walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: January 4, 2012
Islamic Philosophy and the Future of the Arab Spring

There are few current questions about international developments as important as the ones concerning the future of what, rather optimistically, has been called the Arab Spring. Will this series of popular uprisings indeed lead to a new era of democracy and progress in the Middle East? Or will it rather lead to an era of  violence and totalitarianism inspired by a Jihadist version of Islam? Obviously either outcome will be affected by a variety of factors, many of them with little if any relation to religion. I would like to suggest that a controversy which preoccupied Islamic philosophers a thousand years ago may have a surprising relevance to this alternative.

The recently published 12th volume of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, a helpful series put out by the Hudson Institute, revolves around the same alternative. The ongoing election in Egypt has brought the matter into urgent attention. While the election process is dragging on, and while the role of the military remains unclear, there has been the alarming success at the polls of the Muslim Brotherhood, which of late has been making liberal noises, and the various groupings of radical Salafist movements who have made very few such concessions. At this time of writing the two groupings appear to have gathered about 60% of the votes. The political party set up by the Brotherhood has deliberately defined itself in terms of the so-called “Turkish model”—supposedly a liberal democracy inspired by “Islamic values”, but definitely not based on shariah law. Recent domestic and international behavior by the Erdogan government in Turkey is beginning to put some question marks behind this definition of the “model”. Still, at least in aspiration this “model” has more liberal potential than anything the Salafists would like to put in place.

The same alternative between more moderate Islamic regimes and unabashedly fundamentalist ones prevails throughout the Muslim world. What, at least for the moment, seems to be off the table is the prospect of secular regimes with some liberal credentials. (It is ironic that the last secular regime still standing, albeit wobblingly, is the one in Syria—with zero liberal credentials). It is not that there are no liberal voices in the Muslim world, even in Iran and Saudi Arabia. But, with the exception of Indonesia and Turkey, they do not have a broadly popular following. As to the secularized intellectuals with whom Western interlocutors are most comfortable, they have no following at all. It is therefore plausible that, if one is to have hopes for liberal democracy in the Muslim world, one will have to pin these hopes on individuals and movements who define themselves within a decidedly Islamic discourse.

Muslims and others like to point out that the Bible contains enough bloodthirsty teachings to compete with any Salafist ideology. Judaism has moderated these teachings early on, and then profited (if that’s the word) from the fact that there was no sovereign Jewish state in all the centuries from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans to the establishment of the modern state of Israel—no state which, even if it wanted to, would have been able, for example, to inflict the criminal penalties enjoined in the Book of Leviticus. The New Testament is less carnivorous than the Hebrew Bible, but the history of Christianity, from its establishment in the Roman state onward, shows that Christians have had little difficulty legitimating every kind of violence and bloodshed in theological terms. Yet, at least in modern times, there have been sophisticated efforts to separate the core messages of Biblical revelation from various passages, which are deemed to be morally offensive but which can be ascribed to the contingencies of their historical context. I think that the advent of modern historical scholarship has greatly helped this process of separating core and periphery in the scriptural texts. Liberal Protestants have been in the forefront of this development, followed (initially with some reluctance) by Catholics, and then by liberal Jews. Of course there continues resistance in all branches of the “Abrahamic tradition” by conservatives who insist on the “inerrancy” of the scriptural texts.

Such a development is much more difficult in the case of Islam. I think that a major reason for this is the Muslim understanding of the Quran. It is misleading to compare the Quran with the Bible. For most Muslims, the Quran is “inerrant” to a degree far beyond the understanding of this term by even very conservative Christians or Jews. It has been suggested that Christians, rather than comparing the Quran with the Bible, should compare the Quran with Christ—especially the Christ described in the prologue to the Gospel of John—the Christ who is the Word (Logos): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Thus it is very instructive that the earliest controversies among Islamic scholars concerned the question of whether the Quran was eternal or created—a question which curiously resembles the Christological controversies of the first centuries of Christian history.

All Muslims agree that the Quran (the Arabic word means “recitation”) was revealed to Muhammad by the angel Jibril (Gabriel) between 610 and 632 CE—the period spans the time that Muhammad spent in Mecca, under constant threat of persecution by the local authorities troubled by his message, and the time in Medina, when he was head of state and military leader. The angel commanded Muhammad to recite (iqra) the words being revealed. It is unclear how many of these texts were originally transmitted orally and how many were quickly written down. All the texts were assembled in the book now known as the Quran after the death of Muhammad, under the authority of the Caliph (“commander of the faithful”) Abu Bakr. Other traditions about sayings and actions of the Prophet, so-called hadith, were collected separately. They have less than revelatory status, but are nevertheless authoritative. The chain of evidence, leading back to the time of the Prophet, is carefully guarded. The debates as to whether the Quran was eternal or created began at some time in the first century after Muhammad’s death. I think that the majority view ever since has favored the eternity of the Quran—it was with God from the beginning, as was the Johanine Logos. It is the minority view, ascribing created status to the Quran, which is particularly relevant in the present situation.

To a modern outsider these are quite obscure debates (as are the ones that agitated the early Christian councils, from Nicaea to Chalcedon). Why are these debates still important? I can claim no competence in Islamic scholarship, but it seems to me that the question can be answered: If the Quran is co-eternal with God, it has a higher degree of literal infallibility (“inerrancy”) than if it is a creation of God. There are different schools of Quranic interpretation (tafsir), including the highly symbolic interpretations engaged in by Sufis. But it seems to me that a greater range of interpretation is opened up if the Quran is understood as part of God’s creation rather than part of God’s essence. This is particularly important in interpreting the difference between the chapters coming, respectively, from the Mecca and the Medina period. The passages most often quoted by more liberal Muslims come from the former period—those most troubling to liberals come from the latter. Islamic scholars have always acknowledged the difference, but if every passage is equally infallible, it is difficult to give due acknowledgment to the different historical contexts. What is more, once such a broader interpretation is allowed, one is then enabled to differentiate between the core and the periphery of the faith. No non-Muslim is entitled to decide what is core and what periphery in the Islamic faith. Certainly God’s justice is central to Muhammad’s prophecy, including its full exercise on the Day of Judgment. But it is relevant that every chapter (sura) of the Quran begins with the formula “In the name of God the compassionate, who practices compassion” (bismillah al-rahman al-rahim – both adjectives are modifications of the Arabic root for compassion, rahm, distinguishing compassion as an inherent quality and as a form of action). I would think that an Islamic legitimation of liberal democracy, with its panoply of human rights, would put God’s compassion along with his justice at the core of the faith.

An early school of Islamic philosophy was the Mu’tazila, which was cultivated between the 8th and 10th centuries, centered in Basra and Baghdad. The Mutazilites, strongly influenced by Greek philosophy, emphasized the use of reason in interpreting the Quran. They distinguished the core content of the revelation and its historical deviations. And, significantly, they asserted that the Quran was created, not eternal. I find it equally significant that one of the foremost reformist Muslim thinkers today has described himself as a “neo-Mutazilite”. Abdolkarim Soroush, an Iranian scholar, was close to the Islamic Revolution in its early days, but became more and more critical of the regime that emerged from it. A victim of repression in his home country, he has been teaching at Harvard and other American universities. He is known as an interpreter of the great Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi, but he has written extensively on the relation of Islam to the modern world. He has distinguished between the “essential” and the “accidental” elements in a religious tradition. And he has advocated what he calls “religious democracy”—in the event a regime inspired by Islam but not based on shariah law, guaranteeing all the rights of liberal democracy, including full religious freedom—and very significantly including the right to change one’s religion.

History is not an ongoing philosophical seminar. The future of the Arab Spring and of the Middle East in general will be crucially affected by many factors far removed from concerns of religion or theoretical thought—such as the price of oil, the progress of nuclear proliferation, or the decline of American military and political power. But ideas do matter. It is important to understand that those who wish to combine their Muslim faith with aspirations toward liberal democracy have decidedly Islamic ideas to support their agenda.

show comments
  • Les Hardie

    Great article. When I hear someone say,”the Bible is full of killings and crimes, so it isn’t different from the Koran which, for example , talks of killing Jews wherever they can be found”,I respond: “the basic difference is that the Bible tells a story about what happen in the past, while the Koran is in the present tense. If Jehovah told the Israelites to slay their enemies, nobody thinks it is a command to do the same today. But Muslims believe Allah’s commands to slay enemies apply today. It is therefore wrong to say that the Bible justifies murder, while the Koran does.”
    do you agree that this is a fair summary of the issue?

  • Jbird

    Les: I disagree, I just haven’t been able to find any Jebusites or Amorites.

  • WigWag

    Thanks for the interesting essay, Professor Berger.

    I think that a perfect illustration of the difference in how Christians view the Bible as opposed to how Muslims view the Koran can be found by comparing how the Christian world treated Dante and Milton on the one hand and how the Islamic world treated Salman Rushdie on the other.

    Dante, Milton and Rushdie were all engaged in essentially the same enterprise; they were rewriting and reinterpreting ancient sacred scripture as contemporary literature. While the three authors differed in the form they adopted (Dante and Milton wrote epic poems while Rushdie’s book took the form of a modern novel) “The Divine Comedy,” “Paradise Lost” and “The Satanic Verses” all embellish the stories told in sacred texts.

    There is no question that that “The Divine Comedy” and “Paradise Lost” are every bit as profane as the “Satanic Verses” is. Dante’s famous poem in three volumes lays out a detailed geography for hell, heaven and purgatory based on only the slimiest biblical references. Dante cedes to himself the power to determine who belongs where and he sets up his former ceceased love interest, Beatrice, as a virtual competitor to the Virgin Mary.

    In “Paradise Lost,” Milton presents Satan as a magnificent and wronged hero, while his God is presented as an arrogant bully and God’s son is described as an officious oaf. Milton’s Eve is a luscious vixen whose sexual allure is difficult to resist not only for Adam but also for Satan and the archangel Gabriel. According to Milton, even before the fall, Adam and Eve have an active sexual life and Satan is envious when he happens upon them in the Garden of Eden making love. While Milton doesn’t come out and state it explicitly, he strongly implies that Eve samples more than the forbidden fruit at Satan’s suggestion. Milton’s implication is that Eve “cheats” on Adam by having a sexual liaison with Satan.

    To make matters worse, both Dante and Milton were on the wrong (losing) side of political conflicts; in fact, Dante was exiled for it.

    Blasphemy was obvious in both “The Divine Comedy” and “Paradise Lost” yet even with the political handicaps of their authors both works were published with little to no objection from the censors and neither author was excommunicated or faced difficulties from the ecclesiastical authorities.

    It is informative to compare all of this to Rushdie’s experience. Rewriting the Koran as a novel was an obvious motivation for “The Satanic Verses” and regardless of how Rushdie tried to retreat from that motivation in his subsequent writing in the vain hope that it would quiet everyone down, Islamic ecclesiastical authorities, especially in Iran, would not be deterred.

    Speaking of Milton, the Romantic poet William Blake famously said,

    “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God and at liberty when of devils and hell is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

    Regardless of how Christian authorities down through the ages have viewed the inerrancy of the Bible, there has been room for the likes of Dante and Milton in the Christian world for more than 500 years; unfortunately the same thing cannot be said of the Islamic world. Salman Rushdie still needs to tread carefully when traveling to a new place. Ayaan Hirsi Ali still needs to travel with bodyguards.

    The Christian world learned to accommodate itself to heterodox religious views centuries ago; the Islamic world still hasn’t figured it out.

  • Ken Smith

    Professor Berger:

    This is on target, timely and relevant, but very difficult for westerners to grasp.

    The best accessible exposition of the thesis you have laid out is found in Robert R. Reilly’s _The Closing of the Muslim Mind_. I cannot think of a more beneficial book to recommend for anyone concerned about the civilizational challenges presented by the dominant philosophical view in Islam.

  • I.M. Mutazil

    Excellent article! The debate is as relevant today as it was during the Mutazilite period. Unfortunately the Muslim clergy that contrived against the Mutazilites is currently engaged in propagating a mechanistic form of Islam devoid of any intellectual debates on liberalism. Their Friday sermons place more emphasis on Hadith than on Quran in preaching their message, which is often dictated by authoritarian regimes.
    I grew up in the west and considered myself fortunate to be born a Muslim since my readings of the Quran led me to feel that it is created and is the constitution of a dynamic and liberal faith. However, when I moved to the Middle East, I was disillusioned with how there seems to be a conspiracy to hijack the religion from its pure form to a means to an end. Clergy were picking Hadiths that supported their agenda and discounting those that do not. A nightmare scenario would be if corrupt clergy, brotherhoods or the likes of Hezbollah actually gain power arising from the Arab Spring.

  • Richard Butrick

    On Les Hardie’s comment.

    Excellent point. The Quran is basically an instruction manual while the Bible is much more a collection of parables:

    parable of the sower
    parable of the prodigal son
    parable of the good samaritan

    parables are meant to be interpreted.

    in the imperative while the Bible is basically intthe declarative.

