THE NINTH CORBISHLEY MEMORIAL LECTURE 1985
ISLAM AND THE WEST
By Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
FOREWORD by Professor George Wedell
The decision taken by the Wyndham Place Trust in 1983 to enlarge its field of work to include all three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, has borne early and ample fruit in this ninth Thomas Corbishley Memorial lecture.
The Council considered that, at a time of significant resurgence in Islamic influence in the world at large, it was appropriate to seek an authoritative statement of the nature and character of these developments. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan accepted the Council’s invitation to undertake this task, and his lecture on Islam and the West is now made available to a wider public.
All those who had the good fortune to hear the lecture were impressed by the range and depth of the Prince’s knowledge of Islam. His commitment to the achievement of a better understanding between the Islamic countries whose traditional patterns of life have found themselves threatened by modernisation, and the Western countries for whom modernisation constitutes their particular contribution to the creation of one world, renders his analysis the more valuable.
The Trust hopes that the distribution of this lecture will play a small part in the achievement of such better understanding. August 1985
ISLAM AND THE WEST
There is a well-known story that after preaching at St. Paul’s Knightsbridge, Tom Corbishley could not resist joining the Protestant congregation in taking Holy Communion. This impulsive act, which typified Tom Corbishley’s commitment to and enthusiasm for the Ecumenical movement, inevitably invited a reprimand from Cardinal Heenan; his letter to Father Corbishley began "I write neither in sorrow nor anger, BUT..."
Fortunately, I am not under such strict, if benevolent, supervision. It is a great honour to be the first Muslim to be invited by the Wyndham Place Trust to deliver this lecture, one that I hope I will bear as well as Tom Corbishley did in being the first Roman Catholic priest to be invited to preach at St. Paul’s. His broad sense of history and awareness of the importance for the West of understanding Eastern religions would have made him an invaluable participant in the dialogue between Islam and the West, a dialogue which has become increasingly urgent since his death almost ten years ago. Indeed, it is said that only lack of time prevented Father Corbishley from pursuing this avenue with the same energy with which he tackled the problems and opportunities in Christian Ecumenicalism.
There has never been a time when understanding between the Islamic world and the West has been so badly needed. The West has been dismayed by events in the Middle East and is profoundly disturbed by the assertiveness of Islamic groups throughout the Muslim world. Resurgent Islam is seen as an unquantified threat to political stability and to Western interests from Indonesia to the Middle East and the Maghreb. In recent years the war in Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, the assassination of President Sadat in Egypt, the Iran-Iraq war, the failure of American foreign policy in Lebanon and the activities of Southern Lebanese Shi’ite militia all have made the West much more alert to the complexities of Islam and to the revolutionary potential of fundamentalism.
One positive outcome of all this anxiety in the West has been a sustained effort, whether by churchmen, politicians, businessmen or journalists, to try to understand further the complexities of Islam and the phenomenon of fundamentalism in its many and varied guises. But a fog of misapprehension still continues to inform popular western attitudes towards Islam in which, for example, fundamentalism is principally associated with gun-toting terrorists or medieval-looking clergymen.
On the world of Islam’s part, the effort to understand the West has a long and painful pedigree, having been born, as far as the modern era is concerned, at the time of the defeat of the Ottoman navy at Lepanto in 1572, and of its army outside the walls of Vienna in 1681.
Since then, Islam’s attempts to explain its increasingly apparent administrative and political inferiority and to reassert its independence from the West has followed a remarkably uniform pattern. Those made most aware of the ascendancy of the West have been the people personally affected by it, whether in the military, economic, political, cultural or social fields. Being affected in this way, they have tended to equate the need to modernise with the need to westernise, two potentially quite different things. They have done so both because the model of progress that the West presented was the only one at hand and because their own concepts were being shaped by influences from abroad. Reformers tended to be the local representatives of western cultural thought and often of western trading interests. The resultant equation that modernisation equals Westernisation has been the source of contradictions which the Islamic world is still trying to digest today. For how can Westernisation be a means to independence from the West? The Japanese have ‘Westernised’ more successfully than the West itself without destroying their political culture. But, contrary to the Japanese experience, Westernisation in the Islamic world has directly challenged the principles on which traditional society is founded, and the resurgence of fundamentalism is one result.
