The Theological Response To The Impact Of The West

The aim of this chapter is to indicate the various intellectual aspects of the Islamic response to the impact of Europe and more generally of the West.1 No attempt will be made, however, to describe all this in detail, since that has been done for the period up to about 1965 by Kenneth Cragg in the volume Counsels in Contemporary Islam in the present series. What will be attempted is to give a general picture of the lines along which Muslim intellectuals are trying to meet the challenge presented to them by the West. In all this there is little theology in an academic sense, and virtually no philosophy.

In so far as modem European culture is an expression of the Greek spirit, the impact of Europe on the Islamic world might be called 'the third wave of Hellenism'. Such a term, however, would obscure important differences between the present situation and those referred to as the first two waves. In the previous cases the impact was mainly intellectual, though the bearers of the alien intellectual culture were mixed with the Muslim inhabitants of the caliphate. The present impact of Europe, on the other hand, has been much more than intellectual. It began with commercial dealings in the easterly regions of the Islamic world after the discovery of the route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1498. Commerce eventually led to political interference and then to political domination. With the expedition of Napoleon to Egypt in 1798 the Ottoman and Persian empires began to feel the full impact of Europe,- and commercial and political penetration were soon supported by financial operations. It is hardly too much to say that when the new educated classes in the various Islamic countries came to an awareness of their position in the modem world, their countries were already inextricably entangled in the web of international finance. Extended visits to Europe by students, translations of European books, and the showing of American and European films meant that traditional Islamic culture could not avoid confrontation with an alien social structure and way of life.

Another difference was that there was now an element of discontinuity in the intellectual sphere. The Greek philosophical ideas and methods which came in with al-Ghazali in the 'second wave' were a further instalment of what had been brought in by the first enthusiasts for Hellenism. The achievement of theologians like the Mu'tazilites and then the Ash'antes had been to express Islamic doctrine in terms of the most advanced intellectual culture of the times. By the nineteenth century, however, in the Sunnite Islamic world there was no cultivation of philosophy except by the theologians . There was no 'secular' philosophical thinking, and no contact between Islamic theology and any other living tradition of thought, religious or secular. Meanwhile there had appeared in Europe a complete new universe of philosophical discourse. The achievement of medieval Christian scholasticism, especially Thomism, might be regarded as comparable to that of the Ash'antes and other philosophical theologians of Islam; but when the scholastics tried to erect barriers against the new currents of creative intellectual activity, these were swept away, and the mind of European man came to be dominated by the modem philosophical outlook, formed on the one hand by the Continental philosophers from Descartes to Kant and Hegel and on the other by the British empiricists. If Islamic theology was to come to terms with this pluriform modem 'secular' philosophy, it could only be by radical changes of attitude.

The problems raised by the impact of Europe on the Islamic world may be considered here under three heads. First, much of the Islamic world had become politically or economically dependent on Europe and the West, so that political and economic independence was a primary aim for many Muslims. Secondly, contacts with the West and the acceptance of the products of Western technology had led to many subtle changes in Islamic society, while many Muslims were being attracted by the secular forms of thought in the West, including its science. Thirdly, some of the attitudes found among Western colonialists had given many Muslims a feeling of inferiority. In the Muslim response to the total impact of the West political factors were prominent, but these will only be incidentally described here, and attention will be focused on the intellectual factors.

Already before 1850 there were signs among the traditional Islamic religious scholars of a conservative withdrawal into their own ivory tower and an unwillingness to leam from foreigners and non-Muslims. As Muslim rulers, such as Muhammad 'Ali in Egypt in the early nineteenth century, realized their military inferiority to the Europeans, they decided that it was necessary to have an army on the European model, and that for this their officers must have some education of a European type. They also realized that, because of the attitude of the religious scholars, they could not achieve this within the existing educational institutions, and so they imported European teachers and set up new institutions. From such beginnings there developed in many Islamic countries a complete system of Western education, stretching by the early twentieth century from primary schools to universities. Meanwhile the religious leaders showed no interest in the new education, and alongside the new system allowed the old to continue without even a change of curriculum, with its Qur'ân-schools in the villages and its traditional-type universities like al-Azhar in Cairo.

