Essay: Sadiq Al-Azm

The Fight over the Meaning of Islam

The Syrian intellectual Sadiq al-Azm proposed Self-Criticism after the Defeat to the Arabs in 1968, and in the following year a Critique of Religious Thought. He sees a third way for the Muslim faith between radicalism and state Islam

The Syrian intellectual Sadiq al-Azm proposed Self-Criticism after the Defeat to the Arabs in 1968, and in the following year a Critique of Religious Thought. He sees a third way for the Muslim faith between radicalism and state Islam

Man reading the Koran (photo: dpa)
Literal readings of the Koran are still considerably more significant for Muslims than any interpretations of the Old or New Testament, according to Sadiq al-Azm

​​ Without denying that Islam as a faith and a world-historical religion continues to retain a pointed political charge and a fighting edge in the contemporary world, it is very important to recognise that political Islam is not all Islam and that violent jihadi Islam is not all political Islam. It is no less important to point out that, contrary to first impressions, the stakes have been very high in the fierce struggle over the definition and control of the meaning of Islam. This should immediately demystify the common notion – widespread both in the secular West and the Muslim East – of Islam as some kind of unique, ubiquitous and almost omniscient and omnipotent primary determining force for Muslims, dictating everything they do including their goals, strategies, tactics and so on. In the Muslim East this abstract and distorting notion is self-serving for the Mullahs and their religious power structures and is hence jealously guarded, propagated and manipulated by them. At the popular level, it certainly acts as a useful psychologically reassuring mechanism. In the secular West it provides easy explanations for baffling phenomena, hence its pride of place in the prevalent wisdom about Islam everywhere. A fierce battle This fight over the definition of Islam and the control of its meaning is fierce because Islam continues to be the doctrinal basis of Muslim societies in the contemporary world and continues to be a collectivist, communitarian and communal affair in the lives of these societies – as against the highly individualised, personalised and privatised forms of religiosity prevalent and practiced in the West today. Similarly, the modern tradition, which euphemises the original scriptures of Islam by explaining them away symbolically, metaphorically, figuratively, allegorically, etc., remains quite weak, meaning in turn that the literal reading of the Koran today, for example, retains far greater force than any reading of the Old and/or New Testament.

Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: AP)
The influence of middle-class Islam, embodied by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's governing AKP party in Turkey, is felt all across the Arab world, says Sadiq al-Azm

​​ This partially explains the collectivist mass eruptions on the part of Muslims against such phenomena as Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses and the famous Danish cartoons dealing with the Prophet Muhammad and the blessed virgins of paradise. In spite of its rich classical tradition of parody, laughter, satire and criticism (particularly in Arabic and Farsi), contemporary Islam has not yet fully adjusted itself to the idea that in the modern world no religion is either above or below criticism, parody and satire. Perhaps Muslims have made some progress on this score lately, considering that the recent showing of Gert Wilders' movie Fitna (highly pejorative to Islam) was met by Muslims practically everywhere with much self-restraint – i.e. with rationally considered and planned reactions in lieu of the usual mass emotional eruptions and abusive collectivist outbursts. Fitna – an interesting term As a digression, it may be of interest to note here that the word fitna in Arabic carries the double meaning of "great discord" and "civil strife" on the one hand, and of "something so enchanting that it transports you out of your mind and reason" on the other. Beautiful women, in particular, are said to act as fitna on men's minds, charming them out of their senses. Derivatives of the word are common proper names for women in Arabic (such as Faten and Fatina). Fitna is also the name of a beautiful flower with a charming fragrance. I am not sure if Theo Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali had any of these shades of meaning in mind when they had certain Koranic verses painted on the naked body of a beautiful actress for their joint movie Submission, shown on Dutch public television in August 2004; leading to the fitna of Van Gogh's despicable murder in Amsterdam in the same year and to Hirsi Ali's exile from the Netherlands. State Islam fighting for command There are now three main contending parties in the battle over the definition of Islam and the control of its meaning. The first party consists of governments, state apparatuses, established clerical elites and hierarchies, who formulate, propagate and defend what may be conveniently called "official state Islam". The most prominent form of this kind of Islam at present is the "petro-Islam" of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, fully funded and supported all over the world by abundant petro-dollars. The official doctrine of Iranian petro-Islam is the Rule of the Jurist (Velayet-e-Faqih), while the official doctrine of Saudi Islam says, "the Koran is our constitution" – i.e. we need no constitution of any kind for the kingdom (absolute monarchy).

Muhammad Mahdi Akif, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Muhammad Mahdi Akif (photo: AP)
The Muslim Brotherhood is one of the most influential political movements in the Middle East. Muhammad Mahdi Akif is the movement's current leader in Egypt

​​ Every state in the Islamic world has by now developed its own version of "official Islam" to help serve its vital interests and check those of competing states. Even the secular Kemalist Turkish state has found for itself a benign, elastic and tolerant version of Islam to toy with as necessary for a while. Since Sudan became an oil producing country, a form of petro-Islam has taken hold of the state there as well. On the whole, official state Islam proved to be an indispensable ally and help meet of the West throughout the Cold War – particularly its most literal, scripturalist and rigorous readings, forms and applications. Thus, this Islam and the West know each other very well, understand each other very well and know how to cooperate very well. The bombastic complaints they keep making about each other in public can thus be taken with a good pinch of salt. "Action Directe Islam" The second party on the other extreme side is militant insurrectionary Islam. Its many factions, fractions and groupings resort to spectacular terrorist violence on a world scale under the banner of Islam's forgotten imperative of jihad against all infidels to further their agendas. It is this Islam that occupied the holy shrine in Mecca (the Ka'ba) in 1979, shaking the Saudi Arabian Kingdom to its foundations; assassinated President Anuar Sadat of Egypt in 1981, in the hope of sparking an Islamic revolution in the country; conducted a losing but bloody battle against the Syrian, Egyptian and Algerian regimes; and carried out the assaults of 9/11 inside the United States.

Sadik Jalal al-Azm (photo: Ikhlas Abbis)
The Syrian philosopher al-Azm received the Dutch Erasmus Prize in 2004 and was made an honorary doctor of the University of Hamburg in 2005. His most important work is "Critique of Religious Thought"

​​ Its doctrine of jihad firstly apostatises (takfir) not only all ruling regimes in the Muslim societies so ruled, regarding them as no more than nominally Muslim entities and governments that require urgent re-Islamisation. Secondly, it calls for imposing Allah's sovereignty (hakimiyyah) and law (shari'ah) first in the so-called Muslim countries and polities and then everywhere else. The practitioners of this type of Islam summarise their approach in two words: takfir and tafgir, which translate as "apostatise and explode." I myself call their approach "Action Directe Islam", after the model of Paris 1968 and after. The American version for the same period of the last century said: "DO IT" and "Burn, Baby, Burn". For this kind of Islam the attentisme of other Muslims bas become intolerable. Its spectacular violence is seen as at worst an acte gratuit in favour of Allah's cause, where the only kind of politics permitted is direct and immediate attack against the enemy – the more extravagant the better. This is an Islam that has given up completely on society, reform, political parties, social organisation, due process, the popular will, the spontaneous religiosity of the masses, in favour of the blind activism of die Tat. This is its shortcut course to the restoration of an authentic Islamic order. I should caution here that although Lebanon's Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas carry some family resemblance with this kind of Islam, they should not be reduced to it. Both organisations are really remnants of the old twentieth-century national liberation movements with an Islamist mobilising ideology, concentrating mainly on freeing occupied territories. They conduct their struggles and fights locally, attack only the occupying country, have a carefully defined achievable goal, are ready and willing to negotiate a deal with the enemy and have strong and highly supportive popular constituencies. Middle-class Islam may well win the battle The final contender in the fight for control over the definition of Islam is middle-class commercial Islam. This side is represented primarily by the bourgeoisies of various Muslim states and led by an assortment of agencies such as the chambers of commerce, industry and agriculture; multiple forms of Islamic banking, investment houses, venture capital and so on. In so far as these middle classes form the backbone of civil society in their respective countries, their Islam becomes the Islam of civil society in general. It is an Islam that is moderate, conservative and good for business. It abhors the salvific projects of the radical secular left no less than the similar projects of the radical Islamist right. The model for the hegemony of this kind of Islam is to be found today in Turkey, under the rule of the Justice and Development Party. The impact and lure of the Turkish example are already being powerfully and widely felt in the Arab World, the heartland of Islam. My own prediction is that if and when currently turbulent Arab states and societies stabilise and to some extent democratise, it will be some version of middle-class Islam that will float to the surface and gain pride of place for quite a while. Sadiq Jalal al-Azm © Qantara.de 2008 Sadiq Jalal al-Azm was born in Damascus in 1934. He studied philosophy in Beirut and has taught as a professor in New York, Beirut, Amman and Damascus. One of his best-known works is Critique of Religious Thought.

Print article
Send via mail
Add Comment
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: Qantara.de reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. Qantara.de will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.