Available languages:
Carta di credito

An Islam, with many voices

The ordeal of Islam /3. Despite the analyses that would have it closed and monolithic, the Muslim universe expresses, instead, a great variety of positions. The encounter between traditionalism and innovation, is open and forceful, rich in shades. There are many voices of politicians, intellectuals and writers who, with critical and self-critical rigour, animate a very intense debate. And these are not voices that seek to 'please' the West but which, instead, the West should finally learn to listen to.

The perception that Islam is a dark threat has grown decisively over recent years not only in public opinion but also amongst experts and opinion formers. The phenomenon of international terrorism justifies this in a broad way and one can certainly not deny that the Arab and Muslim countries are going through a stage of profound ordeal that is often also expressed in extreme forms of violent antagonism. The risk, however, is that this portrayal by the mass media of Muslims, which begins from certain objective but not exclusive data, is being progressively superimposed onto a reality which, although it is problematic, is without doubt varied and elaborate, and this to the point of hiding that reality completely. In this paper I will seek to give an account of less well known voices and positions but one which, in my opinion, are very interesting those expressed by certain Muslim authors. The debate within the Muslim world is not, in fact, of scarce significance, even though it is suffocated by strongly ideologised dominant thought. Such an approach seems to me preferable to the overly widespread analyses of an 'essentialist' character which tend to define the claimed monolithic and unalterable nature of a religious tradition by basing themselves on a literal and decontextualised interpretation of the sources.


The predominance of expressions of an apologetic character, which are prevalent in every situation that is strongly polarised such, indeed, as the present one is, fatally marginalises those who are prepared to enter into discussion with others. They, without doubt, represent the most open and mature component of every cultural tradition but often their ideas are considered manifestations of weakness if not of connivance with presumed opponents, and often with grave consequences for their own safety. Indeed, many people consider these thinkers betrayers of the common cause. They certainly constitute an elite but an adequate assessment of what they propose could support and disseminate their positions with relative facility. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that the vast majority of the populations of Arab-Muslim countries is made up of young people who by now are not very influenced by the nationalist rhetoric which accompanied the season of the conquest of independence at the end of the colonial epoch and the revolutionary propaganda of the subsequent period. The success of religious radicalism is also to be explained with reference to the lack of alternatives and the absence (or anyway the low visibility) of universally recognised positive models compared to those models that follow other options.


In a valuable volume that was published some years ago, the former Minister for Tourism of Tunisia, Habib Boularès, offered this simple but rich reflection: 'Indeed, today Islam generates fear. This cannot be deniedBut is this something that is fatal, an inescapable destiny?...The problem facing Muslims is not easy. To the well known difficulties linked to development, is added the weight of tradition and the pervasiveness of religion. In order to overcome or avoid the obstacle, many formulas have been proposed or attempted. Some concede as a postulate that Islam is a closed universe. Others imply the inevitability of cultural uprooting. The greatest effort is of those who reject such extreme positions and have been attempting for over a century to achieve a modernisation that involves neither uprooting nor the isolation of their fellows. If Islam can give itself a meaning today, what else could this be if not that of achieving greater communication between men? Every authentic Muslim, in fact, believes that his or her religion is addressed to the whole of mankind and that it is valid for all times and for all places. The challenge that the modern world presents him or her with is that of proving this' (1).


In other authors this self-critical approach has led to a reconsideration of recent history and of the myths widespread in the Islamic world, with an emphasis on the contradictions that are involved: 'if we can reconcile Islam and revolution, why not Islam and human rights, democracy and freedom?' (2). 'Islamic (or Hindu or Buddhist) revolution: which of the two terms is more active, more determining? Revolution or Islam? Is it religion that changes revolution, sanctifies it, re-sacralises it? Or, on the contrary, is it revolution that historicises religion, which makes it a committed religion, in short a political ideology?...In doing this, religion falls into the trap of the astuteness of reason: in wanting to act against the West it Westernises itself; in wanting to spiritualise the world, it secularises itself; and in wanting to deny history, it is swallowed up by it completely' (3).


The same author reaches a decisive conclusion on the ideological character of Islamist thought: 'what we call cultural identity is not an illusion or, if you want, a false image of ourselves. It is for this reason that most of the thinkers of the Islamic world are neither sages nor intellectuals in the real sense of those terms but ideologues. That is to say, they devote themselves to hurried action and solutions more than to the adoption of a critical approach towards reality. What moves their rejection, unfortunately, is resentment' (4).



