November 21, 2006

Islamic Essentialism

Many people whether Islamic or not argue at the moment that Islam has a true essense. Blogs often present statistics relating to Muslims as though Muslims are all of the same type and have political opinions and commit actions of the same type. They do not distinguish between types of Muslim but argue that there is a war between Islam and the West. On the other hand, Islamic militants talk about an essense of Islam- its been long recognised that this feature is a key one to Islamic militancy, from Said Qutb onwards, they argue that there has always been one true theological Islam and that all other versions of Islam are to be disdained as pagan. I do not wish to debate the theology of Islam what I do wish to debate is the idea that Islam has always been the same entity- it has always been the same and still is the same entity.

The problem is that both the bloggers and the Islamic ideologues are wrong. The picture is much more complicated than one of a single essential Islam. There is plenty of evidence that Islam has changed, is changing, has various strands and still will have various strands running into the future. The problem that we face is not one of 'Islam' but one of 'radicalised Islam' and we have to be careful to discern the difference between them. Hizb Ul Tahrir and various other organisations advocating the introduction of Sharia law represent one school of thought but there are others and its worth realising that Islam actually has no essense. Somebody who beleives in Islam, beleives in a set of texts, and can interpret those texts in any way they wish to. Consequently the texts can be used to justify anything from war to non-violence, from Shia to Sunni intepretations, from legalistic formalists to Sufi mystics.

To argue that Islam has a single essense is to misunderstand it completely. Islamic people have been responsible for atrocities just like Christians, Jews and Atheists. This is not a defence of radicalism, nor is it a defence of any position taken by any one of any religion. This is a defence of a principle of historical study which must not be abandoned- Religions do not have a position on an issue. The best way of thinking about religion, is imagining a football field- everyone is playing football but takes up different positions on the field conditioned obviously by the way that the field is set up, but there are people on the left and right. Islam in this analogy sets the field for debate, but the players choose their position and whereas Islam gives them material for debate, it doesn't define how the material is used. We need to remember this going forwards- Islam has many faces, studying it requires acknowledging what face you are looking at.


dreadnought said...

An interesting post. One of your merry band recently alluded to this thesis as a comment on my blog.

Of course not all muslims are radical extremists but clearly there is something in this religion which can easily take law abiding teenagers and teaching assistants and turn them into suicidal and indiscriminate murderers.

Gracchi said...

No it wasn't directed at you at all Dreadnought- I actually was just surfing the internet- wasn't on your site at all it was some others and just got annoyed at the world in a kind of general way and went and wrote this.

As to your argument yeah I completely agree there is something in Islam. I'm not sure though that the explanations in the end aren't more sociological and historical as to why this has happened- than they are to do with Islam itself though the particular form that this violence has emerged in may be conditioned by Islam- I think that makes sense I hope it does- but its not you I'm getting at.

Political Umpire said...

The concept of martyrdom seems to have survived in Islam but not Christianity, which I think partly (and ONLY partly) explains the suicidal bit. Another is that Islam is a more all-embracing religion, whose dictats go far beyond those of modern Christianity or most other faiths.

Oddly enough in Western societies suicide rates were lower when Christianity held sway; promise of an afterlife (they were careful to say you wouldn't get there through suicide) and salvation etc were a beacon of hope for many. Lacking that in Christianity, many look now to other faiths. Theodore Dalrymple wrote something interesting about Islam's attraction for prisoners along these lines a while ago

Lelia said...

the post explain central questions I had about moderate ve radical muslim in a very understandable way. Thank You.

I would gather that many problems with interpretation could stem from translation?

Gracchi said...

Interesting point about suicide. There is a great bit of Gibbon- might be completely wrong about early Christians seeking martyrdom so they used to find Roman soldiers and jump off rocks in front of them to claim martyrdom. THe suicide thing is fascinating- I've always been interested in waht those figures reflect- often suicide was not diagnosed because a suicide couldn't have a burial- so there may be a problem in saying that traditional Christian societies didn't commit suicide. Also the thing is that Islam has the same idea- though I agree it still has the thing about martyrdom whereas Christianity doesn't.