  • John

    The Mu’tazilites were a tiny minority of early medieval Muslims, thirty guys who’d read a bit of Aristotle in Arabic translation. They caught the fancy of a few caliphs, before being suppressed for their heresy. Impact on the history of Islamic thought and jurisprudence? Slightly greater than Nil.

    Soroush is interesting, smart, a good writer, but irrelevant. He’s Shi’ite, and from Harvard: neither attribute likely to endear him to salafi jihadis, or those supplying the millions upon millions of textbooks needed by Saudi, Egyptian, and Pakistani schools.

    Besides, you’ll only make ‘em mad. Crazy kuffar want to undermine ‘true’ Islam, by reintroducing a heresy that’s been good and dead for over 1,000 years?

    Oh, and who is gonna pay for the reeducation? Saudis have spent some 50 billion USD on the global spread of their version of Islam, since the early 1970s. They done good, too. So much so, that one hardly ever hears Wahhabi Islam called a heresy any longer. It’s the new normal. It’s like waking up one day and learning that one can’t run for Congress without being a Scientologist…. And where to put the camps? China? Siberia?

    Also, there’s that little problem of the non-establishment clause. Alternatively, you can go with the one party that has a proven track record, and subcontract to the Soviets. They invented a whole new form of patriotic Islam in the 1930s and 1940s.

    But if we’re serious, here’s my four part plan:
    1. Free access to American entertainment and news media;
    2. Kindles with free access to all university presses;
    3. Massively-funded instruction in English, or French, or German.
    4. Patience.

    American culture and now global culture is like the Borg. Resistance is futile. Muslims, too, will be assimilated. Just be patient. First they dress like us, then use our weapons, then start to listen to our music and watch our TV, then talk like us, use our internet, come to our schools, etc. Soon enough, they’ll be part of the Collective.

    Soon, if you listen close, you’ll hear the Saudi grand mufti himself humming and tapping his toes to that Madonna tune he just can’t get out of his brain.

    The Arabic-speaking Middle East, at least, really has no real choice in the matter. Either surrender to the Collective, or watch their region turn into a cross between Somalia and Mad Max. If Egypt wants to roll time back a millennium, that’s their business. If we really feel bad, we can send some food, now and again. Either way, sans CBR, the U.S. just doesn’t have much to lose. Corsairs still aren’t a match for a Marine Expeditionary Force.

  • Saad

    Thank you for your balanced informative article in regards to Islam. I look forward to reading part 2: a discussion of Islam (in light of your theory above) during the Islamic Golden Age as Islamic government peacefully led civilized Europe and the Middle East.

  • Jonathan

    A couple of points in response: one, the “periphery” and “core” concept that the author advances is, in a sense, already present in orthodox Sunni and Shi’a interpretive praxis, through the idea of naskh, “abrogation” (though abrogation is an imperfect translation). As Muslim exegetes recognized very early on, there is a great deal within the Qur’an that simply does not align. Take the consumption of wine: there are verses that command moderation, others that commend wine as a gift of God, and others that prohibit its consumption outright. The prevailing opinion that emerged among medieval Muslim exegetes held (and still holds for the most part, so far as I know) that the various revelations were historically contingent to the early Muslim community- stages of revelation, basically, not unlike the Christian Patristic idea of successive revelation of matters such as the Holy Trinity. This did not, in the minds of these exegetes, vitiate the divine origin and uncreated nature of the text, but rather manifested the power and mercy of the divine author. The author could have benefited from reading some tafsir, though unfortunately English-language resources for tafsir are still rather thin on the ground.

    Second, and related to the above, holding to the divine origin of the text does not calcify the text into an inert object. In fact, if anything, it does the opposite. If a text is merely the result of historical contingency, then its meaning is pretty fixed. This is true of Western Biblical scholarship as well. Compare early modern and modern approaches to the Bible to medieval and late antique approaches: for the modern exegete (conservative or liberal) there is at root one meaning, the literal-historical, whether the exegete considers the text inspired or not. For the medieval or Patristic exegete, on the contrary, there are, at the very least, four potential levels of meaning, and maybe more; furthermore, because of the divine origin of the text, fixing it down is not simply a matter of historical inquiry and philological work. Rather, the Bible, for Patristic or medieval commentators, must be read in the community of the Church, prayerfully and meditatively, as a text with multiple layers of meaning and possible directions, not a historical artefact. Likewise with medieval Islam: the Qur’an must be read in the context of the ‘Ummah, the community; for any given verse there are many possible directions an exegete can take, meanings to be explored. For mystically-minded Muslims, there are even more layers, though even “exoteric” minded exegetes could still discover allegorical and tropological meanings.

