Answers to Questions on Islam: Part VI of VI

December 4, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

The issues raised have been answered.

Let us expand a bit. Comparisons are what many people do. Comparing Islam’s past to today’s values isn’t necessarily valid. It’s a form of presentism, and ignores the milieu (local or global) of people back then, which explains, to some degree, what they did and why. But justifying Islam’s present based on past attitudes doesn’t cut it either. And it’s plain wrong, frankly, to assert that Islam is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. One of the ironies is that the Salafis want to bring Islam back to its pristine state, back to the Islam of the earliest generation of Muslims. The irony is that the Islam they preach, envision, and enforced never existed. How Islam is envisioned and how it existed are very different. This makes it very dangerous to establish Islam based on past attitudes and practices because those attitudes or practices may never have existed. The corollary to this is that Islam has always been changing. And it always will. To staunch this, to stop this is idiocy. The very act of restoring pure Islam is in itself a major change. Thus, the changing nature of Islam should be recognized, embraced, and dealt with responsibly.

And so it is perfectly fine to analyze Islam today based on modern values and perspectives and practices. But we should never forget that doing so will reveal the cause of all this suffering in the Islamic world: the Islamic world’s confrontation with modernity. (People blame illiteracy and poverty, but I would submit that these two become issues due to the Islamic world’s confrontation with modernity. This confrontation is the fuel that keeps burning a conflagration of immense proportions, but which people don’t talk enough about. The solution, then, isn’t education or employment or money – it’s helping the Islamic world confront and deal with modernity.)

We see this in the transition from the Caliphate to republics. It was assumed for centuries that the Islamic polity would be organized under the caliphate, a united people (ummah, as in Arabic) with distinct minorities (milletler, as in Turkish). All Muslims owed their allegiance to the legitimate Muslim ruler – whether the Ottoman sultan, the Persian shah, or the Mughal emperor. They were united by religion, not ethnicity or nationality or language or whatnot. Then came the revolution that overthrew the caliphate and instituted in its place a large number of nation states which never existed before. (Some were, in fact, artificial constructs by European powers to mollify Arab leaders, if not win their allegiance. Why else would Hashemites rule Jordan and Iraq, away from the Hijaz?) The whole mindset, expectations, and vision of Muslims changed almost overnight (with the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatuk, literally overnight).

It is this confrontation, and Islam’s apparent failure, and attempts to help Islam deal with moderniy, that cause the turmoil we see. Unfortunately, this internal turmoil takes an external character, what with terrorism and international interdependence and interrelation. Hence, the importance to understand this issue.

I will take one week to discuss something from the Qur’an, then I will do a series of posts to address the issue mentioned above, to provide some background to answers or solutions to Bernard Lewis’s question, which is also the title of a book that seeks to answer this question: What Went Wrong?

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