Tuesday 23 August 2011

This year's Arab Spring in London (1) - A Syrian contribution

The next few posts will present a number of events that have taken place this Spring and Summer in London, confirming that the city is still in many respects at the centre of critical developments in the Arab and wider Muslim world.

Aziz al-Azmeh at AKU
On 21 June the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilization (ISMC) at the Aga Khan University (AKU) hosted the renowned Syrian Scholar of Islam Aziz al-Azmeh, who delivered a lecture under the title The Relevance and Irrelevance of Muslim Political Traditions. Beginning with an unexpected quote from Paul's Epistle to the Romans that there is 'no authority but God' and other references to the view of the Gospels that we must obey God rather than man, he provides some contrast with the perhaps more often cited statement in Matthew of rendering unto Caesar in order to challenge the generally held assumption that , unlike Islam, Christendom clearly separated State and Church.

His objectives in this talk were not to compare Islam and Christianity or oppose them to each other, but to reflect critically and present some purposeful discriminations. Al-Azmeh declared the argument that Scripture prescribed Europe's political system absurd, because it flies in the face of sociological evidence: Dogma and practice have always differed.

Sociological thinking insists that political systems cannot be reduced to cultures and that cultures cannot be reduced to Scripture. The great transformations of modernity have made social, political and cultural diversity and complexities only greater. This observation, al-Azmeh insists, that applies as much to the Muslim world as it does to the West.

However, regarding the latter, al-Azmeh discerns the same disinterest and lack of analytical rigour among Muslim and Western observers when studying Muslim societies. The prevailing presumption still is that the Muslim world in the 21st century is only just emerging from the Muslim traditions which require a religious legitimation for political structures. Muslims are 'frozen' into their traditions and the what he terms as 'Super Muslims' like to perpetuate this stultified view.

The profound changes in Muslim societies in the course of the last few centuries are still 'bracketed', in spite of the fact that -- although they may be unevenly distributed -- are very real. These changes may have been of European provenance, but they have been indigenized and adapted to local contexts.

Through his analysis of the characteristics of these changes in Muslim societies, al-Azmeh wants to transcend the tendency of coining the description of Muslim society and the history of the Muslim world in dogmatic terms.

In his responses to various questions, al-Azmeh rejected the contention that there are textual prescriptions for the organization of Muslim society or depiction of Islamic history in the Qur'an, as if Muslims are afflicted with some congenital nomocratic disposition . He wants to contest and break-down the 'logocentric clich├ęs' which hold the analysis of Muslim societies captive. Prior to the nineteenth century, such articulations were unknown to the Muslim mindset, and al-Azmeh contends they are the result of the influence of both Catholic and Protestant traditions. 

In this respect, he argues that the Islamic concept of ijma' -- the consensus of the community of religious scholars -- was as multilayered as early Christian Patristics. Islamic theological traditions have been very diverse and were often in conflict with each other. Muslim history manifests different caliphates, Sultanic traditions, and other political systems.

He does not deny that the emphasis on scripturalism has been enormously influential, but, to further clarify the point he wants to make, this must be seen as a 'Protestant inflection' -- which can in turn be explained through  its disenchantment with Catholicism. Subsequently, this view has been transplanted and transposed into analyses of the Muslim world.

Pushing his argument even further, al-Azmeh maintains that there is no evidence of a specific political reading of the Qur'an prior to the twentieth century. In his view, the fuqaha' or legal scholars were practical men, and only ideologically disposed in a secondary sense. This demands a rethinking of Islam as jurisdictional and nomocratic -- at least in the reductionist fashion in which it is generally presented. The praxis of law in the Muslim world was complex, and very distinct from classical Islamic legal theorizing. Consequently, he dismisses the notion of Shari'ah as an 'artificial gloss'

The violence involved in imposing Islamic law in the way the Islamic Republic of Iran has tried to do it is at odds not only with standards of equity and justice in the contemporary world, but also at variance with both Islamic historical practice and legal theory. The way in which Islamists are implementing Islamic law makes for what al-Azmeh calls a 'bizarre spectacle'

Aziz al-Azmeh
Commenting on Muslim reformism, al-Azmeh does not deny that it tends to be apologetic and that there is a lot of 'social engineering' going on on the basis of an Islamic variety of scripturalism which some perceive as 'authentic'. In addition, aside from the emergence of political islamism along 'intellectually rudimentary' Salafi lines, social conservatism has also grown. The social salience of Salafism has pushed genuine reforms to the margins. Al-Azmeh dismisses its claim of being representative of the tradition as false, rejecting the 'scripturalist' reshaping of Islamic tradition as an unnecessary interpretational mode.

Interpretations such as those put forward by the likes of Abu'l-Ala al-Maududi or Sayyid Qutb would have been inconceivable to the medieval scholars who were truly intertextual in their outlook. Maududi and Qutb are products of modernity and their ideas do not reflect a revival of Islamic authenticity. In fact, there is no univocal answer to that constitutes a genuine 'Islamic tradition'. It was never fixed for all times, on the contrary: tradition has to be understood in the context of spatio-temporality. 

 It can be taken as a self-description, it can constitute religiosity as a personal belief and participation in certain rituals, it can be regarded as adhering to a 'minumum of social practices', or a more rigorous modification of personal behaviour and language reflecting a deeper piety. Finally, when the latter is reflected in political and social behaviour it can become stuck in a political framework and leading to a complete resocialization.

The same applies to the term 'Muslim' as used by al-Azmeh in the title of his lecture. This also requires a 'situational' understanding.

In this presentation al-Azmeh positioned himself in a discourse shared by other Syrian intellectuals such as Sadiq Jalal al-Azm (1) and Bassam Tibi (even though the latter and al-Azmeh himself have been working for decades in the West as 'exilic intellectuals'). Their work calls into question the overeasy pigeon-holing of Western thinking as somehow more susceptible to secularity than the Muslim intellectualism. Hopefully, it will be not for too long, before these kind of ideas are allowed to flourish again in Damascus and elsewhere in long-suffering Syria, ansd beyond.

(1) For an earlier appeal by al-Azm, dating back to 2005, calling on the Baath Regime to allow a 'Damascus Spring', click here.

Islams and Modernities (Third Edition)The Times of History: Universal Topics in Islamic HistoriographyIbn Khaldun: An Essay in Reinterpretation (Ceu Medievalia)Muslim Kingship: Power and the Sacred in Muslim, Christian and Pagan Politics

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