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Other People’s History: Contemporary Islam and Figures of Early Modern European Dissent by Sadia Abbas


Other People’s History:
Contemporary Islam and Figures of Early Modern European Dissent

Sadia Abbas

“The Hanging” by Jacques Callot, ca. 1633

     1. Everyone seems to think Islam needs a Reformation. The demand is almost ubiquitous. Neoconservatives have made it part of their radical project for the transformation of the planet. FrontPagemag.com, David Horowitz’s Neo-McCarthyite online journal has hosted, along with columns by Ann Coulter and Daniel Pipes, an entire symposium on “The Islamic Reformation.”1On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Paul Wolfowitz, too, declared that Islam needed one, which gives us a good idea of how that reformation is meant to proceed.2 Liberals have joined the chorus. Salman Rushdie has recently said a Reformation is just what Islam requires.3 Sometimes Islam’s very permission to remain on the planet seems to depend upon it.

     2. It is perhaps hard to appreciate the full incongruity of a Zionist neoconservative, like Wolfowitz, in a government headed by a Methodist evangelical, urging upon a third religion the doctrinal revolution associated with Western Christianity; and, of course, the change being urged is not only doctrinal. This Reformation is meant to bring Islamic societies into line with liberalism, neoliberalism, and neoconservatism, all at once. It can become difficult to tell liberals and conservatives apart when it comes to sorting out their views on Islam.

     3. Wolfowitz and his cohort don’t usually explain what they mean by the Reformation, so one can reasonably assume they have the term’s most popular and conventional meanings in mind. Theirs is the Reformation of textbook Whiggish fantasy — Cliff notes for Weber: Protestantism, the inward turn, the authority of individual conscience, the rise of bourgeois self-discipline, the welcome creep of capitalism. Most often, it is simply a symbol, or an agent, of modernity.

     4. The idea seems to be, broadly, that the Reformation’s inward turn — its rejection of law and ritual in favour of a vividly experienced faith — will automatically lead to the kinds of developments so dearly desired for the Muslim world, that there is an automatic, inherent, natural connection between capitalism, personal freedom and something called the Reformation, which was once Christian but now must be the future of all religions. The inward turn comes with an outward teleology. Reformation can only lead to one historical end: the achievement of whatever is considered by the speaker to be the ideal of Western modernity.

     5. In the account I’m describing, the Reformation lies congealed as the moment in European history when interior belief turned into the institutional challenge; the inward turn was a fist in the face of a corrupt Catholic church auctioning salvation. If we graft this understanding onto the current Muslim situation, we might conclude that these hypothetical Protestants for Allah will challenge the mothballed traditionalism that permeates every aspect of Muslim life, and that prevents the entrapped moderates from fighting the worst backward-looking jihadist ideologies.

Consider, for instance, the following examples:
The moderator for Frontpagemag asks:
Does Islam need a reformation? How come it never had one? Why is self-criticism and self-questioning almost unheard of in Islam?4

A PLO guerilla turned evangelical Christian and Zionist, Walid Shoebat responds:

Christian reformation started when followers went to the text and the founders of the faith who clearly prohibited genocide and murder. Yet Muslims cannot do the same, since the founders themselves (Muhammad the prophet of Islam, the Sahaba, and the Caliphs) all participated in Jihad by killing infidels and whoever opposed the Islamic system.
This is why the talk of reformation can never be by “re-interpretation” but “confession”.
Is this panel ready to do that?5

Sheobat is challenging the other panelists who are reform-oriented Muslims. They, in turn, give complicated answers that refuse to concede the moderator’s claim that self-criticism is almost unheard of in Islam. Nonetheless, the naked bigotry of many of the proponents of this position is fully in view.

     6. In the different context of a Washington Post Op-Ed, Salman Rushdie writes:

     What is needed is a move beyond tradition — nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the jihadist ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows to let in much-needed fresh air.

     It would be good to see governments and community leaders inside the Muslim world as well as outside it throwing their weight behind this idea, because creating and sustaining such a reform movement will require above all a new educational impetus whose results may take a generation to be felt, a new scholarship to replace the literalist diktats and narrow dogmatisms that plague present-day Muslim thinking. It is high time, for starters, that Muslims were able to study the revelation of their religion as an event inside history, not supernaturally above it.6

Rushdie’s thought is often intellectually cluttered, as it is here. Within the piece, he is concerned to point out that the Muslim Council of Britain’s head, Iqbal Sacranie, is complicit with the most degraded reactionary positions. Sacranie did say after The Satanic Verses was published that death was “too good” for Rushdie, and has been engaged in a policy of radical denial, regarding the growth of jihadist thought, and of jihadist bullying of other Muslims, in Britain.7 Since the fatwa he has been trying to portray himself as a moderate. Nevertheless, what’s particularly bizarre in Rushdie’s argument, if one can call it that, is that he starts by invoking a kind of anti-seminarian vision of Protestant theological individualism, but then seems to want to talk about Reformation as a form of secularization. Islam needs to become less of a religion in order to reform: it needs to shed its supernatural components.

     7. If Reformation can be read as secular in this way, let’s stretch the analogy in a different direction. Even the most spiritualized accounts of the Reformation see it as a challenge to a massive and powerful institutional structure that spread across Europe and beyond. If there is a contemporary network of institutions that has anything like the same geographical reach and purchase, it is the World Bank, the IMF, Nato, the U.S. military, a crippled and hostage United Nations — in other words, the institutions that are usually used as tools of imperial domination. These institutions may not be religious, but they do demand extraordinary acts of submission and affiliation. It is not that farfetched to suggest that the militant Islamists are most closely engaged in the Reformation the neo-conservatives think they are enjoining when they attack these institutions of Western imperial domination.

     8. It is, of course, hardly a surprise that the neoconservatives and neoliberals do not see themselves as part of the problem. In the discursive cluster represented by these examples, the Reformation is nothing other than an amnesiac vehicle for self-flattery, and for a blockage of precisely what its name has come to represent: the institution of further and ongoing reform within the West of its most cherished political, economic and intellectual orthodoxies. One would never know from these discussions that sectarian rivers of blood flowed during the Reformation, that religious violence is a pervasive concern in early modern thought. Christopher Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris and Milton’s “On the Massacre in Piedmont,” are haunted by a fear of and anger at the massacre. Samson Agonistes is tempted by it. Montaigne’s Apology for Raymond Sebond and “Of Cannibals” are shaped by the imperative to keep violence at bay. Phineas Fletcher’s The Apollyonists and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are exultantly bloodthirsty sectarian texts.

     9. Against the still unfolding apocalypse of America’s and Britain’s newly naked imperialism and the violence of such sanctimonious calls for reform as I have mentioned, postcolonial skepticism regarding narratives of Western progress, modernity and teleology acquires a renewed and disturbing intelligibility — even to those of us who are wary of the settling of anti-teleological modes of historical thinking into uninstructive academic cliché.

     10. Anti-teleological thought tends to take as its target the notion that all history must lead to a Western ideal of modernity. The bundle of characteristics in this modernity varies, but can include any combination of a fairly familiar list of sins: a critical distance between academic subject and “superstitious” religious object of scrutiny and scholarship, a tendency to erase the past, the (secular) tendency to alienate and rationalize lived (religious) experience, a disabling suspicion of tradition, an enshrinement of the totalizing conceptual grab of reason, the erasure of local worlds under the abstraction-generating universalizing violence of Western thought.8

     11. Anti-teleological thought need not accept every aspect of this cluster and is not always opposed to finding configurations of the modern outside the West. It functions frequently simply to characterize and dismiss views uncongenial to the person availing herself of its critical charge. My point is not to support teleological thinking and its commitment to historical or metaphysical narratives of inevitability, but to think carefully about what opposition to it bans, and, more importantly, about the fiat by which an entire host of historical developments and political and conceptual commitments can be called into question by a series of metonymic displacements. Thus, for instance, secular commitments can be called into question simply through their ostensible philosophical dependency upon Western teleologies, upon the idea of teleology itself.

     12. Within the critical schemes of anti-teleological and anti-modern thought, comparisons between the postcolonial — the word seems like an increasingly egregious misnomer — present and the European, or Western, past appear strictly forbidden. Anti-teleological arguments make any talk of an “Islamic Reformation” automatically suspect if the presence of the term in Wolfowitz’s mouth had not already curdled it. The very term “Islamic Reformation” is a case study in Western narratives of teleological development. The term is an explicit example of a European historical category flung in judgment at the non-European world to show its backwardness in the temporal race, to hurry it along, but to show simultaneously that it will always be behind.

     13. If to compare current events in the postcolonial world to Europe’s past is to participate in the ideology of empire, analogizing contemporary events in the Muslim world to Reformation religious strife in Europe would seem to partake of the worst sins of European historical consciousness. What then are we to do with the circulation of the term, and figures associated with it, in contemporary Muslim and Arab discourse? What are we to do with the comparisons that are made by Muslim and Arab thinkers — who are not Westernized in the way of Rushdie — themselves?

     14. Despite the taboos installed by contemporary theory, Muslim and Arab thinkers routinely compare East and West. Some enjoin a Reformation, others compare aspects of the current Muslim situation to it, many disavow the analogy and then let it back in anyway as if there were no escape from the comparison. As is only to be expected, in this context the term acquires a dramatically different weight and is put to different uses. Sometimes, in both East and West, what has been going on in different parts of the Muslim world since 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution, is analogized to early modern European strife. The analogy is occasionally extended, as when threatened Muslim writers are compared to figures of European dissent such as Giordano Bruno and Galileo. So one might encounter a list that includes Farag Foda, Salman Rushdie, Bruno, Galileo, Naguib Mahfouz and Ibn Rwandi. Even though our current teleo-skepticism suggests that all such analogies inherently serve the empire, the very opposite can turn out to be the case. To think contrapuntally, as Edward Said enjoined, is to think comparatively. Banning the analogy preemptively cedes far too much to an evolutionary account of Western political history. Critical analogical thinking is a necessity in our globalized world — if fearlessly contrapuntal, it can exert tremendous pressure upon Western mythographies.9

     15. The examples that follow showcase a chronic anxiety about belatedness and a fear of being conscripted into Western teleologies, but we also see that when progressive Muslims embrace, or even skittishly disavow and then tentatively entertain the analogy, it is not teleological — if only because their understandings are predicated on a more complex, less triumphalist, reading of European history than either Rushdie or Wolfowitz possess. Their readings of the analogy often see secularism, enlightenment, toleration as pragmatic accommodations prompted by an exploding Europe trying to survive its own violence. Such readings are far indeed from the numinous vision of secular modernity as the manifest destiny of an “always already” enlightened Europe — a Europe whose most convulsed religious moment must be read as immanently secular.

     16. Although sectarian is not how the West likes to think of itself, it’s worth remembering that even the call for Reformation is an ongoing reminder of sectarian schism, like a metaphor that refuses to die a decently invisible death. When the neoconservatives imply that the world needs more Protestantism, they reveal what is hidden at the heart of one of the West’s most cherished images of its own modernity: a vision of Catholicism as a moribund sect, embodying all that is still understood as retrograde in a history the West likes to think it has surpassed. Can you help but wonder how the Catholics feel every time they hear that the problem with Islam is that it isn’t enough like Protestantism, that it’s too much like Catholicism?

     17. Reformation and its assumed outcomes encode an entire discourse about politics, dissent and change under conditions of Western political and discursive domination. What is up for contest is nothing less than the morality of a conception of European history that interprets the Reformation, Enlightenment, an extraordinarily inflated conception of individual autonomy, and secularism as the manifest destiny of European modernity, an unfolding of time stretched taut upon the gradually revealed moral laws of the socio-political evolution of the West. The supposed inevitability of this story is itself meant to stand witness to the political and moral superiority of the West. At stake in this discussion are the political morality of European time and the very possibility of dissent and change in the spaces the West continues to imperil.

     18. Let’s start with those who are wary of the comparison. In Progressive Muslim: On Gender, Justice, and Pluralism, a volume responding to September 11, Omid Safi, a scholar based in the U.S. Academy, brings together a number of other Muslims, all of whom are concerned to produce progressive interpretations of Islam. In the introduction, he addresses the question of whether the contributors have embarked on a “sort of “Islamic Reformation.” “The question [he says] is usually asked seriously, and it deserves a serious answer. The answer is both yes and no.”10 He takes seriously a thinker such as Abdullahi an-Na’im, the Sudanese scholar, who has argued passionately for the usefulness of the term, but has trouble with it for a number of reasons. Since many people have in mind the “Protestant Reformation, as initiated by Martin Luther: when they enjoin an Islamic one, he is uncomfortable.11 The project of progressive Muslims is not to develop a “Protestant” Islam as distinct from a “Catholic version.” By this he seems to mean only that the intention is not sectarian and divisive; it is not to make some segments of Islam separate from others. This, of course, simply reminds us of the strife unleashed by the Reformation.

     19. He is also “dubious” about the notion that other religious traditions needs must follow “the historical and cultural course of action laid out by the Christian tradition.”12 The term implies to him “a notion of a significant break with the past.” It is not a break he is willing to accept; and he offers instead a view of the “progressive Muslim project” as “not so much an epistemological rupture from what has come before as a fine-tuning, a polishing, a grooming, and editing, a re-emphasizing of this and a correction of that. In short, it is a critical engagement with the heritage of Islamic thought, rather than a casual bypassing of its accomplishments.”13

     20. Of course, Luther and early Reformers did not think they were breaking with the Christian past, or, initially, even with the Catholic church. The project was rather to restore to Christianity a burnished and cleansed original true church.14 Re-emphasis and fine-tuning are precisely what the Reformers were after.

     21. The branding of the progressive Muslim thinker Abdolkarim Soroush as an “Iranian Luther” is inadequate because it particularizes to one person a project in which many more are engaged. As Safi says, “At least in our group of progressive Muslims there are no would be Luther’s. There are, however, Ebrahim Moosa and Zohara Simmons, Sa’adiyya Shaikh, etc., and that is what matters here. Let us engage issues, not attempt to mold each other into the shape of long-dead icons.”15 Then Safi goes on to give another reason. He reports on a question he was asked at a liberal arts college on what he thought of the fact that “many economic and social factors (rise of the middle class, increase in literacy etc.)” had to be in place before the “Protestant Reformation could occur in Europe. The answer came clear to my heart: we cannot wait. There are clearly far too many places in the Muslim world that suffer from an appalling lack of literacy, huge and ever-growing socio-economic gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” political tyranny, religious exclusivism, gender injustice, etc. We do not have the luxury of sitting idly by in the vague hope that changes will take place before we start dealing with these difficult issues.”16 Perhaps most interesting at the moment is the sense that the urgencies of the situation are ultimately greater than the terminological dispute, which, even as it shows the West’s habitual blindness to itself, elicits the insight that the difficulties require more than yet another referendum on the colonial encounter, and that the responsible believer does not have the luxury of social rest. At this moment, using a term borrowed from history acts as an impediment to necessary political action, because it commits one to reproducing the conditions that might have prevailed at the time. Thus is history hobbled and deferred, adduced to say “maybe not yet,” and change consigned to the waiting room of historical law.

     22. A second case: In a scholarly article, about the cross-influences between revival groups in Egypt, Pakistan, and Sudan, Abdelwahab el-Affendi writes:

There are at least two main problems with the ‘Reformation’ approach to Muslim thought and history. It is now well-known that the Eurocentric and teleological assumptions behind it — which see the history of Christianity in Europe as a model that every religion must go through — cannot withstand serious examination. It is not at all necessary that a religion should undergo a Reformation, nor does it follow that Reformation has to lead eventually to secularism. But, second and more important still, the ‘messianic’ waiting for that inevitable Muslim Luther neglects the important fact that Islam was itself an earlier Reformation of the Abrahamic heritage. The main criticisms which Luther leveled against the privileged carriers of the message in favour of the message itself, and his emphasis on the individual spiritual dimension of the faith, are recurrent themes in the Qur’an. This is the secret of Islam’s vitality and resistance to erosion by the corrosive forces of modernity.17

El-Affendi casually turns the tables by calling Islam the earlier Reformation. Islam does not need to be corrected or updated because it has itself already rectified the other monotheisms. In this version, the teleology of modernity is trumped, even transcended, by the eschatology shared by Islam and Christianity. That some scholars defend Islam by attacking teleological thought is simply silly. Islam comes with its own sacral teleology, its own apocalyptic historical ends. It is profoundly contradictory to attack progress narratives when you end up implicitly defending the far more extravagant historical ends of eschatology.18

     23. It is this eschatology that makes it mistaken to read Islam, as Orientalists have, as a belated and derivative latecomer on the religious and world-historical scene. For, from the point of view El-Affendi presents here, Islam is instead an improver and perfecter of the earlier monotheisms. In this, it is not different from a Christianity that understands itself as furthering God’s plan by exceeding and correcting Judaism.

