The Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo (photo: picture-alliance/Ellen Rooney/Robert Harding)
Alexander Flores's ''Civilization or Barbarism?''

Islam in the Historical Context

In his book, Alexander Flores confidently clears the decks of received wisdom on the Muslim faith. Flores limits his monograph to essential information and in doing so, avoids both apology and polemical discourse in equal measure. By Stefan Weidner

A tabula rasa for books on Islam – now that would be something! In view of the profusion of publications on the subject available these days, only a specialist can separate the wheat from the chaff.

For someone weary of only hearing about the issue from the news and talk show perspective, what kind of material is out there? Someone who wants a halfway complete picture, with no particular focus on headscarves, Koran interpretations or individual Islamic nations? Someone who wants factual information that amounts to a comprehensible appraisal – one that he can refer to and share?

Until recently, such requirements would probably have best been fulfilled by certain publications for children. But now, anyone not put off by the sensational title "Zivilisation oder Barbarei?" (Civilisation or Barbarism?), can also reach for a copy of Alexander Flores' gleaming white paperback, published by Verlag der Weltreligionen.

German book cover 'Civilization or Barbarism' by Alexander Flores
Analytical and of superior quality: In his book, Flores performs a tricky balancing act and avoids both apology and polemical discourse in equal measure

​​The superior quality of this compact work on "Islam in the historical context" is revealed when its approach is applied to current affairs. Take Salafism, for example. No one needs to know anymore than what is written here, but one should at least know this: The Salafist ideology previously had reformist qualities and was taken up by intellectuals such as the Egyptian Grand Mufti Mohammed Abduh, who died in 1905, to bring Islam onto an equal footing with Europe through the removal of impediments to modernity, without relinquishing its own identity in the process.

And one should also be aware of how, again in Egypt, Saudi-based forces within the movement opposing ideological opening initially lost in the political game against secular, pan-Arabic forces but later won the upper hand, and who now, stripped of any progressive potential, pursue a totalitarian branding of Islamic ideology.

What beguiled Goethe

On the other hand, the chapter on Islamic law shows just how "ambiguity-tolerant" the mediaeval Islamic world was in particular – an expression Flores borrows from his colleague Thomas Bauer: The historic significance of Sharia has very little to do with contemporary interpretation of the code by Muslim propagandists and those who fear Islam.

In the modern sense, this legal code was only generally applicable in the rarest cases; its draconian punishments were seldom carried out, if at all. Islamic law was low down on the list of rulers' priorities, and contrary to frequent assertions, there was no question of merging religion and state. For the faithful masses, Sharia served as a kind of compass – enabling them to navigate in all possible directions, and absolutely not just to Mecca alone.

The Koran readings of the German professor of Arab-world economics are also convincing: non-polemic, but no less self-assured and enlightened as a result. Flores does not conceal that which previously beguiled and alienated Goethe: the repellent threatening passages, for example – with the author's cleverly annexed reference to Dante's description of hell in his Divine Comedy where the Italian author famously denigrated the prophet Mohammed –, the variety of possible interpretations, the spiritual quality.

In his book, Flores performs a tricky balancing act and avoids both apology and polemical discourse in equal measure. He does not devote any lines to a detailed rebuttal of Islam criticism. This already finds all its motifs in Ernest Renan's notorious lecture on Islam from the year 1883, which is briefly quoted at the start of the volume. All further text is devoted to the facts, not to positive or negative fantasies.

Flores also largely leaves out the Palestine conflict and all political developments in the narrower sense. This is the only correct consequence to be drawn from the insights conveyed in this monograph. After all, as much as the Islam of our modern age is pocketed by politics and permeates it: the two have never really been one and the same.

Stefan Weidner

© 2013

Alexander Flores: "Zivilisation oder Barbarei? Der Islam im historischen Kontext" (Civilisation or Barabarism? Islam in the historical context), published by Suhrkamp Verlag der Weltreligionen, Frankfurt 2011. The book is not yet available in English.

Review translated from the German by Nina Coon


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