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Newsletter for September 2009

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Modern Islamic Polity in the Making

Dr. Murad Wilfried Hofmann




This is Dr. Hofmann's presentation at Islamic Research Institute. IIU, Islamabad. We have made it part of the book because content  and theme-wise this article has close and logical proximity with what he presented at IPS, organized Khurram Murad Memorial Lecture Series   Editor.


The Intellectual Challenge to Islamic Civilization


The topic not only deals with future challenges: it is a challenge in itself¬ in as much as it makes me act like a prophet. In that role. I submit, any Muslim must feel uncomfortable, given that Allah Almighty   and He alone   is Master of all events. So let me say not only at the end but now: wa Allahu 'alam


It is risky enough to make guesses about future developments. It is even more risky if one does so without first looking at the past. Because if we have anything on which to base projections, it is history, its patterns and lessons.


Islamic History: Patterns & Lessons

There are indeed several deductions to be made for our theme from Islamic history:


Thesis No. 1: Islamic historv has always had intellectual component

Allah in His Book instructs people to observe. ponder, think, reflect, and use their rational minds in order to understand the world and their position in it. In fact, the Qur'an is the only so called holy script which makes such an appeal. Consequently, from its inception, Islam has been a rational religion par excellence. And it was this rational appeal and the intellectual reasonableness of its doctrine which account for the fast and vast expansion of Islam during its first century.


Thesis No. 2: Islam from the beginning provided intellectual training

True, Islam is a religion and not a philosophy, and our founding father Muhammad (Rasul Allah) was not a professor of theology but a messenger. Nevertheless, Islam from its inception demanded intellectual activities, at first mainly in form of collecting, scrutinizing, and systematizing the Revelation and the prophetic Tradition, the Sunnah.


In this context, it was Muslims like Hasan al Basri (d. 801), Malik b. Anas, Ibn lshaq, al Bukhari (810 70), at Tabari (839 923) and their colleagues who raised historiography and linguistics to a level never reached before and jurisprudence to the highest level reached before, i.e. Roman Law.


Thesis No. 3: Islam  Intellectual leader for half millenium

The story of the development of Islamic civilization in Damascus, Baghdad and Lahore, Cordoba, Seville and Granada. al Fustat. Kairouan and Fes is well known. Muslims became the custodians of the ancient Greek intellectual miracle and produced their own Arabic miracle by developing and inventing the classical heritage. The European intellectual exploits as from the Renaissance period would have been unthinkable without an lbn Sina (980 1037) and Ibn Rushd (1126 98), al Biruni (973¬1050) and al Khawarizmi, ar Razi and lbn al Haytham (965 1040), Ibn Battuta (1304 78) and Ibn Khaldun (1332 1406)   each one an intellectual giant in world history.


Thesis No. 4: Islamic orthodoxy was not un-intellectual

It would be a mistake to see things differently by claiming that people like lbn Hanbal (780 855), al Ash'ari, Ibn Hazm or Ibn Taymiyya (1262¬1327) had been anti intellectual for being orthodox. This would be tantamount to calling Kant (1724 1804) or Wittgenstein (1889 1951) anti¬-rationalists for denying the possibility of metaphysics.


Yes. Ibn Hanbal tried to protect Muslim doctrine frm Greek philosophy and al Ash'ari through his radical critic of epistemology denied the feasibility of metaphysical deductions. Yes. Ibn Hazm rejected qiyas as a method for extending Qur' anic norms and tafsir for better understanding ambivalent verses of the Qur'an. And, yes, lbn Taymiyya condemned that Neo Platonism and Gnosticism had gained a foothold within Islam via sufi circles. But each of them based his position on plainly intellectual analyses. Like al Ghazali (1058 1111) before them, they had thoroughly studied their adversaries in order better to fight them.


Thesis No. 5: Intellectualism means Pluralism

Islam was born into a thoroughly intolerant political and cultural environment as demonstrated by the feuds between Christian Churches: Roman Catholics versus Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Christians versus Aryans, Nestorians, Armenians and Copts. Politically, monarchs who obtained power through birth or the sword ruled the world.


Within Islamic jurisprudence, half a dozen schools of law (madhahib) not only developed regionally but, as in Makkah, taught simultaneously  an intellectual feat unknown to any other system of law before or after.


In fact, Western orientalists are wrong when insinuating that Islam ever was monolithic in terms of space or static in terms of time. Except for tauhid and the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad (rasul Allah) almost everything, including the modalities of the other four pillars of faith, were open to discussion. The notion of taqild   in and by itself not at all irrational   did a lot of damage through stifling innovation even beyond the realms of al 'aqida, 'ibada and mu'amalat. But even during the reign of taqild the Muslim world never fully stopped developing intellectually, also outside the Shi'a, as proven by people like Ibn 'Arabi (1165 1240), al Sirhindi (1564 1624), Shah Waliullah (1703¬62), and Muhammad ibn 'Abd al Wahhab (1703 87).


In philosophy, intellectual battles were fierce, so fierce that it would lead to libel and slander suits in criminal court today. Just read the devastating critique of philosophy by al Ghazali (Tahafut al Falsafiya) and the equally opinionated reply by lbn Rushd [1126 98 (Tahafut al Tahafut)]. How refreshing! And how reassuring that diversity of opinion, as our Prophet (rasul Allah) put it, can be a blessing. Needless to say that Ibn Rushd   if he lived and republished his views today   would probably be killed in the name of Allah by some contemporary Muslim fanatic.


Thesis No. 6: Lack of Pluralism means decadence

I would be dishonest if I denied that Islam has not always been pluralistic. The conflicts between A'isha (614 78) and Ali (598 661). Mu'awiyya (d. 680) and Ali, Ali and the Kharijiyya were not only intense but bloody. So were the conflicts between Umayades (661 750) and Abbasides (749¬1258), the Mu'tazila and Ah'ariyya, Sunni Muslims on one side and Shi'i. Abadi and Alawi Muslims on the other side, not to forget the bloody suppression of sufi extremism as to the case of al Hallaj.


It is clear, however. that these attempts at making Islam monolithic resulted not only in destroying much of its intellectual pluralism but ushered in a phase of decadence of which we have been awaking only recently.


Surely, Muslim decadence was the result of several contributing causes, including the cultural devastation wrought by the Mongol onslaught and the Catholic Reconquista in Spain. Political and economic insecurity virtually drove Muslims underground intellectually: They privatized their religion, popularized it, and made it rigid in the most marginal details.


This way, by going into hiding Islam managed to survive both Western and Soviet colonization, even in Albania, Algeria, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Chechenia, the Kosovo and China. This is the good news. The bad news is that in this defensive mode Islam became politically irrelevant and in its over legalization almost Talmudic. In the process, sufism, too. had degenerated into a folksy sort of Islam whose ritualism had even ritualized its original spiritualism.


Another contributing factor to Islamic decadence certainly had been political: The suppression of religious critique by despotic rulers. and despotism became and remained the rule in the Islamic world. By developing their own administrative penal law (at taz’ir) rulers emancipated themselves not only from their Ulama but from the Shari'a itself. Censorship turned into dependency until finally, in the 20`" century the Ulama were rejected by the young when they started organizing in Islamic Movements. To conclude: There is a rich heritage on which to draw for rekindling Islamic intellectualism in the 21" century.


Hallmarks of the Present Age

This being the past what is the present? The contemporary world for the first time ever has been culturally colonized by one single civilization   the Occidental one. At its origin European, reinforced as the American Way of Life, it is Occidental thought, Occidental technology, Occidental products and mores. which dominate the globe. This process has been under way since the late Renaissance and found its intellectual bearings in the European Enlightenment, also known as Project Modernity.


In the process, the world has come to use one single language globally, namely English. Neither Greek nor Latin nor Arabic ever came close to that feat.


All this would not be peculiar, except for its scope since superior civilizations always spread automatically, just as water is running downhill. What is peculiar, devastatingly so, is the Occidental ideology, that is being globalized today as well: The first ideology ever entirely based on atheistic assumptions. Kant's critic of metaphysics and his dismantling of the proofs of God. Marx's defamation of religion as "opium for the people" and the ruthless Social Darwinism propagated by Nietzsche are now common currency   as has been terribly proven by Occidental disasters:  WWI, Stalinism, the Holocaust, WWII with Dresden and Hiroshima. Maoism and ethnic cleansing,


The modern scene is however also characterized by the:


[a] post Newtonian physics ushered in by Planck (1858¬-1947), Einstein (1879 (955), Hahn (1879 1968) and Heisenberg (1901 76)


[b] new mathematics, ushered in by Frege (1848 1925)


[c] new micro biology and medicine and


[d] new communications technology   Bill Gates gadgets


The 21st Century & Islam

This being today's environment. and the past already described, what may we expect of the future for Islam?


Assumption No. 1: Islam to be universal

Given the communications revolution, Islam   always meant to be universal   will de facto become universal in the 21" century. Muslim intellectuals have already invaded the Internet.


Assumption No. 2: Wide Acclaim for English as Da'wah Language

If this does not seem a convincing argument, read any issue of The Muslim World Book Review or ask world renowned Muslim scholars why they publish Islamic studies in English.


Assumption No. 3: Muslim scholarship will move west

Clearly, scientists will seek an academic environment conducive for their research. That gives an enormous advantage to places where academic freedom is guaranteed and nobody will be persecuted for unwelcome views put into print. There has been already an exodus of' qualified Muslims scientists to Europe, the United States and Canada. Let me mention only people like Prof. Muhammad Hamidullah, Fazlur Rahman. Muhammad Asad, Fathi `Uthman, Taha Jabir al `Alwani (8th Century) or Rashid al Ghannouchi.


It is no surprise that the first Nobel Prize in natural sciences, in 1999, conferred on a Sunni Muslim was given to an Egyptian working both, in Germany and the United States.


Assumption No. 4: Lay intellectuals will continue to grow in importance

The corruptibility of some Ulama and their marriage with governments in the past lead to the prominence of lay reformers. Al Afghani, Hassan al¬-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Muhammad Asad, Muhammad Iqbal, Abul  Ala al¬-Maududi, Abbas Madani and other leaders of Islamic Movements were layman, that is, not products of traditional Ulama training.


The head of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany is a medical doctor. Medical doctors are running perhaps the majority of Islamic Centers in America. The head of CAIR is a computer engineer in Santa Clara, the head of the Islamic Information Service in Los Angeles a Harvard trained urologist. This trend is bound to grow restoring to Islam the old ideal of a religion free of a professional or even sacramental clergy and free of an institutionalized church.


Assumption No. 5: The Muslims will produce "occidentalists

In Madinah, the Muslims originally had access to Jews, and Christians lived not far away in Arabia. Thus knowledge about the other monotheistic religions was locally available.


Later this was no longer so, except in Spain and Sicily, as Occident and Orient grew apart. While the Christians had orientalists ever since John of Damascus (675 749) started to defame Islam, the Muslims lacked Christian specialists until Christians started to convert to Islam in large numbers during the 20'h century. This provides a unique chance for Muslim scholarship in this field.


Assumption No. 6: Muslims will tackle the Sunnah issue

It is quite obvious that the Muslims don't have a Qur'an problem. But they do have a Sunnah problem. Goldziher, Margoliuth and Schacht (1877 1970) were not right in being sweepingly skeptical but also not entirely wrong in asserting that parts of the body of ahadith are questionable. Fazlur Rahman in his Islamic Methodology in History may have identified a major cause for this situation by pointing out that from the time of al Shafi'i (1211 82), the Muslims felt obliged, no matter how, to project their entire living Sunnah back to the Prophet.


At any rate, equipped with new methodology for historical critique, including computer based linguistic analysis, 21st century Muslim intellectuals should be able to reestablish maximum authenticity for most of their Sunnah.


Assumption No. 7: Once Sunnah challenge is met, Muslims intellectuals will come up with convincing models for an Islamic State and economy, including the protection of human and women's rights


Ever since Muhammad (rasul Allah) dictated the Constitutional Treaty of the Confederated Republic of Madinah, Muslims rarely had to make an intellectual effort in order to cope with issues of State and government. Al Mawardi and Nizam al Mulk (1018 92) are cases in point.


Today's intellectuals face a different challenge. They can, but also they must develop from scratch the theoretical bases of an Islamic "democracy," i.e. a State which is neither a theocracy in the Shi'i sense nor a monarchy nor a community without Shari'ah. In doing so, they must come to grips with the intellectual challenge of integrating the Western notion of human rights into the juridical framework of Islamic jurisprudence. Part of that challenge concerns the task of restoring to Muslimat worldwide their Qur'anic rights, last not least through reinterpreting an Nisa: 3 and 34, and al Baqara: 228.


Assumption No. 8: Muslim intellectuals will develop a statute /or Muslim dhimmi

The presence of millions of Muslims in non Muslim countries is a problem never known before in Islamic history, even after the Catholic reconquest of Spain. Only India under British rule experienced a problem of this magnitude.


These expatriate Muslims need to know how to behave under a foreign law as far as issues of marriage and divorce, inheritance and burial, halal slaughtering and riba are concerned. We need nothing, less than a madhhab for emigrant Muslims.


Assumption No. 9:        Western intellectual Muslims hill develop neat methods of da'wah.

For 200 years the Muslim world experienced the consequences of the Age of Reason in military, industrial and commercial terms. without understanding, however, the intellectual background of the Western phenomena of rationalism, scientism, and progressiveness which made up modernity.


Today, thanks partly to Colonialist educational efforts and partly to Muslim immigration into the West, we have a growing number of Muslim intellectuals who can beat Western ideology its own ground, by its own rules.


This is perhaps the greatest challenge of them all: To dismantle the fundamental delusions of Enlightenment rationalism and its over¬confidence in the rationality, maturity and independence of man. In other words: To dethrone supposedly sovereign man and reinstall faith in God in full accordance with the foundational assumptions of modem philosophy and science.


Muslim intellectuals must start from Descartes, Kant, Hume and Comte without arriving at Marx. Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche. Theirs is the task of re grounding faith by pointing out (i) the rational stupidity of atheism, (ii) the ambivalence of agnosticism, and (iii) both the probability and plausibility of the existence of God and thus the rationality of faith.


Assumption No. 10: Muslim intellectuals will stop acting apologetically

The process I am describing will necessarily presuppose   and in turn pro¬duce   Muslim intellectuals who are assertive in place of being merely apologetic. In this respect, Muslims of the 21st century are really 200 years away from their Egyptian brothers under Napoleon (1769 1821) and 100 years away from Muhammad Abduh's (1849 1905) apologetics.


Assumption No. 11: All Muslim intellectuals need is to he intellectual

From what I said one might assume that Muslim intellectuals have a very special role to play. Well. they do. But that does not imply that they must all be Muslim activists. Quite the contrary. For so long Islam has been associated with poor, under developed Third World Countries and with unskilled labor that our religion is considered as a faith for the less than intelligent.


It is therefore a major contribution towards the expansion of Islam if a Muslim intellectual does no more than to demonstrate quietly that one can be a successful academic and simultaneously a convinced and practicing Muslim. Some of the angry reactions I receive, and other German born Muslims, is exactly due to that syndrome: How can one of us, obviously well educated and not stupid, opt for that religion!


Assumption No. 12: Islam will become the dominant religion of the 21st century

If my assumptions are correct, my last assumption can safely be to predict that, Allah willing, thanks to the impact of Muslim intellectuals. Islam may well become the dominant religion of the 21st century, at least in North America, home of the American Way of Life, and parts of Europe as well   with enormous repercussions on the rest of the globe.

Note: The article was slightly edited for this website.

Taken from:

Khurram Murad Memorial Lectures

Modern Islamic Polity in the Making

Dr. Murad Wilfried Hofmann

Institute of Policy Studies, 2001, Pakistan
courtesy: Ali Abbas/CUII Group






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