Counter fundamentalism with “critical Islam”

– Nazry Bahrawi and Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib
The Malaysian Insider

September 11, 2013

When the World Trade Center twin towers came crashing down 12 years ago, it was not just non-Muslims who were shocked – many Muslims were equally horrified. Consequently, it led to deeper introspection. For many Muslims, it was a turning point.

Just over three decades ago, prominent Arab intellectual Sadik Al Azm wrote a devastating critique of the Arab world’s political stagnation after the Arab defeat at the hands of Israel in the 1967 war. The loss gave impetus to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism worldwide. The solution to Muslims’ social, economic and political humiliation, it was believed, lay in returning to “Islam” as a complete ideology. Islam-ism would rival all other isms, from secularism to capitalism to communism.

At the heart of Islamism is an orientation that upholds the supremacy of “Islam” versus everything else deemed “unIslamic”. Syed Qutb, in his famous treatise Ma’lim fi al-tariq (Milestones), pretty much sums up the tension between what he deemed an “Islamic society” versus the “jahili (paganistic) society”.

Over nearly three decades, certain frustrated Muslim youths became attracted to this orientation known as Islamic fundamentalism. It was also a period of struggle for many Islamic movements to establish “daulah islamiyah” or the notion of an “Islamic state”.

This project failed, and its proponents continue to be frustrated by authoritarian secular regimes and their own intellectual deficiency in defining and operationalising the notion of an “Islamic state”. French sociologist Olivier Roy, in his insightful 1996 book, termed it “the failure of political Islam”.

Since the 1990s, the world has seen an increase in violent acts committed by Islamist movements which draw upon such frustrations. This culminated in the attack on New York’s twin towers.

If the 1967 defeat of the Arabs had propelled the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, 9/11 has paved the way for rethinking and critical reflection.

Could Islam accommodate the separation of religion and state, thus admitting that secularism is not anathema to Muslim political thought? Could Muslims be at home with modern values without positing these as an antithetical to the Islamic notion of what is “traditional” and “authentic”?

Was the dichotomy between “Islam” and “the West” tenable or even intelligible? These were some of the issues that posed a new challenge to Islamic fundamentalism. Critical Muslim scholars such as Mohammed Arkoun (Algerian), Nasr Abu Zayd (Egyptian), Abdullahi An-Na’im (Sudanese), Nurcholish Madjid (Indonesian) and Abdolkarim Soroush (Iranian) continue to push the boundary of Muslim sociopolitical thought — and ultimately challenge the dominance of fundamentalist conceptions of Islam.

As the world focuses on the continued threat of extremism within Muslim circles, it is equally important to acknowledge the work done by such critical scholars in the field of Islamic reform. Yet, this field of critical Islamic scholarship is not new: It was there in classical Islam where Muslim thinkers challenged existing ways of thinking and engaged with the corpus of tradition.

Take the work of Al Ghazali, Al Farabi and Ibn Sina, who were some of the most illustrious Muslim philosophers of the 10th and 11th century CE (Al Ghazali himself was subjected to criticism by the 12th century Andalusian thinker Ibn Rushd). Today, Muslims continue to acknowledge them as some of the faith’s most brilliant and diverse thinkers who set the foundation for the revival of Europe from its own Dark Ages.

In the face of recent growing conservatism in Muslim societies, this critical strand within Islam must be upheld. Its penchant for embracing new ideas could better equip Muslims to deal with the rapid societal changes that typify today’s knowledge economy.

Consider, for example, the Arab “awakening” period — the Nahdah movement in the late 19th and early 20th century — which set the course for intellectual and cultural modernisation of the Muslim world, as typified by the attempt to incorporate some of the best ideas and institutions from Europe and to critically re-evaluate a Muslim heritage beset by fossilisation and decay.

The height of Muslim civilisation in the 9th and 10th century, too, was typified by a spirit of openness and incorporation of sources of knowledge – from neoplatonic mysticism to Aristotelian philosophy to Indic metaphysical sciences.

In other words, it was the cosmopolitanism of Islam that gave rise to what Lene Goodman described as “Islamic humanism”. And it is this confident form of Islam that can provide an alternative to the apologist and constrictive vision of contemporary Islamic fundamentalist thought.

Today, much resources have been poured into addressing physical violence perpetrated by a small group of Muslim extremists driven by a warped agenda of planting the supremacist flag of Islam worldwide.
There is, however, a limitation to looking at the problem through a pure security lens. Violence, as the late sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas expounded, can also exist in the form of “intellectual violence”.

In fact, physical violence is a manifestation of violence in thought. The former cannot exist without the latter. The project of addressing extremism in Muslim societies, thus, must also start with addressing all forms of intellectual violence.

One form of such violence is to deny the rich and diverse intellectual heritage of Islam, and to argue that Islam is necessarily in opposition to everything else deemed as “secular”, “liberal” or “Western”. It is this tendency to adopt a monolithic and essentialised form of Islam that poses a danger to the dynamic, creative and critical tradition within Islam.

To reclaim this tradition is the task of Muslim intellectuals today who are at the forefront of developing new thinking in Islam. Against the backdrop of growing intolerance within Muslim societies, the way forward can only be through an honest, serious and committed rethinking of fundamentalist assumptions.

In this, “critical Islam” as Muslim thinker Ziauddin Sardar argues, can be a counter narrative for the Muslim public against the dominance of fundamentalist Islam. Where the latter generated an intellectual mess and a stagnation of Muslim sociopolitical thought, critical Islam can salvage the situation by reconstructing a new, cosmopolitan vision of Islam that is ethically grounded, socially committed, politically progressive and intellectually sound for today’s world. –, September 11, 2013.

* Dr Nazry Bahrawi is a research fellow at the Middle East Institute-NUS. Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is a founding member of Leftwrite Center. This commentary is based on a discussion on “Critical Islam as Counter-Fundamentalism in Muslim Southeast Asia” organised by the Middle East Institute-NUS, Leftwrite Center and Select Books on September 11.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 11 September 2013 - 9:26 am

    Serious? When you have a young Malay given all sort of breaks in life but instead of takling hard science, engineering and building things but decide his glorious destiny is to make excuses for the ruling elite like ‘there is no subsidy in Islam”, critical of anything is but of UMNO/BN are not issues.

  2. #2 by Loh on Wednesday, 11 September 2013 - 10:18 am

    ///Counsel: ‘Allah’ could give rise to religious confusion
    Hafiz Yatim | 1:47PM Sep 10, 2013 | 126
    UPDATED 7.30PM A federal counsel says as this may threaten safety and public order, the directive was issued///–Malaysiankini

    Even if it is true that there might exist confusion, isn’t it the proper way to dispel confusion is through education? Are we to believe that religious schools are unable to teach the fundamentals of the religion so that the followers of the religion are not confused? Why then should there be religious schools, or religious teachings when the followers of the religion have to be protected at all time rather than taught to protect themselves. As religion is a private matter, confused thoughts harboured by some do not harm others. In any case there will be much fewer persons who might be confused and why should the government enact a rule which affect the entire population of people following a specific religion?

  3. #3 by good coolie on Wednesday, 11 September 2013 - 8:49 pm

    Although some Muslims were critical of the 9/11 carnage, most Muslims in Malaysia were elated at the successful attack. It seemed the U.S. deserved it because of its oppression of Muslims, especially the Palestinians (through U.S’s allies, the Zionist Israelis).

    An important aspect of the history of Islam during its early days is the astounding military success of the Islamic forces. This, coupled with disaffection of people with the Byzantine Christian rulers helped in the spread of Islam.

    Is it any wonder that people believe that a return to Islamic fundamentalism (like Salafism) is the answer to Western domination vis-a-vis Muslim countries. Language like “enemies of Islam’ are symptomatic of this state of mind. Who are these enemies? Why do people need for there to be enemies of Islam?

    Western countries do not consider Islam as enemy. It is just that their conception of human rights conflicts with certain teachings of Islam. The way forward is to make common cause with the West on matters such as freedom of speech, religious freedom, rights of women, etc. The Malaysian, Indian, and Indonesian way of practising Islam is to be favoured over the Middle Eastern, Iranian and Saudi Arabian way.

  4. #4 by sheriff singh on Thursday, 12 September 2013 - 12:09 am

    In their muddled minds, many think they are fighting for and serving god and will get their reward of 72 virgins or something like that.

    The more extreme ones are able to poison the feeble minds of many innocents, changing them into extremists with chips on their shoulders, ready to blow their tops for no good reason.

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