The Islamic Revival

This article is Martin Kramer’s review of John L. Esposito, Voices of Resurgent Islam; Gilles Kepel, Le Prophète et Pharaon; Denis MacEoin and Ahmed Al-Shahi, eds., Islam in the Modern World; Edward Mortimer, Faith and Power; and John Obert Voll, Islam. Published in Middle Eastern Studies, April 1986, pp. 293-97.

Intelligent people with more than a passing interest in world affairs can no longer get by without knowing something about Islam, particularly Islam of the disruptive sort. If the trouble were restricted to a single region or country—take the messy matter of the Sikhs, for instance—one could manage well enough without reading a book about it. But Islam seems to be breaking out everywhere, ‘from Morocco to Indonesia’. And just when intelligent people began to digest ideas about the uniquely Shi’i militancy of Iran’s revolution, it turns out that Shi’is, too, are everywhere, or at least everywhere that counts, like West Beirut and the Saudi oilfields. So intelligent people are anxious to do some reading—not too much, because intelligent people are usually busy people, but enough to see them through their own times and The New York Times. They are to be commended for their active curiosity.

Some might consider spending a few evenings with John Obert Voll’s Islam, a book that promises to go ‘beyond the headlines to explore the broad dimensions of Islam’. This Voll does impressively, but he really aspires to do more, to propose original conclusions which will also challenge and satisfy the knowledgeable. His argument is that the foundations of the contemporary Islamic experience were laid in the eighteenth century, and that a thread of continuity can be traced from that formative period to the present. The interaction of four ‘basic styles of action’—fundamentalist, conservative, adaptationist, and individualist—can be discerned and followed in every quarter of the Muslim world. The chronological and geographic sweep of this book is so broad that no other work can bear comparison for sheer comprehensiveness; as a college textbook, it must stand unsurpassed for its systematic and encyclopedic presentation of essential material. Voll’s Islam cannot be enjoyed in large servings: the rush of names, places, dates, and events will leave the voracious with indigestion. But the book will never disappoint the reader who regards it as a compendium of reliable introductions, to be read from time to time to satisfy the demands made by curiosity or crises.

In compiling a work of this sort, decisions constantly have to be made about proportions, giving each subject no more and no less than its due. Voll’s Islam is generally well proportioned, particularly in the amount of attention devoted to each century. About half of the book surveys the eighteenth and nineteenth; the rest covers our own. But as the author draws closer to the present, a tendency to find ‘significance’ everywhere becomes intrusive. One wonders whether the long discussion of the ramblings of Shariati—we even learn his father’s name, duly entered in the index—does not show more deference to fashion than judgment. Lengthy exegesis of Qadhdhafi’s perorations leads to the not very obvious conclusion that they represent ‘a significant venture in the modern Islamic experience’; the colonel would be delighted to see his Third International Theory taken so seriously, and uncritically, by someone not on his dole. A little incredulity in dealing with these strains of contemporary Islamic thought would have left this book less solemn and more streamlined. But beyond this, to criticize is to cavil. Voll’s Islam deserves full endorsement as a guide for the perplexed, and as a text for teacher and student.

Edward Mortimer’s Faith and Power aspires to less. This is an unabashed oeuvre de vulgarisation, written for readers who have time for one straightforward book on Islam. As a veteran practitioner of the high journalism at the London Times, Mortimer knows his trade, and his brevity of exposition is enviable. He has also organized his material well, providing ample historical background, and case studies of Islam and politics in six different settings of obvious interest to a wide audience. There is no sweeping thesis, no bold attempt at categorization, no pretension to comprehensiveness, only a businesslike effort to fill out the headlines. The cognoscenti will find nits to pick every few pages, but Mortimer’s narrative is generally accurate and highly informative. For his purposes, and those of most readers, this will do.

Mortimer reaches the sensible conclusion that there are many varieties of Islam in circulation, and that a consensus of interpretation still eludes Muslims. ‘If one takes Islam to be what Muslims say and do, one is bound to conclude that there is not one Islam but many Islams, because one finds such an enormous variety of Islamic thought and practice.’ And so one obviously should not regard Islam as a strictly destructive or benevolent force in the modern world. But there flourish in contemporary Islam some varieties which did not flourish a decade ago, and which have gained adherents at the expense of other varieties. One is Iran’s; Mortimer does opine that shortly after Khomeini’s revolution, Iran ‘had become a fearsome and depressing place, apparently determined to live up to all the most negative stereotypes about Islam’. This is no mean accomplishment, one rarely equaled in Islamic history. It suggests, too, the ironic and disturbing possibility that the general reader has rarely understood change in Islam better than he does today, not in spite of prejudice, but thanks to it.