However, one cannot deny that some basic questions have a certain legitimacy: 'Is it 'possible', on the basis of the Koran, to make Islam a religion of the internal forum and leave earthly questions to politics? Faced with such a question one is tempted, to begin with, to respond in the negative. Islam is a religion of this world no less than of the other. It determines a constitutional framework within which there is no separation between politics and religion. It unifies institutions. Law is the concrete expression of faith; the state is concerned with prayer and protects religion just as it regulates the affairs of civil society. But is this really a dogma or could it be, rather, a mental habitus? If one observes history from a closer perspective one has the net sensation of finding oneself faced with a dominant interpretation rather than the real nature of things' (5).


The real problem is said to find its real causes more in a cultural situation, and this is well outlined by a famous contemporary Moroccan philosopher in whose view we will be faced by an authentic mythical reconstruction of the past intended at a theoretical level to counterbalance the disappointments of the present but which in reality is an accomplice of the current stagnation. 'The flag of 'authenticity' (aslah), of attachment to roots and the defence of identity, all notions interpreted as the very essence of Islam: 'true Islam', not the Islam that was experienced in those times by Muslims. This was, therefore, a polemical ideological reading, justified for a period when it served effectively as a means to affirm one's own identity and to bring about the rebirth of trust. This reading is an expression of a normal mechanism of defence and would therefore conserve its legitimacy were it to be inserted into the context of a global project for a return to that epoch. But it was precisely the opposite that happened. The means became an end: it is the past, hurriedly reconstructed to serve as a launching pad for 'development', which became the very finality of the project of rebirth. Beginning from that moment, the future was to be subjected to a reading that would have the past as its instrument of interpretation, not the past as it really was but the past as it should have been. However, given that that past never existed, if only in the sphere of affections and the imagination, the conception of the future to come always remained incapable of detaching itself from the portrayal of the future-past' (6).


A dead-end street that nourishes a kind of vicious circle. 'The concept of 'Islamic resurgence' as employed at the current historical moment gives rise to every kind of confusion, of which the least important is not that it makes almost impossible the distinction between those who, in the Islamist mist, push towards progress, and those who want to conserve things as they are, or go backwards. In the fever of the debate the most reactionary groups may be seen that hurry to run behind a moving train, to portray themselves as the actors of 'reawakening' and 'rebirth', whilst they carry forward an ideology of sleep and of death' (7).


The consequences of this situation for the failed development of civil society, which inevitably fosters the perpetuation of autocratic regimes, are clearly brought out by the same author: 'The proponents of power founded on religion rebuke the democratic system with basing itself upon the tendencies, opinions and preferences of men, who are by nature versatile and fallible, to whom they oppose the divine perfection of religious law. They should be told that it is precisely in this that the greatness of democracy lies, because it alone allows man to draw lessons from his errors, to become conscious of his weaknesses and specifically from that to measure his capacity to overcome them. Religious power, although it is not a human power exposed as such to all human errors, does not attribute to man this right to learn from his experiences: it imposes upon him a supervision a priori and prevents him from developing himself and achieving maturity. Obedience is the essence of faith, and it is also the first virtue of the soldier, but it is certainly the worst of the relationships that can be established between governors and the governed. Just as a military commander must be obeyed and respected by his men, so a governor must inspire in the governed a taste for debate with contradiction and criticism. All the catastrophes of the Muslim world, and of the Arab world in particular, have been the outcome of military governments that were produced by pseudo-revolutions and which established with the governed a political relationship of a kind that officers have with their soldiers. There is every reason to fear that a religious government will do nothing else but replace the force of arms with the authority of clerics, and that in the final analysis it will be another metamorphosis of the same authoritarian archetype. Many citizens of Muslim-Arab countries, subjected for a long period of time to authoritarian regimes, have adopted the habit, and where it exists the taste, of obedience, and they have lost their critical faculties: nothing is better than the power of boots for preparing the way for the power of turbans' (8).



