Printed in The Muslim News (UK), No 113, 25 September, 1998, p. 6.



Reason-without-Text confronts Text-without-Reason

Parvez Manzoor


The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder. By Bassam Tibi. University of California Press, Berkley & London, 1998. Pp 262. ISBN 0-520-08868-9.

The author himself introduces his work as such: ‘This book focuses on the question of order in current world politics. What we shall be examining in that context is Islamic fundamentalism, not the trumpeted "Islamic Threat." For me as a Muslim, Islam itself, being a tolerant religion, is not and cannot be a threat, and it is a disservice to world peace to speak of Islam, one of the world’s major religions, in terms of "threat" and "confrontation". My religion is an open-minded faith, neither an intolerant political ideology nor a concept of world order, as Islamic fundamentalists – and some in the West – so fiercely contend. The Qur’an so unmistakably commands: "[There is] no compulsion in religion" (Qur’an: Surat al-Baqarah, 2/256). But Islamic fundamentalism, or political Islam, is a horse of another colour: this brand of fundamentalism poses a grave challenge to world-politics, security and stability.’

Were this all that matters, were the duty of the critic merely to judge a book by the intentions of its author, there could be no haggling with this project and the following remarks would be quite superfluous, indeed ungracious as well. Unfortunately, Tibi never redeems the promise of delineating a vision of Islam that is humane, moral and trans-political. On the contrary, he exhausts all his energies by producing a one-sided indictment of ‘Muslim fundamentalism’ and by offering an ill-conceived and ineptly executed apology of modernity! And yet, the vision of modernism that informs this study is intellectually dated, philosophically shallow and ideologically docile to such an embarrassing degree of ‘political correctness’ that no amount of sympathy for the goals of ‘liberal Islam’ on the part of this critic is able to condone the uncomfortable fact that the work is not only superficial but disingenuous as well!

The reign of intellectual docility in this volume is not confined to the propagation of a politically innocuous Islam that has been rarefied, abstracted and catapulted out of history to the realm of pure faith, it extends to the worshipping of all the golden calves of our age as well. Individual rights, intra-tribal democracies and territorial states are projected not only pragmatically as the givens of the current hegemonic world-system but also morally as the absolutes of a universal Utopia. Any assertion of religious identity is thus a sure recipe for world-strife; every affirmation of the national genius is a step in the direction of ‘world-order’! In short, an intellectually, morally and metaphysically spineless wo/man of faith, projected as ‘Muslim fundamentalist’, confronts a morally benign, cognitively certain and metaphysically unassailable giant of modernity and it is by no means the proverbial contest between David and Goliath.

Equally revealing is the lack of any effort at serious intellectual encounter with the Western tradition. There is no inkling of the aporias – dead ends – of European thought on which the whole gamut of modern system, the hallowed notions of reason, individual and rights, is constructed. The West, which is the object of this eulogy, is a seamless unity that knows of no intellectual dissent or inner moral tensions. Its rationality is not disturbed by the antinomies of norm and history, freedom and necessity, nature and culture, just as its moral consciousness is never distressed by the contradictions of tribal identity and universal order, nation-state and humanitarian ideals, ethics and law, legal positivism and moral probity, virtuous polity and raison d’état, and so forth. Reason is a perfectly transparent concept, an irrefutable fact of human existence, that is identical with the historical evolution of the European civilisation itself! In short, the ideational landscape of the West is without any moral and cognitive fault lines and the only Muslim response to the Western gospel of rights, democracy and secularity is compliance and obeisance.

True enough, distancing Islam from ‘Islamism’ may be a legitimate vocation of Islamic conscience, but it cannot stop midway in its criticism of immanentist heresies. The target of its criticism and moral censure must not only be the theologically problematic visions of the Islamist state, but also all political doctrines that subordinate transcendence to the state-principle. Not only the fundamentalist state, but the state über haupt, and especially the secular state that appropriates the divine attribute of sovereignty, must be arraigned before the tribunal of Islamic conscience. The Muslim’s rationale for denying absolute obedience to any political regime, or, paradoxically, for the conditional acceptance of the legitimacy of a historical state, is merely the logical corollary of his/her submission to Divine Sovereignty. However, it must also be added without any subterfuge that the Islamic view of sovereignty is essentially a moral and non-coercive one: it is trans-temporal, trans-political in its existential dynamics and confers upon Muslims no mandate for creating permanent disorder and anarchy in the city of humanity.

The trusteeship for the governance of the City of Humanity, according to the Qur’an, has fallen upon Adam and his progeny, our common humanity and not upon any community of the elect or the saved. The Islamic notion of the Khilafa (vicegerency) of Adam is a profoundly universalist vision of world-order as morality and not a sectarian apology for the hegemony of any tribe or sect or civilisation. If it cuts across the parochial schemes of Muslim fundamentalists, it doubly invalidates the project of secular modernity to create a ‘cosmopolis’ without the sovereignty of God. There’s nothing in this book that suggests that Tibi’s Islam either cares for any universal moral-order or perceives any transcendent goals for the human community.

Perhaps, adjusting to the pragmatic logic of Realpolitik and to the compelling reality of a world-order based on a plurality of states and civilisations has become an urgent moral imperative of our times. Nevertheless, this development affects, primarily and pre-eminently, the system of parochial states - Muslim or otherwise - and their legal order. The existence of plurality within a pragmatic world-order, however, cannot be redeemed as an apology for the reign of moral relativism. Nor must it be canonised into a crassly utilitarian doctrine that proclaims the end of human reflection and dialogue on the seminal issues of the human condition. The secular West must be free to market its societal blue-pints for an immanent Utopia, the Cosmopolis of modernity, just as Islam must have its say with regard to the ultimately transcendent and trans-societal ends of man! To strangle such a ‘civilisational dialogue’, to transform a seminal moral and spiritual debate into a political war of propaganda, as the ‘realist’ guardians of our world-order would have it, would be the ultimate affront to the dignity of human reason and to the integrity of human person. Unfortunately, there’s no indication that, for all its commitment to the rhetoric of Human Rights and Global Ethics, the civilisation in power is willing to promote any utopian discourse on universal morality.

Tibi’s attempt to confront the ‘text-without-reason’ rationale of fundamentalism with the ‘reason-without-text’ logic of secular modernity marks the limit of the civilisational dialogue. If it appears superficial and disingenuous, it is because it operates within the politically correct parameters of Western hegemony.