The reformers’ efforts to modernise and westernise initiated a process of erratic interaction between the West and the forces of Westernisation on the one hand, and the forces of traditionalism on the other.
I would like to examine some of these forces and to look at the nature of this interaction between modernisation (which has rarely amounted to more than Westernisation) and tradition in Islamic society, with a view to achieving a deeper understanding between Islam and the West. In doing this I hope to leave you in a better position to make sense of current developments throughout the Islamic world and to leave you more sensitive to the threat that some Muslims consider the western world to be posing. For it is remarkable how long it has taken the West to come to terms with the kind and extent of the threat it is seen as posing. For the most part it observes only the bizarre reaction of Islam to the advent of modernity and to the benefits of western civilisation. What could seem more futile than the recent public burning of violins and trumpets in Libya? Or more brutal than chopping off hands in Sudan? Or more fanatical than the suicide trucks laden with dynamite which the Shi’ites used Against Israeli troops in Southern Lebanon? Yet I would contend that such phenomena can be logically explained, even if they can never be condoned or justified, in terms of the way Muslims react to factors which they consider to be western in origin and to be threatening or positively damaging to their society and identity. The insensitivity of the West is particularly remarkable because western thinkers have long been aware of the debilitating factors here which, when they are translated to Muslim countries, provoke such reactions; the excesses of the consumer society, the alienation and spiritual void experienced by so many of its citizens in industrial and urban society the coexistence of great wealth and dispiriting poverty.
An attempt to understand the reactions of the traditionalists needs to acknowledge the impact of the social and economic forces at work in the countries inhabited by the world’s one billion Muslims. These same social and economic forces can be identified, for example, in Latin America, and in this context it would be equally valid, though terminologically confusing, to talk about ‘Christianity and the West’ with regard to what is happening there; Liberation Theology and the resurgence of Islam have much in common. In looking at the Islamic world, it is important to understand how the tradition and imperatives of Islam, when combined with forces that are common to the whole of the ‘Third World’, can result in a resurgence of fundamentalism, a return by society to the foundations of its culture, to the principles embodied in the Koran.
But before looking at the pattern of interaction between tradition and modernisation I would like to outline certain basic differences between Islam and its western neighbour, Christianity, which go some way towards explaining the common themes in the many varieties of Islamic fundamentalism. Unlike Christianity, Islam was politically successful from the start and did not have to undergo several centuries of persecution or to devote its attention to the problems of reconciling allegiance to the Church with allegiance to the secular authority. Thus the concern of the first generations of Islamic thinkers was with the legitimate exercise of authority and with the regulation and structure of an expanding and conquering society; the nature of Islamic law, the Sharia, and its elaboration in the centuries after the death of Mohammed reflected this. The equivalent Islamic text to Render unto Caesar’ was "al-amru bi’l ma’ruf wa’n-nahy ’an al-munkar" or enjoin that which is good and shun that which is bad’. No defined relationship between the Church and the State was necessary, and none exists today.
This has had huge consequences for the development of the Muslim World, particularly in the last hundred years; attempts by successive rulers and governments to modernise their administrative and political frameworks, and in the process to separate politics from religion, have been repeatedly dashed by fundamentalists who, as the word implies, return to the origins of Islam to legitimise their opposition to what they consider to be ungodly government. The factor of fundamentalist political opposition, inspired by the Koranic vision of an ideal society, has been ignored by governments in any part of the Islamic world and at any stage of Islam’s history at their peril. In this century, modernising governments with an instinct for self-preservation have responded to this factor in a variety of ways, ranging from attempts in Turkey to define the division between ‘Church’ and State and to exclude the former from the political process, to the Saudis’ efforts to integrate themselves with the sources of Islamic authority, and to Zia ul-Haq’s recruitment of fundamentalist forces to legitimise and consolidate his accession to power in Pakistan. Governments which fail to accommodate the forces of fundamentalism or attempt to ride roughshod over them put their own existence at risk: this is exactly what happened in the late years of the Shah’s regime in Iran.