This possibility did not figure in a series of public lectures sponsored by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, now published in a collection entitled Islam in the Modern World. The introduction opens with the ritualistic lament that Western audiences have only misunderstood Islam, and the tone of the first group of essays can only be described as apologetic. The editors are right in complaining that Islam has received a lot of had press of late; and since few Muslims are interested any longer in apologizing for what they do or say, someone long on sympathy must do it for them.

Still, it is a bit embarrassing to see well-intentioned advocates of ecumenical understanding cling so tenaciously to their naivete, under the scorn now heaped by so many Muslims upon the very idea of dialogue. There is little that one can say about an essay which insists that ‘in the case of Islam and Christianity, there is a strong warrant for looking at these aspects which unite rather than divide them, for concentrating on sameness rather than difference’—and that only the Orientalist discourse has stood in the way. This is someone whose reading of Foucault has left no time for a morning newspaper. Another scholar advises us not to pay so much attention to the newspapers, but to dwell upon such momentous events as a conference in Pakistan on the life of the Prophet Muhammad—’something like an Islamic eucharistic congress’—to which Christian scholars of Islam were invited to deliver two of the seven plenary addresses. This is very small comfort indeed.

The volume returns to earth in some of the later essays. An article by Derek Hopwood comes the closest to fulfilling the promise of the book’s title: it is an insightful comparison of the Meccan mosque seizure of 1979, the Kano Mahdist uprising in 1980, and the Sadat assassination of 1981. Three pieces on Sufism add an original touch, although the resurgence of Islam has not broken what one author rightly calls contemporary Sufism’s ‘losing streak’. Denis MacEoin’s piece on the Shi’i establishment in Iran is more to the point.

An essay on Islamic economics is generally free of the pontification which usually plagues discussion of this topic; the author cannot but conclude that there is no complete Islamic economic system which can stand today as an alternative to capitalism or socialism.

But the notion of an Islamic economy is even more ethereal than this. Big Islamic bankers will justifiably be taken aback to learn that ‘Islam favours working proprietors in close touch with their workforces rather than impersonal investment companies directly controlling labour’. They know better than anyone that on this and other finer points of moral economy, the Islamic texts are silent, ambiguous, or mercifully contradictory. In short, there are better ways for general readers to deplete their book allowances, but specialists will want to have this collection’s redeeming essays readily at hand.

Another collection, Voices of Resurgent Islam, is a more successful venture. There is the obligatory bow to fashion, in the form of an opening article lamenting distorted American perceptions of Islam. The average American ‘is influenced not by definitions of what Islam as a religion preaches, but by what he sees acted out by groups and individuals identified as Muslim’. And so our hapless citizen simply ‘reacts to events’.

Now given his limitations, is our man-in-the-easy-chair to be faulted for this method? If he is at all astute, it will not have escaped his notice that Muslims seem to be divided over just what Islam ‘as a religion’ preaches. They cannot agree about Jews, they lash out at each other during the pilgrimage, they cannot decide whether it is or is not religiously commendable to seize and bomb American embassies. Unless our fellow decides to set himself up as the final arbiter of Muslim orthodoxy—something he would be ill-advised to do—he cannot put his finger on a normative Islam. And so he allows current events—what Muslims do—to mould his view of contemporary Islam.

This method, crude as it may be, has considerable predictive powers, so that few average Americans are surprised any more by attention-grabbing deeds perpetrated from time to time in the name of Islam. The same cannot be said of those who are so determined to suspend judgment that they still speak, as this author does, of Sadat’s ‘alleged assassins’ and the Iranian revolution’s ‘perceived excesses’.

But the reader who perseveres will be rewarded. The subsequent articles are good. In addition to two overviews, there are critical studies of the thought of six Muslim ideologues: Sayyid Qutb, Mawdudi, Qadhdhafi, Khomeini, Iqbal, and Shariati. Here, Qadhdhafi does not fare so well; Lisa Anderson calls the Colonel’s religious thought idiosyncratic, ‘insignificant’ beyond Libya, and ‘not likely to represent much more than a footnote to the worldwide debate on Islam and Islamic reform’. Would that every author could demonstrate such frankness in assessing the importance of his or her subject.

