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 peopleby Robin Yassin-Kassab / September 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
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.
Islam is a civilisational framework that rests on the tripod of private ritual, public ethics and individual spiritual striving—and the legs of the tripod must balance each other. But, Allawi argues, the current Islamic “revival” is operating only in the field of religiosity: focusing on naked symbols and rules, proclaiming the superiority of Islam while adopting indiscriminately the technology, economics and cultural products of the west. It emphasises Sharia as a set of fixed punishments rather than as a framework of legislative principles. For the revivalists, the public sphere is too often reduced to the state—and their political project is simply to seize control of repressive state apparatuses.
The result is a discomforting disjunction between inner and outer worlds, symbolised by contradictory Muslim landscapes: home interiors spotlessly clean, while the streets outside are strangled by plastic bags. For Allawi, the courtesy, hospitality and warmth still met with in the Muslim world are the mere remnants of Islamic civilisation, and the religious revival may be its last gasp.
So what happened? Allawi doesn’t romanticise the Islamic past, yet he rejects the Arabcentric myth of continual decline since the Mongol destruction of the Abbasid empire in the 13th century. As he sees it, a dynamism and internal coherence—and a universalism that in the 14th century allowed Ibn Battuta, trained in Tangiers, to find work as a judge in the Maldives—lasted until the European penetration in the early 19th century. Even then, the first responses to western imperialism came on Islam’s own terms, from…