Suicide is fascinating- off the top of my head the only society to encourage suicide was the Roman- think of Thrasae or Helvetius, immortalised in Tacitus because they chose suicide over obedience to a corrupt civil order.

Good comment- typically- thanks.

Gracchi said...

Yes Lelia I think you are right there are real issues with transalation- File on Four did an interesting program recently- its the last one on I think which reflected on the fact that radical youths were being given texts transalated by radicals so making them more extreme. One problem in the UK is in providing in Universities qualified Imams who can teach kids the Arabic Koran and good Arabic. The question is complicated because of course someone like Qutb was a very good Islamic scholar- but you have to always remember that the central thing is that what everyone does to a text is interpret it and from that interpretation get somewhere- there is no essense of any religion.

dreadnought said...

Gracchi - thanks for your reply. My comments were not intended as a riposte to you, merely as a comment on your interesting article. Certainly no offence was intended and none was taken.

I think your blog makes for a very articulate read.

Gracchi said...

Oh good- no offense was taken here. I was just a little worried you might have taken offence- its the difficulty with reading words off a page instead of talking to someone, you can't get the tone of voice right for what's going on, so you don't know how something is said. Anyway I'm glad all is fine and happy between the dreadnought and myself- afterall in a war between the Romans and a first World War navy- there could only be one winner:)

Well I hope the article is interesting it captured somethign that has been on the verge of my mind for a long time that we need to stop discussing Islam and start discussing varieties of Islam. I think your blog is one of many that does a good service in saying occasionally look this is a problem. But some of the blogs that do that forget that that isn't the whole picture of Islam- I came across one recently that had the line that we were in a war against Islam all round the world- having several Muslim friends who are very moderate, many of them female, I struggled with this concept and still do. I think we are at war (though I dislike the phrase war because there is no sovereign state involved) with a particular conception of Islam and a particular interpretation of Islamic texts but not with Islam itself.

Linus said...

what is ISLAM and who are the MUSLIMS? -

Gracchi said...

Linus can I respond to you using a formula derived from linguistic theory- Islam is a language game which is played using the Koran ie people who are Muslims are those that use the Koran, the Hadith, the verdicts of Ulema and other sources to validate their religious and moral beliefs. What conclusions they come to are all Muslim.

Anonymous said...

Have had quite a lot of good reads on your blog there Gracchi.

Absolutely agree that the essence of the problem should be reviewed through a historical and political view. Also, that there are a majority of Islamic countries that adhere to regimes and governments that are not in the category of being democratic, but here's something else to think about. When the Ex Indonesian president Soeharto resigned and Indonesia was led to it's "reforms" the unquestionable thing happened and still does happen, democracy brought with it a wave of irresponsible freedom (The demands of counties and such for a "statehood" but not being "mature" enough to manage itself, etc). The same is happening in the Philipines and other parts of Asia.
So here's something else to think about. An Islam that is so complex and diverse in it's nature and peoples needs democracy, but what kind?
A friend of mine said something quite quaint the other day about the fall of the USSR, "'Course they're bound to topple over in the end, I mean what exactly was Stalin thinking when he listened to Marx? What does a German know about what a Russian needs?". His language is a bit coarse (and a bit daft, seeing as how Stalinism and Marxism were quite different), but he has a "sort of" point. That these countries need a change but only something that can "fit" them, just as democracy was found in the west, with struggle and patience, so it will be found in other countries. But to force upon other countries this ideology is something else and that is what really is a major problem, there have been quite a lot of articles concerned about how "counterterrorism" has made more radicalists than the ideology of radicalism itself.

Gracchi said...

Yes but I think is my answer to what you are saying.

Yes I agree that if democracy comes to Islamic regions in the world it will have a local look to it but it will still be the trans national idea. I think ideological interchange is very complex- Stalinism is a great example of a sort of ideological interchange because it was Marxism with a Russian face. This isn't a good answer but I think there is something in it- just as Islam isn't the smae in every country or every region, but in some sense is recognisably Islam so democracy.