Last gasp for global Islam

Prospect Magazine

Last gasp for global Islam


Islam’s global revival is a hollow shell—and the Muslim world must heed Ali Allawi’s devastating account of how its leaders are failing their people

Above: the heart of Mecca—history and tradition despoiled by Wahhabi vandalism

The Crisis of Islamic Civilization
By Ali A Allawi (Yale, £18.99)

The contemporary religious revival is a complex business. In the same period that Muslim societies, in their weakness, seem to have re-embraced Islam, America, in its strength, has re-embraced Christianity. Western Europe remains avowedly secular.

Despite the contradictions within the west, mainstream Orientalism holds that all cultures are developing towards the universal—or, more specifically, globalised—model of secular modernity and the market. According to this view, the Muslim world experiences backwardness to the extent that it resists secularisation. The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, a subtle and erudite book by former Iraqi minister Ali A Allawi, challenges this thesis. Surveying the Muslim world’s social, economic and moral failures, and the terror espoused by certain Islamist groups, Allawi suggests the problem might not be too much Islam, but too little.


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  1. September 9, 2009

    Yahya Birt

    Allawi’s basic thesis that Islam will survive as a religion but is in a civlisational crisis is largely correct, but it is a matter of debate as to whether he is being realistically frank or too pessimistic.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab’s excellent review identifies one weakenss in the book — the absence of a programme for renewal. The examples Allawi makes of “green shoots” are ad hoc and needed more consideration. The revival of a gold standard seems misplaced in our admittedly tarnished model global financial system, although intra-Islamic trade seems like a better idea, something that the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, has championed in recent years, for instance. However the weakness of manufacture for instance in many Muslim countires means that primary trade will remain an exchange of raw materials (hydrocarbons etc) for goods and services imported from elsewhere until a knowledge economy and therefore manufacturing base and service-led economy could even be properly considered let alone built. The Gulf littoral states have relied on a massive influx of skilled and unskilled labour to build and run places like Dubai. The big issues are authoritarian politics, a lack of intellectual openness, gender inequality, grinding poverty and a fatal lack of investment in education. To take up the last point, there are only 1500 universities in the OIC for instance out of 10,000 globally. The best are mostly based in Turkey and then Iran, and only a handful are ranked in the top 500 universities globally. Something might be said too about the Muslim diaspora in the West — it is not only the potential site for anomie and radicalisation — in North America for instance there are interesting signs of an intellectual Islamic revival coming out of the universities, although it is in its early stages.

    A second absence in the book is an over-focus on the Arab heartlands, which explains Allawi’s pessimism. Civilisational renewal, if it seems likely to come from anywhere will be in the Asian Muslim states, the Western diaspora and, perhaps, the Arabian Gulf.

    A final small point is that having been on the Hajj last year, the hideous Zam Zam Towers, still under construction, outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca is definitely proof of crisis in urban aesthetics and design, and something that is repugnant to right-thinking Muslims everywhere.

  2. September 11, 2009


    Interesting summary of the challenges facing the Islamic world and much needed to draw attention to current debates. However, the critique’s attention to urban development and state structures does not do the research question justice. The dynamics and behaviors of non state movements, not as constricted by the colonial designs of the state, are worth more examination. It is easy to adopt a ‘woe is us’ posture with regard to economic and political frameworks, where the playing field has been uneven both externally (Eurocentric development) and internally (sectarianism and ethnic rivalries fuelled by political antagonism and elitist struggles). A focus on the dynamics of communities, specifically those not recognized by the state, as well as their households would shed more light on the robustness of the tripod.

  3. September 11, 2009

    TL Winslow

    Sorry, but global Islam is nowhere near kaput. It’s like the Terminator, it’ll be baaaack. It has failed as a civilization because of its ever-warring factions, yet it can never separate mosque and state and join the 21st century without betraying its roots, hence the extremists will always have a breeding ground, and for them all non-extremist Muslims are also fair game. Click the url and read my History of Islam for History Ignoramuses and see why the bad side of Islam will never ever give up.

  4. September 23, 2009


    The author of the article mentions that the West has Hellenistic and Islamic influences in terms of history and so on. I think it would be great if somebody wrote about the Christian, Jewish, pagan and Indian Hindu influences that Islamic civilisation must be grateful for. This would break the perception that Islam is apart from the rest of humanity, a perception that many Muslims cling to the notion of. It would demonstrate how Islamic civilisation is not unique, or special, that it exists in the flux of human civilisation, and thus help to spread tolerance of non Muslim worlds within Islamic culture.

  5. September 23, 2009


    Yahya Birt says civilisational renewal might come from ‘Western Muslims’. I would like to know, how will that happen? How can a handful of Muslims (a few million out of over a billion) living in the West revive Islam? The energy of Muslim thinkers and activists in the West is more oriented towards Islamicising the West, than of bringing anything new to the actual essential soul of Islam itself.

  6. September 23, 2009


    Also, there is no other religion in the world that would allow its most holy and sacred space, whether cathedral, church, synagogue, or temple, to be overpowered with crass, vulgar skyscrapers like the Saudis have done in Mecca. Would the Vatican ever allow that? Would Buddhis temples in Asia allow that? Would Hindus in Benares allow that? Would Jews allow their most holy synagogues to have that? Would Sikhs allow the Golden Temple to be overpowered by skyscrapers like that? It distorts the skyline, and bullies itself over the kaaba. Even if you are not religious or spiritual, they offend the soul by slapping a historical and spiritual place of immense interest with their overbearing size.

  7. November 8, 2009

    Patricia Wilson

    Why does anyone worry much about the few Islamic imams that insist on Islam becoming global. It took the Ottomans 3-4 centuries to collect all the land from today’s Turkey to western north Africa to Pakistan. Persia ruled by Persian kings after the Abbasid(sp) rule even though it kept the Muslim faith(Shia style). Most Muslim countries don’t want global rule. It’s too much to handle. Each country has more on its plate than it can handle–even Saudi Arabia. They have neither the men, money or material to gather control over Asia, Europe, Africa or North and South American than Santa can get to every child’s Christmas stocking in 12 hours. Both are myths!! If we as citizens show respect to our Muslim neighbors and they return it we would have a lot fewer problems. Islamists are small in number and cause a little damage to some people some times. How are they going to conquer 6.4 billion people?? We would do better in being respectful, offering what we have for the taking as we have done in the previous centuries–in spurts and starts. They have an open door policy in their culture than we could do well to practice. All friends and enemies are guests in the middle eastern home. Just as one man in Lebanon had been host to Saddam Hussein for 2 weeks prior to his return to Iraq and our soldiers finding him underground. I met the same courtesy in Tehran, Iran in 1969 for 7 days. It’s beautiful when practiced.

  8. December 7, 2009


    Aliyah – many many books and studies have been written by Muslims in Arabic, English and other languages today and over the centuries – really, just do some research – on the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Greek, Roman, Chinese and pagan influences on Islamic civilisation. This is not a controversial issue amongst Muslims.

    And it wasn’t ‘the Muslims’ or ‘Islam’ who built the towers which leer over the ka’aba. It was enormously rich businessmen and the Saudi-Wahhabi power nexus. Let’s try to be a little more specific. The enormous majority of Muslims are horrified by it. That the insane acts of this tiny clique of gangsters overrules the sentiments of the Muslim peoples only points up the crisis which Allawi is arguing for in his book.

Leave a comment

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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of “The Road from Damascus” (Penguin) and co-editor of 

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