Samples Reflective Reformation of Islamic Thought: Reflective Commentary

Reformation of Islamic Thought: Reflective Commentary

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Abu Zayd Nasr’s analysis of Islam within a 20th century context offers a fascinating – and highly complex – scenario of how faith may be exponentially and inestimably shaped by commercial, political, nationalistic, and intellectual forces. The complexity of Nasr’s presentation alone, the core subject of Islam notwithstanding, actually serves to undermine the importance of faith. More exactly, when the surrounding influences are appreciated in terms of impact, it becomes evident that even a religion as based on pure spirituality and tenets of faith alone as Islam is in fact mutable. In the West, certainly, there is the pervasive sense that Islam is “extremist” as only a faith, a perspective largely owing to the association of Islam with intense antipathy to the U.S. and Western powers in general. As Nasr traces, however, this was by no means always the reality. From 1921 in Iran, for example, there occurred something like an embracing of Western values which would shock many today. Coming into power, Reza Shah saw the destruction of the Ottoman Empire as an opportunity for Iran to evolve into a respected, and decidedly non-feudal, state, and consequently any emphasis on Islam was suppressed by his regime: “Reza Pahlavi wanted to create a laical nation that followed the lead of the West, and he viewed Islam as a hindrance to modernization” (Nasr 2006: 41). It is then all the more ironic that the very severity attached to Islam in Western thinking is far from illusory, as social and political opposition to the West by the Middle East has in fact forged a new and inflexible Islamist state.

What the chapter then reveals in its entirety is a questionable “status” of Islam within the Muslim world itself and what may be termed an ongoing corruption of a faith. It is in fact arguable that the 20th century shifts in the nature of Islam, in that its presence within the region has radically and periodically altered, is comparable to the state of the Medieval Catholic Church in Europe. More precisely, there is a clear trajectory of a faith being steadily translated into a more social and political entity. Just as the Church became synonymous with immense political power in the European states, and was in fact a primary force in commercial and military ventures, so too has Islam been distanced from its initial presence as, simply, a devout means of knowing God. The evidence of this is everywhere in Nasr’s analysis. Turning to Indonesia, and even before the 20th century, the Islamist reformation within that nation appears to have been as political and social a movement as it was faith-based. As reformers from the Middle East made impact in Indonesia, they created and disseminated journals like al-Imam and al-Munir, which offered harsh criticisms of the Indonesian comprehension of Islam. These influences insisted that Indonesian Muslims must understand how the faith is an invaluable instrument in creating social solutions and, importantly, a thing to be simultaneously purified. Put another way, the emphasis went to Islam as needing to be unsullied by any other influences so that its true social power may be in place (43). In this instance, then, Islam, “pure” or otherwise, was perceived as a means of creating a social order. It is as well meaningful that this perception was imposed upon Indonesia.

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Similarly, the complicated and turbulent situation in Egypt in the 1920s brought Islam into play as very much a political component. As the Egyptian king sought to invest the Caliph with powers founded in Islamic authority, objection arose through the scholar Ali Abd al-Raziq. Once again reflective of the Catholic Church, and particularly going to the Protestant Reformation, Al-Raziq defied the authority bestowing such powers and disputed the fundamental source: “He rightly pointed out that ‘nowhere does the Quran mention the Caliphate in the specific sense of the political institution we know from history’” (45). The parallel with Protestantism, of course, goes to that movement’s resistance to the Holy See of Rome as having powers beyond any other. In both cases, faith is the object of struggle. More to the point, it then becomes arguable that Islam, no matter the modern Muslim emphasis on its purity, is more a construct shaped by political conflict and social agendas.
Interestingly, and within the multiple dimensions and histories of Islamist evolution noted by Nasr, there is also cause to question the core faith as such. This is not to denigrate or question the essence of Quran or Islamist belief; rather, the concern goes more to Muslim interpretation. With the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt’s rise in the late 1920s, for example, came a powerful edict intending to establish once and for all the essence of the faith. The wording is, in a word, startling, as it declares that Islam: “is revealed by God, who has a vocation to organize all aspects of human life; it is dogma and worship, fatherland and nationality, religion and state, spirituality and action, Quran and sword” (46). This is in fact an extraordinary declaration, and one that reveals how Islam itself is significantly redefined depending upon nationalist circumstances. Certainly, a basic assessment of the Five Pillars of Faith in no way reflect the Brotherhood’s insistence upon the faith as inextricably linked to nationality or the “sword.” Even an outsider to the faith, on reading the holy texts, observes how they concern themselves only with man’s relationship with God. Once again, then, it seems the identity of Islam itself is created as power struggles between men dictate meaning, and assert that meaning as foundational truth. Throughout the 20th century and occurring today, Islam appears to be, not a core faith, but an implement in nationalist and international interactions.

Nasr devotes considerable attention to the intellectual debates regarding the Quran and Islam, and particularly within the Middle East. He also, again, painstakingly documents a virtually incalculable number of disputes, internal conflicts, and shifts in regimes in multiple nations. Not unexpectedly, his references to the modern ideas of Islam as held within the major Middle Eastern powers goes to the antipathy, if not outright hostility, to the West noted earlier. The cry in modern Arabic nations is uniform:

“Muslim societies need to recover their own Islamic identity in their struggle for liberation from internal corruption and stagnation, Western economic domination and cultural influence” (50). This is of course both active and reactive, as it fuels the persistent Western perception of Islam as aggressive while it exists as a response to perceived Western imperialism. At the same time, Iranian Muslims increasingly resist the state because of widespread corruption and suffering, which they blame on Islam (73). The blame is in fact justifiable, because it is in the name of Islam that these governments operate, often to the detriment of their own people. What emerges from all of this, however, is unchanging. Nasr does not directly imply the thinking, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the original teachings of Muhammad, which address only holy matters and the human obligation to serve God in all things, have been consistently altered to meet whatever national and temporal agenda is at hand. The chapter is powerful and absorbing. It is then all the more regrettable that its true message suggests a loss of a profoundly important faith, as Islam has been so “adapted” to accommodate varying purposes.

  • Nasr, Abu Zayd (2006) Reformation of Islamic Thought. Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press (Chapter 4, ‘The Twentieth Century’), pp. 37-79.