|Published in journal of Islamic Studies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, vol. 3, no. 2 (july 1992), pp 262-5.|
Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change. By Bassam Tibi (translated by Clare Krojzl). Westview Press. Boulder, San Francisco & Oxford, 1990. 272pp.
In his celebrated cultural critique Daniel Bell traced the self-destructive tendencies of modern capitalism to inherent 'contradictions' between culture and society: modern society unfolds in terms of economic and administrative rationality, modernist culture tends to undermine the moral foundation of such a rationalized society. Thus, Bell regards the process of secularization, on which modernity ultimately depends, as socially desirable but culturally catastrophic. According to Jürgen Habermas, however, 'this affirmative stance towards social modernity and the denigration of cultural modernity are typical for the evaluative schema implicit in all neoconservative diagnoses of the contemporary situation.' (my emphasis). Seen in this light, Bassam Tibi's work falls squarely within the 'neoconservative' paradigm of Daniel Bell, for its theoretical vision too rests entirely on the postulation of a dichotomy, masked as a dialectic, of society and culture.
Central to Tibi's thesis, although he refers neither to Bell nor to Habermas, is the acknowledgment of a hegemonic, global society that actuates social change and a traditional, regional culture which, willy-nilly, accommodates it. The 'crisis' of modern Islam, then, may be simply understood as its inability to cope with social change, its obduracy to redefine problems or permit new solutions. Indeed, unwilling to absorb extraneous change within its social institutions, yet unable to repel it from its body-politic, Islam today regards every innovation as a threat to its existential frame of reference.
Though Tibi conceives his task as that of investigating the question 'whether Islam as a cultural system demands absoluteness and nontemporality, and is therefore hostile to history and an impediment to change, or whether Muslims have developed their own ways of circumventing this absoluteness in their daily practice, without ceasing to believe in it' (15), it is obvious that there is a 'prescriptive' side to Tibi's argument as well. In fact, he claims that 'the furthering of change calls for cultural innovations, the absence of which can give rise to stumbling blocks that prevent the pervasive transformation of the social structure.' (52) There is no mistaking, then, that Tibi's plea for cultural accommodation is actually part of the secularist project which seeks a radical reorientation of Islamic values and symbols.
For his conceptualization of Islam as a 'cultural system' Tibi relies almost entirely on Clifford Geertz. 'Religion', he claims, 'consists of sociocultural symbols that convey a conception of reality and construe a plan for it' (8) (The `transcendent', he might as well have said, is merely a 'dependent variable' of the sociocultural!]. Indeed, following Geertz, Tibi accepts a fateful dichotomy between 'models of reality' and 'models for reality' (8), and insists upon differentiating 'symbols' from 'objects', 'realty' from 'text' (11) and much else in a similar vein that is philosophically naive and metaphysically fundamentalist. (Strange for a professor at Göttingen not to take any notice of Heidegger's famed critique of modernity!) There is, indeed, a feeble attempt, to establish an ontology (cf. 'What is Islam?', the heading for Chapter 2). Little wonder that he lands with a thump in the metaphysical quagmire.
Needless to say, the introductory chapter is a veritable treasure-house of ideological gems. 'Religious symbolic systems are aimed at clothing reality with an "aura of factuality"' (13); 'In religion, human conceptions of reality are not based on knowledge but on belief in authority" (8; emphasis addedd) (Is there any system of epistemology, be it science, philosophy, history or whatever, which is altogether free from a belief in authority?); 'A process of becoming underlies all reality' (8) (not existence!); or, quoting Geertz: 'religious belief involves not a Baconian induction from everyday experience - for then we should all be agnostics - but rather a prior acceptance of authority which transforms that experience' (13). Then, behind every attempt at theorization lurks the metaphysical monster of the German tongue, Wirklichkeit, which is devoid of all semantic content! No doubt the Muslim is not obliged to shoot these clay-pigeons of modernist metaphysics, but one question is perfectly in order: what is the cognitive gain in the replacement of one protean concept, religion, by another, equally protean one, culture?
Fortunately, Tibi does not exhaust himself chasing the unicorn of method. The bulk of his book is concerned with the more practical and immediate issues of the Muslim politics of law, language, education and ideology that all represent, accoring to him, veritable impediments to social change. And it is here that his critical methodology finds full reins and delivers a long list of indictments. For instance, the Islamic notion of Shari'a 'does not serve to help people shape their social life according to law, since its function is to govern human behaviour as regards divine will' ( 69). Similarly, Arabic language 'facilitates the expression both of differentiated content as well as statements devoid of content, with a mere weight of words (an ineluctable trait of sociological discourse, in the opinion of this reviewer!). The former can be found in Arab philosophy, the latter in sacred language' (82). 'The clamp of the Koran' holding the Arabic tongue in its grips, in short, makes all courtship with social reality impossible. (Interestingly, Tibi, who is unable to distinguish between the paradigmatic and pragmatic levels of Islamic discourse, readily accepts the distinction between the 'assertive' and the 'instructive' modes of legal thought in the case of European tradition.) It goes without saying that Tibi's censure of 'the politicization of Islam', examining the Egyptian, Iranian, Saudi and Moroccan variants, is equally dismissive of the 'fundamentalist' options (cf. 'Political Islam provides no innovative prospects for the future but solely a vision of the future as a restoration of the past.' (120)).
