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Stifling Islamic Enlightenment

March 28, 2024
By Bassam Michael Madany

On 15 April 2007, the liberal Arabic website, Al-Awan, published an article on the Problematique of Islamic Fundamentalism by Hashem Saleh.

بقلم: الأوان

معضلة الأصولية الإسلامية - هاشم صالح

I decided to title this review of the article, “Stifling Islamic Enlightenment,” as the author’s purpose was a critique of Islamic Fundamentalism that stifles Islamic Enlightenment.

Hashem Saleh described Religious Fundamentalism as follows: 

Religious Fundamentalism consists of a literal adherence to religious texts, a faulty understanding of their meaning, and a total adherence to the pathway of a distant past, coupled with despising the present and the future. The Fundamentalist’s view is anchored in a specific era of the past, which is regarded as superior to all other periods.

It's important to note that Fundamentalism is not merely an Islamic phenomenon; it has risen among all major religions without exception at a certain period of its history. Religious radicalism may lead a believer to murder a person of a different religious commitment. Thus, Fundamentalism has several varieties; it may be Islamic, Jewish, or Christian. There is a Sunni or Shi’ite Fundamentalism, a Protestant or Catholic Fundamentalism, and even a Hindu Fundamentalism.

It's necessary to distinguish between the Fundamentalist concept of religion from the liberal or rational concept of religion. Such an attempt has been a difficult task even for educated people so we can understand the problem for less educated people. Therefore, I looked for the way Arab and foreign intellectuals have dealt with this subject, such as Muhammad Arkun, Cornelius Kastoriades, Muhammad Sherif Ferjani, Maxime Rodinson, Gile Kappel, Ghassan Touweini, and several other authors. That resulted in discovering four major roots or sources of this phenomenon.

At an important period in the history of Islamic Civilization, a group known as the Mu’tazilites, began their initiative to go beyond traditional thought by fostering a rational intellectual system.  They held three major beliefs.

First, they stressed the absolute unity of Allah and the createdness of the Qur’an. The Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun (800 AD) championed their beliefs and imprisoned Imam ibn-Hanbal, a strong advocate of uncreatedness of the Qur’an.

The second belief of the Mu’tazilites was the Justice of Allah. They posited that Allah desires only the best for man, but through Free Will, man chooses between good and evil and thus becomes ultimately responsible for his actions.

In the third doctrine, Allah’s justice was a matter of logical necessity: God must reward the good (as promised) and must punish the evil (as threatened).

The Mu’tazilite Project failed due partly to the repressive measures that were used against them; additionally, their work was too abstract for the common people, and thus, they failed to gain their support. Had they succeeded, a historical reading or exegesis of the Qur’an might have arisen. Ultimately, a spirit of tolerance may become prevalent throughout the Islamic world.

1200 years after the failure of the Mu’tazilite Project, I thought perhaps the rise of several liberal websites could foster an Islamic Enlightenment. However, Al-Awan has disappeared from the internet. Another liberal website, Tanweer, was a Kuwaiti website that is also no longer active; perhaps it was stopped by the Kuwaiti authorities. The disappearance of Al-Awan and other liberal Arabic websites does not encourage our hope for the rise of an Islamic Enlightenment movement.

Previously, I wrote about similar topics in the following articles on

  • The Conspiracy Theory and the Closing of the Arab Mind 2 July 2017
  • Toward Understanding the Turmoil in Islamic Lands
  • The Predicament of the Islamic Mind May
  • The Quest for Reforming Islam
  • The Ideological Roots of Radical Islam
  • Modernity & the Qur'an
  • The Muslims’ Captivity to their Tragic History
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