Today’s Muslims face a tremendous challenge to their faith and worldview. Their most noticeable response is known as Islamic fundamentalism. In 1979, the triumph of the Khomeini revolution gave this radical movement a powerful base. This coup galvanized the Shi’ite masses in Iran. One year later, it enabled them to withstand the Iraqi invasion, and to turn it into a jihad that lasted for eight long years. Before too long, the Iranian revolution was exported to Lebanon. It is no wonder that in 1987, a special stamp was issued in Iran to commemorate the martyrs of Hizbullah (Party of Allah) in Lebanon!
The majority of the Muslims of the world belong to the orthodox or Sunni branch of Islam; and within this part of Islam, radical fundamentalism (known nowadays as Islamism) has manifested itself everywhere from Indonesia to Africa. Just think of the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the horrific attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. Is it still appropriate to speak about Islam and modernity? When we take the long view, the answer is yes. While Islamism has captured the minds of many young Muslims, eventually, it leads to a dead-end. Thus, Muslims must face the challenge of modernity. Already, in the early days of 2003, the young people in Iran are manifesting their rejection of the utopian ideology of the Ayatollahs of the Islamic Republic.
We may summarize the thinking of the Islamists in this way: At the dawn of Islam (7th Century A.D.), God gave the Arabs His final and complete revelation. He launched them on a mission to spread the faith over the entire world. Their rapid success in building a huge empire from the walls of China to Spain was a sign of Allah’s approval and blessing. During the First Muslim Millennium, history was on their side. While they went through some violent internal upheavals, their belief in their divine mission was not shaken.
After the fall of Baghdad in the 13th century, and the demise of the Abbasid caliphate, the Ottoman Turks became the new defenders of the faith. They spread their empire into Eastern and Southern Europe. Constantinople fell into their hands in 1453. Islam was still on the march. There was now a Muslim caliph ruling from Istanbul, (Constantinople).
At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered by the European powers. Most of the Middle East came under British and French rule. During the 1920s and 1930s, most of the Muslim world was under the control of European powers with the exception of a major portion of Arabia, Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan.
This situation created a great problem for Muslims. How could they reconcile the finality and rightness of their faith with their contemporaneous history? It seemed as if Allah had forsaken them! Something must have gone wrong; they had forgotten Him and His Law. The cry went out, back to the fundamentals of Islam.
The period that followed World War II, saw the end of European imperialism. Muslim nations became independent. The last major Muslim land to throw off the shackles of colonialism was Algeria. Its eight-year struggle of liberation from France cost it 1,500,000 martyrs! But during those long years of colonialism, many Arabs came into contact with Europe. As a result, Arab nationalism was born. Its primary aim was to throw off the yoke of imperialism. It sought to borrow several features of Western civilization and blend them with the basic tenets of Islam.
The failure of nationalism to solve the economic problems of the masses, the population explosion, rapid urbanization, and the birth of the State of Israel, have contributed to the revival and spread of Islamic Fundamentalism. But we must not jump to the conclusion that the entire Muslim world is dominated by fundamentalism. A sampling of contemporaneous Arabic literature indicates that some Muslims today are seeking to find solutions to their problems from a non-fundamentalist perspective.
One author who has been very helpful in pinpointing the basic problem that faces the Muslims today is the late Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, an Egyptian scholar who taught for many years in Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. degree from a British university. He came to appreciate his Islamic heritage after his encounter with Western culture. He is representative of several lay Muslims who are working for the renewal of Islam through its modernization.
In one of his earlier books, Tajdid al-Fikr al-'Arabi (The Renewal of the Arab Mind), Dr. Mahmoud outlined the emergence of a contemporaneous Arab-Muslim culture in which the inherited culture of the past would co-exist in harmony with modernity. According to him, this goal would be attained if the modern Arab was willing to preserve from his cultural heritage the “general outlook” of his ancestors, provided it was purged of all those problems which were of no relevance to the Muslims of today.
Having set forth his thesis in the above-mentioned book, Dr. Mahmoud pursued his quest for renewal in another book, which was published in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1973. Al Ma'qool wa'l Lama'qool fi Tirathina al-Fikri (The Rational and the Irrational in Our Cultural Heritage).
The thesis of the book is that the Arab’s general outlook was fundamentally rational. The irrational outlook did impact individuals but what marked the life of the Arabs in general was a specific hikma or wisdom.