No doubt, Tibi succeeds in delivering a well-articulated, and at times perfectly justified, criticism of the clamorous but thoughtless champions of the Islamic turath. However, he surveys the Islamic tradition from a citadel - the citadel of eurocentric historicism and 'scientific-technological' rationality. Hence, despite the disavowal of evolutionism (3)] and eurocentrism (62), a smug and uncritical immanentism informs (and vitiates) his entire thought. Indeed, displaying an incontestable propensity to confound modernization with Utopia and viewing development as the 'fixed end' of society, Tibi's work presents itself as an untiring reprimand against traditional Islam. Not even its bland sociological jargon is able to hide his disdain for his ancestral tradition, from which he, self-confessedly, has 'by now acquired a considerable distance' (viii). And yet, it is difficult, even for the Muslim who feels no rancour at the senseless disfigurement of his tradition, not to perceive something platitudinous and faddish in Tibi's argument.
For instance, in the
manner of all modernists, he advocates a 'secularization' of Islamic culture,
nay of the religion itself (39). However, the nature of the institutional
mechanism by which the churchless Muslim societies, in the absence of Church/State
dichotomy, by which institutional mechanism may trigger this process (as
compared, for instance, to the legal and political appropriation of ecclesiastical
property for 'worldy' uses, which is the historical sense of 'secularization'
and which actually transpired in the West), is never spelt out. Or, if
secularization is to be achieved through a transformation of the sacred
law itself, Tibi needs to move beyond such vacuous statements that this
'would call for a modern notion of law' and that 'only reform from inside
can bring any promise of success.' After all, who would disagree with him
that 'the modernization of Islam must take place from the inside and be
carried by Muslim themselves'? The key question, however, is whether a
superficial reading of Islam as a fait social can sensitively comprehend
its historical crisis and prescribe any cure for its cultural malaise.
Similarly, when Tibi calls for 'a rapprochement between culturally divergent legal traditions' as a means to achieving 'world peace' (68), but says nothing about how this may come about, or what changes are expected of the dominant civilization which, as he himself recognizes, makes universal claims for its own legal tradition, he may be justifiably accused of indulging in woolly-mouthed sentimentality. True enough, Tibi's thesis, which makes no demands on the civilization in power and summons all accommodation on the part of the Muslim, may betoken a robustly pragmatic reading of current history but it can hardly be justified in the name of some universal moral doctrine. For the Muslim, in short, Tibi's stock rhetoric, nay invective, of 'social change' does not advance beyond the stating of the problem.
Unfortunately, at present no earnest-minded discussion on 'our' global society is possible without the Muslim getting hysterical and the modernist turning dogmatic. In fact, the Muslim, who is as much excluded from a postmodern future as he is marginalised in a modern present, is not allowed to contribute anything 'Islamic' to modernity's self-critique. It may be to Tibi's credit to have charted a sociological discourse that avoids the extremes of the traditionalist's hysteria and the modernist's hybris. By locating the problem of modern Islam within a dialectic of society and culture, he may also have rescued his thesis from the reductionist assaults of positivist sociology or those of idealizing (demonizing) orientalism. However, there is no mistaking that Tibi's discourse has no room for any Islamic counter-critique of modernity; it allows no questioning of modernity's historical project or of the Muslim's place in its future.
However, if the Muslim's
voice is not to be drowned in the polytheistic (and anti-humanistic) cacophony
of 'postmodernity', the Islamic tradition, which has never comprehended,
let alone assimilated, the secularizing ethos of modernity, must come to
grips with the cardinal problem of European thought. Islam too, in other
words, must make a genuine encounter with the 'emancipating reason' of
Enlightenment without falling prey to its relativizing historicism. Here
two widely divergent but equally suggestive approaches need to be assimilated
to any reflection on the 'cultural' crisis of contemporary Islam: Fazlur
Rahman's Islamic plea for an ethical rapprochement with modernity, and
Habermas's European defence of a normative rationality. Both are conspicuous
by their absence in Tibi's scheme.
The translation, though generally competent and readable, nevertheless retains enough signs of the foreign idiom (cf. 'High Islam' for Classical; 'vendetta' for retaliation; 'Islamic dominance' for supremacy; 'topical' for thematic, conceptual; 'demagification' (Entzauberung) for disenchantment etc.), not to mention the proverbial prolixity of the German (cf. the title of the concluding chapter, for which Tibi alone is responsible: 'Conclusions and Future Prospects: Asymmetries in the International Society, "Demonstration Effects," and Globalized Intercultural Communication as the structural Framework for Rapid Social Change in the Islamic Middle East')! On the redeeming side, Tibi's work discusses many lesser-known German authors and incorporates a competent and critical bibliography.
Tibi's scholarly insights are meted out, with considerable charm, as autobiographical facts. At times, the personal note is merely touching ('an ethically committed scholar in search of truth' (15)), but at times, it is of overwhelming import ('Muhammad's small religious sect formed the core of an empire and of a major world culture as I have shown in my book Crisis of Modern Islam.' (18; emphasis added). Apparently, this information is unavailable to those who are not acquainted with Tibi's pioneering works! The same, however, cannot be asserted for the present volume: nothing that it discloses of the secularist scholarship daunts the Muslim reader.