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The Enlightenment Reasons with Islam

Author: Malek Chebel Title: L' Islam et la Raison Publisher: Stock, Paris, 2006

Malek Chebel has made himself known with a number of studies on symbolism and eroticism in Islam. His recent essay, L'Islam et la Raison, belongs at one and the same time to philosophy, political thought and the religious sciences, and perhaps also to religion. Its practical and summarising approach would exclude that one is dealing with a work of erudition. Indeed, the text in a strict sense amounts to one hundred and fifty pages. However, the strength of books is not to be measured by their weight.



The theses proposed by the author are the following: 1. a reform of Islam is necessary; 2. such a reform would be neither a revolution nor a betrayal because it would lead Islam back to its sources and would allow it to express certain potentialities which hitherto have been blocked; 3. this reform is possible because two short expressions of reform have already been seen in history and the potentialities of reform have already been expressed in reality, albeit in a marginal way. This reformed Islam, which is realisable because it has in part been realised, always remains possible. This book by Chebel wants to contribute to such a reform by leading Islam back to its 'golden age' of the eleventh century and thus also towards the 'luminous thought of its beginnings' (p. 17).



The various chapters thus seek to make the reader know about the elements and the events of the history of Muslim civilisation which are the bearers of a high reforming potential the mu'tazilita school (chap. 2), the theological controversy (chap. 3), the Brothers of Purity (Ikhwan as-Safa, chap. 4), the policy of tolerance of Cordoba (chap. 5), the mystics of Sufism (chap. 6), and the flowering of wise men during the first centuries (chap. 8). This interesting gallery leads on to two deeper rooms where the author proposes portraits of traditional homo islamicus (chap. 7) or contemporary homo islamicus (chap. 9 and the conclusion).



From the outset and not only today, various theological and political directions have been possible. The implicit but constant argument of the author is that despotism and violence bore notably on the formation of the political and theological identity of Islam. The whole theological process was relativised. Genuine Islam has perhaps still to be invented or reinvented, taking into account the religious legitimacy of other, more liberal, opinions, that were jettisoned only because of force.



The author insists so much with his critique as to generate doubts about his endeavour and numerous questions. Does it not come to mind that the reform that he invokes would in reality be a revolution that would give power to all those that tradition has jettisoned without many qualms for some thousand years? Can a tradition that is so strongly rooted not perhaps express a spiritual structure that is a deep as it is strong? Can one leave to one side and then seek to conserve the substantial identity of this religion? What does returning to the sources actually mean?



The thesis which holds that the created Koran is a copy that conforms to the increated Koran represents for the author the fundamental theological lynchpin that excludes every kind of historical study of the Koran, archaeology, epigraphy, palaeography, investigation of the sources, criticism of the text, etc. The difficulty, to which, however, reference is not made, is that the thesis of the increated Koran is to be found in the Koran itself (Sura 35:31).



The point of view of Islamic-Christian dialogue, or Judeo-Islamic dialogue, is not very present in this essay, which concentrates above all on the attempt, required a priori, to converge Islam with the liberalism of the Enlightenment thinkers. For the author, inter-religious dialogue is not the essential point of the question. However, it would be beneficial to raise the question of truth more clearly, treating the specifically religious character of the question with the utmost seriousness, because, after all, the only good reason for reforming Islam, if there has to be reform, could not be a reason that is exclusively economic or political in character.