Like many people, I have been doing a lot of reading on Islam and Islamic history since September 11 2001. But my interests in history – particularly military and medieval history – meant I have been building on previous knowledge. Indeed, in the early 1990s, I gave a paper to a private discussion group when, in the course of the discussion, I was asked where the next challenge to the West would come from, I said ‘Islam’ simply on the basis that it is the other universalist civilisation.
In the end, what most strikes me is how much Islamic history seems to be stuck in recurring patterns. Islam comes basically in four varieties – modernising, reformist, traditional and splinter. The modernisers wish to open Islam up to achievements in other civilisations, particularly science and critical reason. The reformers wish to return to the purity of original Islam – that is, they hold C7th Arabia as the pinnacle of human social order. The traditionalists are based on lineages of teaching, notably via Sufi orders, which often incorporate local traditions on the way. The splinter groups are small, permanent minorities who may not be accepted as Muslim by many mainstream Muslims: classic splinter groups are the Alawi, the Ismailis and Ahmadis. Some splinter groups, notably the Druze, have left Islam.
Generally speaking, the splinter groups are the easiest for non-Muslims to deal with. As permanent minorities, they eschew the idea that their religious rules are to be imposed on others, turning religious law into community law following a path originally pioneered by rabbinical Judaism. Even the ruling Alawite regime in Syria, no matter how vile it is, parades its ‘secular’ nature in ruling over a Sunni majority.
Traditional Islam often incorporates various techniques to soften aspects of Shar’ia, something also pioneered by rabbinical Judaism in dealing with the homicidal severity of Torah rules. Since, however, traditional Islam retained full judicial power, the softening never went as far as with the rabbis.
While there has been some tendency for Westerners, particularly in the Anglosphere, to romanticise the Sufis – there have been strains of Sufism which were enthusiastically jihadist – nevertheless, due to its mysticism, Sufism has also included rather more humanitarian strains of Islam, open to non-Muslim influences. The notion of a direct connection to the divine provides grounds on which to restrain or reinterpret some of the harsher elements of the teachings of the Prophet.
Non-Muslims have often managed to reach accommodations with traditional Islam. A revealing study of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world (pdf) points out that one of the most overtly pious of Muslim countries (Senegal) is also the one of the most pro-American. There, religion is controlled by various Sufi orders who have reached a working accommodation with the secular political elite. Senegal (and Muslim West Africa generally), Javanese Islam, Bangladesh, Morocco are examples of such “accommodationist’’ or “traditionalist” Islam being dominant.
Islam has also had various modernising movements, at least as far back as the Mu’tazilites of the C8th to C10th. Kossovo, Bosnia, Tunisia and Azerbaijan are examples of countries where modernising Islam is currently dominant. (Though post-revolutionary Tunis is showing some tensions over that.)
[Read the rest at Critical Thinking Applied.]
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