Alternatives to Secular Modernity


Waïl S. Hassan

Illinois State University, Normal IL

Copyright © 2001 by Waïl S. Hassan, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Anouar Majid, Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World. DurhamNC: Duke UP, 2000. xii + 225 pages. $18.95. ISBN 0-8223-2623-x (paper).

  1. Much of what used to be called the "Third World" is caught today between a sordid present, in which autocratic ruling elites have stifled social, political, and intellectual freedom and wreaked havoc on economies already devastated under colonialism, and a bleaker future which promises even greater economic and cultural devastation in a world increasingly dominated by capitalism. Precious little work addresses this predicament in the field of postcolonial theory, largely preoccupied as it has been with colonial discourse, not to mention the fact that, emanating from within metropolitan sites and heavily reliant on French theory, postcolonial theory is constrained by its politics of location and the epistemological limits of its methodologies.

  2. Unveiling Traditions is a serious effort to break with such constraints by launching a compelling critique of one of the unexamined premises of contemporary Western thought, secularism. At the heart of this critique is the Egyptian intellectual Abdulwahab al-Masseri's argument that
    [s]ecularism is not the separation between religion and the state, as propagated in both western and Arab writing. Rather, it is the removal of absolute values -- epistemological and ethical -- from the world such that the entire world -- humanity and nature alike -- becomes merely a utilitarian object to be utilized and subjugated. From this standpoint, we can see the structural similarity between the secular epistemological vision and the imperialist epistemological vision. We can also realize that imperialism is no more than the exporting of a secular and epistemological paradigm from the western world, where it first emerged, to the rest of the world. ("The Secular Epistemological Vision," American Journal of Islamic Social Scientists 11 [fall 1994]: 403; qtd. in Majid 118)

  3. For Anouar Majid, secularism is the ideological embodiment of capitalism; the alternative to secular modernity then becomes religious faith -- a reformed Islam in the case of Islamic societies, but also other faiths with a socialist vision, such as Catholicism and Christian liberation theology in South America (21, 148-51). Following John Esposito and Akbar Ahmed, Majid argues that secularism ought to be historicized and that, as a product of post-Enlightenment European thought, it inevitably reduces religious faith to fundamentalism and fanaticism, whence the demonization of Islam. Both Orientalists and secular Third World intellectuals face this limitation, since both camps agree that Western-style "modernization" (a code word for capitalist development) is the only path of reform in Islamic and other "traditional" societies. The hegemony of secularism, therefore, precludes any liberal or nuanced understanding of Islam (or other religious worldviews), let alone any constructive dialogue with it. Unveiling Traditions may thus be described, paradoxically, as a leftist apology for Islam: "My defense of Muslims' rights to their identities and memories is motivated exclusively by my strong belief that only secure, progressive, indigenous traditions, cultivated over long spans of time, can sustain meaningful global diversities and create effective alternatives to the deculturing effects of capitalism" (vii).

  4. However, Unveiling Traditions is not an Islamic -- much less Islamist -- critique of capitalism. The book is equally critical of clerical shari'a (Islamic law) as it is of capitalism and secularism. In this Majid is not alone; he endorses the progressive project of a liberal Islamic theologian like the late Mahmoud Muhammad Taha -- and other intellectuals not named by Majid, notably Nasr Abu Zayd, Muhammad Sa'id al-'Ashmawi, and Hassan Hanafi, who have produced a considerable amount of scholarship which has stirred up much controversy and opposition by traditional clerics. For this group of theologians and philosophers, shari'a laws need to be historicized and largely discarded in favor of a reinterpretation of the Qur'an which emphasizes its message of social justice and egalitarianism.

  5. The book draws upon an impressive range of scholarship, from literary, cultural, and social theory to history, theology, and journalism. Learned, lucid, and compelling, it poses a considerable challenge to scholars in a number of fields to reexamine some of their basic assumptions about modernity by demonstrating that far from being universal values discovered by Europe and exportable to the rest of the world, notions like individualism, human rights, and freedom are formulated in Eurocentric terms which are historically and ideologically linked to the development of capitalism. Islam offers alternative formulations of freedom and human rights which, unlike capitalism, guarantee egalitarianism and social welfare.

  6. The Introduction argues that "[t]he persistent triumph of the irrational forces of narrowly defined identities (whether religious, cultural, or national) over the embattled and eclipsed voice of human solidarity," and the "unexamined celebration of the rich heritages of Islam and the West leads to theoretical and political excess and . . . successfully veils the corrosive processes of capitalism, an economic system that is forever postponing the proclaimed goal of cultural dialogue and . . . a better world for humanity" (5). Majid then launches an astute and well-reasoned critique of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis, which according to Majid best "exemplifies the confluence of Orientalist claims, culturalist assumptions, and traditional social science paradigms in the 1990's" (7-19). Majid then charges that, in turn, "postcolonial theory has been particularly inattentive to the question of Islam in the global economy," something which "exposes its failure to incorporate different regimes of truth into a genuinely multicultural global vision" (19).

