In the 'Battle of the Book', Shabbir Akhtar proved himself a valiant knight and an articulate spokesman of 'fundamentalist' Islam. His single-handed demolition of the liberal inquisition-squad also earned him British literary establishment's Badge of Infamy for Obscurantism and Fanaticism. Akhtar, however, was by no means dismissive of any genuine calling of the skeptical conscience, which, he believed, may even claim religious sanction, provided it was morally upright and intellectually unyielding. His present work is purported to demonstrate that not only Akhtar himself enjoys such a skeptical temper but also that his kind of (alleged) militant obscurantism' possesses a robust philosophical fore-arm that can easily squash all the noisome pumpkins of secular rationality. (A Faith for All Seasons: Islam and Western Modernity. By Shabbir Akhtar. London, Bellew Publishing, 1990. 251pp. £25.00 (cloth)) Indeed, in accordance with his own insistence on the integrity and intensity of doubt, this book is more than a display of personal philosophical prowess; it is an earnest effort 'to teach the ignorant, disturb the orthodox, agitate and educate the indifferent.' Hence, in these dialogues with western modernity, one meets the same pugilistic posture, the same stubborn irreverence, the same pensive piety, that has endeared Shabbir Akhtar to many, or made him a byword for Islamic intransigence and atavism. However, the fateful exception this time is that traditional faith is as much on the receiving end as is modern secularity.
In essence, Akhtar's project is about the preparation of an intellectual agenda for a Muslim encounter with western modernity and secularity. Modernity, however, is perceived and mediated neither through its institutions, bureaucracy and rationalized law, nor through its agents of change, science and technology, nor even its speculative systems of thought such as philosophy; but through theology, philosophical theology to be exact, in the manner of Christian apologists. Hence, Akhtar proposes that Muslims should see the dealings of western Christianity with secularism as a paradigm, even if it appears anathema to the orthodox Muslim mentality, and - appropriating modernity - put up a united front against secularity. Since Muslims have faced modernity on the plane of western science and technology (Have we really faced the Wests current systems of knowledge and power, its science and technology, intellectually, and ideationally, or have we merely been forced to make an existential accommodation with it?) he further argues, they should face modernity, if only for the sake of consistency, on the level of religious conviction. (my emphasis)
Akhtar is also acutely, albeit disingenuously, apprehensive about the coming tribunal of secular reason, which will, ineluctably, judge the cognitive validity of Islamic faith. And he is fully cognizant of the woefully inadequate intellectual resources that are at the disposal of contemporary Islam. That there is no extant philosophical system in modern Islam is his, perfectly legitimate, worry. However, he is also convinced that Islam has today in its populous community a significant number of people who are its members by chance rather than by choice. Thus, he does not mind giving notice to the lukewarm time-serving elements in the community. Akhtars ideal community, then, is one which, having gotten rid of the hypocrites and being purified of any remaining moral unworth, possesses a robustly modern philosophical vision. Only such an elect community of philosopher-knights, he believes, will be able to confront western secularity and survive its inquisition!
Given the nature of the puritanical passion which informs Akhtars diagnosis and cure for the recovery of (an emasculated) Ummah, it is paradoxical, if not truly self-contradictory, that he embarks at all on an endless trek of skeptical meandering. Allowing full reign to an un-submissive, un-Islamic, intellect, he strings together a series of, often blasphemous but ever unorthodox, meditations that are, for all their perspicacity, insufferably narcissistic. Indeed, Akhtars whole book (the last 10 pages or so excepting) is one hell of a irreverent, inebriated and self-indulgent reflection, devoted neither to the glorification of revelation nor to that or reason but to the celebration of modern cogito as the absolute master of the epistemological manor. The modern self is worshipped, in his devotional hymn, as the ultimate norm of all truth. Little wonder that Akhtar is condescending of everybody and everything traditional and pre-modern; of Christian believers (13), of Christianity (179), of Muslim tradition (17, 26), of contemporary Muslim thinkers (14), of Muslim belief (27: "Gods (alleged) revelation"), of Islamic revelation (45); indeed it is condescending of God himself (134: "any creative artist, God including..")!
To give just one illuminating example of Akhtars skeptical temper: The author of the sacred text, he announces in order to establish his expertise as the arbitrator of Arabic language, seems to make all the standard mistakes, mistakes a beginner would be taught to avoid (45). No examples are given, however. Apparently, Akhtar is totally ignorant of the historical fact that it was the Quranic revelation which fixed the norms of Arabic grammar and engendered its classical style. As a historical phenomenon, then, the classical Arabic language is the brainchild of the Quranic (linguistic) consciousness and not the other way around. Even logically, it makes sense for a Muslim to situate grammatical norms of Arabic in the literal revelation of God than in the collective unconscious of a linguistic community. One may, of course, hold that the collective unconscious of jahili Arab community takes precedence over God's own diction and style, but that is merely to indulge in a peculiar prejudice of Islamophobic consciousness! (Whatever the Orientalist source of this irreverent nonsense, which Akhtar has accepted as his authority, he must immediately discard it.)
No doubt, in his ardour to represent the skeptical side fairly, Akhtar has accorded its arguments as much eloquence and philosophical acumen as possible. And yet, this attempt to stand on both sides of the fence as it were, has resulted in a meditation that is visibly tense, strained and bifurcated; indeed downright pathological and schizophrenic. The problem with this kind of approach is that it wins the credibility of neither; for the philosopher it lacks the rigour and radicalism of bona fide philosophical reasoning; for the believer, it appears to be devoid of the conviction of faith. Then, there is always the extra problem of deciding which is Akhtar's own voice, and which belongs to his dummy, his skeptical alter ego. (Thus, if some Muslim readers may judge him harshly, indeed even question his faith, the responsibility lies with Akhtar.) Here we shall be content with pointing out some of the injuries that Akhtars, sham or genuine, skepticism inflicts on the traditionalist's cognitive and epistemological integrity.
To start with, even an extremely sympathetic reading of Akhtar's book fails to detect any traces of the tall order of Muslim enlightenment, indeed of any 'congenial encounter' of traditional Islam with western modernity, that is the promise of the enterprise! The reason for this failure, of course, does not lie in the paucity of philosophical resources at the disposal of the prodigal writer but with the genuine impasse which any encounter of revelation and reason produces, and a solution to which has evaded the best minds of mankind for over a millennium. In fact, Akhtar himself is aware of it, as at the end of a highly frustrating and fruitless debate between a fictitious religious believer and an equally spurious philosophical doubter (there are no concrete historical personages, believers or skeptics, who present their own case, as it were, in their own language) he proposes a set of, self-confessedly 'controversial' [i.e. epistemologically assailable] assumptions but pleads that 'we cannot get our project off the ground unless we are prepared to accept, if only provisionally, the truth of these assumptions.' . For the doubters of doubt, it doesn't; not even after the acceptance of the proposed epistemological truce. Indeed, it cannot get off the ground because there is no common foundational ground. There is no higher court of appeal, no accepted epistemological referee, no recognized cognitive authority which may arbitrate a dispute of this kind.
Shabbir Akhtar's further pleading that 'in this secular age ..... the burden of 'proof' (or at least the plausibility) is on the believer's shoulders; he must, in the face of secular reservation, justify his faith in the language of reason' is also unsatisfactory as it can easily be refracted as a demand from a believer that the burden of disproof lies on the skeptic's shoulder; he must justify, or at least 'explain', his concept of 'reason' in the language of faith! Merely referring to the authority of 'our secular age', to the contingency of history, is of no help either because it relativizes the truth of 'reason' as much as it does that of faith. Or, if faith may be indicted for its uncompromisingly ahistorical cognition, we would do well to remember that the concept of 'reason' is also essentially ahistoric. Indeed, the dilemma of all modernist western thought is the reconciliation of an historic reason and a relativistic history (Hegel's grand mediation, as we know from the verdict of history itself, is a failure). In short, either of the two cardinal tenets of modernity, the universality of reason or the ultimacy of history as the ground of existence, must be abandoned. Either of the renunciations strengthens the claims of (the possibility of) revelation! Hence, the only philosophical answer to Akhtar's narcissistic query, 'How can the philosopher judge the word of Allah..?'! (27), is that he cannot. Or, at least the question remains lopsided as long as the philosopher does not ponder on the reciprocal question: How may the believer judge the truth of philosophy? What, in other words, is nature of philosophical the authority and how may it be judged by the outsider?!
What is significantly missing in this spurious debate is any concrete, historical, sense of 'reason' as developed by the actual, flesh and bone, philosophers of modernity. Hegel, for instance, does not merit a single reference; nor does, for that matter, Heidegger. And yet, more perceptive theorists and critics of modernity than these two are hard to come by. Hegel, certainly, is relevant, if not altogether indispensable, to any discussion on modernity's position on reason. Hence, the few remarks offered here, far from introducing extraneous subject matter, reach, in my view, to the heart of our controversy:
Since all cogent as well as specious alternatives to the acceptance surrender to God's will, to the authority of revelation, have always presented themselves as 'reason, i.e. what man knows by himself, it is vital that Muslim readers get an intimation of the radical inadequacy of all rational objections to revelation that is the outcome of the collapse of Hegel's grand mediation on all things modern, religious and secular. In the tomes of philosophy, Reason reached its perfection in Hegel's system, so much so that the essential limitations of Hegel's system are today construed as the essential limitation of 'reason'. Hence, a modern Jewish thinker (Leo Strauss) can rightfully claim that 'with the final collapse of rationalism the perennial battle between reason and revelation, between belief and unbelief has been decided in principle, even on the plane of human thought, in favour of revelation.' No wonder that all post-Hegelian systems of thought are those of unqualified empiricism; one now speaks of God, man, and the world as 'actually experienced', as realities irreducible to one another, and not as parts of a unity that may be perceived and deciphered by the power of reason alone. Heidegger epitomizes the latter, phenomenological, approach which shifts its philosophical gaze from the problem of reason to that of historicity or the ultimate grounds of existence.
One consequence of the inability of theoretical intellect to explain itself was that the philosophical problem of 'reason' was supplanted by the sociological one of 'rationality'. And it is here that Weber made his significant contribution. For Weber, the transition to modernity is just through greater rationalization. However, by positing a fateful distinction between Zweckrationalität (formal rationality) and Wertrationalität (substantive rationality) Weber also bequeathed to the European tradition its unresolved tensions and ideological pessimism. The ideal of Enlightenment, he warned, betokened the triumph of purposive, instrumental rationality (zweckrationalität) and led to the "iron cage" of bureaucratization. In a chilling vision he also described its consequences: 'For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: "Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before attained." Modernity, then, is a reversal of traditional relationship between formal and substantive rationalities: instrumental calculations of efficiency and consistency are no longer limited by the overall set of ultimate values, rather substantive norms themselves come under the judgement of instrumental reasoning.
The problem with the appropriation of reason as rationality is that it becomes wholly procedural; it does not justify ends or warrants universal norms. It is in meeting the Weberian challenge that Habermas advances his theory of rationality as communicative action and proposes universal criteria of reason - at a time when anti-modernist movements of postmodernism, post-structuralism and relativism have declared war on the ideals of Enlightenment. As against Habermas' earlier attempt to ground knowledge in human interests, the theory of communicative action takes a more direct route by embedding reason in language. It may nonetheless be described as a 'sociological' theory of consensus: communicative rationality is the means by which 'a fallibilistic critical community' acts in order to achieve mutual understanding and agreement. Undoubtedly, Habermas' theory of rationality as communicative action displays uncanny resemblance with the Sunni theory of authority (Ijma)! Ijma as a paradigm of consensus by communicative action may be understood, in the Islamic framework, as a theory of reason after revelation. And this also brings to light the main function of reason in Islam: it is exegetical. It creates no text, but uses its resources in understanding and explicating pre-given text. (In Shiism, where the Imam guarantees the infallibility of scriptural exegesis, the principle of Ijma remains inoperative as long as the Imam manifests himself in history. With the coming of the ghayba, however, exegetical reason comes out in the open and initiates its communicative discourse.)
In short, it is in the nature of revelation to create a genuine interface of reason and faith (it is childish to dismiss it as mere 'fideism'; after all some of the most rigorously rationalistic systems of philosophy, such as medieval scholasticism and Thomism, have grown in the bosom of faith). Absolute reason, on the other hand, is not open to the possibility of revelation. It alone becomes the plaintiff, proof and judge, to allude to a well-known Arabic line of Al-Mutnabbi! Thus, to maintain that 'philosophy can only be an apology for truth', is to allow oneself to be duped by the oldest epistemological hoax in human history. Even a traditional believer knows that the 'truth' of philosophy is contingent upon the possibility of a priori knowledge, on the claim that 'reason' without the aid of experience, can unravel the structure of the universe and the nature of reality. Hence, like all arguments for authority, the claim of philosophy to be an apology of truth is circular and tautological: Reason discovers truth and truth is that which reason discovers! It is hardly surprising that today, after two millennia of philosophical debate, no philosopher is prepared to make any claim more venturesome than that 'truth is merely a property of language' (Rorty)! If so, the believer's method, which sanctions the use of reason in the decipherment of the linguistic truth of the revelation, is as 'rational' as any - and it certainly stretches the resources of reason to the limit!
Quite early in its history, the Muslim community discovered the interdependence of knowledge and authority, of epistemology and politics. Today, this insight is enshrined in the 'sociology of knowledge' principle which is the preserve of philosophers and sociologists both. It teaches us that philosophical skepticism has two faces; one rational, the other empirical. If the rational principle of doubt demands plausibility on the basis of logic, the empirical one requisitions authenticity on the grounds of history. The empirical temper puts more trust in men than in syllogisms; it scrutinizes the moral probity of the transmitters of truth as much as it examines the truth itself. As the philosophical temper of Islam is more empiricist than rationalistic, trusting history more than norm, the ultimate arbiter of cognitive soundness, in Sunnism and Shi`ism both, is the human personality - its piety and trustworthiness - and not any abstract and impersonal method. Their respective doctrines of authority, Ijma and Imama, both of which are believed to guarantee infallibility in the understanding of the revelation, testify to the validity of this observation.
Then, to claim that 'the old religious appeal to the moral excellence of God's spokesman is epistemologically besides the point' (61: Akhtar's italics) is to display one's total inability to penetrate the mental world of the believer. It is tantamount to surrendering unconditionally to the logic of the empirical intellect - the worst possible epistemological sin for a self-confessed 'philosopher'! Akhtar needs to be reminded that his own project could get off the ground only when his pleading for an epistemological truce could be heeded. Abandoning the initially confident posture of the Grand Inquisitor, he had to seek refuge in a trust about the justifiability and plausibility of his epistemological claims! (36). Indeed, Akhtar's whole argument can be summed up as an epistemological flight from the citadel of Reason to the pit of 'I trust'.
Trust, he should know, is the bedrock of any epistemological claim. A man's argument is as good as his character. If the acceptance of Akhtar's quite modest claim is contingent upon some measure of trust, how can the believer's acceptance of the facticity of the revelation be independent of his trust in the moral perfection of the Prophet (S)? Only an infinitely moral and trustworthy person can guarantee a faithful transmission of the Divine Message. The moral excellence of the Prophet (S), nay his impeccability, is a proclamation of the authenticity of the revelation - and this is what the traditional 'plea' seeks to 'prove'. Trust, moreover, is the obverse of authority. Trusting the Prophet (S) is accepting his authority and authority is the basis of all epistemology, religious as well as secular. The believer's trust is in the human perfection of the Prophet, the philosopher's trust is in the infallibility of abstract reason. Were reason an imperfect guide, could it provide us with a trustworthy knowledge of the world? How can the philosopher, then, assert that 'the question of the moral excellence of God's Spokesman is epistemologically besides the point'?! And this may also constitute as the ultimate refutation of Akhtar's whole project: why should the ordinary believer, whose faith in the Revelation rests on the authority of the Prophet, exchange it for the subjective conjecture ('I trust') of the philosopher? If the believer, in other words, has to face western modernity and secularity, he needs another cure than a heavy dosage of philosophical skepticism.
Modernity as the Enlightenment's drive to seize and systematize the world and liberate human possibilities by mastering the conditions of life engenders the myth of progress and salvation by science. Besides cherishing this salvific hope, however, modern consciousness as empty subjectivity can face the world only in a romantic, ironic or despairing mode of life. It has no conception of the Community; it merely hides this fact by talking about an - empty - humanity. Moreover, at its heart, the ethos of modernity represents a rejection of the authority of revelation and of the church - an eminently Christian duality. To some extent, then, it is undeniable that the experience of modernity is meaningful only within the cultural context of Christianity. Hence, the first thing a Muslim is expected to do in any encounter with modernity is to challenge the very concept of 'religion' (something that, paradoxically, Akhtar never does). He accepts the modernistic notion of 'religion' as axiomatic and builds his whole case for combating (accommodating?) modernity on the authority of this borrowed thought-category.
The dichotomization religious-secular, we all know, makes sense only within the ideational worldview of Christianity and appears - not merely fortuitously as Akhtar erroneously thinks - within the historical matrix of Christianity. Only from the self-view of Christianity as a salvation faith - a faith lacking in the sacred social dimension, a faith expunged of Divine Law - could the secular child be born. Secularism, in other words, is appropriate only for Christianity which is a belief-religion and not a law-religion (Both Judaism and Islam are unmistakably 'secular' (i.e. world-affirming) in their own right, except that this 'secularism' is subordinate to their ultimate vision as religious faiths and not autonomous of it, as is the case with Christianity. They both accept moral secularism, of sorts, but anathematize metaphysical secularism which is nothing but the obverse side of atheism, whether philosophic or moral. Christianity, further, is unique in defining itself as a Universal Church and hence, in paving the way for the creation of a legitimate sphere of public authority - the State - which lies outside its jurisdiction. It would seem that Judaism, after all, is a more congenial partner in any common monotheistic appropriation of modernity than Christianity.
Modernity, then, must not be seen merely through the filter of 'theology'. We need to have a clearer conception of its sociology. For, the 'tribunal of secularity' is not an event that takes place merely in our mental universe. Secularity encroaches us most compellingly as social forms, as science, technology, bureaucracy and capitalism, in every sphere of our life. It is thus strange that Weber does not merit a single allusion in this meditation. Even other perceptive Muslim reflections are cavalierly dismissed as 'sociological' (219), and hence marginal to the problem of modernity! Nor is there any critique of the epistemology of modern science - the only meeting ground of conflicting epistemologies. All these are fatal flaws in an ambitious work of this kind.
A rather reprehensible trait of the work is the author's inordinate penchant for symbolization. Akhtar revels in the construction of opposites, such as Mosque and Church, Crescent and Cross etc., that are totally devoid of symbolical content. More than that, he should know that the critical Islamic consciousness is asymbolic and deconstructionist: its principal calling is to expose the inadequacy of all symbols for the apprehension of ultimate reality. Unfortunately, in some cases the lack of historical knowledge produces comic results, as, for instance, when Akhtar speaks of the Prophet (S) uniting Arabia 'under the banner of the Crescent.'! (4) The Crescent as an emblem on Muslim standards, he should know, appears quite late in Islamic history. As a matter of fact, it makes its debut in the Ottoman times!
Though Akhtar often indulges in gratuitous polemics against Christianity, he has all but accepted the Christian agenda for a dialogue with secularity. Indeed, Christian influence is extremely pervasive, running deep from the choice of themes ('The Silence of Allah') right down to the conscious (?) imitation of the 'devotional' style of some well-known Christian missionaries. Despite all this, there is much sympathetic understanding and approval of Christianity as well. Indeed, at times Akhtar has handled Christian themes with (for a Muslim) exceptional sensitivity and sympathy. Hence, it is not surprising that he is quite sympathetic to the Christian, or perhaps Shiite, preoccupation with tragedy. Indeed, he is quite derisive of 'orthodox' Islam's lack of attention to "the tragic dimensions of human condition." (175) However, as Leo Strauss says, expressing the common sentiment of Judaism and Islam: 'The insecurity of man and everything human is not absolutely terrifying abyss if the highest of which a man knows is absolutely secure.' Certainly, one need be careful because 'the controversy can easily degenerate into a race in which he wins who offers the smallest security and hence the greatest terror.'
Oddly, no traditional author, past or present, Shii or Sunni, Ibn-Taimiya or Allama Hilli, Al-Ghazali or At-Tusi, Maududi or Khumeini, is quoted either at length or even perfunctorily to substantiate, or even illustrate, the charge of intellectual docility and paralysis that is Akhtar's harsh judgement on 'traditional Islam'. I contend, however, that if the Islamic world indeed is in the grip of an intellectual stupor, it has its roots in the obscurantist mentality and obsolete educational curricula of the traditional ulama - whatever the worth of their political activism and existential testimony to the authenticity of their calling. Outside of Islam's guardians of orthodoxy, there are numerous signs of original, radical and genuinely Islamic intellectual thought. However, lacking the authority and institutional means of the 'inheritors of the prophets', these currents have not made their way to the masses - yet.
It would probably be in bad taste to complain that the author does not (pace his strictures above!) fully, nay adequately, understand the language of the revelation; indeed his mastery of other Muslim languages is also in doubt. The quite inconsistent and erratic system of transliteration, showing the influence of more than one hand, provides an ample testimony to this impression. However, since the author thinks in terms of the Quranic concepts, his efforts are to be commended. And yet, a perfunctory reading of these terms is not sufficient for a work of this kind which has high philosophical pretensions. We may gauge this unfelicity merely be reflecting on one crucial term, 'dahariyya' (sic!), which Akhtar casually renders it as 'atheist' (151) and explains it in the end-note as 'a speculative atheist.. one who denies the very existence of God.' (232).
Discounting the inaccuracies of transliteration and grammar, it should be noted that like everything else in Arabic, the term is etymologically quite transparent and reveals its metaphysical structure to any student of Arabic almost gratuitously. Literally, it may be rendered as temporalism, the doctrine which holds that everything that is, is within time (dahr). However, philosophically, it may also be understood as materialism and 'secularism' (the kind of metaphysical secularism which is a denial of all values and, hence, an anathema to Islam). Here is the conceptual key to Islam's struggle with 'secularism': By its denial of transcendence, secularism sinks into the moral and cognitive abyss of nihilism. Perhaps, some future reflection will fully reveal the radical metaphysical significance this term has for our confrontation with western modernity and provide a thunderous counterblast to the miserable jabber of the sham philosopher.