Saturday, 17 December 2011

Naguib Mahfouz Centenary: chronicling Egypt's short twentieth century

Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006)
This week it was one hundred years ago that the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was born. On occasion of the centenary of the only Arabophone Nobel Prize laureate, the Qantara website commemorated him as a writer of an imaginary historiography of Egypt's 'short twentieth century'. It traces Mahfouz's development as an author through the various literary guises he assumed during his literary career: pharaonist, chronicler, seismograph, allegorist, and -- finally -- a cultural monument.

This iconic status could not protect him from a violent assault in 1994, when a religious zealot attempted to assassinate the octogenarian because of his controversial views on religion. A self-described secularist, others interpreted his convictions as atheism. This was also the alleged reason for Mahfouz's transfer, earlier in his career as a civil servant, from the Ministry of Religious Affairs to the Ministry of Culture.

Generally regarded as a realist who tried to faithfully depict the life of ordinary Egyptians in extraordinary circumstances, Mahfouz also tried his hand at more metaphorical approaches. It was in his manifestation of allegorist that caught the ire of the self-appointed guardians of 'true Islam'. They were particularly irritated by The Children of Gebelawi (also known as Children of the Alley):

The novel depicts a microcosm in a city, easily recognisable as Cairo, in which usurpers use material and physical violence to suppress and torment the population. There are many attempts to rail against this tyranny, each of which crystallises around individuals whose life stories and lines of reasoning point to Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. Each of the three manages for a short time to achieve the best result for his supporters and takes it upon himself to fulfil the wishes of the patriarch Gebelawi, who lives in a villa somewhere outside the city – Old Paradise. The fourth "saviour" no longer defers to this ancestral figure, but sets out to fathom his secret, which eventually leads to Gebelawi's death. This pseudo-realistic portrayal casts doubt on the legend, on the myth. The author voices quite explicit and pronounced doubts over the sustainability of old and new messages of salvation, a doubt that also includes the modern sciences – 
To read the whole article, click here

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Circulation of Ideas in the Muslim World: Systematic Thought or Organizational Skills?

In my research on contemporary Islamic intellectual history, I focus on the more innovative and progressive, and therefore often controversial, currents of thought, which I have coined in provocative terms such as ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘heretical’. In discussing the trans-regional aspects of these alternative Islamic discourses, I am increasingly drawn to the notion of the ‘circulation of ideas’. This in itself somewhat amorphous expression strikes me as suitable for capturing the complex, multi-layered – even messy – nature of these contemporary trends of Muslim intellectualism. Already fruitfully employed in, for example, Indian Ocean Studies, I have become more convinced that it can also be aptly applied in research on contemporary Islamic intellectual history when I had a chance to listen to the anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen, emeritus professor and former holder of the ISIM Chair at the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

This week Aga Khan University in London hosted this specialist in the history of Islam in Turkey and Indonesia, as well as their present-day societies, for a talk entitled ‘Indonesian Muslims and their Place in the Larger World of Islam’. In his presentation, van Bruinessen concentrated on finding an explanation for the fact that Indonesian Islam still remains little known to Muslims from outside Southeast Asia. It certainly is not that the way Islam is interpreted, experienced and practiced in this largest Muslim nation-state is not interesting or has nothing to offer to the rest of the Muslim world, almost the contrary.

Van Bruinessen recalls an observation made in 1986 by the famous Pakistani scholar of Islam and modernist Islamic intellectual Fazlur Rahman (1919-1988). At the time, the latter was of the opinion that the two Muslim countries to watch for the emergence of innovative ideas and alternative trajectories in the Muslim world were Turkey and Indonesia. It was probably no coincidence that Fazlur Rahman, who was then Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago, was supervising numerous postgraduate students from these two countries, many of whom would rise to becoming prominent religious and political leaders in their respective home lands.

One of the possible reasons why the often interesting ideas developed by Indonesian Muslims did not catch on elsewhere is a matter of form. Generally, Indonesian intellectuals present their ideas in speeches, seminars, talks, newspaper columns, magazine articles and other forums. These are later published in often voluminous collections, but rarely – if at all – do they find their way into any systematic presentation of their thoughts. An explanation for this seemingly unstructured style is that many Indonesian Muslim intellectuals are also activists, who tend to live out their ideas rather than theorize about them. On the other hand, to have an impact new interpretations not only need ideational coherence but require also efficient dissemination. Here, as shall be seen below, the Indonesian Muslim knack for organization comes into play.

Also historically, Indonesia or, for that matter,  its predecessor -- the Dutch East Indies – never produced the equivalent of single, towering intellectual figures such as Shah Waliullah al-Dihlawi, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, or Abu Alaa Maududi. Yet, in the past, ulama from Southeast Asia, including regions which now form part of the Indonesian republic,  were present in the Haramayn for centuries, teaching and instructing visiting pilgrims and students in things Islamic. However, although they formed by far the largest contingent of non-Arab Muslims in the holy places, they did not profile themselves explicitly as ‘Indonesians’.

Also today, Indonesian Muslims continue to display a voracious appetite for learning about Islam. There is a vibrant ‘translation industry’ of books on Islam and the Muslim world written by Muslim scholars and other intellectuals from across the Muslim world, as well as Western scholars of Islam. According to van Bruinessen, knowledge from abroad has always been highly valued in Indonesia. One explanation for this eagerness for ideas from the outside – aside from centuries of participation in the Islamic scholarly networks connecting the region to centres of Islamic learning on the other side of the Indian Ocean, in India, Yemen, the Hijaz, and Cairo – is Indonesia’s colonial experience, when Western knowledge percolated into the Dutch East Indies, opening up yet another epistemological realm.

