Thursday, May 3, 2012

Liberal heresy in the contemporary Islamic cosmopolis

For a generation now, specialists have been searching for alternative, new voices that articulate and speak for Islam in the modern world, somewhat dismayed and perhaps disaffected by the saturated coverage of the ‘fundamentalists’, ‘literalists’, and the ‘Islamists’. In this new and creative work that is based upon his doctoral dissertation and research undertaken in Indonesia and the Middle East, Kersten (who is based at King’s College, London and blogs here) examines the role of three contemporary ‘liberal’ Muslim thinkers who stand outside the mainstream, who have a training in the traditional disciplines of the Islamic space of learning often called the madrasa (or at least have a familiarity with it), and who are not just influenced by but also express the traditions of intellectual fashion current in metropolitan academia and its study of religion. These three voices are Hasan Hanafi, the late Nurcholish Madjid and the late Mohammed Arkoun, all of whom belong to a first generation of postcolonial Muslim intellectuals concerned with making sense of the Muslim heritage, ‘Islam as civilization’, for Muslims in the contemporary world, influenced by multi-disciplinary academic approaches to the study of Islam. Kersten’s argument is partly that unlike the earlier generation of colonial, modernists who were simply concerned with making Islam ‘relevant’ to the contemporary world through the adoption of modern ideologies, institutions and practices, this generation of thinkers expresses not only a distrust of the possibilities of modernist commensurability but also of the ‘fundamentalist’ quest for authentic being through an atavistic and ahistorical ‘return’ to the pristine, early generation of Muslims, al-salaf al-ṣāliḥ

The book under review is therefore an exercise in contemporary intellectual history. After a critical first chapter that considers the methodological problem of how to write an intellectual history of the contemporary Muslim world supplemented with a second chapter on theories relating to the study of Islam, the book comprises another ten chapters. Three chapters each are devoted to the thinkers: one on their intellectual biography and two on elements of their thought and engagement with the modern. The final chapter is a conclusion that brings them together and considers the very notion of a new Muslim intellectual; it would have been useful to see how the author might consider the transmission to a next generation of thinkers and consider the impact of these thinks. The structure of the book might have been clearer if the author had decided to divide the chapters into four sections and a conclusion: preliminaries on theory and method, on Madjid, on Hanafi, and on Arkoun.

In the introduction, Kersten states that any contemporary intellectual history will definitely be influenced by the major trends in the study of religion and Islam today including secularization theory and Orientalism, taking along the way notions of discourse, Foucault and Derrida. However, the real frame for the study of these three figures that Kersten suggests is Russell McCutcheon’s rather nominalist study of religion (responding to the essentialist phenomenology of the so-called Chicago school exemplified by Mircea Eliade). It is therefore little surprise that in the next chapter on his theoretical approach, the author embraces the position of Gavin Flood on the study of religion in a similarly post-phenomenological mode. The contemporary study of Islamic thought certainly does seem to fall into the tripartite division of theological engagement or apologetics, phenomenology, and critique – and just like the historians of Islam and the phenomenologists, they all seem to be taking about different things or certainly different senses of religiosity. However, the pitfall of the McCutcheon approach could be a reduction of the category of religion to just another social formation might imply that a better frame for studying these three figures could be postcolonialism or even Marxism. Others like Armando Salvatore have read contemporary Islam thought through the prism of Habermas and debates on religion in the public sphere, and others like Andrew March have concerned themselves with contemporary political thought and the applicability of Rawls and the liberal tradition. The question is how does one deal with a category of religion or of Islam or the Islamic heritage that may be useful across three very different cultural contexts concerning thinkers with quite different intellectual influences and spaces for agency. This second chapter is the theoretical heart of the book. It suggests a method that retains elements of phenomenological engagement and hermeneutics (drawn from Ricoeur), but still insists upon a critical distance from the subject and a desire to found a hermeneutics, of explanation, of understanding, that brings together this previous tradition with a narrativist and a dialogic approach. But then in a world in which the ‘myth of objectivity’ is ever more a given, then surely the method that we adopt in any social science by definition tends to be one that embraces multiple, overlapping subjectivities. While it is not entirely well integrated into the rest of the book (although to an extent it explains why the use of the terms cosmopolitan and heretic in the title are not merely sensationalist), this chapter is an excellent theoretical inquiry into the study of religion. Critically, it not only abandons an essentialist reading of religion as a timeless set of doctrines, practices and rituals, but also distances itself from postmodernist approaches to religion by holding onto the category of religion as a meaningful concept and signifier. These concerns about method are then applied to the three thinkers lightly – and it is clear that they are engaged not just as Islamic thinkers within their traditions but are read as interlocutors within debates about the study of religion per se. However, it is worth noting that students and non-specialists will find the theory chapter rather heavy going. 

The first thinker, Nurcholish Madjid (d. 2005) better known as Cak Nur, was a leading liberal thinker in Indonesia, initially trained in pesantren and who later obtained a doctorate from the University of Chicago where he was a student of one of the leading Muslim modernists of the twentieth century (and a thinker who demands a serious monographic study), Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988). Kersten locates him within two frames: first, Indonesian thought that often seems torn between engaging with the larger Muslim universalism and the particularism of Javanese ecumenism, and second, within a group of reforming hybrid thinkers that included Harun Nasution (the famous proponent of Islam rasional) who were trained in the new Islamic universities (IAIN network) that were originally inspired by al-Azhar but increasingly influenced by (neo-)modernist thought. Cak Nur was much more than just a modernist; he embraced secularisation theory as relevant to Islam and strongly rejected Islamism and the demands for an Islamic state. He went to Chicago to take part in the project on Islam and social change led by Leonard Binder and Fazlur Rahman. The dissertation that he wrote under the direction of Rahman was on the theology of Ibn Taymiyya attempting to rethink the relationship between reason and revelation and indicates Madjid’s location within a group of Indonesian thinkers self-styled as neo-Muʿtazilī and studied by Richard Martin. The influence of Rahman’s own project of Islamic renaissance founded upon the study of philosophy and philosophical hermeneutics was clear; often called the double-movement theory, this involved a contextualised reading of scripture to derive ethical norms in search of a normative Islam that could be transposed into the present. Cak Nur applied that approach to the study of Ibn Taymiyya in whom he saw a fellow reformer and kindred spirit who was quite different from the godfather of violence and forebear of the modern Salafī movement in which many locate him. His own project (especially Islam: Doctrine and Civilization in 1992) culminated in work advocating pluralism, cosmopolitanism and a humanist hermeneutics of Islam, eschewing both a simple compatibilist modernism and the revivalist neo-fundamentalism. His engagement with the intellectual traditions of Islam also placed him at odds with most modernists.

Hasan Hanafi, one of the most prominent contemporary Arab intellectuals, trained as a philosopher in Cairo and Paris. Beginning his intellectual career as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood engaged in the modernist project and disillusioned with the tradition of Islamic philosophy that seemed ethically impoverished and lacking in social conscience, he has become more of a phenomenologist. An extremely prolific writer, he is a leading critic of Islamisms and of various tendencies in contemporary Islamic thought. He is the only one of the three thinkers still alive and, arguably, still evolving his thought. His interest in Islam is less with the vertical relationship with the divine and more with the horizontal and social relationship between humans. The approach to theology is therefore concerned with the communal and social sphere and not the doctrinal. Kersten compares Hanafi’s study in Paris to Iqbal’s in Heidelberg a generation or so earlier. Iqbal’s own modernism and desire for intellectual revival that was socially embedded and his flirtation with German idealism appealed to Hanafi and partly accounted for Hanafi’s own turn towards the phenomenology of first Heidegger and then Husserl. This is an interesting line of inquiry. Iqbal is certainly a major figure of modern Islamic thought but far too much attention has confined him to his South Asian context and failed to locate him within tendencies in wider Islamic thought. Hanafi’s primary concern has been with method, how to apply his existential phenomenology and third-worldism to the present problems of Islam. Thus his approach to reading the Islamic traditions is to approach them as method and not doctrine, reminiscent of Ricoeur’s own use of Husserl. Any revival of the Islamic traditions requires a hermeneutical approach and an engaged political consciousness. This often involves a radical approach that he might consider to be cosmopolitan but others see as heretical. The key feature that he shares with Cak Nur is the identification of the task of the contemporary intellectual as that of enlightenment – and hence his championing of Ibn Rushd.

