The Traditional Faith System and the Challenges of the Modern World

The text of a paper delivered to a conference on democratization in Europe that took place in August, 2003.


While it seems a reasonable argument to point out to the dialectic nature of the monotheistic traditions in the ME, at least as far as the daily communal aspects are concerned, as offering an opportunity for integration and mutual acceptance between the various existing religious and secular currents, we should not, however, neglect the historical context which allowed for the success of this system of dialectic compromise, a context that was completely shattered with the advent in Modernity. This paper will attempt to shed some lights on the contemporary psychosis that seems to make the reintroduction of the aforementioned system of dialectical compromise well-nigh impossible.


Our last meeting featured a rather interesting presentation by an Egyptian colleague, on the way the role of religion in the political process in the Arab World has been framed by a variety of movements ranging from extreme fundamentalists, on the one hand, to extreme secularists, on the other, focusing on the rejectionist logic that all parties see to employ vis-à-vis the other.

Later, and through our electronic forum, an Israeli colleague presented the interesting idea that, while the “substantive aspects” of religion may not be open to debate, the “procedural aspects” of religion, that is, the process of integrating the faith-system into daily life, being, more or less, the same in all religions regardless of their absolutist truth-claims, and being quite dialectic in nature, allows room for debate and hence compromises to take place between the advocates of religion and secularism, thus creating a situation where democracy and religions can be synthesized peacefully.

Or, in the words of our Israeli colleague: “when religion was simply the prominent cultural system, the language through which meaning was created for the general populace, [with] its dialectical manifestations, flourished, especially in Islam and Judaism. It is this systematic feature, [that is], the process of dialectical thinking, which holds such great promise for conversation and understanding… The final product is a dynamic experience which emphasizes compromise and a “case-by-case” method of judgment and discretion.”

Having been, during a certain period in my life, at one end or another of the political spectrum to which our Egyptian colleague referred in her presentation, and not being able to locate myself anywhere in this spectrum these days, I found myself in the rather interesting position where I can comment on this issue both with a certain amount of “insider knowledge,” and, paradoxically enough, with a certain amount of detachment as well.

I will begin by addressing the historical circumstances under which the “dialectic of different meanings” seems to have taken place in the Muslim World.  I will then move into a brief discussion of the nature of the challenges posed by Modernity and the “Islamic” reactions to it, coupled by a diagnosis of the current “psychosis” that seems to afflict most Muslim peoples these days, and will conclude by a clear statement on where I stand on all this.

The Golden Age of Islamic Civilization

The Golden Age of Islamic Civilization, generally taken to coincide with the early Abbasid period (AD 749-861), starting with the rule of the Caliph Al-Saffah (749-54) and ending with the rule of Al-Mutawakkil (847-861), witnessed the flourishing of the two paradoxical phenomena of Islamic jurisprudence and heresy, in their various legal and philosophic manifestations.

This fact in many ways seems to testify to the veracity of our Israeli colleague’s argument above. But an important observation needs to be made here. The “process of integration” that seems to have taken place here took place within the folds of a powerful, prosperous, and secure Islamic state. The Muslims here had no reason to feel that their existence as a people or the existence of their faith-system as such was under any threat. The dialectic, in a sense, was taking place under “their” control and “their” auspices, as such, they could afford to be magnanimous, so to be speak.

The end of this Golden Age, however, marked a gradual shift in this attitude, leading to a reversal in the erstwhile procedural tolerance and resulting in such events as the trial and execution of Al-Hallaj (857-922)[1], and, later, Al-Suhrawardi (d. 1191).

Even Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), the mentor of all religious extremists today, was repeatedly persecuted and imprisoned in his days for breaking with some of the rulings adopted by the four main Sunni schools of thought.

The situation is even worse for the believers today. Modernity’s challenge came not simply as a slap in the face or a wakeup call. Rather, it came as a gargantuan flood that drowned and overwhelmed everything. Can the believers in such circumstance really be open to the kind of dialectic that took place more than twelve hundreds years ago? Personally, I doubt it.


The idea of modernity brings to the fore another consideration, namely: all the issues and challenges facing the Muslim culture today have come as a result of contact (or clash) with western civilization and culture (a mostly post-Christian western civilization and culture to be specific, the endurance of few Christian aspects and some Christian rhetoric notwithstanding). Gender equality, women’s rights, human rights, citizenship, democracy, civil society, etc. are all concepts that emerged in the West due to certain dynamics that western societies had been and are still experiencing.

Their introduction into the Muslim World was not the product of internal dynamics, but of imposition. As such, these concepts are in many ways alien to Islamic culture, a culture that has been intellectually stagnant, for better or worth, for almost a thousand years before. The attempts at Islamizing these new precepts, therefore, by finding some historical or jurisprudential precedent for them in Islam and Islamic history is in many ways an artificial procedure that has always lacked resonance with the Muslim peoples at large. Indeed it is the creative process in reverse.

Such a tendency bespeaks volumes about the centralist concept of the Muslim peoples, who, even in the face of “defeat,” can still find a glimmer of victory by claiming to be the origin of all these innovations. Rather than accept the limitations of their inheritance, which by now should have become obvious, they claim that their inheritance was “stolen” somehow, and that it is their duty now to reclaim it, while freeing of all these poisonous encroachments that have come from the West.

Of course, there exist scholars who embark on the path of indigenizing the elements of modernity spurred on by the best intentions in the world. These scholars realize that, unless the elements of modernity are indigenized somehow and then introduced into Muslim societies through linkages with established Islamic precedents, their chances of being widely accepted are next to none.

So, and as far as the intentions are concerned, theirs is not necessarily an apologetic attitude. In practice, however, the effect is the same. By resorting to tradition too, they justify it somehow, they accept its central role and authority and, in the process, they undermine their own position vis-à-vis the overwhelming majority of Muslim peoples.

In the medieval era, the Islamic East posed a major challenge to Christian Europe: it was simultaneously powerful, prosperous, alluring, menacing and heretical. Still, the situation was much simpler than it is today with regard to Ease-West dynamics. The face-off that took place between Dar Al-Islam and Christendom in medieval times was a face-off between two faith-systems that had much in common with regard to their basic reference points (God, the Scripture, the Day of Judgment, Prophets, atonement, etc). The face-off we are witnessing today is: one, not really a face-off, because as we said earlier, the west came as a flood that swept and drowned everything in its path, to the point that we could comfortable say that, today, the entire world is West.

Two, there was almost nothing in common anymore between the West that came and the Islamic East that was drowned and swept. The West no longer represented a faith system in the traditional familiar sense, and even as it came, it was evolving and changing all the time, which continues to be the case.

Atavism, or in other words, fundamentalism (salafism) and nationalism in their various manifestations, is a natural reaction in this case, but it is exactly that: a reaction and not a response. Indeed, the Muslim World has so far failed to respond to the challenge posed by the West, or, to be more exact, by Modernity. This is so mainly because formulating a response requires an accurate analysis of the realities involved, which, in itself presupposes an acceptance of the reality. But are the Muslim peoples ready to accept reality.

The Sahhaf Mentality

The Iraqi Information Minister can rest assured of his place in history (though very few of us will envy him that), for, by his example, he has managed to capture the essence of the psychosis from which most Muslim peoples are currently suffering. Even as defeat stared him right in the face, Minister Sahhaf kept on seeing victory or, at least, the promise of victory, in every battle that took place, and kept on speaking about it. Seeing victory is much simpler, it seems, than accepting reality, that is, your limitations, that is, your “true” place in the current scheme of things.

The Americans in Iraq (and the region) are currently battling against this Sahhaf Mentality. The crushing of the Saddam regime will scare a lot of people in the region, rulers and ruled alike, but it will not make them grasp the reality of the matter, namely that the Americans cannot be opposed at this stage, and that they really mean it when they say they want to stay for a few years, and want to effect regime changes in many countries in the region, including Syria and Iran.

Each regime (and each ruler) is going to see in the particularities of his circumstances enough reason to believe that he can be spared, or that he can defeat the Americans (whether militarily or diplomatically). Worse. Each individual is going to see that his particular effort at opposing the Americans (peacefully or via paramilitary means) is going to make the difference, because of his particularly strong faith in the cause, or God, or both.

As such the Americans will have to face and defeat every person in Iraq on almost individual basis in order to secure the land, and will have to repeat this feat in Syria, Iran and every country it plans to invade as well. Such opposition will not stop the Americans at this stage, however, because they are motivated by their own psychosis – it being hubris, or the Imperial Imperative. But that’s a different story.

The Sahhaf Mentality is exactly what separates the Arabs (and Muslims) from the Japanese, for instance. Once it stared them in the face, the Japanese were able to accept their defeat, and this acceptance freed them and allowed them to build something new. It may not be perfect, they may not exactly be free of side-effects or complexes emanating from their defeat and their admission thereof. But, it is better than the rejectionist attitude that Muslim peoples continue to exhibit.

The new reality that the Muslims need to simply accept is the limitations of their traditional cosmogony, an acceptance which needs to sink into the deepest of popular layers in order for it to be effective. Barring this, no rational dialectic is possible, and it wouldn’t matter in the least where you are in the political spectrum. For politics in this case, even internal politics is still more like traditional Clauswitzian diplomacy, an extension of war by other means. No matter what compromises are made, they only constitute truces to be broken when one side or another feels itself ready to take over and impose its will.


This being the case, let me state my “political” position as clear as I can make it, and let me straight out say that our souls and consciences need to be freed from the clutches of the traditional faith-systems, so they can be free to find new modes and paradigms for spirituality and the metaphysical dimension of our existence.

Does this assertion constitute a secular stand, I ask? I think it is a bit deeper than this. Still, I don’t think it really matters how you classify it, the new unifying realty that is imposing itself upon us (regardless of how one defines it, globalization, Modernity, or Pax Americana) is making it very clear that it is not going to wait for us to settle any of these issues, simply because we are not the ones who are running the show anymore.


Still, and so as to end this paper on a rather more pragmatic, if not positive, note, let me say that the moderate Islamic scholars, of whom our Egyptian colleague spoke in her presentation, can gain more legitimacy, if not efficacy, if they managed to take two important yet necessary stands:

1) they need to accept and make it clear that they do indeed accept the fact that some elements of western culture and values are important in themselves and not only through some imagined connection to a hypothetical Islamic precedent, and

2) if the absolutist claim that Islam makes cannot in themselves be renounced (because one may not claim to be a believing Muslim without them), then at least emphasis should be put on the fact that the ongoing interpretation process of Islam is improvable. As such, historical precedents, no matter who has set them, are not necessarily binding, and the Golden Age to which everyone is aspiring, it seems, might indeed be ahead of us rather than behind us.

But perhaps moderate Islamic scholars need to sell this message to themselves first.  It is perhaps their own inability to believe in the above stands that somehow compromises their positions. For a prophet that does not believe in his own teachings is ultimately doomed to failure.

[1] According to Albert Hourani, the religious doctrines of Al-Hallaj “may not have been different from those of his master [Al-Junayd, d. 910], but he expressed them in the tone of ecstatic and fulfilled love.” [Hourani, Albert, A History of the Arab Peoples. (Harvard University Press, 1991) p. 75]. In other words, the doctrines did not get more controversial, but tolerance was waning.