Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Islam as the solution in the Age of Islamism II: Failure of the "Islamization" Project

Anticipating many of the issues that I have outlined, and aiming to harmonize modernity with traditional Islamic scholarship, in the hope of reconciling it thus with Islamism, the project for "Islamization of knowledge" was commonly attached to the late Ismail Al-Faruqi, but characteristic of a much larger intellectual movement in the latter part of the twentieth century. I want fundamentally not to confuse this program of "Islamization of knowledge," i.e. taking advances -- mainly in the humanities and social sciences -- and see how to reframe them in Islamic garb starting from Islamic scripture and classical scholarship, with the Abdul-Razzaq Al-Sanhuri program, which aimed to openly import western advances while applying a filter to adjust for Islamic sensibilities and injunctions (e.g. he imported the French civil code for Egypt with some minor modifications). I believe that the latter is not only more practicable, but also more defensible on Islamic grounds, although of course Islamists who adhere to a different standard of what is "Islamic" would disagree, but we can argue on common ground.

To make the distinction between the two approaches concrete, let's consider something that I have studied somewhat extensively: financial transactions, markets, and institutions. The Sanhuri program (stemming from the authentic tradition of Muhammad Abduh) would not start from the standpoint that Western banking and finance are intrinsically un-Islamic. Of course, this is shared by the "Islamization of knowledge" approach, for after all Islamic banking and finance, which "Islamize" almost every financial product and institution, albeit often incoherently and inefficiently, would not be possible if the objectives and basic methods of Western finance were deemed un-Islamic. The "Islamization of finance" industry has the explicit objective not of reaching any moral, social, or even material "Islamic" objectives, but merely to allow "pious Muslims" (I've called this "incoherent pietism") to partake in the usual Western financial practices but in an "Islamic" way.

So, both the Sanhuri and the "Islamization" approaches agree that just because something is Western does not mean that it is not Islamic or at least Islamic after small effort (i.e. Islamizable at low or moderate cost). On the other hand, the "Islamization" approach has surprising appeal with significant segments of Islamists who do consider Western finance, and even Economics as a discipline, to be "imbued with the ethos of capitalism," which they considered contrary to Islam in spirit not just in form. There has been convergence in views about Islamic finance in recent years between the majority of "Islamic Economists" who came from the traditions of Mawdudi, Baqir Al-Sadr, Khomeini, and other Islamist leaders of the mid-20th-century on the one hand, and people like myself, who came to the issue from the Sanhuri angle: We all recognize that the industry is merely an inefficient replication of what is already there, hence replicating all the disadvantages of conventional finance and adding inefficiency costs and dead weight losses (and as the medieval jurists Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Qayim pointed out, it is less harmful to have simple relatively efficient riba than complex inefficient replications thereof: Shari`a, in their view, could not forbid something and then permit something more harmful). However, those who came from the "Islamic Economics" tradition continue to view the failings of Islamic finance as temporary, and to take pride in its growth, even as they agree with criticisms of its modes and effects. "You shouldn't throw away the baby with the bathwater," one of the most prominent Islamic Economists once told me, as part of his advice to temper my criticism of the legal-arbitrage industry.

It would therefore seem that this brand of Islamism (Islamic Economics, Islamic Banking, etc.) has a better chance in winning over the more extreme forms of Islamism and shepherding Muslim societies closer to some form of harmonious modernity. I disagree, and this is the main point of the next posting. This main point of the current posting is that the "Islamization" program has failed. However, before I get to this point, I should first point out the main difference between the two main approaches: Although both approaches accept the world and its advances the way that they are, the Sanhuri approach is predicated on the view that "Western" advances (especially in law and society) are very much in harmony with "Islamic" principles (the famous Abduh saying was that he found Islam without Muslims in Paris and Muslims without Islam in Cairo), that the legal objectives of Shari`a are not materially different from the objectives of other Western legal systems. In contrast, the "Islamization" approach Western legal and social advances in a neutral or agnostic way, essentially reducing the issue to whether or not the particular institution is "Islamizable" (and as I have argued, in the field of finance, of course, everything is Islamizable if we take a contract-based approach to jurisprudence: it's a theorem).

