We have to deal with the "Islamic exceptionalism", and come to terms with it

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Review of Shadi Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism. How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2016.

Since the specter of jihadism has returned to haunt the Muslim world, in the aftermath of the Arab Revolutions of 2010-2011, hardly a day goes by without someone calling for a reform of Islam. A discordant voice is that of Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Islamic Exceptionalism. For Hamid “if Islam is likely to play an outsized role in Middle East politics for the foreseeable future… It means that, instead of hoping for a reformation that will likely never come, we have to address Islamic exceptionalism and, to the extent we are able and willing, come to terms with it” (p. 8).

The reason for this exceptionalism is easily explained:

Islam, because of its fundamentally different relationship to politics, was simply more resistant to secularization (p. 26).

Therefore, it is wrong to expect Islam to have a trajectory similar to the one that Christianity had: the foundational moment is different, the approach to the respective Scriptures is different, the relationship with modernity is different. Indeed, according to Hamid, unlike what many think, “Islam may very well be the most ‘modern’ of the monotheistic religions” given that “within Islam’s vast legal tradition, there are a number of ideas and precedents that lend themselves to modern notions of social justice, rule of law, and democratic politics.” In practice, the author concludes, “this meant that there was no reason for Muslims to choose modernity over Islam. You could be fully Muslim, or even fully Islamist, and still be fully modern” (p. 54).

Here Hamid makes his own, a bit uncritically, the reading proposed by the late XIX century’s Muslim reformers, according to whom Islam was already modern, because it contained in embryo the major principles of European modernity. A chapter of the book is dedicated precisely to that time and in particular the figure of Rashīd Ridā, who took on the rationalism of his precursors and masters Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muhammad ‘Abduh (“Islam is the religion of reason”, “Islam is the religion of science”) and at the same time paved the way for Hasan al-Banna’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s political reading. Hence, following this line, it is only natural that Hamid choose to dedicate ample space to Islamism, analyzing four different forms thereof: the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, the Turkish AKP and ISIS.

However, one could wonder whether for him the Islamic exception in fact does not simply equate to the Islamist exception, since he almost does not take into account other forms of Islam. The fact is that, for Hamid, Islamism is the privileged way in which Islam affirms itself in modernity and it is therefore the reality that the liberal culture has to cope with, of course not in the ISIS’ jihadist-revolutionary version, but in the “gradualist” one represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the like.

In this perspective, Hamid seems to overlook a crucial point: having adapted to modern forms of political life does not mean to have adjusted with modernity and its philosophical foundations, starting from the centrality of the subject and his freedom. One is reminded of the lesson of the Bahraini philosopher Muhammad Jābir al-Ansārī, who sees in the relationship between Arab thought and modernity a constant tendency to a hasty “reconciliation”, at the expenses of a critical appropriation. Actually, Hamid himself is not unaware of the risks linked to the political participation of Islamists. In fact, he writes that “polarization is inevitable when Islam ceases to be, as it once was, a source of unity and solidarity and becomes instead the province of one particular party.

Parties compete for state power, and when the state is strong and overdeveloped, it raises the stakes considerably, fueling and endless cycle of polarization” (p. 265). But, in the name of the “Islamic difference of Islam”, Hamid fails altogether to admit that, being part of this problem, the Islamists cannot also represent its solution. 

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:
Michele Brignone, “Reform? Islam is “Already Modern””, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 138-139.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “Reform? Islam is “Already Modern””, Oasis [online], published on 15th March 2017, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/reform-islam-already-modern.