamism. Bringing ethics back to provide the foundations of any Islamic thought, this current is the religious reformation which many commentators say is required before there can be political reformation. The one success of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, has as one of its native sons, Rashid Al-Ghannouchi, a leading force of post-Islamism and it is no exaggeration to credit Tunisia’s current success to his openness to other views/parties and his willingness to negotiate. It is thinkers and politicians like Ghannouchi, Ghamidi of Pakistan and Erdogan of Turkey who are providing the Muslim contribution to the many sets of universal values which are jostling for space in the new world to come.

As always for a full list of my sources please contact me. I would highly recommend that anyone interested in this topic read Stuart Hall’s article “The West and the Rest” as well as “Recalling the Caliphate” by Salman Sayyid and “From the Ruins of Empire” by Pankaj Mishra. All Mistakes are my own and all good is from God Almighty.