     24. El-Affendi might be resisting modernity in his designation of Islam’s origins as a Reformation, but this vision of the achievement of a divine, historical plan comes with its own narrative of historical progress, and of the future. Can we really separate modern universalist thought from the Muslim philosophical tradition? What if we read the history of the monotheisms as series of doctrinal civil wars — Abraham’s children wrestling each other in a long philosophical contest, whose arena is the space of human time, of history itself?

     25. Against this discursive and conceptual backdrop, Talal Asad’s quintessentially teleo-skeptical view of what he designates as a specifically Western eighteenth-century notion of historical time and progress is strangely inadequate:

It was in Europe’s eighteenth century that the older, Christian attitudes toward historical time (salvational expectation) were combined with the newer, secular practices (rational prediction) to give us our modern idea of progress. A new philosophy of agency was also developed, allowing individual actions to be related to collective tendencies. From the Enlightenment philosophes, through the Victorian evolutionist thinkers, to the experts on economic and political development in the latter half of the twentieth century, one assumption has been constant: to make history, the agent must create the future, remake herself, and help others to do so, where the criteria of successful remaking are seen to be universal. Old universes must be subverted and a new universe created. To that extent, history can be made only on the back of a universal teleology. Actions seeking to maintain the “local” status quo, or to follow local models of social life, do not qualify as history making. From the Cargo cults of Melanesia to the Islamic Revolution in Iran, they merely attempt (hopelessly) “to resist the future” or “to turn back the clock of history.”19

As an account of the self-understanding, through the prism of which the West might view the rest of the world, this may be accurate, but, in Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam and Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Asad also seems to accept the story he presents here.

     26. In both these books, Asad seems to want to say that there’s something wrong with this account: it’s an imposition. But his mode of resisting the account is to implicitly endorse the nonwestern “Others” he offers as, happily “local,” alternatives. Their greatest claim to anti-imperialist defiance lies in their radical difference. Asad’s is part of a body of scholarship and theory in which secularism, liberalism, ideals of individual autonomy and modernity are taken to coalesce into one imperialist complex. Religion is produced as the pure, authentic, unalienated alternative to Western hegemony, subversive and an exemplary preserver of temporal, spatial, and conceptual difference.20 The opposition thus set up stabilizes the Whiggish narrative. Where a Whig historian might see these developments as a mark of Western superiority, Asad seems to see them as evidence of its rotting underbelly, lying flat and stiflingly heavy on “local” worlds.

     27. Aamir Mufti has argued that the West is a series of plots and narratives for Asad and that its dominance lies in the convincing nature of its stories. Mufti is right, but I would like to add an accent: the West is a Whiggish and temporal narrative for Asad — although, his genealogical and Foucauldian procedure makes it a skittishly rendered one.21 The most modern thing about Europe is that it thinks it’s modern. Modernity and, implicitly, Western imperialism can thus be challenged by imagining other worlds.

     28. It could be argued that — when he ordered the smashing of the idols in Mecca, inscribed the idea of Paradise, claimed for Islam the history of Judaism and Christianity, of the people of the book, effectively of all monotheism — Mohammad (PBUH) was putting into effect a version of history that not only bore a remarkable resemblance to Christian conceptions of salvational time but was an active re-formulation and reclamation of them. Universal teleology seems precisely the wrong site to separate Christianity from Islam, or a secular present from the past, either Muslim or Christian. And prediction was already a goal for pre-Copernican astronomy, so a “newer, secular” prediction is hard to parse. Mohammad’s smashing of the idols was, moreover, hardly an act of circumspect self-effacement, hardly a relinquishing of a future-oriented agency. Perhaps the combination is new, but still not as pathologically Western as Asad might have it. The generalizing sweep of the historical bricolage presented in the passage violates every precept of contingency and particularity of Asad’s otherwise Foucauldian anthropology.

     29. In contrast, Abdullahi An-Naim, a Sudanese human rights activist, and legal scholar insists that Islam does need a Reformation. He argues that Muslim fury — a justified response to imperial aggression and neoimperialist encroachment — has led to a situation in which Muslims have tried to reinstitute shari’a, the historical principles of Islamic law and ethics based on the Qur’an and Sunnah, as if centuries had not intervened between the time it was in effect and the present. Some have suggested shari’a should be open to ijtihad, which he translates as “juristic reasoning,” in order to make it consonant with the times.22 However, since ijtihad can only be exercised in matters not covered by the “clear and categorical texts of the Quran and Sunnah,” its scope needs must be limited. His suggestion is that the concept of ijtihad itself be revised so that it can address matters that appear categorical even within the Quran and Sunnah.23 This is necessary because within the modern world An-Na’im believes a principle of reciprocity (which he calls the idea that one ought to treat others as one would wish to be treated oneself) is crucial in addition to a nationalist, anti-colonial right to self-determination. Within international relations, intercommunal relations within nation-states, relations between individuals or within the state or community at large, this principle needs to prevail if the political costs are not to be severe.24 New hermeneutic principles are required, correctable guidelines that would explain which features of Islam are open to reinterpretation and how they are to be interpreted. This process he calls an Islamic Reformation.