Mohammed Arkoun (d. 2010) shared with the other two thinkers a deep concern with reviving or establishing an Islamic humanism. Trained in Paris like Hanafi, he began as a medievalist interested in the anthropological insights of Levi-Strauss and the hermeneutics of French post-structuralists. Arkoun’s critique of the field involved not only a deconstruction of traditional orientalism but also of ‘islamic reason’ within a project that he initially called ‘applied islamology’. A historical approach to the tradition led him to engage extensively with what he considered to be the ‘unthought’ in Islamic thought. Just like Hanafi, he has also had an impact in Indonesia – and it seems that while it is not explicit, Kersten’s choice of these three thinkers has much to do with the Indonesian context in which much of the research was conducted. In fact, in the final chapter, the rather brief conclusion, Kersten makes it clear that the new Muslim intellectualism that is the focus on this study has found its most enthusiastic reception in Indonesia. But this does not factor in the importance of these thinkers in diasporas and among Muslim communities in the West. But in many ways, the book offers an excellent corrective to the Middle East focused bias of Islamic studies and is a strong advocate for a serious study of South East Asian studies. It is refreshing to see a ‘view from the edge’, especially given the demographic and institutional significance of Indonesia. However, this also leads to gaps – Hanafi should be located more within Arab and especially Egyptian contexts, and Arkoun in North African and francophone ones. While the Indonesian embrace of ‘intellectualism’ is important, the significance and impact of what happens in Egypt, Iran and Turkey is probably greater – and more studied, which may account for this approach. Even Iraq and parts of the Gulf are emerging as significant intellectually, though the concept of a public intellectual in the Gulf remains problematic. Kersten’s work therefore deserves to be read alongside other modern intellectual histories present in the work of Aziz al-Azmeh, Mona Abaza, and the late Ibrahim Abu-Rabiʿ among others.

Kersten summarises the contribution of these thinkers in four points. First, all of them are interested in the key relationship between tradition and modernity mediated by the concept of authenticity that is central to contemporary life – all of us tend to be concerned with living a life that is true to oneself, of authentic being (and an excellent discussion of this is Charles Guignon). Re-orienting the focus upon authenticity allows one to overcome the history consequentialism and binarism of tradition and modernity especially given the presence of both in the contemporary. Second, they are all committed to the central role of reason in Islamic thought and can be placed within a movement that one may classify as neo-Muʿtazilī. Third, they are committed to humanism and an anthropocentric approach to religion - the key to a contemporary Islamic theology is to reorient the focus away from the vertical to the horizontal, from the esoterica of the divine nature to the ephemeral mysteries of the human. After all, God does not need defending (despite the hysteria of many contemporary media conflicts and violent demonstrations in the present) but humans do require protection from their fellows. Finally, they are all opposed to Islamisms and the conflation of religion and state; Islam as identity, public discourse, doctrine, and public ritual does not necessarily need to be reified and reduced to a constitutional privilege. 

One of the key issues is how to gauge the impact of these thinkers and that remains an open question that requires a serious engagement with what is happening today. Where are the legacies of these thinkers? What constitutes the next generation? Kersten’s intellectual history has prepared the ground for such a critical endeavour and is to be congratulated for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. 

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