‘Secularization theory’, modernity’s wishful thinking about the disappearance of religion, has not been redeemed by the march of history. Religion, as faith and worldview, has not only survived the onslaught of secularity, but has re-entered the arena of politics and history with a vengeance. Instead, modernity itself has dissipated into a number of post-modernities which all question the legitimacy of its ‘reason’ and the universality of its project. However, given the fact that the sociological vision arose in opposition to religion and even posited the grand paradigm of ‘Society’ as an alternative mode of articulation about the human situation, social scientists are conceptually better equipped to theorize about the ‘advent of postmodernity’ than the ‘return of religion’. The secularization thesis of sociology, after all, could neither have predicted a revitalization of religion that we are witnessing today, nor made intelligible its claims to a re-appropriation of the public discourse.
Despite its embarrassment with the secularization thesis, sociological imagination has not become totally disenchanted with its foundational myth. In the face of mounting criticism, accepted as ‘valid’ even from within the discipline itself, most sociologists have opted for a re-adjustment and a re-vision of the old thesis rather than its total abandonment. They have shown scant willingness to, what has become the stock image of their apology, ‘throw the baby out with the bath water.’ Sociology then is today striving to re-claim its original territory and, willy-nilly, learning to incorporate religious self-articulation into its own discourse. Some of the tensions and promises of the new sociological reflection on the nature and role of religion may be gauged from Casanova’s radical work, Public Religions in the Modern World, just as Davis’s equally original study, Religion and the Making of Society provides the complementary insight into the philosophical interface of religion and modern theory. Both of these studies contain enough of interest for the Muslim reader and should be part of his/her background reading, not least because much of the western output on Islamic subjects presupposes a familiarity with the kind of theoretical debates that are surveyed here.
Public Religions in the Modern World. By José Casanova. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1994. Pp 320. $18.95 (Paper). ISBN 0-226-09535-5.
Religion and the Making of Society. By Charles Davis. Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp 208. $15.95. ISBN 0-521-44789-5.
and Modernity: The Search for Islamic Authenticity.
By Robert D Lee. Westview Press, Bolder & Oxford, 1997. Pp 216.
$18.00. ISBN 0-8133-2798-9.
Religion in the 1980s, according to Casanova’s apt depiction, ‘"went public" in the dual sense. It entered the "public sphere" and gained, thereby, publicity.’ The author's theoretical concern then is with the ‘Deprivatization of Modern Religion’ to which his case studies, mainly from Catholic countries such as Poland, Spain, Brazil etc., are subordinate. Needless to say, Casanova is as critical of secularization theory for relegating religious commitment or faith to the realm of pure myth as he is bold in acknowledging the fact that the entire modern sociological edifice has been erected on this flawed and polemical thesis. Nonetheless, his revision of the secularization thesis involves a differentiation of the traditional paradigm into three quite different, and independent, theories: (1) secular modernity involves a differentiation of the secular spheres from religious institutions and norms; (2) secular modernity causes a decline of religious beliefs and practices; (3) secular modernity necessarily marginalizes religion to a privatized sphere. Only the first theory, in his opinion, is unambiguously valid. The other two are empirical possibilities but, in no sense, inevitable. Naturally, this qualification is tantamount to rejecting the traditional claim of modernity about the ever-increasing decline and privatization of religion - something that everyone else has conceded without the laborious theoretical detour!
Such revisionism may not raise may eyebrows, but the same cannot be said about the radical and daring claim of Casanova’s theoretical insight, namely that religion ‘could somehow unintentionally help modernity save itself.’! He recognizes that while ‘Western modernity has lost some of its haughty self-assurance’, there are other traditions ‘which have maintained an uneasy relationship with modernity, partly accommodating, partly recognizing some of modernity’s values as their own but refusing to accept the claims of the market and the state that moral norms ought not to interfere their systemic logic of self-reproduction through the media of money and power.’ By not entering into a creative dialogue with these others, who are challenging its identity, Western modernity may triumph over its adversaries, but it is sure to be ‘devoured by the inflexible, inhuman, logic of its own creations.’ A world ruled by the unholy trinity of the market, state and science, no matter how rational, secular and modern, would, in other words, be an inhumane world.
