A Jakarta conference yesterday attacked Muslim fanaticism and the move towards Sharia law in Islamic countries. Professor Syafii Maarif is an ex president of the Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia. He told a conference on poverty that Indonesian Muslims tolerance towards other religions is low. He also criticised the “fanaticism of some of my fellow countrymen, who concern themselves with how to dress, make friends or behave in public places in accordance with Islamic law”.
Professor Maarif’s comments are a rare outburst from a leading Muslim intellectual against the growing tide of Islamic fundamentalism. However Maarif is not the only high-profile Muslim prepared to stand up for an apparently unpopular cause. According to “Makers of Contemporary Islam” by John Esposito and John Voll, there are many Muslims who have combined revivalist activism with intellectual efforts, achieving international visibility and influence as a result. This post will examine the articulate efforts of nine Muslim intellectuals whose knowledge and judgement have provided a trenchant critique of the institutions of Islamic society in the late 20th century.
In the early years of Islam, the people of knowledge emerged as a major grouping of Muslim society. Known as the ulama or uluma, they were not priests or part of the political elite but they set the tone and intellectual content of cultural life. They regarded themselves as collective voice of the conscience of society and in Ottoman times they became a significant part of the state structure. More recently, a new category of Muslim secular intellectuals emerged who proclaimed the advances of Ataturk and Nasser. Meanwhile the uluma declined as a conservative force and was more or less replaced by a newer grouping who wanted to reinterpret Islam in the face of the western challenge. A new style of Muslim intellectual emerged committed to the transformation of society within an Islamic framework.
One of the key figures in this intellectual resurgence was Ismail Ragi al-Faruqi (1921-1986). Murdered with his wife by unknown assailants, Al-Faruqi was born in Palestine of Arab roots and he spent much of his working life at Western academic institutions. He was educated in Beirut and was appointed governor of the British mandate of Galilee when his life was thrown into turmoil by the creation of Israel in 1948. He fled the country and gained a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Indiana. He would then work at universities in Cairo, Karachi, Montreal and Chicago where he was an acclaimed scholar on Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
His twin passions were Arabism and Islam. Arabism denoted the language of the Koran and was not a nationalistic construct. Al-Faruqi blamed the west for the failure of Muslim societies. He also believed Islam needed a reformation and set himself up as the religion’s Luther. He developed the concept of the Islamisation of knowledge and proposed a theology-free metareligion beyond the dogmas of Islam and Christianity. In the 1970s and 80s, he provided an important intellectual foundation for the generation of Islamic scholars that followed.
A contemporary of al-Faruqi was the Pakistani scholar Khurshid Ahmad. Ahmad was born in British India in 1932 and emigrated to West Pakistan with his family after partition. Ahmad was trained as an economist and was an early follower of Mawlana Mawdudi, founder of the ideological Muslim group Jamaat-i-Islami. He followed in Mawdudi’s footsteps as leader of the Jamaat. Ahmad was a leading figure in the emergence of Islamic economics as an intellectual discipline. Ahmad was primarily interested in social justice and he combined economic teaching and writing with “dawa”, the spread of Islam nationally and internationally.
Mawlana Mawdudi became Ahmad’s mentor. From him, Ahmad picked up the belief that Islam is divinely revealed code of life and the indictment of the west for Islam’s failings. However he also appreciated the importance of science and technology and the fact that Muslim society was part of an international political and economic system. He moved to Britain where he organised the Islamic Council of Europe and returned to Pakistan in 1978 to serve in Zia ul-Haq’s cabinet. His thinking was dominated by two key concepts, “tawhid” (God as the only source of authority) and “khilafah” (humans operating in God’s creation. These concepts have provided an effective conceptual foundation for policy-making in the Muslim world.
Maryam Jameelah is one of the few women to cross the gender divide and breach the domination of male Muslim intellectuals. She is a strong voice of traditional Islam and her books and articles have been translated into many languages. Jameelah is an unlikely Muslim, born in 1934 as Margaret Marcus, a New York Jew. Her parents were non-observant and eventually became Unitarians. Marcus was fascinated by the Orient in her schooldays and became interested in the plight of displaced Palestinians in the new Israel. At university she became immersed in the Koran and began a correspondence with Mawlana Mawdudi. She decided to formally embrace Islam and emigrated to Pakistan where she lived with Mawdudi’s family. She married a Jamaat volunteer and embarked on a new career as a Muslim apologist writing books in English about a traditional interpretation of Islam.
Her themes were directed against the impact and influence of the West. She was suspicious of secularism and modernism which she associated with intellectual sterility and a lack of cultural identity. She blamed European colonialism and exploitation for the decline of Muslim power. She advocated the “Straight Path of Islam” and saw history as a millennial struggle between Christendom and Islam for supremacy. Jameelah became a role model for Muslim women who sought new paths of empowerment while redefining Islam and gender relations.
Another important voice of articulating new trends was Hasan Hanafi. Hanafi was born in Egypt in 1935 during the British occupation. Post war Egypt became a hotbed of nationalism and revolution with Communism growing in opposition to a revivalist Islam in the shape of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser conflicted with both and jailed the leaders. Hanafi joined the Brotherhood in 1952 and was active during his undergraduate days at Cairo University. However he supported Nasser after the Suez crisis and avoided arrest. That same year he emigrated to Paris where he studied Western philosophy under Jean Guitton at the Sorbonne. He studied Christianity and was invited to the Vatican II council in 1964.
He returned home to Egypt in 1966 to work at Cairo University. His lifelong project was heritage and renewal of religion in an age of transition. He was opposed to violence but described Islam as a revolution. He was also a student of the new science of Occidentalism, the study of the west, from a non-western perspective. He knew enough of the west not to see it the simplistic mould of the “Great Satan” but instead he issued a challenge to the status quo and offered a more idealised Muslim alternative.
Elsewhere in the Maghreb, Rachid Ghannoushi was also issuing challenges. Ghannoushi was a Tunisian thinker and politician who survived a death sentence in 1987. Tunisia is one of the most repressive regimes in the world with only two leaders in the fifty years since independence from France. Tunisia’s government is secular and heavily francophone. Ghannoushi studied philosophy in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria where he discovered “a living Islam” based on the revolutionary writings of Mohammed Qutb. Ghannoushi also studied at the Sorbonne. In France he discovered the poor conditions of North African migrant workers to whom he began to teach Islam.
Back in Tunisia he became further disenchanted with the secular regime and founded the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI). The MTI grew in popularity in the 1980s. Their influence eventually led to the military overthrow of Habib Bourguiba, the hero of independence and president for 30 years. Bourguiba’s mistake was to sentence Ghannoushi to death. But although his replacement Ben Ali reprieved Ghannoushi, he was equally suspicious of the MTI and eventually banned them. Ghannoushi remains a powerful figure transformed by Islamic traditions, the failures of Arab governments and the influence of Western thinking.
Voll and Esposito go on to discuss the influence of four other key Muslims: Hasan al Turabi a Sudanese lawyer and ideologue in Omar Bashir’s regime since 1989, Abdolkarim Soroush, an intellectual in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran who was not afraid to publicly criticise the government from an Islamic perspective, the Malaysia politician Anwar Ibrahim who joined the government from the religious opposition and was eventually destroyed by President Mahathir Mohamad, and finally Abdurrahman Wahid, “Gus Dur” the wise religious leader who became an unlikely president of Indonesia who oversaw the independence of Timor Leste. Together the collection is an invaluable addition to the lexicon of Islamic leadership. These Islamic intellectuals are today’s uluma; a much misunderstood and ignored species in the West.