The reasons that Islam is ensconced in political life are further explained by looking at the conditions under which the religion was founded. Christianity evolved in the sophisticated world of the western Mediterranean; after three-and-a-half centuries of exclusion it attained political authority at a stroke with the conversion of Constantine and inherited an established system of Roman law, more or less defined boundaries and civil administration. Islam, on the other hand, emerged in a relatively empty quarter of the world among tribespeople whose society was shaped and governed by a powerful sense of community based on kinship. This notion of the community finding its identity in terms of people rather than of territory is integral to Islam. Mohammed in effect replaced group loyalty to tribal leadership in a limited geographical area by universal loyalty to Islam in the world. Leadership itself was legitimised in the Koran on the basis of its exercise of authority for the benefit of the whole community. This principle that leadership, once it is exercised not for the benefit of the whole community but only for particular groups in it, loses its legitimacy is a fundamental precept in Islam. It is a principle that disappeared in the West many years ago, finally dismissed in the world of political thought perhaps, in the writings of Machiavelli. But it is a principle and an ideal vision that continues to be valid in Islam, since it is derived from the Koran, and it has obvious political implications.
An important point to grasp here is that although the conditions which moulded this tradition of community and loyalty have almost completely disappeared as the nomadic and tribal peoples of Islam have moved to the cities or become agriculturalists, or have bought pick-up trucks, the tradition itself is as powerful as ever, anchored in the Koran as revealed to Mohammed by God, and it has been successfully carried across the world and adopted in lands where the factors informing the tradition never existed. Traditions of community and of just government are the lifeblood of Islam, and Islamic law is concerned with the application of the founding principles of Islam to contemporary society.
It is within this Koranic framework that traditionalist Muslims live out their lives, whether they be from Albania or the Hijaz, whether as shopkeepers in Djakarta or as shepherds in the High Atlas. It is also within this Koranic framework that the Muslim must try to confront and absorb the massive changes that are occurring in his society; his point of reference remains ‘to order the good and shun evil’ and to maintain the Sharia, but the contexts within which he has to do this have changed and proliferated in ways that his ancestors and even his parents could never possibly have foreseen. Who would have dreamed of Islamic foreign exchange dealings and separate airport waiting rooms a hundred years ago? Inevitably, the interpretation and application of Islamic law and principles vary, and in any particular application is as much a reflection of the societies in which the law is being interpreted as it is of Islamic law itself. In Iran, since the revolution, it is said that not a single pair of hands has been cut off, whereas in Sudan under Nimeiri’s reinstatement of Sharia law, part of his attempt to shore up his regime by harnessing the support of fundamentalist elements, they have. In other words, the reasons behind particular applications of Islamic law are to be found by looking at the societies in which it operates. The Koran is as open to as many different interpretations as is the Bible; the amputation of hands is as controversial to thinking Muslims as not flying aeroplanes on Saturdays is to thinking Jews or not believing in evolution is to thinking Christians.
It is with these insights that I would like to step back and look at the interaction between tradition and modernisation, the process of confrontation and accommodation, in Islamic society.
This interaction originates in the gradual awareness among educated Ottomans of the Empire’s naval, military, political and administrative inferiority to its western neighbours. The reversal suffered outside the gates of Vienna was the first alarm bell to the Ottomans, while Napoleon’s conquest to Egypt in 1798 heralded a series of devastating military defeats inflicted on them by the European powers. Russian victories and territorial expansion at the expense of the Ottoman and Iranian Empires, and the collapse of the Mogul Empire when confronted by the British in India were irrefutable evidence of the worldwide retreat of Islam.
Islam’s explanation of these reversals was at first purely military. The Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Iran duly set about reforming their armies along western lines and with the help of European officers. Modernisation of the army continued to be seen as the most effective way of securing independence from the western powers until towards the end of the 19th century. But what form did this modernisation take?
The way in which these military reforms were undertaken set a pattern for the reforms that were to be attempted in the administrative, political and economic spheres in later years. They were initiated and carried out by members of society who had had some exposure to the West and with the help of experts and technicians from the West. The eventual realisation that it was economic strength and trade that guaranteed the ascendancy of the western powers over Islamic States came to the merchant middle classes who found themselves drawn into and benefiting from - western mercantilist expansion; they naturally advocated Westernisation as the only possible course for modernisation. Political theories were nurtured by European political thought and education, whether in Europe itself or perhaps in the European-style colleges that were established in India and the eastern Mediterranean. All these people were convinced of the superiority of the western ways of doing things.
