Islam and the Political Discourse of Modernity. By Armando Salvatore. Ithaca Press, 1997. Pp 283. £45.00 (Cloth). ISBN 0-86372-196-6.

This is a very perceptive and stimulating book that treats us to a veritable smorgasbord of savoury ideas but, sadly, leaves us with an acrid aftertaste. After conducting us to the debating forum of modernity and ushering us to the hall of civilisational polemics, it abandons the reader in the thick of the post-modern war of words, deserting him in the midst of an ideational haze that allows no vision of either ‘reality’ or ‘text’ beyond the perpetual flux of language and interpretation and that renders both ‘modernity’ and ‘Islam’ as mere phantoms of discourse. For all its resources of intelligence, keenness and insight, then, it is a discourse upon a discourse upon a discourse, an eloquent testimony to the vacuous cults of our age but hardly a ‘guide for the perplexed’.

Any juxtaposition of Islam and modernity, or modernity and Islam, Salvatore suggests, ends in a zero-sum game where every effort to de-essentialise Islam results in an essentialisation of modernity, usually on the basis of some Kantian definition of its unique and transcendent rationality. (A notable representative of this tendency, one may add, is Ernest Gellner, who in a recent monograph unabashedly asserts that the Kantian epistemology of Enlightenment is transcendent ‘twice over’; in ‘being beyond and beside a culture or any culture, and in being beyond and beside this world.’ (Postmodernisn, Reason and Religion, London, 1992. p 82)) Against the preponderance of these fundamentalist claims, whether Islamist or modernist, Salvatore conceives of his task as the de-mystification of a polemical discourse, ‘a transcultural hermeneutic syndrome’, that pivots on the category of ‘political Islam’ but which also thoroughly permeates the self-articulating reflection of modernity itself.

And yet, Salvatore is also cognisant that the de-mystifying enterprise must be abandoned halfway down the de-essentialising path, for without the attribution of some putative essence, Islam and modernity cannot be apprehended, at least not the way in which they constituted themselves historically as intellectual traditions. Accordingly, the Islam that is the subject of this analytical tract is defined as ‘the plural hermeneutics of a complex civilisation and the flexible medium of a collective identity centred on one Koranic keyword (islam)’, while modernity is conceived as ‘the sort of politically relevant discourse mediated by intellectuals once the idea of rationality is recognised as embodied in society, no longer confined to a transcendent logos.’ (pxiii, Italics supplied.) Significantly, however, Salvatore is reticent about the criteria of ‘rationality’ and ‘relevance’, which, by the elimination of every transcendent logos from societal ethos, tip the scale of the ‘political’ decisively in favour of modernity. Yet, he fully realises that the game of naming the Other, the making of a generic ‘Islam’ that is strictly dependent on the making of the ‘West’, is blatantly uneven and imbalanced. It is with the emergence and evolution of the trans-cultural dynamics of ‘essentialisation’ and ‘otherisation’ that Salvatore’s study engages itself and by so doing produces an intriguingly original reading of the highly polemical texts of Islamism and modernity as well.

As against the positing of the ethnocentric view of the world, which is peculiar to pre-modern societies, the role played by an ‘essence’ in the modern intellectual mode of thinking is, according to Salvatore, ‘that of delimiting the field and the scope of the domestication of the Other.’ (p 69). The intellectual roots of essentialism proper, which cannot be reduced to an outright instrumentalisation of the Other according to Salvatore, are to be found in the specifically German construction of ‘inwardness’ (Innerlichkeit) as the unique characteristic of Western religious and social consciousness. Later, it was turned into a historic claim by Hegel, who first constructed Islam as a unitary cultural force lacking in this very ‘inwardness’ and denied it ‘the capability of engaging in a process of subjectivity-formation, that remained thereby a Western Christian monopoly.’ (p. 73). From then on, opines Salvatore, a trans-cultural space was opened, via an arch stretching from Hegel, through the classical Orientalism of scholars like Ignaz Goldziher and Carl H. Becker, to the comparative sociology of Max Weber that defined Islam solely in terms of the deficiencies of ‘subjectivity, civility and rationality’. Relying mainly on the seminal work of Georg Stauch (Islam und westlicher Rationalismus: Der Beitrag des Orientalismus zur Entstehung der Soziologie. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt, 1993), Salvatore draws a compelling portrait of Weber as the epitome of ‘the centrality of Western essentialism as the methodological counterpart of the academic, increasingly social-scientific institutionalisation of inwardness.’ (p. 97). Though forced to make a distinction between Weber and Weberism (American social scientists’ adaptive misuse of Weber), Salvatore does recognise that from the ‘heuristic Eurocentrism’ of the former to the ‘normative Eurocentrism’ of the latter there runs ‘a closed circularity between the idea that legitimates the vocation of the social scientist, his method of inquiry and the mechanism of social change imputed to the processes analysed.’ (p. 106).