The author’s method is to take us on a “cultural journey” where we may visit the Arabs of the past taking note of both their rational and their irrational outlooks. He does not attempt to look at their problems through their own eyes. Rather, he keeps his own outlook, which is the product of our modern times. After listening carefully to the fundamental discussions that took place in the past, he would reflect on what he had learned in order to decide what must be accepted and what must be rejected from the cultural heritage of the past.
As an Arab-Muslim scholar, his research begins with the 7th Century and ends in the 13th Century A.D. As noted earlier, Arab Muslims consider the fall of Baghdad in 1258 as the beginning of their Dark Ages. They are unwilling to consider that the banner of Islam went to the newly converted Turks who enlarged the Muslim world and spread the faith into new regions never occupied by the Arabs.
During the 7th Century A.D. – 1st A.H. – the Arabs’ preoccupations were with the political and social realms. Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was the best representative of the Arabs. Ali’s book, Nahj al-Balagha (The Way of Eloquence), showed that the genius of the Arabs resided in their tongue. While the modern Arab may still appreciate the form of this cultural heritage and especially his beautiful language, he must not become a prisoner of the form or contents of this heritage.
Muhammad died in 632 A.D. without leaving any specific instructions about his succession. Thus the first major problem that confronted the Arab-Muslim community was who was to be the legitimate successor or khalifa of the Prophet? For about a quarter of a century, the Islamic Umma chose its caliphs by the consensus of the leading members of the community in Medina. But this system broke down when there was no unanimity in the choice of Ali, the fourth caliph. Mu’awiya, the governor of Damascus, claimed that Ali was implicated in the murder of ‘Uthman, the third caliph. He wanted the caliphate for himself. War broke out between Ali and his opponent. There was call for arbitration. Not all parties agreed on the results of the arbitration. The Islamic Umma split into three parties: the followers of Mu’awiya (known as Sunni Muslims,) the followers of Ali (known as Shi’ites, i.e., Partisans of Ali,) and the Khawarej or Dissenters. Both Ali and Mu’awiya claimed the caliphate on grounds of kinship to Muhammad, the Khawarej put forth the thesis that it was not heredity, but ability and capability that mattered in the choice of the caliph.
One may see a rational approach in the position taken by the Khawarej, yet their conduct in the history of the Muslim community shows their inconsistency. Irrationalism triumphed in their camp. One of their men murdered Ali. They became notorious for their cruelty to those Muslims who did not adhere to their extremist positions. Dr. Mahmoud maintains that the basic political theory of the Khawarej is forgotten or neglected in the history of the Arabs, the right to revolt against the imam, (the leader,) when he betrays the trust granted to him by the Muslim umma. The Khawarej sinned against this great political principle when they surrounded it with religious fanaticism.
The first lessons we learn from the research and reflection of Dr. Mahmoud is this one: during the first period of the Islamic history, the rational approach had its champions, at least theoretically, but its champions were inconsistent, and their behavior was utterly wrong.
During the second period, 8th Century A.D. - 2nd A.H., certain theological problems came to the fore. For example, there was a debate about the ‘great sins.’ Can a Muslim, who committed one of the great sins, still be considered a true Muslim? Furthermore, discussions relating to predestination and human responsibility, and the attributes of God, occupied the attention of the Islamic community. These subjects dealt with deep theological matters. It is in his comments on this period that Dr. Mahmoud manifests his lack of interest in theological topics. He does not think that the Arabs of today are able to identify with those discussions. He makes one exception however: the subject of man’s freedom and responsibility.
At this point, one cannot help but notice that Dr. Mahmoud, who is a leader in the cause of the modernization of the Arab-Muslim mind, exhibits a bias for the horizontal aspect of the faith. He considers subjects that are purely theological, or those that deal with the supernatural, of no relevance today!
The “liberals” of that period were known as the Mu’tazilites. They taught man’s full responsibility for his actions. Their thesis was: a man is able to create his own deeds; otherwise, there would be no foundation for justice. The theological discussions were live and dealt with concrete problems that surfaced as a consequence of the wars of succession. The opponents of the Mu’tazilites were known as the Jabirites. Their thesis was: a man is mujbar, i.e., he is forced to do what he does. He has no capability to create his own deeds.
The third period, 9th and 10th Centuries A.D. - 3rd and 4th A.H., ushers us into the Abbasid era with Baghdad as the new center of the Arabic/Islamic culture. In commenting on this chapter in the history of the Arab nation, Dr. Mahmoud writes: The accession of the Abbasids “teaches us a lesson that our ancestors were not perfect.” These words were undoubtedly prompted by the blood bath that took place when the Abbasids wrested the caliphate from the Umayyads in 750 A.D.
