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If the last century was, in Eric Hobsbawm’s famous words, “the short twentieth century,” the period that stretched from the beginning of the nineteenth century until today in the Islamic world is perhaps deserving of the term “the long century.” It amounts to nearly two hundred years that have been dominated, in one way or another, by a confrontation with a West that suddenly represented an intrusive physical presence and cultural comparison.

The epilogue to this “long century” appears for the moment to be a tragic one: a wave of violence that is seemingly engulfing entire countries. But if there is an alternative, it is along this trajectory that it should be sought: in the false starts, the interrupted journeys, and the unresolved issues that have built up over the years. Thus, retracing the main stages of this journey, as this issue is proposing, does not mean retreating to an archaeology that, not finding suitable words to describe the present, takes refuge in the memories of the past, but represents the only way to consider a different outcome. After all, medicine teaches us that anamnesis precedes diagnosis and treatment.

For better or for worse, two words dominate the entire period: crisis and reform. Crisis, because the classic form of Islamic civilisation, which lastly materialised in the three great Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires, from the mid-eighteenth century onwards was no longer able to stand up to the influence of European expansionism. And reform, because the solution was found in rethinking, more or less radically, the same Islamic tradition.

The centres of this reform are four in number: Egypt, where Jamâl al-Dîn al-Afghânî (for almost a decade) and especially Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) were active. From ‘Abduh’s caftan all the trends of contemporary Islam come out, according to the effective image of Sherif Younis. In fact, the thesis that we postulate, and it is certainly a minority view, sees ‘Abduh as part of the problem and not the disregarded solution. Otherwise we would not understand how his teachings led not only to the emergence of the modernist trends, which ultimately aimed to resolve Islam in this wordly saeculum, but also to the positions of Rashîd Ridâ and, indirectly, Hasan al-Bannâ, the theorists of political Islam that aspire to Islamise once again that very saeculum. Both trends actually foment the same myth of the origins, the Islam of the pious ancestors when “everything was good,” as well as the same contempt for history, which is seen as a progressive degradation, differing only – but this is not a minor difference – in defining this golden age. For the liberal followers of ‘Abduh, it consists of a set of great personalities (the first Companions of Muhammad, but also figures like al-Ghazâlî and Ibn Khaldûn), while for Ridâ’s school the golden age is identified with the concrete practice of the first three generations of Muslims, the Salaf. In doing so, the most conservative current among Rida’s disciples ends up encountering an older movement that is also reformist in a certain sense: the Saudi Wahhabism established in eighteenth century Arabia, a religious “mutant” whose tormented history is reconstructed by Hamadi Redissi, from its origins until today's global success under the form of Salafism.

Another centre for reform is undoubtedly India: as shown by Aminah Mohammad-Arif, figures emerged in the context of British colonial rule who were profoundly influenced by European rationalism. But it is in India too that the most effective revivalist movement, the Tabligh, now widespread throughout the world, came to light, as did the powerful Deobandi school. Iran did not stand by and watch either: Forough Jahanbakhsh explains how the Islamic revolution of 1979 represented a watershed, urging Shi‘ite intellectuals, both secular and religious, to reconsider the relationship between religion and politics in the context of a system of dual sovereignty that was both popular and theocratic.

These movements would go on to mix and “crossbreed” countless times, giving rise to today’s jagged panorama in which “everyone speaks in the name of Islam, but not the same Islam; everybody reinvents it in the present” (Hamadi Redissi). The common denominator, in fact, is the breakdown and recomposition of traditional religious knowledge, used as a “toolbox” from which to draw the tool that best serves the purpose required on a case by case basis.

The risk of an ideological and fragmentary approach is very high however, and Wael Farouq’s article offers an excellent example of this through a discussion of the fatwas on “breastfeeding of adults,” an improbable solution with which an Egyptian sheikh endeavouread to resolve the problem of promiscuity in the workplace. A “fake modernity” thereby arises, which is neither truly modern nor truly Islamic. Before jumping head first into the whirlwind of piecemeal solutions, it seems necessary to recover an enquiring attitude, and the pages of al-Jâhiz and al-Ghazâlî (that we propose in the section “Classics”) offer a piercing example of this. On the other hand, ideologization may be avoided by laying emphasis on faith experience, as described with great sympathy by Louis Gardet in a truly masterful extract.

Having reconstructed the complex genealogy of contemporary Islam, however summarily, the articles by Hassan Rachik on the issue of women in Morocco and Michele Brignone on the role of al-Azhar in today’s Egypt offer two concrete examples of the ways in which the different protagonists described so far interact on a increasingly global stage.

However, in recent decades, a disturbing guest has grabbed increasingly large portions of the stage, namely jihadist violence, created by the merging of quietist Salafism and political Islam in its revolutionary garb. Hamit Bozarslan reconstructs its rise, up to the “lucid irrationality” of Isis, which is not lacking an apocalyptic and eschatological dimension, as David Cook’s article recalls. Faced with the challenge of the self-proclaimed Caliphate, it seems essential to give voice to the victims. Maria Laura Conte does exactly that in a vibrant report from the refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is also a live story of a century of Iraqi Christianity.

We will never reflect sufficiently on the fact that the religion of terror, to which the militants of Isis convert, has chosen suicide as its emblem and figurehead. By using modern means, Isis pursues a purely negative objective: annihilation in view of eschatological regeneration. This is an extreme way of dealing with the problem of modern civilisation, using it to destroy it and to destroy oneself. It is, at least in part, a sort of nihilism.

The story that we are telling in this issue, then, is that of the gradual disintegration of the varied edifice of classical Islam – certainly not a perfect one, but one at least serenely “contemporary of itself” – to pave the way for a variety of protagonists in fierce ideological competition. It now appears that this process of fragmentation has led the Muslim world to a decisive crossroads. At its heart lies the unavoidable issue of violence, a subject that is probably destined to reshape the Islamic religious field, resulting in polarisation supporting and opposing it. Hence a new “consensus” could potentially arise. All the more so because the only alternative would be the continuation of the struggle, until the whole of the Middle East ends in a smoking pile of rubble. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “The Long Century of Islam”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 7-9.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “The Long Century of Islam”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: