Monday, 16 November 2009

A Generation Ahead: French scholarship on contemporary Muslim intellectuals

'A generation ahead' that is how John Sidel, Sir Patrick Gillam Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics (LSE), characterised the quality of French scholarship on contemporary Muslim thought in his introductory remarks for a one-day seminar on Islamic Intellectuals Across the Muslim World: French Perspectives on the Dynamics of Change, hosted by LSE on 7 November 2009.

In an introspective meditation Sidel noted that LSE tends to privilege Anglophone scholarship and that the present gathering presents a nice counterpoint to that. In his view the generically different academic milieu in France, where 'Islam' is not only more acutely problematised, but where there is greater prestige and priority attached to sociology and providing social context as opposed to the Anglosaxon obsession with individuated approaches to Islamic parties, intellectuals, ideas and texts, is more conducive for raising fundamental questions regarding knowledge and power, the education system and the accumulation of knowledge, social inequality and the problem of representation. Added to the French propensity towards recognising a more prominent public role for the organic intellectual this -- according to Sidel -- vindicates the qualification of French scholarship on Muslim intellectuals as being more advanced.

That is not to say that French scholarship on Islam has had no influence at all in the English-speaking world, aside from translations of the writings of Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, anthropologists specialising in the Muslim world such as Dale Eickelman and Talal Asad have been influenced by developments in French social anthropology.

Still, certain areas were for a long time considered as the province of British and American scholars. This applies, for example, to the Arabian Peninsula, as pointed out by Prof. Madawi al-Rasheed, Professor of Social Anthropology in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies (TRS) at King's College London. Only after 9/11 can we detect Francophone voices discussing developments in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.


One such voice is that of Stephane LaCroix, a student of Kepel specialising in opposition movements and dissidents in Saudi Arabia. His presentation on the 'Liberal Islamist Intellectuals' embedded the phenomenon on the Islamic revival (al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya) whcih started to take shape in the 1960s against the background of the 'Arab cold War' between the progressive republics led by the Egyptian president Nasser and the conservative monarchies represented by King Faysal of Saudi Arabia. The latter also offered his country as a safehaven for members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood who were facing increasing persecution at home. Initially, the Sahwa movement was not oppositional at all but that all changed during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, when the country was flooded with American and other Western troops in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwayt. This event led to the embarrassing revelation that even with billions spent on defence, Saudi Arabia was unable to defend itself against foreign military threats.

As a result, the Sahwa movement, now uniting critical elements from the ulama, the class of religious scholars holding substantial political influence in the kingdom, and Islamists with non-ulama backgrounds, became not only anti-American but also anti-regime. Between 1992 and 1994 they engaged in a campaign that became increasingly challenging to the authority of the royal family and ulama loyalists, leading to a crush-down in 1994 and 1995 when many of its members were jailed.

Upon the release of the most prominent Sahwa campaigners in 1999, there occured a split: some reconciled themselves with the government and returned to their mid-1980s positions, others continued their political activism, forming the seedbed for the 'neo-Jihadist' Peninsula branch of al-Qa'ida. Another group remained politically active by advocating a reform of the Saudi state, calling for an Islamic constitutional state.

A key figure among this last cohort is Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid, a former professor of comparative literature and founding member of the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR). Subjected to repeated arrests, he is the face of the liberal Islamist intellectuals with non-ulama backgrounds. Al-Hamid argues that Saudi Arabia has turned Salafism into a conservative ideology. Politically the Al Saud dynasty can be compared to the Umayyad (661-750CE) or Abbasid (750-1256) Caliphs.

In al-Hamid's rereading, the 'pious ancestors' or al-salaf al-salih were not a conservative or authoritarian force, but a mix of a 'civil society' movement (al-mujtama'a al-madiniya -- allowing for a pun in Arabic which also can refer to the early Muslim community at Medina) and 'proto-political' parties (the Meccan 'immigrants' and Medinan 'helpers'). Consciously distancing himself from those Ulama dissidents who have opted not just for political quietism but effectively returned to into the fold of their class, al-Hamid is positioning himself as a 'meta-intellectual', a cultured and educated individual (muthaqqif) who has informed views of both modernisation and religious issues.

In October 2009, al-Hamid participated in the establishment of a Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA).

Malika Zeghal from the University of Chicago (see also the post of 11 October 2009) assessed the position of Muslim intellectuals in the United States after 9/11, where they are forced into a discourse that she characterised as 'terse, coercive and self-limiting'. This is partly a result of the media and government's advocacy of 'liberal Islam', pushing certain Muslims who are considered as matching that profile into the limelight and presenting them as legitimate spokespersons for the Muslim communities in America. Thing singling out of a certain type of 'acceptable' Muslims have received a pseudo-scholarly and semi-official seal of approval through the RAND corporation's report Building Moderate Muslim Networks

While this endorsement has led to significant tensions within and among segments of the Muslim communities currently present in the United States, it has also provided an opportunity for select individuals to explain, redefine and rearticulate what the Islamic tradition stands for. Focussing on the contributions by intellectuals rather than activists, Zeghal identifies a 'new Muslim intellectual' whose emergence points to a disjunction between Islam as an 'abstract' and the heterogeneity of Islam as experienced by Muslims. However, she adds the caveat that this forging of an 'alliance' between Muslim reformers and the government should not caricaturise the US government's representation of Muslims in America too much.

A key figure in the silsilah or intellectual genealogy of these new Muslim intellectuals is Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani-born scholar who was appointed Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Chicago after he had to leave his home country after his reform ideas were challenged by the Jamaat-e Islami. Combining an intimate familiarity of the Islamic heritage with a equal solid knowledge of Western scholarship in the human sciences, these newly emerging thinkers neverthless present a variety of viewpoints. Representative of this strand of thought are the jurist Khaled Abou el Fadl, who teaches at the UCLA Law School. the political scientist Muqtedar Khan, and Hamza Yusuf Hanson, who founded the Zaytuna Institute in California.

A specialist on Islam in Southeastern Europe, Xavier Bougarel provided an introduction to a new generation of Bosnian Muslim intellectuals.


After religous life in post-WWII Yugoslavia had been reduced to a minimum, the 1960s witnessed a degree of liberalisation, in the wake of which there began to spring up new Islamic religious institutions in Bosnia. The faculty of Theology in Sarajevo (now renamed as the Faculty of Islamic Studies) became the training ground of Muslim intellectuals with a double academic background -- because of aside from their work in religious studies, they were also enrolled in other faculties.

One such scholar is Fikret Karcic. Educated in the study of Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh, as an intellectual opposed to Islamic political activism he argues that fiqh continues to exist not so much as a distinct legal system as a set of moral values. In his view only a secular state can protect the autonomy of religious institutions in relation to political sphere. In 2005, he came out against three neo-Salafi muftis who sought a fatwa on polygamy. Rejecting their argument that the increasing number of Bosnian Muslim war widows necessitated a reconsideration of the illegitimacy of polygamy, Karcic insisted that it was the task of the state to look after its vulnerable citizens. Marriage law should have general validity for all Bosnian citizens and he issued a strong warning against positioning the Muslims as an Ottoman-style millet (religious community).

Karcic was also in charge of a project to define the Bosnian Islamic tradition, envisaged as a way to fend off the encroachment of Salafi tendencies in Bosnia. Core elements of his definition were its rootedness in the Sunni-Hanafi legal tradition; it being part of the Ottoman cultural sphere while permitting certain pre-Islamic elements, whereas the way it has currently been institutionalised affirms that Bosnian Muslims have become accustomed to live within the political framework of the secular state.

Another such scholar is Enes Karic, who is both a political scientist and Islamicist specialising in Qur'an interpretation (tafsir). According to Karic the Qur'an is a polysemic and mystical text, and any translation is automatically also an interpretation -- supporting his argument that there is not such thing as a monolithic Islamic tradition but a variety of Muslim cultures and traditions.
In political terms this means that Islam cannot be monopolised by any given political party and turned into a uniform ideology. That is why he too is in favour of a separation of state and religion, because only then can the diversity of Islamic cultures be guaranteed and preserved.

However, Bougarel detects a generation gap between Karcic and Karic on the one side, and a younger generation of intellectuals, such as Adnan Jahic, who is much less accommodationist towards a secular state. They tend to side with the new ulama trained in Saudi Arabia or at al-Azhar University in Cairo. Whereas scholars like Karcic and Karic tend to be interested in the history and sociology of religion, the upcoming generation is likely to specialise in traditional Islamic sciences such as fiqh or aqida (dogmatic theology).

In his closing remarks, Bougarel also notes that, compared to other Balkan countries, Bosnia has established closer links with the Arab world, while Albanian and Bulgarian Muslims maintain contacts with the Turkish department of religious affairs, Diyanet.