But as things began to settle down, Baghdad became the center of learning and the cultural life of the Arab-Muslim community reached its zenith. There was a great deal of freedom for the airing of various theological and philosophical views. Both Muslim and Christian scholars participated in this movement. The impact of Greek culture was great, but according to Dr. Mahmoud, only a small group of intellectual elite felt it; the masses in Baghdad, and throughout the vast empire, were not influenced by Hellenism.
In contrast with those times, today, the influence of the outside world on the Arabs is total. All aspects of life – culture, economics, military, commerce, government – have come under the impact of non-Islamic worldviews. A new situation is at hand that has never happened in the previous thirteen centuries of Islam!
Going back to the Mu’tazilites, Dr. Mahmoud appreciates their rational approach: they believed in free will and responsibility and in playing an active role in the life of the Muslim community. One of their theses was: God cannot do evil.
Time and again, as one accompanies our author on his intellectual journey in the early centuries of Islam, one takes note of the vigor of the intellectual activities of the times and the relatively free atmosphere within which they were pursued. There were, for example, the rationalists known as Ikhwan al-Safa. Their thesis may be summarized as follows: There is no conflict between Islamic Shari’a and Greek philosophy. Religion is for the sick, while philosophy is for the well. They championed the belief that man is perfectible by wisdom. They were tolerant to those who did not hold their views. They taught that all religions were helpful! They wrote 51 or 52 epistles. In one that had the title Discovery of the Truth, their account of the fall of Adam is closer to the Biblical one than to the traditional Islamic view of the fall.
Dr. Mahmoud is perplexed by those who claim that nothing is left for us to discover or accomplish, since the salafs (ancestors) have discovered everything. This view was not shared by some of the Arabs’ intellectual giants of the past. For example, the famous Syrian poet Abu’l ‘Ala’a taught: “It is possible for any person to become his own imam (leader), if he did his research and reflection well.”
This is a very important observation: rigidity within the Arab-Islamic culture occurred later on. During the first five hundred years, it was otherwise. There was freedom of thought, expression and discussion.
When we arrive in our cultural journey at the fourth period, 11th Century A.D. - 5th A.H., we are still preoccupied with Mu’tazilite teachings. They were involved in the Mihnat al-Qur’an, i.e., the Ordeal of the Qur’an. They had enjoyed the favor of three successive caliphs: al-Ma’moon, al-Mu’tasem and al-Watheq. This theological controversy is of great importance in the understanding of the problems that confront every monotheistic faith.
These are the five principles of the Mu'tazilites:
1. Tawheed. This refers to unity as understood in a Unitarian sense. Allah is both wahed (one), and ahad (solitary). They differed from the Sunnis (orthodox) in declaring that God’s eternality was in His essence, but not in his attributes. God knows by or through His self, but the attribute of knowledge, for example, does not stand by itself. Had these attributes of Allah shared His essence in its eternality, they would have also shared in its deity. Then, according to Mu’tazilite thinking, there would be a plurality within the Godhead. This is why they insisted on strict unity, or to use a Christian way of speaking, they advocated a strictly Unitarian unity of Allah. They advocated a wahdaniyya mutlaqa, (absolute unity.) This led them to declare that there was no similarity between God and anything in existence, or to put it in more familiar language, they did not recognize any communicable attributes of God. Any Qura’nic passage that conflicted with this principle was paraphrased and its meaning altered to fit into their principle of tawheed. The Mu’tazilites advocated the hermeneutics of ta’weel, i.e., the bending of the meaning of a Qur’anic passage to fit their basic beliefs. Both Sunnis and the Shi’ites affirmed, in their exegesis of the Qur’an, the literal meaning of the text.
Having proceeded on this theological principle of absolute Unitarianism, the Mu’tazilites precipitated the crisis known as the Mihnat al-Qur’an, mentioned above. According to their teachings, the Qur’an was not qadeem (eternal); it came into existence when Gabriel brought it to Muhammad. Both Sunnis and Shi’ites responded by affirming the eternality of the Qur’an; the prototype had always existed in heaven. When the Mu’tazilites enjoyed the upper hand in the affairs of the state, they did not refrain from persecuting their opponents. There were imprisonments, torture and even some executions. But later on, after the caliphate of al-Watheq, it was the turn of the Sunnis to become the persecutors and the Mu’tazilites to undergo persecution.