    Finally, it is interesting that the author of this piece picks the Mu’tazilites as his heroes, so to speak. The Mu’tazilites, besides being known for their “rationalist” theology, where also known for their close association with the ‘Abbasid government, culminating in the famous Mihna, or “Inquisition” as it often gets translated, directed against Muslims who held to the uncreated nature of the Qur’an. This repressive act of the government, and the opposition sustained by Abu Hanbal among others, was as important as anything else in cementing the doctrine of the uncreated nature of the Qur’an in Sunni Islam.

    But all of the things I’ve described can be summed up in one major problem that most contemporary authors face (regardless of confessional affiliation or lack thereof) in thinking and writing about these sorts of things. Modern presuppositions and categories cannot simply be juxtaposed on medieval and late antique worlds, Christian or Muslim. We live in a world dominated by the structures- physical and epistemic- of modern states and modern capitalism, which simply did not exist before early modernity. These structures have completely changed the world, no matter where one lives. When looking back at pre-modern societies, our tendency is to replicate these structures and hence distort the pre-modern past. In this case, categories of “liberal” and “conservative” simply cannot be imposed upon medieval people. Comparing medieval shari’a and modern legal regimes enforced by centralized states is not a simple matter; they are vastly different things. If we want to get at the past without replicating the present, we must work very hard at it, recognizing first the sort of world we live in and how very different it is in many respects from the worlds of the pre-modern past.

  • Pingback: Bookmarks of the Week: From the Middle East to Middle Earth | Portable Homeland()

  • robert reilly

    The problem here is that the Mu’tazalite school was suppressed by the Ash’arites in the latter half of the ninth century. Al Ghazali then completed the de-hellenization of Sunni Muslim thought by the early twelfth century. In the Sunni world, Ash’arism, with its extreme forms of occasionalism and voluntarism, prevailed.

    When the late Nasr Abu Zaid so much as suggested that Arabic was a human convention and that the Qur’an was created, he was declared an apostate in Egypt and he and his wife fled to the Netherlands. Calling someone a Mu’tazalite today is the equivalent of declaring him a heretic. This does not leave much room for hope.

    Thank you for your recommendation, Mr. Smith.

  • Infidel

    Excellent article. Thank you.

    However I don’t understand something. How can so fragmentary and discoordinate a collection of aphorisms be regarded as a unitary whole in the first place? I’m referring to the piecemeal, evolving, and finally self contradicting evolution of the koran of course. Leaving aside the strange biblical references, which, doubtless, were drifting around Bedu campfires, there’s the conflict of the Meccan and the Medinan suras. Somehow these are brought into line with muhammad’s enunciation of the abrogation principle (2:106) which, tellingly, was broached in the first of the Medinan suras. And clearly abrogation prepares the ground for the aggressive, violent islam we experienced most vivdly on 9/11. I just don’t understand how the liberal muslims get around this.

  • alexander karas

    Excellent analysis and followup post & comments.
    In the world of absolutes there is right or wrong /correct and incorrect. There is also varying degrees of correctness which is the point I’d like to make. Scripture says there will be many imitations:

    “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber. 2 Peter 2:1-3
    One needs to decide whether he/she believe the Old & New Testament IS in fact correct in its entirety – the Word of God. I cant see how oil and water will ever mix. Therefore, my opinions of the Arab Spring is nothing more than empowering the Muslim Brotherhood to do as they wish as it grows through the region. Both Muslims and Christians believe in an end time conflict and unfortunately I believe Islam will take steps to evoke the false promises given to them as things continue to escalate as they are right now. The liberal Muslims will continue to be attacked by their own. Iran with a nuke is right around the corner pushing the biblical timeline forward. . By our actions, we’ve learned nothing from history. What a time to be alive

  • Inga Leonova

    Excellent article, Mr. Berger. I think a useful “companion piece” to it would be a paper by Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub “The Word of God in Islam” presented at the Orthodox-Muslim conference at the Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, MA in, I believe, 1983. It does a great job exposing the essence of the Islamic perception of Q’uran as the pre-eternal Word of God.

  • Pingback: Why Islamists are not like Christian Democrats | The Warped Mirror()

  • Musa

    A fairly written essay on islam. But the comments on this article reveal much hostility to a percieved resurgent islam. It should be notedthat muslims arent some artificial intelligence that a program that best suits the west will be installed in their mi th

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2015 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service