     30. About the term, he goes on to say:

The notion of reformation evokes images of a Lutheran revolt against the dogma and hierarchy of the Catholic church and the evolution of the European “Enlightenment.” This should not deter us from applying the term to other situations, because, in essence, it signifies the challenge of any dogma and the exposure of any tradition to a different or novel tradition. . . . An Islamic Reformation does not mean secularization because Islam is not Christianity and the Muslim world is not Europe. . . . An Islamic Reformation cannot be a belated and poor copy of the European Christian model. It will have to be an indigenous and authentically Islamic process if it is to be a reformation at all.25

An-Naim’s argument twists and turns, and it is hard to determine why exactly he feels the need to embrace the term. He does so, to some extent, because he is claiming for himself a genealogy of Muslim modernists, many of whom were influenced by, but who also reacted against, the West. His embrace of the term is also polemical, prompted by a commitment to acknowledging the need for critique and change, which, within the postcolonial context, is inextricable from the depredations of colonial and imperial aggression.26 One depredation, among many, is an anti-imperialist reaction that imagines an ethically perfect pre-colonial past and is committed to reproducing this imagined idyll. An-Na’im’s adherence to the term becomes a way of refusing a mode of Muslim apologetics that rejects all progressive reform as Western.

     31. But An-Na’im’s argument does not concede the cultural superiority of the West or deny the violence of colonial and imperial aggression. Ironically, by broadening the scope of the idea of reform, it seems a way to claim a space for change despite conditions of Western hegemony. One of the more complex consequences of this hegemony is the difficulty of sustaining and initiating internal social critique because it so often appears to echo the challenges of those in the West who have imperialist agendas. But An-Na’im’s language also provides a way of denying certain Western uses of the term, and any exclusive Western claim on a modernity that is repeatedly seen as contingent upon this historical moment. It becomes a way of pressing the urgency of internal imperatives within a larger planetary context, of insisting that Muslims are capable of being political and reforming agents themselves, and of refusing to accept a morally and politically corrosive bad faith that points to imperial aggression as a way of foreclosing internal reform, indeed of denying its necessity.

     32. An-Na’im concludes the article by saying that since in Islam the link between the divine and the temporal is too strong “to admit of a stable and lasting secularization” the “ideal answer” appears to be an Islamic Reformation.” However, he says, barring that outcome, “as an Arabized Muslim whose loyalty is to the cause of justice and peace for all Sudanese, [he] would rather live in a secularized Sudan than in one ruled by Islamic Shari’a.”27 The final recourse to secularism is tellingly framed. It emerges as a pragmatic necessity embraced even by one who might rather have a reconfigured Muslim framework for law, not as an intrinsically ethical historical good.

     33. An-Na’im published the article I discuss above in response to the Rushdie affair. The ideas are developed more fully in his book, Towards an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law (1996). The Rushdie affair was the first shot fired in the new internationalist phase of Islamist militancy, and, despite the gradual (and perhaps psychologically understandable) degeneration of Rushdie’s own rhetoric and thought after the fatwa, the conversation that arose around it continues to be useful for thinking about issues of dissent and social change in the Muslim and Arab context. In For Rushdie: Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech (1993), a volume to which Edward Said contributed, Emile Habibi, the Israeli-Arab writer, and a member of the Communist Party of Palestine under the British Mandate, writes:

If our civilization were resolutely honest and of good faith, it would have immortalized the name of Farag Foda beside those of Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno.

     The whole of European civilization is based on the teachings of the sage Socrates who preferred drinking poison over making concessions to rationality. There, in truth, is the essence of all civilization, be it Western or Eastern. But how many educated Europeans know the name of Abou-l’-Ala Maarri, [sic-Abul Al’ Ma’arri] who also died of poison, having never compromised his own beliefs: “I have no other Imam but my reason.”

     Another deficiency of contemporary global civilization is precisely that it has not yet become truly global, at least not in content. It is rather a question of closed upon themselves . . . refusing to recognize how they participate in one another.28

Habibi’s fatuous reference to Socrates repeats some European fantasies about European civilization. But this reference to Bruno and Galileo provides a way of issuing a challenge to the West, and to defenders of Rushdie, to have about the “East” an honest equity of knowledge, to recognize in truly global terms the history of human heterodoxy, and the persecutions dissent encounters. Bruno and Galileo enable both the naming of dissent and the identification of a cultural blindness that fails to recognize “civilization” in others.

     34. In the same volume, Sadik J. Al-Azm, a Syrian Marxist and philosopher, and one of the leading secularists in the Arab world concludes an acerbic essay by invoking the Galileo affair as well:

Do not forget it was only in November 1992 that the Catholic Church’s clerical hierarchy formally admitted having done nothing [sic] wrong to Galileo. Remember that the mills of the gods grind very slowly on both sides of the East-West divide, and try to learn a thing or two from the historical experience of the Catholic church in never admitting to a major error, but always proceeding to aufgehoben that error after assimilating it.29

For these writers, responding with a kind of sardonic despair to the Rushdie affair, the East-West encounter is inescapable — as a historical narrative, a set of intellectual skirmishes, a series of political confrontations and an ongoing imperialist geopolitical reality. The imbrication of these names, narratives, and realities is the spot from which they have to begin in order to launch their dissent. In this, they are exemplary figures in the political, ethical and historical entanglement that are postcoloniality, or even imperialism itself. The space for individual dissent available within this entanglement is already limited and always shrinking, but it is not a space they are willing to surrender. That would be the final triumph of imperialism — a complete evisceration of the language of dissent which deprives the colonized of even the dignity of dissidence.

     35. In a recent talk delivered in Germany, discussing and defending the possibility of secular humanism within an Islamic context, Al-Azm describes the last quarter of the nineteenth-century in the Arab and Muslim world. The century witnessed a “great movement of liberal reform and latitudinarian religious interpretation in Arab life and thought.” He tells us that this period has been variously named by “ourselves” as well as Western scholars “a Renaissance, religious reformation, the liberal experiment, Muslim modernism, the liberal age of modern Arab thought.” According to him, this movement compressed in itself “a theological reformation, a literary-intellectual renaissance, a rational-scientific enlightenment of sorts and a political and ideological aggiornamento well.”30 If a descendant of this movement were asked if Islam and secular humanism are compatible, the answer, he claims, would be a resounding yes.