One may construe Casanova’s argument as a Catholic reversal of the Protestant-centered orientations, and prejudices, of the modern sociology of religion. Its special appeal for a Muslim, however, comes form its avowal of the fact, long recognized by modern Islam, that by questioning the absolute autonomy of the secular spheres and their claims to be free from any extraneous ethical or moral considerations, religion actually extends the scope of human freedom, or furthers the project of modernity if you will. Equally consistent with the Islamic position is his recognition that by entering a public debate, religious conscience not only forces modern societies to reflect publicly and collectively upon their normative structures, but that religion itself is forced to come to term with the normative claims of modern institutions. Considering that the multiplicity of normative traditions constitutes the very pre-condition for ethical discourse, it seems self-evident to Casanova that ‘religious normative traditions should have the same rights as any other normative tradition to enter the public sphere.’ Indeed, it is secular prejudice, and the concomitant conviction that nothing religious can ever be ‘modern’, that accounts for the systematic neglect of religion in modern theory, not to speak of the modern practice. The epistemological claim to exclusivity and the banishment of religious conscience from the public discourse, then, stem from secularist insecurity and intransigence . It represents the perverse and totalitarian side of modernity.
Despite all his enthusiasm for a deprivatized religion to assume a public role, it is worth noting that, as a social scientist who takes his epistemological bearings from a, albeit revised and overhauled, theory of secularization, Casanova stipulates certain conditions for the participation of religion in the moral life of the polity. First of all, his insistence is that any religion aspiring for a ‘deprivatized’ role must accept the modern differentiation of ‘faith’ and ‘politics’; for ‘any fusion of the religious and political community is incompatible with the modern principle of citizenship.’ The public role of religion, in other words, is legitimate only in the realm of ‘civil society’ and not in that of the state or political society. Religion shapes the conscience of the body-politic but lays no claim to representing the political society. It does not constitute itself as a ‘state-church’ or acts as the guardian of an ‘official orthodoxy’. Further, if it aims to play ‘a positive role in furthering processes of practical rationalization’, it must incorporate as it own the central aspects of the Enlightenment’s critique of religion. It must incorporate reflexively the three dimensions of this critique: the cognitive critique of premodern worldviews, the moral critique of religious ideologies of legitimation, and the subjective critique of asceticism and alienation.
Whatever reservation the Muslim may have of this amalgam of a darkened Enlightenment and a liberalised Catholicism, this vision is not an anathema to Islam. Indeed, it represents the normal ideal of ‘laique’ Sunnism: a faith-community (body-politic or body-Islamic) that ‘stands above’ the state or political order, which is without any clerical organization (the absence of ‘state-church’) and whose religious conscience (the corporate body of the ‘ulama) operates within the institutions of the civil society. No doubt, this ideal is today being challenged by the forces of radical, fundamentalist, Islam which will not concede any distinction between body-politic and the state. Unfortunately and contrary to pious expectations, such a unified political order results not in the supremacy of religious institutions but in the subordination of civil society to the state. The least that we may learn from the Western debate on secularization is that while ontological and metaphysical bifurcation of human existence into a sacred and a secular realm is morally untenable, it does make some sense not to have a totalitarian and unitary model of social order. It should also make us alert to the subtle institutional differentiation, within the overall moral and metaphysical unity of faith, that our societies managed to achieve in the past. There is no Islamic justification for being obsessed with the modern, totalitarian, notions of power that lurk behind the ideology of the secular state. As for the Enlightenment’s critique of religion, much of it is contextual, relating to the specific practices of the Christian church during those times, and does not concern us. As for the rest, it must be boldly faced. Now that the Enlightenment itself has been ‘de-constructed’ and counter-critiqued, Islam’s dialogue with it need not be a daunting task. And yet, it is a task that is yet to begin. Be that as it may, Casanova’s bold and pioneering insights into the nature of public religions in the modern world will certainly prove profitable to those willing to engage in this task.