Thus even the terms of the debate as to how the Islamic world could gain its independence were dictated indirectly by the fact of western territorial and political expansion. The cause of regeneration was kindled to a large extent by westward-looking Islamic statesmen and intellectuals until the First World War, and subsequently by nationalists drawn from the often European-educated and wealthier sections of urban society. Their aims and goals were determined by western models drawn from states, principally Britain and France, whose influence by the ‘thirties had deeply marked the upper echelons of Islamic society; the very fact that they considered themselves nationalists at all, let alone nationalists of, say, Syria or Egypt, indicated the degree to which the ideal of a universal Islamic community had in actuality been firmly relegated to second place, if it had any place at all in their minds. Indeed, one of the most radical achievements of the colonising powers had been to introduce fixed borders to the Middle East and North Africa and to define legitimate dynasties in the lands under their control, perhaps the most conspicuous evidence of the imposition of western order on the Islamic world. However, the impact of these ideas and the fascinating debate as to how the Islamic world should respond to the West were confined to the rarefied circles of the educated. The impact on the mass of traditional society which still remained in the country and the villages was limited.
The integration Of the greater part of society into the mainstream political life did not take place until after the Second World War, with the advent of mass communication, transportation and the exodus into the towns. But when it came, as we are now witnessing, it had huge implications. For the psychological accommodation with the West that the wealthier and more educated elements in Islamic society had achieved were not at all paralleled among the rural populace or the growing number of poorer townspeople. The massive changes attending economic development had predictably divisive effects on the population, dividing tribes, families and communities, but throughout, the popular commitment to the ideals of Islam remained. More and more people were drawn into the orbit of the processes of industrialisation and urbanisation, but they brought their concepts of traditional society and culture with them, often still focused on the countryside and village.
The extent of the changes wrought in Islamic societies and in individual Muslims as a result of the drive towards industrialisation cannot be over emphasised That many of the changes are common to the whole of the Third World does not lessen the crisis that they have engendered in the Islamic world. It is estimated, for example, that over half the world’s Muslim population is under 20 years old and that in twenty years time, after centuries of nomadic pastoral life, the Muslim population of North Africa and the Middle East will be predominantly urban. The processes that took 200 years to unfold in Great Britain, for example, have been telescoped in these societies into as many months. In Britain the growing pains urbanisation and industrialisation, the hardships in working, medical and living conditions suffered by large numbers of the population and documented by Dickens have been scorched into the collective memory of the country. But these processes are taking place, now, with just as severe consequences for millions of people in the Islamic world, and at a far quicker pace than they ever occurred here.
It is, in fact, remarkable how little, rather than how much, opposition there is and has been to the changes that are taking place. Bursts of public opposition to the changes are so notable precisely because they stand out from otherwise widespread acceptance, or at least toleration, of changing conditions. In this sense, perhaps the wrong significance is attached to the activities of students in South East Asia or of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. Sociologists have even argued that the rapid pace of industrialisation and the toleration of its cost in human and social terms could only have been borne by these societies because they had been so firmly and faithfully steeped in the principles of Islam; that Islam in fact has made the imposition of western-style economic development possible. What is certainly true is that it is the tradition and principles of Islam, and the notion of the Islamic community, that have continued to furnish the populations of these countries with an identity, which otherwise might have been totally lost in the traumatic experience of development. This is not the time to enter into a sociological debate as to the degree to which Islam has eased the passage of industrialisation. But what is clear is that the vocabulary and psychology of the majority of the population which has now been brought into the political arena is Islamic, and this is quite different from the outlook of the upper echelons of society who held the political reins in the era of European political hegemony.
The arrival of mass participation in politics marks the arrival of vocal, politically buoyant, and articulate traditionalism. The juggernaut of economic development and the advent of the radio, newspapers, and television have brought many more into the political process. The lack of distinction between ‘Church’ and State in their psychological outlook has brought religion, and the Koranic vision of just government exercised for the benefit of the people, back into the heart of politics.
Governments throughout the Islamic world are quite aware of the renewed significance of fundamentalism and of its importance and potential. The power of popular fundamentalism expressed itself in Iran during the crisis following Mossadeq’s nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company; Nasser harnessed its forces during the Suez crisis; it provided the muscle to independence movements in Indonesia Against the Dutch and in Algeria Against the French, and it eventually overthrew the Shah in Iran.