One result of having two educational systems functioning side by side was to create two different classes of intellectuals—the old-fashioned religious intellectuals or ulema and the new Western-educated intellectuals. Another result was a great loss of power and influence by the ulema as an ever-increasing proportion of young people attended the Western-type institutions. Up to about 1850 in the Ottoman empire the religious institution, which was hierarchically organized under its head, the Shaykh al-Islam, had complete control of all higher education and all administration of justice and the formulation of new legal rules ¡ but its conservatism in education lost it most of its power in that sphere, as Western-type institutions superseded the traditional ones,- and a similar conservatism in the legal sphere led the sultans to make extensive use of supplementary legal codes and, to administer these, new types of lawcourt in which traditionally trained lawyers were not qualified to serve. Something similar happened in most Islamic countries.

In India the British authorities introduced Westem-type education, partly in order to provide junior personnel for the administration, but, while the Hindus made the most of the opportunities, the Muslims kept suspiciously aloof. This led to a deterioration in the general position of the Muslims compared with that of the Hindus, and that was one of the factors leading to the—largely Muslim— Indian Mutiny of 1857. The Muslims, in even greater gloom after their defeat, were roused from their pessimism and inactivity by Sayyid (Syed) Ahmad Khan, among others. He persuaded them to accept Western education for their children and to co-operate with the British, and his efforts led to the foundation of a college, which eventually became the University of Aligarh, in which the new type of education was combined with adherence to Islamic doctrine. One of his associates was Ameer Ali, whose book The Spirit of Islam has had a wide and continuing influence. The writer's aim was to show that Islam had all the values of nineteenth-century European liberalism, thus trying to improve the perception of Islam by the rest of the world and also helping Muslims to get rid of their sense of inferiority.

By the twentieth century most Muslims wanted independence and not co-operation with the colonialists, but acceptance of Western ideas and ideals (outside the sphere of religion) has been characteristic of many 'secular' Muslim intellectuals and statesmen. Leading statesmen in particular, who have frequent contacts with Western colleagues, come to think in similar terms to the latter, and make use of Western political ideas to guide their political activities. Some have been attracted even to aspects of fascism and Marxism. They have mostly resisted the demands of the ulema for further implementation of the Shari'a, but in the religious sphere they have adhered to Islamic doctrine, even though some may have found it difficult to combine this with their general westernized outlook.

In the long struggle for independence some groups brought in an Islamic element, and argued that for its full expression Islam required statehood. Thus Islam was made both a reason for independence and also a programme for an independent state. Such was the attitude of the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) in Egypt and, with some variants, that of Mawdoodi and the Jama'at-i-Islami in India. Both these movements, however, had a programme going beyond the mere return to original Islam and envisaging some reforming measures, though on an Islamic basis (that is, in accordance with the Sharia).

These two movements may be regarded as premonitions of the Islamic resurgence or revival which has been a feature of the last decade or two. They doubtless contributed something to the resurgence, though they are somewhat aloof from its most recent manifestations. The basic reason for the resurgence is the rapid social change experienced by all Islamic societies, and the feeling of anxiety resulting from this change. The change has come about partly through the spread of Western ideas, and partly through the acceptance by Muslims of the products of Western technology—Western forms of transport, Western military weaponry, Western food, Western dress, Western entertainment, and so on. The acceptance of such things in vast quantities inevitably disrupts the social structure, for some groups lose their livelihood while others prosper. In some cases people feel they are ceasing to be Muslims and are becoming Westerners, and indeed some want to be exactly like Westerners at least in respect of the material side of life. So the demand for a return to the original Islam of the Prophet and the earliest Muslims is accompanied by special emphasis on the things which signify the distinctive Muslim identity—no alcohol, no usury and the veil for women. Insistence on these makes Muslims obviously different from Westerners. It is often suggested that such a return to the original Islam, if carried out, will solve all the problems of the world at the present time, but such evidence as there is seems to show that this is romantic and unrealistic. The main thrust of the resurgence is the reassertion of Muslim identity, and it is seldom associated with serious attempts to deal with contemporary social problems.

In most countries the ulema or religious scholars are in sympathy with the resurgence,- they themselves feel the same anxiety, and in addition are aware of their own loss of power and influence. They try to persuade the statesmen—in Pakistan, for example—that all legislation should go before a committee of ulema to decide whether it is in accordance with the Shari'a; but the statesmen resist such proposals since they realize that the ulema have no detailed knowledge of the working of a modem state. Clearly, if all legislation must be declared to be in accordance with the Shari'a, then the ulema, as the only accredited interpreters of the Shari'a, will have regained much of their lost power. This, of course, is what has happened in Iran, but, because of differences in the situation, it is unlikely that the ulema in Sunnite countries will be able to repeat the success of their Iranian brothers.