Martin van Bruinessen
Consequently, the traffic of ideas has remained one-directional -- from other parts of the Muslim world and the West to Indonesia, whereas the ideas of Indonesian Muslim intellectuals have had very little exposure abroad. The only exceptions cited by van Bruinessen are former President Ahmad Sukarno and the one-time leader of the now defunct Islamist Masyumi Party, Muhammad Natsir. These were Indonesian Muslims who -- at one tim --  had an international profile with a global reach: Sukarno as a founding member of the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries in the 1950s, and Natsir as a key figure in the Muslim World League and most prominent Southeast  Asian representative of Islamic reformism of the Salafi schnitt. In Natsir’s view, the benchmark for what constitutes ‘real Islam’, is provided by medieval Middle Eastern Islam. In the lively debates in Indonesia between ‘Westernizers’ -- who saw no contradiction between Islam and modernity, nor any fundamental incompatibilities with the other Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity -- and the ‘nativists’ who took issue with both Islamic and European influences, Natsir actually disagreed with both, neither did he approve of the advocates of a culturally specific traditional Indonesian Islam.

This lack of interest in or attention for the development of Indonesian Islam, does not mean that the country has nothing to offer to the rest of the Muslim world.  To return again to Fazlur Rahman’s view of the potential of both Turkish and Indonesian Islam, van Bruinessen also notes that, when comparing the two countries, another factor that needs to be taken into consideration is the matter of temperament. As another prominent non-Arab segment of the Muslim ummah, Turks have been more assertive in establishing themselves as significant and distinct from the Arabs than the evidently more modest and subdued Indonesians. At the same time, as I have discussed elsewhere, there are remarkable parallels between the Turkish and Indonesian experiences with Muslim intellectualism and the place of religion in public life in these two countries during the last twenty five years or so. These developments contain important lessons for alternative trajectories in the post-Arab Spring Middle Eastern parts of the Muslim world (see my posts of 5 February 2011 and  30 July 2011)

Among the aspects identified by van Bruinessen as having something to offer to the wider world of Islam is first of all the high level of organization among Indonesian Muslims. The country is home to what are not only the oldest and largest Islamic mass movements, they also manifest a longstanding and rich democratic tradition reaching from the local all the way to the national level. The political and legal framework of the Dutch East Indies, enabled Islamic modernists and traditionalist Muslims to establish organizations which focussed on  emancipation through educational and charitable initiatives and steered well clear of explicit political activities.

On all levels, both the modernist Muhammadiyah, founded as early as 1912, and its rivalling traditionalist counterpart Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) established in 1926, are run by elected governing bodies. Thus they have gained lengthy experience with selecting and electing leaders at national congresses which are held every five years, and the chance to develop a tradition of grassroots level democracy stretching back decades. This makes the Muhammadiyah and NU much more transparent than, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In regards to the organizational and institutional dimensions of Indonesian Islam, another interesting example is provided by Hizbut Tahrir. In Indonesia, this movement can command a disproportionately large following among the country's vast Muslim student population. On the other side of the Islamic political and intellectual spectrum, van Bruinessen also observed a very widespread and solid presence of contemporary Sufi orders such as the Naqshbandi-Haqqani, whose leadership is currently based in the United States. He even ventured a speculation that, given the pressures on Muslims in America, it would not be inconceivable if the current leader, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, would decide to select Indonesia as the most suitable location for the organization’s future headquarters.

Then there is the flourishing of progressive and liberal interpretations of Islam. While it is true that, as explained earlier, the inspiration often comes from abroad, at the same time and in contrast to many parts of the Muslim world, Indonesian engagement with innovative and often controversial ideas is not only more intense, but also receiving  support from wider segments of society.  From the 1970s until the late 1990s, this was manifested through what Indonesians refer to as ‘cultural Islam’. During this period the ideas of thinkers such as Hasan Hanafi, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri, and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, as well as Shi’ite intellectuals like Shariati and Mutahhari were translated into Indonesian and integrated into the Muslim discourses circulating in that country..

Martin van Bruinessen in discussion with Kathryn Spellman of Aga Khan University
If there is one area where it could be argued that Indonesia has actually managed to influence developments elsewhere, it would be Islamic feminism. Here again, the origins came from the outside, in this case from the American-Pakistani women rights activist Riffat Hassan. But Indonesia was the only Muslim country where she was permitted to give an address at an Islamic university. Aside from Riffat Hassan, also the ideas of the Sudanese jurist and theoretician of human rights Abdullahi an-Na'im, and the latter's mentor Muhammad Mahmoud Taha, are an important ingredient for Islamic feminist activism in Indonesia.

There is no Muslim country where Islamic feminism is so deeply rooted and supported on grassroots level than Indonesia. Its success does not depend on any prominent figures, but rather on the broad support and widespread activism by scores of Muslimas working in the women’s branches of mass organizations such as the NU and Muhammadiyah. The international dimension of Indonesian Muslim feminism is evidently visible in the Musawah network. Although a Malaysian and Iranian initiative, the Indonesian experiment with Islamic feminism soon caught the attention of the initiators and has left its mark on this international body for coordinating Islamic women’s rights activism worldwide.

What became manifestly clear from van Bruinessen's discussion of indonesia's Islamic scene is that, aside from a store of interesting, progressive ideas presented in a coherent and systematic fashion, the successful dissemination of such ideas also depends on effective organization, and here Indonesian organizations such as the NU and the Muhammadiyah have a track record that has -- so far -- remained unmatched in the Muslim world.

Hereunder are some of van Bruinessen's writings, for more materials also check his personal website.