In such a context, expressing oneself in a way that does not conform to the mainstream can be extremely risky, and this often produces a conformism which has devastating consequences for the free development of thought: 'the current cultural, political and economic situation of the Arab world means that it is impossible, above all if you are an Arab and of the Arab world, to speak about religions as a totally explicable social phenomenonThe result is that every analysis of society, religion or law pre-supposes a kind of auto-censorship on the part of those who speak or write. It is, therefore, almost an impossible debate because two indispensable pre-conditions to objectivity are lacking: agreement about the instruments of analysis and autonomy of judgement. In general, an analysis of the phenomenon of religion involves the person who engages in it in the first person and this is not due exclusively to an intrinsic weakness of his or her personality or upbringing and education but to the environment in which that person operates. Indeed, what he or she writes, despite the neutrality that he or she strives to maintain, will be perceived as a choice at the level of religious, ideological, ethnic or political alignments. However much he or she attempts to disassociate himself or herself, society will continue to assess him or her according to its own criteria and will deny him or her any neutralityHe or she knows this and knows that in involving himself or herself in research he or she will be condemned to lose his or her innocence, in as much as he or she knows in the end that he or she could be condemned. It is therefore totally natural, given that every intellectual is not necessarily a hero, that in such conditions not everything is said and that the analysis of intellectuals of religion, law, politics and diplomacy is made up of silence, prudence and examples of astuteness, in definitive terms: a corrupt analysis' (9).


How, therefore, can critical thought be justified without being exposed to the peril of seeing oneself accused of defeatism or high treason? A fundamental contribution here is offered by the Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush: 'religion is sacred and divine but the understanding of religion is human and earthly. Knowledge and understanding of religion by men is incomplete and needs to be constantly amended' (10).


Far from being a purely theoretical question, this approach concerns very concrete questions, such as those connected with the application of the shari'a, which are advanced, and this is no accident, by the disciple of Mahmud Muhammad Taha, the Sudanese martyr of Muslim reformism: 'without introducing a new interpretative principle that allows modern Muslims to modify or change completely certain aspects of public law envisaged by the shari'a, only two other choices remain: either to continue not to follow the shari'a in the public sphere, as is done in the majority of modern Islamic states, or to proceed to an imposition of its principles without worrying about its contrasts with constitutional law, international laws and human rights. The first option I find contestable at the level of principle and I believe that it is improbable that it can be practiced it for much time to come. At the level of principle, in fact, it is in contrast with the obligation of Muslims to follow the precepts of Islam in every aspect of their social and individual lives. In addition, taking into account the progressive revival of Islam, this tendency will be difficult to apply at a practical level for much longer. Yet the second option is repugnant and politically unsustainable. It is repugnant, in my opinion, to subject women and non-Muslims to the affronts and the humiliations that the application of the shari'a involves today. I believe, in fact, that the provisions of public law that are inherent in it were totally justified and consistent with the historical context in which they appeared, but this is not sufficient to make them justifiable and consistent in the contemporary context. In addition, given the concrete characteristics of modern national states and the international order, these aspects of public law based on the shari'a cannot be proposed politically' (11).



Some reflections developed amongst European Muslims may represent a possible interesting development in critical Islamic thought that could find in the West better conditions than in their countries of origin for expression and dissemination. In my view, a valid example of this is the thought of Tariq Ramadan, a controversial figure but a person with a vast following, especially amongst the new generations of Muslim immigrants. His analysis is not very distant from the authors that have been cited and quoted above although this analysis is proposed in an approach of total fidelity to the traditional principles of Islam. And it is precisely for this reason that it is even more effective, at least as regards involving in debate those who are generally distant from debate: 'Islamic education is not concerned with taking into account the European context in which Muslims live. They learn by heart, and often very theoretically, passages from the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet without a real link with their context. Everything takes place as though identity that is defined as open were experienced, de facto, in a closed and isolated way, almost an ethereal way. Islamic education, therefore, should integrate the dimension of intelligence about the context with education in relation to the environment of, action in, and membership of Europe, from the act of solidarity to awareness of civil responsibility' (12).