Davis’s book, a collection of eleven essays in ‘social theology’, is no less challenging and gratifying. His focus is, as it evident from the title, on the social role of religion after the shift from traditional culture to modernity/postmodernity, and his basic theoretical assumption is about the differentiation of faith and belief; similar to the one proposed by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, most probably as a consequence of his prolonged exposure to the Islamic tradition where this distinction is central. Contesting the modernist assertion that society is the product of human agency and not part of a given transcendental and cosmic order which is anterior to human freedom, Davis adopts a theological position which moves beyond secularity to the realm of supernatural grace. He does not thus agree with secular thinkers who claim that ‘religion as a structural principle of society’ has come to an end. Religion, Davis insists, does not limit its meaning to a social system, but stakes its ultimate claim of legitimacy on some deeply satisfying and meaningful experience of the transcendent. It is this aspect of religion as faith, openness to transcendence and the radical conviction of the meaningfulness of life, that is meta-historical and trans-contextual. Modernity and its critique can affect belief but not faith: it can modify religious practices but cannot banish religious faith from societal consciousness. Indeed, the principal insight of the author is that modernity’s de-coupling of religion and politics also provides religion with an unprecedented opportunity to offer a permanent critique of society.
The root of the secularist argument rests, in his view, on the facile and false opposition of ‘religion’ and ‘human agency’ which seems to exclude each other. ‘If one sees society as a human artefact or construction’, he asks, ‘does that exclude an intervention of the transcendent principle?’ Or, conversely, if one is convinced that society is a result of revelation or some other supernatural principle, ‘does that exclude human agency so that society is entirely a sacral structure or a theocracy?’ (Needless to say, Muslims will immediately recognize the ‘Islamic’ tenor of Davis’s counter-argument, just as they are bound to recall the deceit of secular polemics which dismisses every kind of Islamic societal option as ‘theocracy’.) Davis further insists that in the whole gamut of human experience, there are three spheres where we find a mediation of the transcendent: the cognitive, the normative and the expressive. Of course this thesis translates itself into a typology of religions into cosmic (cognitive); political (normative) and contemplative (expressive) traditions. But it also comes to the recognition that there is no distinctively religious sphere. ‘Religious faith and practice’, Davis continues in the same vein, ‘is a dimension of human experience in all its forms. To think otherwise is a form of idolatry, because it fails to acknowledge that religion is found only when human experience is transcended.’ Again, a reiteration of a quintessentially Islamic insight!
Summing up, Charles Davis, professor emeritus of religion at Concordia University in Montreal, also a catholic, presents an eminently sane argument against the privatization of religion thesis, an argument which furthermore is quite congenial to the Islamic temper. However, his book also contains reflections on other highly actual and relevant themes such as ‘The Political use and misuse of religious language’, ‘Post-modernity and the formation of the self’, ‘Communicative rationality and the grounding of religious hope’, etc. that testify to the growing interface of theology and postmodernity in the academic discourse. An absorbing, stimulating and provocative work that need to be on the reading list of every Muslim theorist preoccupied with his own deliberation on ‘the religion and the making of society’.
Robert Lee’s study on ‘the search for Islamic authenticity’ provides a subtle, novel and challenging perspective on the striving of recent Muslim thought to overcome the pernicious dichotomy of modernity and tradition. Free from all polemics, full of empathy and understanding but not lacking in forthright and cogent criticism, this imaginative work exposes all the pain and perplexity of the Islamic tradition that has been under constant encroachment from the West. And yet, it also gives ample testimony to the tenacity, boldness, universality and self-confidence of the Islamic intellect and conscience. As an intellectual history, it is both sharp and discerning, lucid and persuasive, but what distinguishes it most from other similar works is its broad humanity and ability to reflect, together with Muslim and Western thinkers, on the universal malaise of meaninglessness and nihilism into which modernity and postmodernity seem to have hurled our human community. In sum, Robert Lee’s Overcoming Tradition and Modernity: The Search for Islamic Authenticity is a work that is as radical as it is rewarding, which marks a very welcome addition to the meagre mass of perceptive studies on modern Islam, and which demands the scholarly community’s fullest attention and respect.