2. ‘Adl. This means justice or righteousness. The Mu’tazilites taught that man chooses his own deeds. He is not forced to do things against his will. This was a reaction to the excessive predestinarianism of the ultra-orthodox that made Allah the author of evil.
3. Al-Wa’d w’al-Wa’eed. In dealing with man, Allah makes His promises and issues His prohibitions. This means that He will surely recompense those who do good, and will surely punish those who do evil.
4. Al-Manzilat Beyn al-Manzilatayn. This refers to a category between the two opposites, or to the ‘gray’ areas of life. The ultras taught that there were only two opposite views in theological and ethical matters. The Mu’tazilites advocated the existence of a third position and thus set forth the principle of non-essentials or neutral areas of life. In Arabic, this is expressed in the words used as the title of this paragraph.
5. Activism and the necessity of participation in the social life of the community. This principle gave a basis for the use of force to stop evil and the legitimizing of jihad, i.e., holy war.
After the theological controversies that were precipitated by the Mu’tazilites, the Muslim community adopted the position of the famous Abu’l Hasan al-Ash’ari, (873 - 917 A.D.) He taught the existence and importance of the spheres of reason and faith. He set forth what may be called the Creed of the orthodox Muslim in one of his writings.
Ahlu’l Hadith wal-Sunna, i.e., the people of the Traditions and the Orthodox Way, believe in Allah, His angels, His books and apostles and what proceeded from Allah and what the trustworthy have transmitted from the Apostle of Allah. They affirm that Allah is one God, ahad (solitary,) eternal; there is no other God beside him; He has not taken to Himself a wife nor a son; that Muhammad is His apostle; there is a real heaven and a real hell. The Hour (i.e. final day) is coming; there is no doubt about it. There will be a resurrection from the graves.
Al-Ash’ari criticized the Mu’tazilites for not accepting the literal meaning of the Qur’an, and for refusing its anthropomorphisms. His position was that God created the evil works of men. Fatalism is part and parcel of his theological system.
Finally, we arrive at the fifth and last period in our survey of the Islamic cultural heritage. It is dominated by the great figure of Al-Ghazzali (died in 1111 A.D.) This great thinker praised the scientific methodology; on the other hand, he represented a powerful reactionary force in the history of Islamic thought. While Dr. Mahmoud appreciates the contributions of Al-Ghazzali to the culture of the Arabs, yet on balance, he regrets that his influence on the Arab-Muslim mind and culture was to freeze them in a mold that led to stagnation. In his book, Ihya’ ‘Uloom al-Deen (The Revival of Religious Knowledge), Al-Ghazzali defined every utterance a Muslim makes and every step he must take in order to guarantee the orthodoxy of his Islam. Everything is spelled out for the Muslim: how to eat, sleep, travel, fellowship with one’s wife and child, etc. No room is left for any spontaneity in the Muslim's life “Al-Ghazzali closed the door of philosophy on the Muslims and it remained closed for eight hundred years!”
When we come to the period when the Sufis (mystics) were playing the leading role in the life of the Muslim community, we witness the ascendancy of irrationalism. The Sufis tended to be heretical, as they did not observe the basic teachings of Islamic theism. The way to understanding, according to their teachings, was by intuition. They advocated the unity of all existence, and some of them ended up pantheistic.
Dr. Mahmoud summarizes his research by stressing the importance of rejecting the irrational aspect of the heritage. Only the rational outlook must be retained. But often, in his rejection of irrationalism, one gets the strong impression that our author is rejecting supernaturalism! To work for the renewal of a theistic religion by emphasizing only the horizontal relevance of the faith, is to bring about a deistic faith that is something altogether different from Islamic theism.
Today, the vast Muslim world is not as monolithic as we may imagine. The tide of Fundamentalism is high, but this movement is not the only force at work among the Muslims. Our reflection on the attempt of a lay Muslim, Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud to “modernize” the Arab-Muslim mind enables us to sympathetically understand the tremendous problems and challenges that face the Muslim community.
As Christians, we applaud every attempt that seeks to further the cause of tolerance among the peoples of the world. By tolerance I do not mean indifference to the fundamental beliefs we confess. But in dealing with the heritage of the past, and in seeking to renew the Arab-Muslim mind, one cannot adopt the principle of horizontalism and make it the touchstone of what must be accepted and what must be rejected from one’s heritage. Those discussions relating to the attributes of Allah, predestination, the createdness or the eternality of the Qur’an, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the Muslims of today. When a faith requires its adherents to subscribe to the supreme and final authority of a sacred book, its followers are bound by that text. Therefore, the dismissal of the theological in the interest of the sociological aspects of the faith will not satisfy the heart of the believer. Man does not live by bread alone! Dr. Mahmoud’s approach, if carried to its logical end, would change Islam into a deistic belief.
One observation that Dr. Mahmoud makes deserves our special attention, the one referring to the total impact of the outside world on the Arab world today. Thanks to the mass media and the ease of travel, we have all become neighbors. Ideas and ideologies spread everywhere. Isolationism is gone forever. Today the Muslim community lives under new circumstances that have no parallel in history! Islamic fundamentalism, known also as Islamism, has thrived in the nineties, and has manifested its destructive power early in the twenty-first century. However, it will not succeed. It is anchored to the myth of a “golden age” that cannot be retrieved. The challenges of modernity and globalization persist; they do not vanish by denial.
Another topic, which merits our careful attention, is the problem of the Qur’an, its createdness or eternality, from the Muslim point of view. The Mu’tazilites, as we have noted, were champions of absolute Unitarianism. They set forth the doctrine of the createdness of the Qur’an in order to safeguard the doctrine of the oneness of God. They could not accept two eternals: Allah and the Qur’an. Their opponents championed the doctrine of the eternality of their sacred book, and could not accept that it came into being at the time of its delivery to Muhammad.
As we reflect on this theological problem from a Christian perspective, we admit that mysteries are part and parcel of any theistic faith. We must not charge Muslims with dualism on account of their belief in the eternality of Allah and His word, the Qur’an. We recognize the unavoidability of difficulties within any system of monotheism. But we would appreciate a treatment of quid pro quo, from the Muslim side. While we believe in a Trinitarian God, we have not surrendered our faith in the oneness of God. Three centuries before the rise of Islam, at the very first ecumenical council of the Christian church, our fathers affirmed this teaching by stating: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” (Nicene Creed, 325 A.D.)
Having done this brief survey of a vast subject I am left with a great concern: the lack, in Islamic thought, both fundamentalist and modernizing, of a realistic teaching about the condition of man. That there is a basic flaw in the character of man is undeniable. Both the Christian scriptures and world history testify to the sinfulness of man. But in orthodox Islam, man is regarded as fully capable to fulfill the requirements of God's law and thus attaining the bliss of heaven.
In Islam, there is no need for redemption from without. Modernizing Muslim thinkers have welcomed the optimistic views of man which have been advocated in the West since the Enlightenment. They fail to see the necessity of developing a realistic view of the human condition. On this point they do not differ from the basic belief of Muslim fundamentalists. In spite of all the events of history that indicate the existence of a radical "flaw" in human nature, Muslims, cling to the belief in the basic innocence or goodness of man. But as long as any worldview, be it religious or secular, advocates an optimistic view of man, it cannot realistically face the mounting problems of the future. No such views of the human condition help their adherents to properly cope with the challenges of modernity. As far as Muslims are concerned, their rejection of the Biblical description of the plight of man forms a powerful barrier for them to seriously consider the merits of the Christian Injeel. If man is basically good, then the Injeel is nothing more than another shari’a, or law that he can fulfill and thus earn the favor and peace of God!
The Christian, while joyfully accepting the revelation of the Divine law, does not hail it as his liberator. The law reveals the radical dimension of that sinfulness that has become part of the human nature ever since Adam and Eve transgressed God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden. We are often accused by Muslims of being very pessimistic vis-à-vis the present condition of man. We are told that our doctrine of original sin is demoralizing; that we look too much on the dark side of life.
Our response takes the form of a testimony: left to ourselves, we would have never devised what we now know as the Biblical doctrine of man. None of us like to consider ourselves as dead in trespasses and sins. If we have adopted this language, it is because we believe it to be the language of divine revelation. We applaud the law and we regard it as the pedagogue that leads us to Jesus, the Messiah. He is the One who came from God to our world of misery, and fulfilled all the requirements of the law. More than that, he went to the cross and died there to atone for our sins. Those who trust in him as Savior and Lord, experience liberation from sin, and become free to serve God and their fellow human beings. They do not take credit for themselves, but give all the glory to the one only true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.