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The Age of Reason

Thursday, March 13, 2008

It is always pleasant to learn something new in any area, but especially pleasant if it concerns Islamic history, onto which many in the West, so arrogantly pronounce judgements by assuming to know everything. Recently I have made an unexpected discovery while searching for the sources of Islamic Fundamentalism.

Islamic Reformism was a significant movement occupying minds of almost all ruling and clerical classes who clearly saw muslim countries lose superiority, economies and finally independence itself to the West. All leading voices of the 19 century argued for reform. The challenge of 19 century was crucial – how to compete with the West and yet stay independent, but the stakes went higher. It was obvious that Europeans would invade and rule directly, if urgent solutions were not found. While Ottoman Empire survived and staved off defeat, its Egyptian vassals under heirs of moderniser Muhammad Ali did not. After it had build the Suez canal, Egypt found itself – after heavy and indiscriminate borrowing – directly in depth to French and British banks and became insolvent. A military coup instigated by officers of newly modern Egyptian army was also the first attempt at nationalization to save Egypt from foreign creditors. It had failed and in 1882 British occupied Egypt under pretext of protection of Suez.

Basically it was becoming clear that despite its lip service to liberty for all, the West had no intentions to give liberty to other races and was on the road to enslaving them all. In these conditions there had to be two solutions: either to fight a losing battle of the sword or reform internally to be able to compete later. At the time answer was the latter, and beyond local battles with the West, there was no “jihad”-inspired backlash. Terror as the method of war was not yet born.

Two figures loomed large on the Sunni Islamic Reformism side in Middle East, and at the time quite known in Europe – like Tariq Ramadans of their day– Jalal-ad-Din Afghani and Muhammad Abduh.

Reformers like them said that Muslim societies had fallen behind the west because they had strayed from the core strength of Islam which celebrated science and reason and abhorred superstition. They had become antagonistic to change ossified and did not innovate with the result of the West racing ahead. There was generally little resistance to the idea that things had to change among all ruling classes and progressive clergy.

Abduh – who after being exiled and arrested by British eventually returned to become a Grand Mufti of Egypt – was also a consistent believer in the triumph of reason and berated a rigid ideology based on uncritical interpretations of hadiths, and went even further indicating importance of scrutiny and free speech to question many tenets. Both men strongly opposed irrational tendencies in Islam and opposed mystical Sufism which they saw as not scientific and full of ossified rituals. They have probably despised the folk religion with its cult of saints and holy places and thought of ways to challenge it through modernized education.

Now you might thing that the Islamic Reform movement was not opposed to the West, but it was not so. It was Sharia bound traditionalist headed by mainstream ulema, who in their stupor were ready to not only oppose but support foreign rule, provided their traditions were respected. Reformists invariably sided with nationalist cause. It was true in Russia (including my native Azerbaijan, whose Muslim democrat leaders eventually formed a republic in 1918), India and Egypt. Reformism in India created Iqbal and Ali Jinna and Turkish one Young Turks and their heir – Ataturk.

Reformists ultimate goal was the Islamic renaissance akin to the Arabic Golden age where spirit of scientific inquiry flourished; their future did not have not skimpily dressed women and binge drinking - they still saw the West as flawed in many respects. Afghani was also called a father of Pan-Islamism, which was a pro-Caliphate movement that can be constructed as a early version of Islamic “Fundamentalism” and Hizb-ut-Tahrir party. He toured many Muslim and European countries and served as an advisor to Ottoman Sultan and king of Afghanistan in their reforms.

Because some Reformists used to advocate a return to pious practices of Salafis – the early followers of the Prophet who, the Reformists believed, were guilded by Reason – these Reformists called themselves Salafis too, just like today’s West adversaries.

So in a twist of fate modernizers of 19 century became heirs to puritanical Salafis of today. Of course, on any Jihadi website the Reformists of 19 century are criticized as Jewish sell-outs – in one, Afghani is called a Judeo-Mason for example - but links between later Muslim Brotherhood and early Islamic Reform movement are obvious. Both were born out of desire to understand reasons for failure and derived their strength from critical and untraditional interpretation of the scriptures. However, the answers they have provided were different. There was the reason for the change of emphasis – it was because 20 century was a disaster and disappointment for Muslims, especially its second half, where it became clear that reforms had not worked and the West firmly and unconditionally established itself as the ruler of the World. Slowly but surely those who supported the modernism and innovation were tainted by association with the oppressors. This was the beginning of a new and more difficult chapter.

Posted by Hazar Nesimi at 8:41 AM



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