     36. He also then goes on to describe the reaction that this trend produced as a form of “counter-Reformation and as a Muslim fundamentalist movement.” The reaction, he argues, crystallized at “the moment of the establishment of the Muslim Brothers movement in Egypt in 1928.” He goes on to say that anyone who regards himself as an adherent of this movement would say “no” in response to the questions: “Are Islam and secularism compatible?” and “Are Islam and democracy compatible?”

     37. Al-Azm raises the stakes on the notion of an Islamic Reformation by openly invoking the idea of an Islamist Counter-Reformation. Although he does not elaborate on its historical meaning, bringing in the idea of the counter-reformation completes the despairing dialectic from within. European history provides the terms of both sides of an internal argument. Of course, the analogy also breaks down because it is not tidily translatable; we are not talking about Wittenberg and the Council of Trent. Analogies, like allegory, rarely lend themselves to perfect correspondence. The dialectic, as is so often the case in the anti-imperialist context, is both specific to itself and internal, in permanent dialogue with the West, from which ideas are borrowed, rejected, radically adapted and changed and used to challenge the West on terms that hold it accountable to its own history — which, for better or for worse, is also everyone else’s.31

     38. Al-Azm’s implicit reminder is that it is a history of fits and starts, and hardly qualifies for the smoothly linear inevitability of self-flattering fantasies of achieved progress. Of course, it is unlikely that Wolfowitz’s vision of Reformation includes reactionary retrenchment, the Council of Trent, Cardinal Bellarmine, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, Ignatius of Loyola, Catholic martyrdom, or the rejection of Erasmian humanism, even as he and his fellows are themselves purveyors of destruction and reaction.

     39. In Genealogies of Religion, Asad writes that non-Westerners seeking to understand their own, “local histories must also inquire into Europe’s past because it is through the latter that universal history has been constructed. That history defines the former as merely “local” — that is, as histories with limits.” The European Enlightenment constitutes for him the historical position from which Westerners typically approach non-Western traditions. As a result of this, Islamic states are seen as absolutist and devoid of public criticism. Asad’s project, then, is to show the “local” purchase of illiberal critiques of the state. He declares that anthropologists who “seek to describe rather than to moralize will consider each tradition in its own terms — even as it has come to be reconstituted by modern forces.”32 Yet, what precisely constitutes an Islamic tradition is exactly what is up for grabs in Arab and Muslim thought. Is tradition a set of practices, a set of texts, a cluster of self-understandings, or all of these? Is modernity — as Asad’s own smuggled in reference to the reconstitutive power of modern forces suggests — not part of the Muslim tradition today?

     40. What is not at all clear in Asad’s account is how the tradition is to be understood on its own terms? Where do we find these terms? How do we retrieve them? Asad’s procedure for reconciling the tension is simply to designate anyone who tries to argue for secularism Westernized, to insinuate that one cannot be secular and authentically Muslim, or Asian, or non-Western.33He recasts secularism as cultural treason. Although Asad periodically, strategically registers his distance from Foucault, his argument is thoroughly Foucauldian. Indeed, one could argue, he is himself a product of the Foucauldian episteme: torn between Foucault’s epistemic monolithicism and his contrary invocation of the local.

     41. Asad’s insistence that secularism in the West has come out of a particular history is valuable enough, but when he brackets the European past in this way — as just another local intellectual history — he cannot help but understate the global reach and insidious power of colonialism. Thus the strange paradox: Empire attempts to universalize, subsuming local differences. The local must be asserted in order to resist Empire. But it turns out that Empire was never as universalizing as we thought it was because the local has its own apparently untouchable history. In fact, the “local” is only that which is untouched. The West is, above all, a narrative for Asad; and the “local” is simply a space outside that story and the time it generates. But how is the claim for separate temporalities to be made in the contemporary globalized world? How is it to be made within the cosmic eschatology of monotheism? Does Asad’s Islam have a local god? Perhaps his Allah is a river nymph?

     42. Now, one could say, following Mufti, that Asad is engaged in something like the “tense balancing act,” Mufti argues, Said undertakes in Orientalism, that Asad, like Said, is attempting to account for the power of Orientalist description over Muslim societies, “while insisting at the same time that no system is so powerful as to conquer and exhaust, and thus invent, its human objects entirely.”34 But the kind of division Asad ends up stabilizing between East and West is precisely unlike Said’s subtle, and frequently reworked, contrapuntal humanism.

     43. Asad’s engagement with Western history is chronically selective. He argues, for example, that “conscience” is a modern, seventeenth-century, notion. He can only do this by refusing to engage the history of heresy in his own genealogical account of Christianity and Western individualism. But — as David Aers once argued in a powerful challenge to new historicist hegemony in early modern circles — heresy is one of the concepts over which the account of early modern history, as radically separate from the Middle Ages, becomes most unsustainable.35 To understand the prehistory of conscience, one might think of the obligation to tell and live the truth of their faith that prompts heretics to break with institutionally approved versions of their religion, an obligation that is experienced as individual until the heresy becomes the governing doctrine of a community. Yet again one of the more interesting things about Asad’s account is the extent to which it accepts the historical narrative that underpins the triumphalist account of modernity.