The outstanding essay is Michael M.J. Fischer’s piece on Khomeini, where it is argued that the Imam’s vision was not at all revolutionary, but was millenarian, transcendental, even mystical. To understand how this was concealed from the eyes of so many of Khomeini’s followers who now charge deception. Fischer turns to Khomeini’s persona, in which legend mixed with fact to produce a powerful mobilizing myth. One suspects, too, the frequent resort by Khomeini to taqiyya. Fischer only alludes to this possibility, and Khomeini is generally regarded as having rarely concealed his beliefs, a view supported by some disparaging comments about taqiyya in his treatise on Islamic government.

Yet Khomeini’s 14-year silence in exile concerning the Iraqi regime’s secularizing, nationalist policies, especially during the persecution of Iraqi Shi’i clerics and institutions in 1969-70, did establish a precedent of prolonged dissimulation. Directly from this exile, Khomeini ascended the political stage. But Fischer’s analysis stands well enough without speculation about the dark Iraqi period in Khomeini’s career, and, as he suggests, so starry-eyed were many of the Imam’s followers that there was no need to conceal anything from their view.

A closing section of this book includes tracts by Muslims, of prescriptive rather than descriptive content. Six of the seven authors are Pakistani or Sudanese, and all are either Western-educated or accustomed to addressing Western audiences. Readers can take these essays or leave them; some are interesting, but they are not part of the dialogue within Islam, where tempers generally run hotter. Such discourses belong to the tradition of Afghani’s reply to Renan. But Afghani was prepared to concede a good deal more ground in order to make his essential point; in the present climate, these authors can concede nothing. That itself is a worthwhile revelation with which to conclude a well-conceived and well-executed book.

Those prepared to move from the general to the specific might begin with Gilles Kepel’s Le Prophète et Pharaon. The author has given the fullest single account of Muslim activism in Sadat’s Egypt, picking up where Richard Mitchell left off in The Society of the Muslim Brothers; and Kepel does so in an engaging style which conceals, better than Mitchell did, his book’s origins as a thesis. The narrative chapters move effortlessly through the dark years of Nasserist suppression, the sudden appearance of radical opposition in the person of Shukri Mustafa, the reemergence into the public eye of the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, the rise of Muslim extremism on Egyptian campuses, the phenomenon of Shaikh Kishk, and the assassination of Sadat. Kepel does not clutter this account with sociological speculations; most of his protagonists speak for themselves, through their published tracts, periodicals, and court testimonies.

There is much to commend this documentary method. Too many studies of Muslim resurgence in Egypt have withheld the least savory messages of the extremists, as did the early accounts of Khomeini’s program by secular fellow travelers. But the Muslim critique of Sadat’s regime was not Nasserism warmed over; it rested upon a view of a world filled with conspiratorial forces that others—even imaginative Nasserisis—could not see. In these alleys, away from the main thoroughfares of reality, lurked Ataturk the Jew and Richard Mitchell the CIA agent. Le Prophète et Pharaon is a reliable chart of these twisted passageways, which others of faint heart or intellect have not dared to enter. (An English translation is now published by Al-Saqi Books, London.)

An essay in one of the collections reviewed here concludes with an admonition that scholars ’emphasize those points of contact and sameness which unite the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions into merely variations on a religious theme which in unison provide the bases of our culture’. This brings to mind Sadat’s visionary and unfulfilled plan to erect a collective place of worship for the three monotheisms at the foot of Mount Sinai, a sort of temple of religious relativism.

It is difficult to imagine a more sterile scheme: a motley collection of priests, rabbis, and imams, greeting the tour buses and droning on about ‘points of contact and sameness’. After a few years or decades or centuries of this tedium, they would come to blows over the right to repair a leaky roof or resurface the parking lot. For so long as these traditions remain vital, their adherents are bound to compete. Their rivalry is fundamental. If the recent resurgence of Islam bears any message, it is that believing Muslims still hold their faith to be superior to any other, and that they are determined to prove it. The violence is part of that vitality, perhaps inseparably so. It is on account of these exclusive claims, expressed with a new confidence, that Islam today is worth following, studying and criticizing. Long live the difference.