Iran became an extreme example of westernization because of the great wealth derived from oil and the driving force of the Pahlevi Shahs. The changes had been so rapid and so extensive, however, that there were many groups of discontented persons ready to listen to a vigorous and persuasive leader. That leader appeared in the Imam Khomeini, and in 1979 the Shah fled and the Islamic Republic of Iran was established. It has to be remembered, however, that in Iran the corps of ulema or religious institution was in a specially strong position because Imamite Shi'ism was the official religion. This meant that in theory the mullahs (as the ulema were usually called in Iran) were the representatives of the hidden Imam and in a sense above the Shah. For at least two centuries they had been endeavouring to increase their power and, when there was a favourable opportunity, had supported the ordinary people against oppressive rulers. Moreover they had managed to achieve some financial independence of the state, because they received certain religious taxes directly from the people and their careers were not controlled by the Shah. At the moment of writing (Spring 1983) it is impossible to say what the final outcome will be of this resurgence of Iranian Islam. It has achieved much, but many of the leaders have virtually no experience of life outside an Islamic enclave.

In all the events of the last century academic theology has played only a slight part. The intellectual debates of previous centuries were largely irrelevant to contemporary problems. Basic Islamic dogma, of course, has continued to be prominent, and there has been a strong reaffirmation of those aspects at least with a bearing on social and political action. By way of exception there were two important attempts to present a defence of Islamic doctrine in terms of modem Western thought. The earlier of these was Risalat at-tawhld by the Egyptian Muhammad 'Abduh (1849-1905), first published in 1897.2

It is a reasoned apologetic for the main Islamic doctrines, addressed to Western-educated men, both Muslims and others. The author maintains, however, that reason has only a restricted competence in the field of theology and that acceptance of revelation must be central. In this way many problems are left aside. In itself this was a notable beginning but it was not followed up.

Very different was The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam by Mohammad Iqbal (1876-1938), based on lectures first delivered in 1928 and published in 1934.3 Where the Egyptian had written in terms of a fairly general form of modem thought, Iqbal was under the spell of recent and contemporary thinkers such as Bergson, Nietzsche and even Freud. Kenneth Cragg speaks of this book as 'a Muslim's ventures in religious speculation' and 'the most ambitious and inventive adaptation of dogma attempted by a Muslim'. Iqbal's forceful personality and the expression of it in his poems helped to rouse Muslims to political and social activity, but the time was not ripe for further theological speculation.

Mention must also be made of The Tarjuman al-Qu/an of Maw-lana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958), the first part of which appeared in Urdu in 1930 though had been working on it for at least a dozen years previously.4 Though this work is primarily a commentary on the Qur'an, it contains long theological discussions, especially in the first volume which is devoted to Sura 1 (al-Fatiha). An interesting point is his attitude to other religions. He was one of the Muslim leaders opposed to a separate Pakistan and ready to live in a state in which Muslims and Hindus both participated op a footing of equality, and so it is not surprising to find that he holds that all religions are true in their primary form, though their adherents have often deviated from this form. True belief about God and the universe is found in the Qur'an, but only when traditional interpretations are left aside and the Qur'an is allowed to speak for itself. The Mawlana leaves many questions unanswered and some not even raised, but to those who live in a world where there is a meeting of religions he has shown a way of handling the problems this creates.

When the last decade or two are considered it is seen that many younger Western-educated Muslim intellectuals have been and are working at the expression of Islamic faith and practice in terms appropriate to the modem world with its many intellectual, cultural, social and political problems. This effort takes many forms. Some are chiefly interested in political activity and social reform. Others are concerned to apply contemporary literary and philological criticism to the study of the Qur'an, and historical criticism to the study of early Islamic history. Many think it important to engage in dialogue with Christians, because they realize that there is a sense in which all believers in God are engaged in a common struggle against material ism, atheistic humanism and other anti-religious forces. So far no one thinker has stood out above the rest, but this liberalizing movement is making progress, even if slowly. It has, of course, to contend with the dead-weight of the religious establishment, which has gained much popular support as a result of the resurgence. The liberalizing movement, on the other hand, includes not merely thinkers and writers, but also active statesmen and others in positions of power, so that its future prospects are good. It would not be surprising if before the end of the century some important new names had come to the fore in the field of Islamic theology.

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