Lee’s whole analytical enterprise hinges on the concept of ‘authenticity’, whose European genealogy and patrimony he introduces in the initial chapters, though in a somewhat impressionistic manner. The reason for his choice, he claims, is that "authenticity" has begun to rival "development" as the key to understanding the political aspirations of the non-western world. Further, both development theory and academic Orientalism (agents of Western triumphalism and modernism) are rendered defunct by the consciousness of authenticity which seeks a cultural and political space, indeed a mode of being, beyond the suffocating embrace of tradition as well as modernity. And yet, Lee offers some sobering thoughts on Edward Said’s ‘postmodernist’ criticism of Orientalism, which fails to identify any ‘genuine’ Orient, or Islam, as opposed to the ‘mythical’ one of Orientalist imagination. He rightfully rejects the totalitarian demands of historicist consciousness, which proclaim ‘the impossibility of any essential, foundational point of reference’, because, if accepted, there would, then, be no meaning to any idea, belief or practice of Islamic, or Western, authenticity. The demand for authenticity, Lee enunciates his position, represents a ‘desire to break with essentialist notions of truth, both traditional and modern, but not a willingness to part with the notions of truth altogether.’ The postmodern cult of extreme relativism, in other words, is not conducive to the growth of authentic thought.
Authentic thought begins, first of all, from the concept of the self as unique: existential particularity is thus ‘the bedrock of authentic thought’. Secondly, it insists that ‘human beings fashion their history and, therefore, themselves’: it is dynamic, activist and presumes human autonomy. Thirdly, authentic thought constitutes a revolt against modernity and tradition both: it rejects the absolute authority of reason as much as it proclaims its disenchantment with religious dogmas. Fourthly, though it always runs the risk of devolving into radical individualism, cognitive subjectivism and value relativism, authentic thought also strives towards ‘unicity’, towards some elements of commonality and association: it is not atomistic and nihilist. Thus, the four distinguishing features of authentic thought, as identified by Lee are: particularity, radicalism, autonomy and unicity (escape from nihilism) As for ‘politics of authenticity’, not only is Lee’s theoretical vision considerably less sharp, his moral sensitivity finds it equally hard to condone the totalitarian, xenophobic and narcissistic streak of authenticity. The theory of authenticity, then, is far more appealing than its practice and Lee is forced to admit that while the modern efforts to identify authenticity as national culture has generally produced repression and illiberalism, traditional structures such as the long-defunct Ottoman Empire, ‘criticized by the Great Powers for violating the rights of minorities’, are now regarded with relative favour for what, in the light of recent history, appears to be ‘ rather successful experiment in transnational governance.’
Within this proposed paradigm of authenticity, and against the backdrop of its European proponents such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, but also Rousseau and Gramsci (all totalitarians, whether of the Left or of the Right!), Lee chooses to examine the Islamic thought of four, equally prominent but highly disparate, Muslim thinkers of this century, namely Muhammad Iqbal, Sayyid Qutb, ‘Ali Shari‘ati and Mohammed Arkoun. It is a detailed account, carried out with an impressive philosophical skill, which displays great sympathy and considerable mastery of the sources (despite the fact that no original works in Arabic, Persian or Urdu are cited in the Bibliography). More than that, the style of the discussion is lucid, the diction chaste and the general impression one of a competent analysis leading to genuine insights. Through the common thread of ‘authenticity’, i.e. rejection of tradition and modernity both, emphasis on the self, assertion of the human autonomy and denunciation of fatalistic pessimism, and the quest for a common cultural and religious space, Lee succeeds in bringing order and meaning to a host of ideas whose only distinguishing mark otherwise is that they impress, and daunt, the ordinary reader by their variety.