The resurgence of fundamentalism also marked Islam’s revival of confidence in its culture, and in many parts of the Islamic world we are witnessing wars of independence Against the West being continued on the cultural level. This confidence was boosted by the successful political ejection of the European powers and the reappropriation of national assets, whether rubber in Malaysia, oil in Arabia or the Suez Canal in Egypt. It also marked renewed efforts to realise the ideal Islamic notions of community; Arab states, for example, talked of casting aside their European-drawn boundaries and forming a United Arab Republic. This resurgence also embodied a challenge to the equation that modernisation equals Westernisation as, for the first time in the modern era, the exercise of power became conditional upon the support, or at least upon not alienating the support, of traditionalist elements in society. It remains to be seen how successful these traditionalist elements will be in influencing the policies and progress of Islamic countries in every sector. Islamic Banking has not yet developed into a complete Islamic economic system and a fully fledged Islamic political science. But perhaps this is only a matter of time and of proper investment in all fields of education.
However, there is a more sinister aspect to the realignment that has taken place since the Second World War, the injection of a new element into the Islamic world, and one whose significance threatens to dwarf even the resurgence of Islam on the political stage. It is here that the title of my lecture might appropriately be modified to ‘Islam and the East-West Conflict’. For the departure of colonising European powers heralded the arrival of the era of the "Superpowers" and their escalating global confrontation. Many parts of the Islamic world have special strategic significance to the "Superpowers". The historic policy of Great Britain, for example, to keep Russia away from the Indian Ocean has been assumed by the United States in its relations with the Soviet Union a strategic priority which does much to explain the situation in Afghanistan. The Middle East is strategically important because of its position on the world’s trade routes, its position at the crossroads of three continents and because of its energy resources. The Iran-Iraq war continues at least partly because it is in the interests of many to let it continue. As in lebanon, the "Superpowers" may well have it in their ability to bring about the conditions of peace, but they have not been prepared to do so. The Kremlin and the White House are prepared to lend support to particular regimes which may not enjoy popular support, or which may lose it over the course of time, in order to further their geopolitical strategies. By defining and defending spheres of interest in this way, they are the direct heir~ to the colonising powers and their policies of fixing borders and legitimising particular dynasties. Like the colonising powers, they are undermining the political ecology of the Islamic world, but this time with potentially far more lethal consequences.
Unpopular governments can thus be provided with the means to force through their policies Against the wishes of large numbers of their citizens. These means are usually imported from the Eastern bloc or from the West. They take the form of weapons and policing equipment, of training and funding for government forces.
These can be used to ensure that opposition to the Government is suffocated or repressed. In effect, the authority which governments no longer enjoy from society and which would enable them to govern can be replaced by authority sustained from abroad. The better equipped these governments are with the means of coercion, the longer they can resist, ignore or suppress opposition to their rule. Traditionalist sections in society, having gone through the baptism of industrialisation and urbanisation, can become subject to much more powerful forces and to policies beyond their control.
This gloomy prospect takes us a long way from the battle of Lepanto, into the realm of "Superpower" politics and the reality of nuclear proliferation. Faced with the threat of global self- destruction, the tensions between Islam and the West pale, and the similarities between Muslims, Christians and Jews, all believers in the same God, take on a new and more urgent significance. It is possible that Islamic traditionalism, with its emphasis on just government legitimised by the benefits it confers upon the community, may, if it is given sufficient time, cultivation and opportunity, have something to teach the modern world. But, as we have seen, the entry of Islam into the modern era has been a painful process, one which is still in its early phases and one which has only relatively recently managed to make itself felt in its own homelands, let alone upon the global stage. It is an entry which the West must welcome as the long-delayed and representative expression of the vast majority of the people in North Africa, the Middle and Near East, Indonesia, Malaysia and the other parts of the Islamic world, an expression which has repeatedly been throttled until it could be held down no longer. It may be difficult to sympathise with this view as we read in the papers of the atrocities taking place in Lebanon or look at other violent expressions of fundamentalism. But these are short term reactions, and reactions which are put into perspective when we survey the broad canvas of the history, spread over many centuries, and the interaction of traditional Islamic societies with the disruptive forces of modernisation and Westernisation. Both Islam and the West can only benefit from a proper mutual recognition of their respective traditions.
On this note, and secure in the knowledge that there is no Muslim Cardinal Heenan to reprimand me, I will end my speech.