     44. Early modernists have had the tools for some time now to dismantle Whig history; it is the time they take on the anti-Whigs. North American scholars of Islam, and postcolonial religion more broadly, who mount vaguely Foucauldian defences of Islamism and orthodox religion, use arguments about agency and subject formation that are very familiar to early modernists. Sometimes they even use the work of early modern scholars in these defenses.36 We should fearlessly address questions of religious violence, radical dissent, and secularism and take on broader conceptual challenges than our, sometimes timorously narrow, scholarly moment has allowed. If ever there was a time, that the broader political and philosophical challenges posed by the religious history of the centuries early modernists study was urgent and immediate, it is now.

     45. The anti-teleological argument has become a political encumbrance. It is also conceptually limiting. A thin version is useful in so far as it allows for an approach that does not require that all history be hung on the pegs of European and American political history. It can function as a reminder that the rest of the world’s political aspirations and history don’t have to be stretched and torn to fit a Fukuyaman story of the American political present as the end of planetary history; and it can facilitate an historiographically sharper, skeptical account of Western history.

     46. But in its thick version, it suggests that teleological history is somehow uniquely Western, and such history imposes arid abstraction, necessitates a violent repudiation of varieties of human experience, at once homogenizes and excludes the world in a wind tunnel of stunning force and narcissism. Once political thought and historical concepts are so perceived, the most tempting ideological gesture is to knowingly wave away anything that might bear the faintest intimation of teleological thinking. Non-western teleologies and teleological universalisms can then be happily misrecognized, declared an effect of the translator’s sleight of hand, further evidence of the chronic, inescapable tyranny of Western labels. Misreading the temporal and historiographic entailments of “other,” in this case Muslim, conceptual schemes is an easy way to cling to our political orthodoxies.

     47. But the analogical use of a fraught, destructive and enabling moment from European history makes possible a reading of secularism as prompted by the necessity of survival. When Wolfowitz and Rushdie say that Islam needs a Reformation, early modernists can offer a few important clarifications: there was nothing assured about the outcome of almost two hundred years of religious strife, doctrinal adjustment, and institutional upheaval. Sola fide and the rediscovered right to individual interpretation were not guaranteed to lead to Enlightenment, or to secularism, or — if the valences of “secularism” and “Enlightenment” seem too diffuse — to the separation of church and state.

     48. Signally, the comparison also opens up possibilities for readings of the Reformation in history. It would be hard to tell from some of the references to the Reformation presented in this essay, that it was a backward looking, revivalist movement that sought to restore the purity of the early church, that a significant part of it looked to the Hebrew past for inspiration, that it gave rise to confessional states, that there were reactionary as well as radically egalitarian versions of it, that it lead to immense sectarian bloodshed, that the Protestants often joined in the bloodletting, that Europe almost tore itself to shreds as a result of a religious schism. When Westerners call for an Islamic Reformation, their use of the term has to repress most of Reformation history. Yet it is careful attention to the history of religious violence that Muslim and Arab thinking about the Reformation restores.

     49. Let us pause for a moment over some features of contemporary militant Islam: the radical politicization of theology, the challenge to institutional structures, the assertion of selfhood in the explosion of women’s Quranic study groups in Egypt and Pakistan, among other countries, the filling of the space for social welfare, left by failing governments, by such groups as Hamas in the Occupied territories, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Compare: the return to the book in the Reformation, the conventicles and other independent worship groups, the political freight of the Protestant cry of “sola fide,” the growth of women’s interpretive self-assertion, the violence of the peasant wars, the sectarian bloodshed of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the beheading of the monarch by a Puritan parliament. Now, let’s try to forget the analogies. Is it easy?

     50. In his recent bestseller, No god but God: The Origin, Evolution, and Future of Islam (2005), Reza Aslan makes much of these resemblances. The book is part of a rapidly growing genre of (mostly diasporic) Muslim apologetics — a mix of religious autobiography, religious reinterpretation, and Islamic history.37 Aslan claims that Islam is going through a Reformation today. Muslims are engaged in a battle for the “future of the faith,” a battle that is taking place between Muslims — who are usually the victims of the violence unleashed — more than it is between Islam and the West. The Christian Reformation was a “violent bloody argument that engulfed Europe in devastation and war for more than a century. Thus far the Islamic Reformation has proved no different.”38 Like the Christian Reformation, it has opened up conflicting interpretations and created “wildly divergent and competing ideologies.” And Osama Bin Laden must be understood as a product of this Reformation.39

     51. Aslan throws wide open the door the trope of Reformation has been nudging all along. This is a good moment to remember that the European Reformers were themselves backward looking, participants in a revival movement, attempting to purify the religion and return it to the foundations. They wanted to bring all of life under the purview of religion. Theirs was, indeed, a kind of fundamentalism. They were, moreover, trying to break with their local histories and refashion Europe on foreign models. What is not often appreciated was that theirs was already an “other people’s history.” The future looked back to an earlier East. One has only to think of the English nonconformist predilection for Semitic names — Ezekiel, Seth, Isaiah — to remember that a significant portion of, for instance, English Protestants looked to the Middle East for a reconstituted nation that would lead to salvation. They sought to turn Albion into Israel, Palestine, the Holy Land. England’s great dissenting anthem — it’s radical Protestant alternative to “God Save the Queen” — is called “Jerusalem;” and the Blake poem is part of the long afterlife of the Reformation.

     52. This backward-looking aspect of Christianity is very much in evidence again. We are still caught in the long aftermath of the Reformation: as evangelical Christianity explicitly defines the agenda of America’s unsheathed imperialism. Like Cromwell letting the Jews back into England, evangelical Christians make an alliance with right-wing Zionists. The massive arming and training of Bin Laden and his more extreme mujahideen friends were also undertaken by a CIA seeking to contain the spread of a godless Communism. Global confrontations have recoalesced around religion.