At the other extreme, of course, there are the most difficult Islamists, who believe that the very spirit of Western socioeconomic and legal advances is fundamentally incompatible with "Islam" as they view it. It is not surprising, therefore, that the "Islamization" paradigm resonated more with this group than the Abduh/Sanhuri approach: Whatever is "Islamized" can be repackaged with or without reference to the original Western version. Al-Faruqi and others in the Islamization school were openly stating that their objective is to get the `ulama (traditional scholars) on board with modernization by rederiving modern advances -- to the extent possible -- from Islamic principles. The `ulama eventually accepted the telegraph, radio, the automobile, etc., without need for "Islamization," although there is a famous (and perhaps apocryphal story about the introduction of the telephone): The story states that some Saudi `ulama refused to introduce the telephone to the Kingdom because they feared that only demons can carry sound at such speeds, but eventually relented when Shaykh-ul-Azhar had a Sheikh recite Qur'an at one end and the Saudi `ulama heard it on the other end and accepted the argument that "demons cannot carry the Qur'an." The story is likely to be apocryphal but to display an Azhari bias against Saudi clerics as less enlightened. Even in this story, though, the phone is not "Islamized." It is a physical technology that was quickly accepted, whereas many socioeconomic and legal advances are still resisted strongly or rejected to this day, unless they are Islamized ("Islamic finance," mortgages as "rahn," some elections as a form of "shura," etc.).

It will be difficult for me to argue that the Abduh/Sanhuri program, which is very much Islamist according to my definition, can be revived and made to succeed based on its track record in dealing with Islamists at the other end of the spectrum. After all, Sanhuri was attacked viciously by rising Islamists in the mid-20th century, and his relative practical success in terms of the current legal system in Egypt still reflecting his version is strongly tempered by the continued calls from Islamists, both of the MB and Salafist types, to apply Shari`a, and the fact that the social contract that allowed this legal framework to survive was an authoritarian bargain where society at large acquiesced to political suppression of Islamists, even as the latter continued to gain social ground. It is not clear at all, therefore, that the Sanhuri paradigm, which assumes that Western (or Eastern, or any human) advances are intrinsically in harmony with Islam unless proven otherwise, can survive in an open marketplace for ideas where Islamists at the other end of the spectrum are gaining political and social ground. So, my self-imposed task in the next posting will be quite difficult.

Might one not argue, then, that perhaps the apparent middle ground, represented by the "Islamization" school, may be the better way to proceed? Advocates of "Islamic finance," for example, would argue that the industry has helped to bring many puritanical Muslims into the mainstream financial system by offering them "Islamized" products. Inefficient as the latter may be, they would argue, there are still efficiency (financial, economic, social, and security) gains by bringing these customers into the formal financial sector. Moreover, some may argue, the resulting engagement with modern society might help to modernize these Islamists who would have otherwise lived in a sub-economy (Timur Kuran's term), with social, legal, and political mindsets that continue to diverge from the evolving standards of modernity. The "Islamization" school would not be a favorite either for the Sanhuri Islamists or for the Mawdudi Islamists, but it would be somewhat acceptable to both, and therefore can get the conversation within the house of Islam going so that an "Islamic" solution to the problem of modernity may be found, along the lines that the late Al-Faruqi and current intellectual and practitioners of "Islamization" -- some of whom today come from the Sanhuri camp and some from the Mawdudi camp, as I have suggested above, showing that the "Islamization" approach has already provided a common ground for the conversation of "Islam as the solution" to continue.

As I write these sentences, I can see the argument as quite compelling, and yet if it were compelling, I would have continued to attend "Islamic finance" conferences and to write extensively on this field, which I haven't for a number of years. At an intuitive (and, dare I say, moral) level, I simply felt that this is definitely not the solution, and continued to criticize with a tone that offended participants in the industry and resulted in disinvitations from conferences, especially as some bankers and many on the "Shari`a board" circuit threatened that they would not go to conferences if I were there. Toward the end, I recall trying to be more diplomatic, but it is very clear that the substance of my criticism was the problem, as even my students were attacked by the same practitioners and Shari`a advisors at later conferences.

My deepest wound is that my late father asked my eldest brother why I was a failure, whereas he and our middle brother have been successful. My brother's answer was that I spent a number of years becoming an expert in a field and then felt morally compelled not to benefit from that expertise (and that includes not only "Islamic finance," but also finance and financial economics more generally). My father told me all of this with anger in his voice, naming in particular Sheikh Muhammad Khater, a former Grand Mufti of Egypt, who agreed to head the Faisal Bank of Egypt early version of a Shari`a board, earning millions as a result. My late father's accusation was that I was being "holier than the Pope," and not only failing to achieve success for myself and my family, but also failing to provide value to society based on the education and expertise that I had acquired. It hurt so much, and still does, because he was right, of course. I've let many people down, myself included. But here I am now trying to express in logical manner why I think that the entire "Islamization" program is not only doomed to failure in forging "an Islamic solution in the age of Islamism," but that it is contributing to the problem...

I need a break, and perhaps take time to think honestly if I do have a coherent argument to make, so the conclusion of this posting (the failure of "Islamization) should be posting II.5...


Blogger nhusain said...

bro you need to translate these blogs in arabic.

3:22 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home