A philosophy, therefore, far from being favourable to the approach of many Islamic immigrants who seek to create a kind of parallel society which is destined to see itself and to be seen as a body that is extraneous to the host societies: 'to be a Muslim in Europe means to interact with the whole of society at various levels, from local involvement to national and even continental involvement. The first Islamic communities, because of the new character of the situation in which they found themselves, were led in an absolutely natural way to close themselves up within themselves during the first two or three decades and to attempt to solve their problems in an independent way and from within. They saw the European context as extraneous, alienating and often aggressive and it was better not to have anything to do with it and not to be too involved. However much this process may be seen as a completely natural stage at a given moment in the history of the placement of Muslims in new countries, such is no longer the case. One cannot imagine a future for Muslims in Europe if they refuse to enter in relations with the surrounding environment and if they do not develop a dialectic thanks to which they can be, give and receive' (13).


These are positions which are also contrary to the portrayal of the Muslim communities in the West as echoing drums for the problems that beset the world they came from: 'Strengthened by their political and financial independence, European Muslims must make heard a new, free and honest voice which has intellectual probity and rigorous analysis, which explains and comments, if necessary, and which develops a real critical analysis of the state of Islam in the world, its acquisitions and its betrayals. A new voice that, evidently enough, provokes fear here and elsewhere; but the premises for it to be heard are every day more numerous and this is one of the greatest challenges for the Muslim presence in Europe, which must acquire substance, coherence and weight' (14).



To conclude, I would like to propose an acute page of the former President of Iran who did not hesitate to declare that stages in history that other people would like simply to live anew without any reference to the development that men and societies have experienced in recent centuries are now definitely closed: 'after the Prophet, in the third and fourth centuries of the Hegira, Muslim man, drawing upon a specific interpretation of Islamic teaching, and specific conceptions that Islam had gathered to itself after deriving them from other and different systems of though, such as the Greek and Iranian civilisations, created a civilisation, I repeat the observation, created a civilisation in line with a specific interpretation of the Koran and Tradition and thanks to acquisitions derived from scientific knowledge. This was that stage which we define as Islamic civilisation. It is true that this was based upon the Koran but it was also in line with interpretative deductions and methods that the men of those days elaborated in relation to the Koran, the Book, religion, human beings and the world. This civilisation of a golden age is over. If it had been the full embodiment of the doctrine of the Koran and Islam, such a statement would lead us to conclude that the Koran and Islam are also finished. Such, however, is not the case, and we Muslims believe that today we must have recourse in a new way to religious resources in focusing in on the problems of out time, in order to construct our lives by responding, in line with the foundations of religion, to our needs of today' (15).



From this rapid foray alone also emerges the intense interior ordeal that now agitates the Muslim world; this ordeal deserves attention and respect which are far from the hurried judgements still too often expressed about a cultural universe that is richer and more diversified than is commonly believed. The real antidote to the feared 'clash of civilisation' lies specifically in the ability to listen that the opulent and distracted West will be able to achieve in relation to these voices, to the assessment that will be made of them, and to the place that will be given to the protagonists of a profound work of analysis and research which, albeit with undeniable difficulties, animates and fertilises contemporary Islamic thought.



(1) H. Boularès,


L'Islam. La peure


et l'espérance,


Paris, 1983, pp. 8-12.



(2) M. Sadri and A. Sadri


(eds), Reason,




and Democracy


in Islam.


Essential Writings


of Abdolkarim




Oxford University


Press, 2000, p. 22.



(3) D. Shayegan quoted


in K. Fouad Allam,


L'Islam globale,


Milan, 2002, p. 79.



(4) D. Shayegan,


Les Illusions


de l'Identité,


Paris, 1992,


pp. 306-308.



(5) Y. Ben Achour,


Politique, Religion


et Droits


dans le Monde




Tunis, 1992, p. 15.



(6) Ibidem, p.34-35.



(7) F. Zakariyya,


quoted in


Aa. Vv., I Fratelli




e il dibattito




politico, Turin, 1996, p. 140.



(8) Ibidem, p. 145.



(9) Y. Ben Achour,


op. cit., Tunis, 1992, pp. 28-29.



(10) M. Sadri and


A. Sadri (eds.),


op. cit. , p. 31.



(11) A. A. An-Na'im, Toward an Islamic




Cairo, 1992,


pp. 58-59.



(12) T. Ramadan, Essere musulmano


europeo, Troina, 2002, p. 273.



(13) Ibidem, pp. 294-295.



(14) Ibidem, p. 302.



(15) M. Khatami,


Religione, libertà


e democrazia, Bari, 1999, pp. 98-99.

Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal