Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

‘Muslims’, ‘Islamists’, and ‘Islamics’: The Dilemma of ‘Sacred’ Interpretation

In Guest Blogger, Intellectual History on May 21, 2010 at 2:23 pm


Here is a belated (on my part) post form our own Mohammed Cherkaoui, who returns to Confrontations with another fascinating piece on an important Arab thinker, this one more recently departed. Mohammed’s object in this essay is the  Mohamed Abed Al-jabri who passed away earlier this month. In Mohammed’s care, we see Al-Jabri as a careful and forward looking thinker who recognized the inherent dangers that come with a modernizing Islam, but who tried to forge a path toward a coherent future.

There is surely much for you to debate in Cherkaoui’s argument and his use of evocative phrases like “Salafists with liberal tendencies” and “a scientific critique of Arab reason by renouncing the traditional understanding of tradition” should get you thinking and curious about this intriguing figure that Mohammed introduces to us here.

From my vantage at Confrontations, I see this as a great moment to think about how the imagery of the “West against the Rest”can be set aside for support for engagement with the indigenous development of alternative modernities around the world. If Mohammed is right, then we should use the occasion of Al-Jabri’s passing to explore his answers to the questions that we all face.

While mourning the death of the Moroccan philosopher Mohamed Abed Al-jabri (May 3, 2010), one commentator said the loss of Al-jabri was also a “farewell to the reason and the philosophy of religions”, in recognition of his advocacy of innovative and modern thinking.
Through his four-volume critique of Arab Reason as his life-long academic project since 1970, Al-jabri was a strong advocate of rationalism and a fearless critic of tradition that means merely repeating history. He argued that “Arabs live in their past before their present; they remain in the memory of the past more than planting their aspirations for building their future and advancing their generations.”

His still under-explored work has been considered “the most comprehensive intellectual project for the analysis and critique of the Arab mind”, as argued one critic. By the way, the first English translation of his volume the Formation of Arab Reason has just been published in November 2009.

In addition to several inter- and/or intra-state conflicts expanding from Morocco to Indonesia, most Muslim countries have been engulfed in a mega-conflict of the 21st century between Islamist minorities and Islamic majorities over the ‘best’ course of governance. From a parallel perspective, Western societies have wrestled with the disparities among millions of Euro-Muslims and American Muslims across the labels of ‘moderate’, ‘militant’, ‘radical’, ‘extremist’, or ‘terrorist’ Muslims.

The irony is that the same Salafi (fundamentalist) approach, that was dominant in the discourse of the Arab ‘nahda‘ (renaissance) movement at the beginning of the 20th century, has come back a century later as a radicalized and polarizing force of exclusion along distant interpretations of religious texts. According to Al-jabri, this extremism justifies itself in economic disparities, democracy, and other things. He also argued that the Arab mind has failed to achieve its ‘scientific revolution’ because it has internalized the systems of religious interpretation.

Accordingly, the gap has been growing between the ‘Islamists ‘, as the guardians of tradition trying to produce a straight line between the present and the Prophet Mohamed’s era, and the ‘Islamics’ as the importers of the Western model of modernization with different variations.

Since they decided to enter the ballots in the last two decades on the principle of political ‘purity’, Islamist elites have tried to create a sense of new collectiveness around the notion of the ‘exclusive’ Umma (nation), while developing counter-narratives of ‘morality’, ‘justice’, and ‘organic’ connection between the mosque and the state, vis-à-vis others labeled as ‘less devoted’ Muslims. The struggle for an anti-colonial Islamist/nationalist culture by the Muslim Brothers in Egypt since 1928, and their affiliations throughout the Middle East and South Asia, has transformed into a contestation of the political identity of Muslims.

Subsequently, Freud’s reflection about the narcissism of minor differences has been full swing as a search for self-identification among Muslims from all streams. Now, most of them pray in either Sunni or Shia mosques, send their children to separate schools, and bury their dead in exclusive cemeteries. These tendencies have brought to the fore some fragmenting, backward-looking, and exclusive identity politics, which at best involve psychological discrimination against those labeled differently.

Consequently, several Sunni-oriented states have tried to contain what they perceive as the Shia ‘danger’, which has sought mobilization in remote Sunni ‘territories’ such as Morocco, Yemen, and Pakistan. This Islamist-Islamic meta-conflict also entails the dynamics of failed structural ‘national’ identities in 57 Islamic countries, and opens up space for a collective agent of a “we” who can do something in the name of the “true” and therefore only Islam.

But, does this simplified duality of ‘Islamists’ versus ‘Islamics’ capture the dynamics of the conflict?

Al-jabri argued that the rigidity of difference between the two sides has formulated a third stance of compromise. Moreover, these ‘Compromisers’ have differed among themselves; and subsequently turned into “Salafists with liberal tendencies, Liberals with Salafi worldviews, Arab Marxists, Liberal Nationalists…and other complex ‘mixing’ variations.”

In short, this meta-conflict encompasses the failure of the Enlightenment in the Islamic world, as well as the unfulfilled modernization of Islamic institutions.

The question remains how to reconcile this conflict?

The prospects of reaching some common ground between the two sides remain feasible. Al-jabri has drawn a road map of how to by-pass the current polarization of the Arab reason between an imported modernism that disregards Arab tradition and a fundamentalism that would reconstruct the present in the image of an idealized past.

He explained how Arab reason lacks an adequate historical perspective and objectivity, and can only be renewed through a “serious questioning of the old and through a global and in-depth critique.” Instead of being absorbed by tradition or trying to assimilate Western modernization, Al-jabri proposes a scientific critique of Arab reason by renouncing the traditional understanding of tradition.

By studying his anti-thesis against the dilemma of (mis)interpretation of religious texts, one can foresee the prospects of the long-awaited ‘scientific revolution’ in the Arab mind.

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  1. […] Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, sums it up quite well in his excellent website Confrontations: From my vantage at Confrontations, I see this as a great moment to think about how the imagery of […]

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