Muslims today, particularly in the Arab world, enter into tortured debates over what went wrong, with this history as subtext. This dissonance is unsettling. Perceptions of decline were often overlaid with a kind of theological determinism. Was the decline some sort of divine retribution?
After centuries of dominance, the various Islamic empires were gradually eclipsed by a rising Europe. Then came the trauma of colonialism, when much of the Muslim world fell under direct, and often brutal, European control. Hard-won independence offered a gleam of hope in the 20th century, but the promise of secular nationalism ultimately disappointed, with young nations descending into dictatorship. Perhaps God had forsaken the Muslims, punishing them for straying from the straight path.
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After all, God had promised glad tidings for those who followed his commands, and he had, seemingly, delivered for centuries. This must have been evidence of their righteousness. That, though, could only mean that the territorial contraction of once-great empires must have been evidence of sin and decadence. The Ottoman Empire, hoping to stave off decline in the 19th century, launched a series of internal reforms, known as the tanzimat. In an attempt to codify and control what had been an organic and constantly evolving body of law, the state was strengthened and centralized, its authoritarian tendencies exacerbated, and the clerics weakened.
Among elites, assorted secular ideologies—Marxism, socialism, fascism, and liberalism—gained currency. Born in , the Islamist writer Muhammad Galak Kishk saw the triumph of religion nearly everywhere, even in the most unlikely of places. If this clarity—this purity of vision—had been lost, then where better to regain it than at the beginning?
This is what the various revivalist movements hoped to do.
Oddly enough, for these various Islamist strains, more recent Islamic history has grown more remote. Outside Turkey, most Muslims would have trouble citing even one Ottoman-era scholar. In contrast, there is a closeness about the prophet and his companions that belies fourteen hundred years of the passing of time. It is an odd, unusual effect—the further one goes back in history, the more intimate it feels. The prophet Muhammad was a theologian, a politician, a warrior, a preacher, and a merchant, all at once.
Importantly, he was also the builder of a new state. Taha was executed by the Jaafar al-Nimeiry regime in and his theories largely forgotten. There are reasons, though, that these theories have struggled to gain adherents in the Muslim world. For many Muslims, the point of Islam is that it is accessible and straightforward, at least in its broad outlines.
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Why would a believing Muslim take a chance on a controversial and heterodox interpretation of scripture when he or she can fall back on safer, mainstream approaches that enjoy the backing of the vast majority of scholars? One could go further and advocate not only for a progressive interpretation of Islamic law but also for its basic irrelevance to public life—that the separation of religion from politics forms the foundation of any pluralistic post-Enlightenment liberal society. There were the massive bureaucracies, the large weaponized armies, and the technology and desire to monitor citizens, all things that the far-flung empires of the past could never claim.
How could Islamic law, designed for a pre-modern era, remain relevant in a time where subjects became citizens and when religious allegiances were to be replaced with national loyalties? We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters theatlantic. Today, it is the extremely violent Islamist groups who are demonstrating the most impact. Jihadist organizations in Iraq and Syria control a geographical area larger than some European countries, wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East in the name of the religion.
They are trying to revive a seventh-century state in the second decade of the twenty-first century, yet without the moral, historical, and cultural features that had made the original one a seed for a rich civilization. For many, this is a surreal phenomenon.
For others, it is the result of decades of lethargy, intellectual decline, and failing socioeconomic policies in large parts of the Islamic World and notably in the Arab region. In this evolution of politicized religion, Islam itself has become suspect. Economics aside, fear of Muslims is at the heart of the anti-immigration sentiment across Europe. There is a strong feeling in many quarters that Islam is an intellectual opponent of humanism and liberalism.
The most venerable Islamic institutions, the seats of theological learning, have so far failed to address these challenges. It does not help that the thinking found in such places has been shaped by the heritage of the last ten centuries, a period in which they were not subjected to the social pressures for change that Western religious institutions had faced. The result: the largest, richest, and most prominent Islamic institutions continue to inhabit an intellectual world that has not changed much in the last three hundred years.
The contemporary failures of political Islam stem from the struggle over the past hundred and fifty years to find a common ground between Islam and modernity—not with the tenets of the belief, the rituals, or the values associated with the religion, but rather the political, legislative, and social roles that Islam came to play in society and that many believe are integral to the essence of the religion. This changed in the early- to mid-nineteenth century. The arrival of European colonial powers in the Middle East exposed to Arab and Muslim publics the shocking disparity between their knowledge and means of power and that of the Westerners.
This realization triggered a determination, at least within some of the elite, to escape that lethargy and catch up with the West. The reforms, which included the general introduction of modern European-style education, diluted the political and social role of religious institutions, weakened the economic influence of religious endowments, and resulted in the replacement of religious authorities in royal courts, political circles, and judiciary positions by secular professionals.
Modernity was unmistakably curtailing the role of Islam in society. Not surprisingly, authorities in major Islamic institutions condemned this modernity. They opposed introducing secular education, gender mixing, and Western forms of financing; translating Western works of art and importing cultural phenomena such as theater; and moving away from traditional ruling and governance systems. These were apostasies to be rejected, and if need be, fought. Some religious scholars, however, understood that the wave of modernity was unstoppable and indeed crucial for the development of their societies.
They argued that modernity does not negate Islam. The objective was to welcome in Muslim societies the tools including the thinking that had allowed the West to progress, without losing the religious and cultural features that defined Islamic identity. Al-Afghani and Abdou became celebrity intellectuals in parts of the Islamic World.
But their ideas never gained wide appeal, or acquired a huge momentum within the largest sections of Muslim-majority societies. Though in the late nineteenth century Al-Afghani had briefly been a close advisor to the Ottoman sultan Abdel Hamid II, this school of thought never had any serious state sponsorship. The ideas of Al-Afghani, Abdou, and their followers, thus ensconced in intellectual ivory towers, and disconnected from the lives of the vast majority of Muslims, remained limited in their impact.
The school failed to reach, let alone convince, a critical mass of Muslims and convert them to its view of how Islam can be situated in a modern or modernizing society. Another modernization project saw no place at all for Islam in society.
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In Tunisia three decades later, in the s, Habib Bourguiba put forward similar thinking, but with a twist. Bourguiba did not position his modernization program in opposition to Islam. He did not argue that society should sever its links to Islamic heritage altogether. But they proved extremely lacking as political models. The wording was intentionally vague; it left it to the nationalist leaders or their propagandists to promote or marginalize Islam as they saw fit. But, unlike in the Al-Afghani—Abdou model, Islam was not the main identity to be preserved nor the framework against which new ideas would be measured.
This approach, too, failed. Military defeats and poor economic performance aside, the variants of Arab nationalism Nasserite or otherwise proved unable to deliver on the huge expectations stirred in the s and s. The crushing of the dream weakened the notion of Arabness. It created a colossal, and for many a painful, vacuum in the Arab psyche. Several factors helped. The exponential increase in oil prices in the s triggered a huge wave of migration from non-oil exporting Arab countries to the Gulf states.
Millions of Egyptians, Jordanians, Moroccans, Palestinians, Syrians, and Sudanese went to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates at a time when these countries were much more conservative than they are today. This coincided with a gradual but unmistakable change in the role of the state in poor Arab countries. These states were increasingly unable to meet the obligations they had assumed in the s and s: free education and healthcare, and highly subsidized food and energy. In the span of two decades, these developments caused a transformative change in the composition of the middle classes of several large Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria.
Traditionally conservative social groups were climbing the social ladder; strict values and religious doctrines such as the Saudi-funded Wahhabism were exported from the Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. The look and feel of Arab societies were being altered: from a dramatic rise in the percentage of veiled women to conspicuous changes many would say deterioration in the quality of Arab culture, art, and entertainment.
Some Arab regimes, most notably that of President Anwar Sadat in Egypt, gambled on the conservative religious trend to weaken the nationalist legacies of their predecessors and rivals and consolidate their legitimacy. They empowered Islamist groups in universities, professional syndicates, and in the mass media at the expense of secular Arab nationalists. All of this gave strong momentum to longstanding Islamist political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as well as to militant organizations and militias that emerged in the Arab World in the s and s.
On the contrary, they seemed to represent different versions of Islamism that negated the experience of Arabs and Muslims in adapting to modernity over the previous century. Islamists who opted to work through existing political systems managed to build solid constituencies; establish expansive support and services networks catering to the poor and the lower middle classes; and even in some cases develop large and sophisticated economic and financial empires and media platforms.
Militant jihadists, for their part, worked toward overthrowing regimes. They also sought to bring about social revolutions to Islamicize their societies in the way they defined Islam and its political and social manifestations. For them, modernity was an affront not only to their Islamic heritage but to Islam itself.
Throughout the s and s, the militants consisted of bands of jihadists fighting isolated and unsuccessful guerrilla wars in different parts of the Arab World. They justified their acts of often extreme violence on the notion that if sections of society were unwilling to adopt, implement, and live by the rules of Islam as the militants defined them , then they were effectively rejecting Islam and becoming apostates. The Islamists, whether working within existing systems or using violence to overthrow them, have failed. Neither approach has succeeded in taking control of a single Arab country.
By the early s, all Arab countries seemed secure under hereditary monarchies or secular military-backed republican regimes. Most Arab Islamist groups became aware that to have any serious presence in politics, even at the margins, they needed to assure ruling regimes that they posed no threat and were willing to operate by the rules like other legal or tolerated opposition groups. They began to cautiously contest elections, making sure that they did not overly mobilize their constituencies or flaunt their financial resources lest they trigger an anti-Islamist backlash.