Notwithstanding the refracted, mosaic, vision of the Arabic-Islamic debate that is projected here, the theoretical thrust of this study is against the claims of current political, and academic, wisdom according to which Islamic self-articulations and the modernist discourse are mirror-images of each other. On the contrary, Salvatore demonstrates the extent to which ‘the political discourses of modernity have intervened in the construction of Islam, and the definitions of Islam have contributed to shape political discourse of modernity, both in the West and in the "Arab-Islamic" world.’ The emergence of the ‘hermeneutic field of political Islam’, in his view, owes to the all-embracing discourse of modernity that claims universal validity and affects even the indigenous interpretations of Islam. Within the historical perspective of this study, however, the interpretative field of ‘Islam’ is shown to have acquired, from its original Koranic meaning as the individual act of surrender to God, not only the ‘social power of an ethical path’, or, as a result of the Orientalist investigation, the defining characteristics of a ‘civilisation’, but also the emotional and ideological conviction of a universal ‘communal reference that is complementary to national consciousness within Arab societies.’ To each of these re-workings of the original and pivotal concept ‘Islam’, Salvatore contends, there corresponds an intertwining discourse of modernity.

The author’s principal insight that behind the polemics and counter-polemics of Islam and modernity lurks a single interpretative field, that only one "truth game" has been played by both the contestants, is graphically presented as the unfolding of seven concentric ‘hermeneutical circles’ that are constructed around the axes of a few paradigmatic thinkers. The outcome may be construed as a fairly conventional, though highly perceptive and original, intellectual history, even if the author insists upon naming his methodological approach as ‘genealogical’. Starting from `Ali Abd-al-Raziq and terminating with Mohammed Arkoun, Salvatore exposes nearly all the ideologues of Arabic Islam to a searching gaze of discourse-analysis and invariably succeeds in enriching and augmenting the insights of conventional scholarship. The deconstructive project is distinguished by its comprehensiveness; the radical, or conventional, ideas many lesser-known but by no means intellectually and ideationally insignificant, thinkers such as Yusuf al-Qardawi, Muhammad A. Khalafallah, Muhammad `Abid al-Jabri, Hassan Hanafi and others are befittingly scrutinised. Similarly, many less-publicised outpourings of Western giants like Michel Foucault (pp 145-55) are brought to the attention of the Islamist scholar. All of this is academically fresh, philosophically mature and intellectually gratifying.

Salvatore’s study won the 1994 Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation award in the social sciences, a distinction that it justly deserves. As an intellectual history, it is a work of great erudition and keen insight and not even its turgid prose and unseemly jargon can detract from its profundity of thought and intellectual perspicacity. For all the irritation that an English reader may feel at its pretentious diction and continental verbosity, it remains a rewarding and gratifying work. Whatever the hurdles of going through the daunting, at times even arcane, text, for the scholar there is no alternative to plunging in the work itself. As for the perplexed believer, the brash insolence of its metaphysical claim, albeit tacit, that outside of discourse and language, there exists nothing, or that the only path to the articulation of political reality is through the discourse of modernity, is a source of great distress.

S Parvez Manzoor