     53. If we are to think of these global realities in terms of time, an appropriate correlative image seems to be of layers of fossil sedimentation after an earthquake, rather than properly buried strata of an orderly succession of historical moments. This is the global past and its present. My intention is not at all to throw my lot in with those who say that there was never any secularization at all. I simply don’t believe that. It is only to say that attempts to conceive of the unfolding of historical time need to account for temporal fits, starts, reversals, and retrenchments. Such an account would allow us to explain the global past, as well as its melancholy present, better. It would also allow us to disrupt the mythic narrative of a happy dichotomy between the putatively smooth linear progress of the West, and the stasis of the permanent present of a tradition-bound “local” rest. A significant consequence of conceiving of history as something that does not unfold in seamless succession is that it would no longer function as a moral allegory of Western superiority, of the fantasy that somehow even Western gore and guts are hygienic, cost-free and bloodless. Detoxifying that story and claiming a critical anti-imperialist secularism are imperative if we are to survive our current global predicament.40 

1 <http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=14639>, accessed 9/5/2006.

2 As reported in Jim Lobe, “Neocons Seek Islamic Reformation,” <http://www.antiwar.com/lobe/?articleid=2273>, accessed 10/17/2006.

3 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2005/08/05/AR2005080501483.html>, accessed 9/5/2006.

4 <http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=14639>, accessed 9/5/2006.

5 <http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=14639>, accessed 9/5/2006.

6 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2005/08/05/AR2005080501483.html>, accessed 9/5/2006.

7 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2005/08/05/AR2005080501483.html>, accessed 9/5/2006. For a nuanced and perceptive treatment of conservative Muslim thought in Britain, see Nadeem Aslam’s gorgeous novel, Maps for Lost Lovers. Aslam’s treatment is particularly fine for it concedes nothing to conservative white Britain.

8 See Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) and Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (2003). See also Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 200), especially the epilogue, “Reason and the Critique of Historicism,” pp. 237-255, pp. 237, 242, 244, 253. Also, Chakrabarty’s Habitations of Modernity:Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

9 To think contrapuntally about culture is to read the histories of East and West together, to see them as the same history. For Said’s explanation of the concept see, Culture and Imperialism, p. 279.

10 Omid Safi, “Introduction,” in Progressive Muslims: On Gender, Justice and Pluralism ed. Omid Safi (Oxford: Oneworld Press, 2003), p. 15.

11 Progressive Muslim, p. 15.

12 Progressive Muslims, p 15.

13 Progressive Muslims, p. 16.

14 See, for instance, Carter Lindberg’s fascinating European Reformations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1996), pp. 8 and 9. Some useful and often revisionist work on the Reformation: Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c1400-c.1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), R. Po-chi Hsia, The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), T. K Rabb, The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

15 Progressive Muslims, p. 16.

16 Progressive Muslims, p. 16.

17 Abdelwahhab el-Affendi, “The Long March from Lahore to Khartoum: Beyond the ‘Muslim Reformation,”” Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), Vol. 17, No. 2 (1990), p. 150.

18 For a wonderful treatment of some different conceptions of Islamic time see Ronald Judy, “Sayyid Qutb’s fiqh al-waqi’I, or New Realist Science,” boundary 2 31:2, 2004, 113-148.

19 Genealogies of Religion, p. 19.

20 For a careful and critical treatment of this body of scholarship, see Aamir Mufti, “The Aura of Authenticity,” Social Text 18:3 (2000), p. 88.

21 “The Aura of Authenticity,” p. 91-92.

22 Ijtihad is also often understood as interpretation.

23 Abdullahi An-Naim, “A Kinder, Gentler Islam?” Transition No. 52, (1991), p.13.

24 “A Kinder Gentler Islam,” p. 6.

25 “A Kinder Gentler Islam,” p. 12.

26 “A Kinder Gentler Islam,” p. 12.

27 “A Kinder Gentler Islam,” p. 16.

28 For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech (New York: George Braziller Press, 1994 — originally published in French 1993), p. 168. Al Ma’arri: a great Arab poet who wrote Risalat al-Ghufran (trans. 1943 A Divine Comedy), Al Fusat wa al ghayat, Paraphrases and Periods, also said to have satirized the Qur’an.

29 For Rushdie, p. 23.

30 Sadik J. Al-Azm, <http://www.daiheidelberg.de/content/e237/e175/e189/al_azm_ger.pdf#search=%22sadik%20Al-Azm%2C%20islam%2C%20secular%20humanism%22>, accessed 9/8/2006.

31 This is an important assertion in Provincializing Europe. See also Aamir Mufti, “Global Comparativism,” Critical Inquiry 31 (winter 2005), pp. 472-489. The entire essay is salient, but see particularly pp. 473-475, 481.

32 Genealogies of Religion, p. 200.

33 See especially the chapter on the Rushdie affair — “Ethnography, Literature, and Politics: Some Readings and Uses of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses” — in Genealogies of Religion.

34 “Global Comparativism,” p. 482.

35 David Aers, “”A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists; or, Reflections on Literary Critics Writing the `History of the Subject'” in Culture and History, 1350-1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing, ed. David Aers (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), 177-203.

36 See, for instance, Saba Mahmood”s use of Ramie Targoff’s work in Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 134-135.

37 A full discussion of this fascinating and politically crucial genre is outside the scope of this essay, but I would like to explore its implications in a longer piece.

38 Reza Aslan, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2005), p. xxviii.

39 No god but God, p. xvi.

40 I am grateful to the participants in the Boundary Crossings workshop at the University of Michigan, Farid Azfar, Dimitrios Krallis, Karla Taylor and, most of all, Christian Thorne for their questions, comments, and arguments about this essay.




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