Lee’s appropriation of Muhammad Iqbal, Sayyid Qutb and ‘Ali Shari‘ati to the tradition of authenticity may escape criticism; all of them, after all, meet the proposed criteria of asserting the paramountcy of the individual self, of revolting against the inauthentic mode of existence caused by tradition and modernity, of claiming autonomy and responsibility for the human beings, and of searching a commonality beyond the atomism of our age. The inclusion of Mohammed Arkoun in this camp, however, appears highly anomalous and unjustified, especially so when he distances himself from the authentic movement and protests against such labelling. Robert Lee, however, insists on treating Arkoun’s thought within the paradigm of authenticity, not only because it meets some of the afore-mentioned criteria, but also because Lee is intimately acquainted with Arkoun’s work (He is translator of the latter’s only work to have appeared in English: Rethinking Islam, Westview Press, 1994) and has discovered a deeper underlying affinity between Arkoun’s thinking and the authentic mode of discourse.
As Arkoun is the lesser known of the four, at least for the readers of this journal, this review will mainly preoccupy itself with Lee’s analysis of his thought. Suffice it to say that Lee’s presentation of Iqbal, Qutb and Shari‘ati is far from conventional and instills much respect and sympathy for these radical thinkers. Further, none of them, not even Sayyid Qutb, comes across as one-dimensional and fanatical, something that otherwise is de rigueur in the writings of western apologists (The most notable exception that immediately comes to mind is Leonard Binder’s Islamic Liberalism which accords Sayyid Qutb an original and sympathetic treatment.) As the interested reader may discover this humane and unpolemical side of Lee’s scholarship by first-hand acquaintance, we'll therefore concentrate on his original, and by no means uncontroversial, claim of discovering the paradigm of ‘authenticity’ in Arkoun’s thought.
Not irrelevant in this connection are the following facts of Arkoun’s biography: He was born in 1928 at Tourirt-Mimoun in the Kabylia region of Algeria; Berber is his mother tongue, French his second language, and Arabic his third. He grew up in French schools, became a student of Islam and even made his way to the top of the French university system. His relationship with the Orient and Orientalism, however, remains ambivalent: he identifies with both and with neither. Despite his empathy for the Muslim complaint about the injustices of Western scholarship, he reproaches the Orient for exactly the same sins that he finds reprehensible in Orientalism, namely, ‘attachment to universals, identification of truth with essences, and neglect of history.’ Even more paradoxically, as a Muslim historian, he solicits the help of non-Muslims and non-historians in reassessing ‘the relationship of Islamic thought to text, to language, to groups, to power, to time, and to place, in order to discover "positivities" that could underpin an "objective" understanding of the "totality" of the Islamic tradition.’ One wonders, however, whether his project, which aims at the elimination of all the ‘positivities’ of traditional thought, entails a deconstruction unto nothingness, or whether his epistemological dexterity is merely for the sake of humiliating the modern subject? Is the ‘Islamic’ dimension of Arkoun’s thought, in other words, self-consciously circumspect, subliminal and subversive of the hegemony of the Western discourse?
Arkoun’s dedication, then, is to ‘scientific endeavour, to scholarship, to empirical investigation.’ But his scholarship also provides him with a platform from which to launch an assault on the Islamic tradition. For his conception of Islam is much broader than that of ‘orthodoxy’; it is large enough to accommodate all those who see themselves as Muslims. Not surprisingly, Arkoun is as much cognizant of the unthought of the Islamic discourse, as he is concerned with the Islamic thought. For instance, understanding Islam means for him analysing the manner in which the ‘Qur’anic fact’ was transcendentalized, i.e., accepted as a foundation for a Divine Law and proclaimed as a universal truth, and why these interpretations of the revelational fact ultimately prevailed, whereas alternative understandings disappeared from history. His own conclusion is Islam belongs to the contested field of meaning and legitimacy, and the state always seeks to reduce it to a single set of symbols.’ The unity and uniformity of Islam, then, come from its historical role as a legitimizing ideology for political power.
