Commentary Magazine


In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power, by Daniel Pipes

Muslims & Modernity

In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power.
by Daniel Pipes.
Basic Books. 373 pp. $22.50.

Daniel Pipes’s book is divided into three parts. He begins by delineating the premodern legacy of Islam, he goes on to describe the encounter of Islam and the West with all the problems which this encounter entailed for Muslims, and—in the largest section of his work—he examines the characteristics of the Islamic revival which in recent years has taken the world by surprise. This section also deals with the effect which the enormous rise in the price of oil—a rise coinciding with the spread of a new revivalist fervor in the Muslim world—has had on Muslim attitudes vis-à-vis the non-Muslim world. Pipes also considers here the new possibilities which this wealth opened up to various Muslim states of pursuing an active Islamic policy. This last section contains a great deal of valuable information about the Muslim population of the world, and a country-by-country survey of the various Islamic movements prominent in recent decades.

Islamic fundamentalism is best understood as the aspiration to revert to the original Islamic way of life as it is thought to have been in the days of the Prophet and his immediate successors. It is one particular outcome of the encounter in modern times between the Muslim world and the West. In this encounter Muslims were, and saw themselves as, the weaker party. They were weaker politically, economically, and militarily. What is perhaps more serious, Muslims seemed to have no defenses against Western modes of thought, or a Western way of life. Indeed, Western thought and Western ways seemed to pose a more insidious and a more formidable threat than outright military conquest or political domination. Apart from fundamentalism, the world of Islam has seen two other ways by which it was thought possible to cope with the threat posed by the West. These are secularism and reformism.

Secularism is the belief that Muslim society could defend itself, and could prosper, only if it adopted the cast of mind, the institutions, and the way of life associated with the West. Specifically, secularism meant the separation of state and religion and the relegation of religion to the private sphere. Secularism became very influential among the educated and official classes in many parts of the Muslim world. In the Ottoman empire, the highlight of their influence and power was reached with the Young Turk revolution of 1908, and with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who inherited the Young Turk ideals and incorporated secularism in Kemalism, the official ideology of the Turkish republic which he founded and ruled until his death in 1938. Secularism also marked the outlook of Muhammad Ali and the dynasty which he founded in Egypt. The outlook was shared by most of the prominent Egyptian politicians under the monarchy, as well as by the Arab political leaders who appeared on the scene in Syria and Iraq after the destruction of the Ottoman empire. Again, the nationalists who supplanted the Dutch in the East Indies were profoundly secular in outlook and, like Atatürk, made secularism a pillar of the Indonesian state.

But secularism as a method of coping with modernity—a creation of the Western genius—has proved a failure. It has failed in that it has not secured the power and prosperity which its proponents had hoped for. It has also failed in that the secularist state of mind has remained the affair of a small official and intellectual class, and has not been able to penetrate into the society at large. What it has done is, on the contrary, to create a gap between the traditional mass and the secularized rulers, who now inhabit two distinct universes of discourse.

Reformism, the other reaction to the West, proceeded in the belief that there was, and ought to be, no contradiction between modernity and Islam. On the contrary, Islam and modernity were in reality fully compatible. It is only because obscurantism, superstition, and tyranny had laid their dead hand on Islam in previous centuries that Muslim social and political institutions fell into decay and corruption, and the Muslim intellect lost originality and inventiveness. Islam had only to be purified from these alien accretions for it to resume its place in the vanguard of civilization. Theology had to be made rational, education likewise, and rulers made responsive to the needs of their society—and such a program was fully practicable.

Alas, it was not to be so. There was no easy or practicable way by which “true” Islam could be recovered from the adulterations in which it had been lost. Intellectually, reformism entailed all kinds of painful contortions, of unconvincing apologias, of transparent and feeble stratagems. It was not a position which could be sustained for long, and it ineluctably led either to fundamentalism or to agnosticism.

Muhammad ‘Abduh, the Grand Mufti of Egypt at the turn of the century, is the most eminent figure associated with Islamic reformism. Lord Cromer, who was his patron, who admired him greatly, and who hoped for great things from his followers, expressed the view in Modern Egypt that ‘Abduh was in reality an agnostic, and there is a great deal to be said for such a view. On the other hand, Rashid Rida, ‘Abduh’s devoted disciple and biographer (and a much more distinguished figure than his master), developed reformism into something closely approaching fundamentalism. Reformism proved to be not only an intellectual, but also a practical, fiasco. Cromer likened ‘Abduh’s followers to the Girondins in the French Revolution. He wrote better than he knew, since the reformists, whether in Egypt or Central Asia or North Africa, in the end fell victim to one or another variety of rough and ruthless Jacobins, or else were emasculated by operators and office-seekers.

So, it has finally come to fundamentalism. Its most striking manifestation is, of course, Ayatollah Khomeini’s success in toppling the Shah and establishing an Islamic republic in Iran, supposedly on pure Islamic lines. Pakistan under General Zia has also attempted to shed Western influences and restore what is believed to be an authentic Muslim way of life. There are also powerful and well-established fundamentalist movements, notably in Egypt, where a small conspiratorial group of fundamentalists succeeded in assassinating Sadat; in the Sudan, where they seem to have compelled Numayri to proclaim Muslim law as the law of a country in which Christians and pagans form an appreciable part of the population; and in Syria, where they have posed a formidable threat to Assad’s regime (in suppressing a revolt in Hama in February 1982, Assad had to launch a military expedition that destroyed a large part of the city and killed thousands of its inhabitants).

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Pipes points out that the recent upsurge of fundamentalism, and the enthusiasm this trend has evoked in Muslims everywhere, has much to do with the OPEC bonanza:

Buoyed by unexpected good fortune, Muslims allowed themselves to imagine that they had solved their basic problem, the inability to come to terms with the West. As the deluge of free wealth improved the [Muslim community's] economic and political position without requiring it to deal with this problem, fundamentalists sounded increasingly convincing; it did appear that the [community] could modernize without confronting its reluctance to Westernize. When some of the most primitive and observant Muslims flourished without effort, seemingly through the strength of faith alone, false hopes were raised, giving many Muslims the unrealistic expectation that God’s bounty might allow them to retreat into faith, to glorify their heritage, and to reject Western ways.

But the bonanza, Pipes rightly points out, must sooner or later come to an end. It will then become apparent that fundamentalism has led Muslims down a blind alley. Pipes believes that reformist and secularist approaches will eventually prevail. Whether he is right nobody can tell, but the omens are not auspicious.

In support of his argument, Pipes points to the Jewish experience: it took some two hundred years for Jews to come to terms with modernity. But as he himself recognizes, there are many important differences between the situation, the traditional attitudes, and the expectations of Jews and Muslims. Whatever the ultimate outcome, the travails of the Muslims (who number over 800 million) in trying to come to terms with themselves and with modern civilization cannot fail to be a matter of intense interest and of profound concern to the rest of the world.

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