History not faith, then, is Arkoun’s mistress. Consequently, the distinguishing mark of Arkoun’s scholarship is his radical, nay iconoclastic, bid to empty Islamic consciousness of all its inherited - sacral and transcendental - structures and of re-distilling them into the vat of modern social sciences. Little wonder that he is much concerned with questions of methodology, just as epistemology constitutes his magic wand through the exercise of which he searches for authenticity, for new foundations in the ‘reconstructed collective memory of the community’. It is a search, however, which has to be conducted in a language, or consciousness, that has been saturated with the vocabulary and insights of modern social sciences. "The emotion-charged atmosphere", laments Arkoun’ "rules out the possibility of scientific study of a large number of sensitive problems." The question of science and social reality then looms large in the mental and moral horizon of Mohammad Arkoun. Indeed, as Lee is forced to conclude, ‘there reverberates through Arkoun’s work an underlying faith in the truth-producing capacities - if not at this stage, then at the next - of modern social science.’ (emphasis has been added.)
By his espousal of science, Arkoun commits
himself to a modernist conception of truth, and undermines his own historicising
scholarship that heavily relies on the postmodernist technique of deconstruction.
Indeed, it is here that Arkoun receives the most perceptive and demolishing
criticism of his translator:
"Science has usually meant externality and abstraction, and modern social science has dedicated itself to rendering external - hence, comprehensible at a different time and place - that which is initially internal and time-bound. Arkoun calls upon social science to understand l’imaginaire - that sedimentation of consciousness and conviction that governs so much behaviour in any society - and to achieve "if possible …. A direct and totalizing reading of the real." But how can Arkoun believe it is possible? Why is not science itself, built as it is on transhistoric procedures and axioms, equally vulnerable to critical examination of the historicist sort? (emphasis mine.)
Despite all his methodological sophistication and familiarity with traditional and modern thought, then, Arkoun is either not sufficiently alert to the problem of relativism that follows in the footstep of historicism, or he simply strikes a disingenuous pose by resorting to a disclaimer: "There is no such thing as an innocent discourse or innocent method." To outsiders, of course, this testifies to the untenability of his position as he too works from a particular perspective in history and his ‘method’ is as vulnerable to the corroding solvent of historicism as any other. The impasse of Arkoun’s ‘epistemology’ is then the impasse of the immanentist and historicising consciousness of modernity and postmodernity. By dethroning the transcendent, Islamic, subject, Arkoun’s epistemological search exhausts itself in the wasteland of radical historicism and no normative thought results from his excursions.
The final thoughts that Lee offers in this challenging work are about the elusiveness of authenticity, of the impasse of authentic discourse to provide a concrete vision of a social and political order. The authentic discourse, he demonstrates with persuasive logic, is beset with its own antinomies; that all individual efforts to produce a blueprint of an authentic society tips the ideational balance sheet toward conundrums, apparent contradictions and inadequacies. Particularity and unicity cancel each other out. Or, if one believes that the authentic individual is unique to the extent that no point of reference is available to fathom that uniqueness, then the search for authenticity terminates in a postmodernist defeat. Death not life provides the ultimate authentication of authenticity, for at the moment of death one cannot be anyone else but an authentic person. Little wonder that authentic thought, both western and Islamic, shows much fascination with death. The authentic sensitivity, in other words, is too profound for its own good: like the proverbial snake it bites its own tail and commits an intellectual hara-kiri.
The problem of authentication, however, cannot be overcome by authentic thought. No transcendent source of legitimacy, God, faith, reason, tradition, can provide validation without becoming other than transcendent. The quest for authenticity, nevertheless, is a condition of politics the world over and may unite different cultures, religions, civilizations which even authentic thought considers as irreconcilable. So ends this reflection on authenticity, not with a particularist bang, but with a universalist whimper.
Whatever the discontents of the political discourse of authenticity, it brings into high relief the misery and incoherence of the modernist solution to the human condition. Modernity renounces transcendence but bestows upon immanent entities, history, science, society, the sovereign authority of self-authentication. By so doing, however, it makes a pact with nihilism and undermines its own legitimacy! The circularity of the modernist claim to legitimacy, these critical works cogently demonstrate, can no longer be maintained. Only by doing violence to the dignity of the human intellect may Science and Society be accepted as absolutes of any universalist discourse.