  7. Chapter 1, "Can the Postcolonial Critic Speak?," expands on this claim. The "worldliness" and "utopian cosmopolitanism" advocated by Edward Said are "unachievable in the present capitalist system," and consequently "the status he confers on the migrant or the exile as the best situated intellectual and contrapuntal reader of culture in the age of global capitalism" is "unconvincing" (28). Postcolonial intellectuals in the West are products of imperialism, forever alienated from their societies. However, Majid refrains from endorsing Arif Dirlik's dismissal of them as hypocritical beneficiaries of their own displacement. Majid contends that the pain of displacement is real, but it does not endow those intellectuals with any profound insight into their cultural roots, since colonial education severed those roots. And yet the interpretation of Islamic societies, when it is not entrusted to Orientalists, is solicited from those secular postcolonial intellectuals who would "need to (re)educate themselves in their own cultures and histories, a venue that has been denied to them by neocolonial models of education and social organization" (29). Thus Majid turns the tables on Gayatri Spivak, who is directly invoked in the title of the chapter. As long as s/he does not question his/her secularist assumptions, including such notions as individualism, human rights, and freedom, the postcolonial critic, for Majid, cannot speak for his/her society. This argument is born out in a reading of the Rushdie affair.

  8. Chapter 2, "Millenium Without the Arabs?," proceeds to attack the most powerful secular Arab ideology in the twentieth century, nationalism. Imported from Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century and manipulated by the colonial powers in their conflict with the Ottoman empire, nationalism has served (neo)colonial ends by fragmenting a broader, non-ethnic Islamic identity (53). Reminding us that in Europe itself ethno-nationalism continues to foster genocidal violence even today, Majid contends that "Islam's insistence on human freedom and social welfare may inspire Western societies to revitalize their own humanitarian traditions," just as a "postnationalist, Islamically progressive identity can contribute not only to Muslims' autonomy but also to the forging of new cultural solidarities in a polycentric world" (72).

  9. The critique of Eurocentric social science and of Arab nationalism leads Majid to suggest a remapping of African literary canons in Chapter 3. The national literature model is, of course, out of the question. Taking issue with Tahar Ben Jalloun, Majid argues that Maghrebian literature should be read as African literature (thus rejecting the colonial polarization of North and Sub-Saharan Africa) rather than as Arabic literature per se. There is slippage here between "national literature" and "Arabic literature," which is supra-national. For Majid, the posited Africanness of African literature is a function not of race or ethnicity, which are European paradigms, but of Islam, a much more inclusive, indigenous affiliation. Majid's silence on the status of non-Islamic African literatures is one flaw in this argument, and his erasure of Arab identity is another. Majid goes so far in this attempt at erasure as to assert that al-Andalus was "essentially an African kingdom in Europe" (77), when it was founded by the Umayyid (Meccan-Damascene) caliphate in 710 CE, and ruled by it for at least three centuries!

  10. The erasure of Arab identity is the "weakest link" of the book. Unconvincing and mystifying, it denies the significance of the very powerful tradition of cultural exchange among Arab intellectuals, with strong ties between the Maghreb and the Levant, Sudan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf states. Such ties are not the by-product of Arab nationalism; on the contrary, Arab nationalism depended on them. Moreover, cultural dialogue among Arab intellectuals has never respected the jealously guarded boundaries of Arab nation-states, the true product of colonialism, neither has such dialogue toed the official line of Arab regimes, whose short-sighted and self-serving policies often pit them against one another. Rare is the Arab writer or intellectual worth his/her salt who has not been persecuted or harassed by his/her government. If, as Majid himself concedes, the Arabic language is impossible to abstract from the Islamic heritage (57), then Arabic literature is necessarily Islamic, and even the writing of Christian Arabs is indelibly imbued with this Islamic heritage. Majid's own examples disprove his claim: Tayeb Salih's characters are unmistakably Arab, African, and Muslim all at once, without any of those identities conflicting with one another. Majid is on target when he calls on critics to discard the colonialistic cleavage, replicated in area and literary studies, between North and sub-Saharan Africa, and to pay attention to Islamic patterns of thought and feeling in African literature of any language (78). But to do so one need not subsume the specificity of Arabic literature (a function of a powerful literary language with fifteen-centuries of continuous cultural history carried within it) into a homogenized "African," or more accurately "Islamic African," literature, a theoretical move which risks inviting the crudest kind of essentialism. More productive is a comparativist approach relying on a model of identity wherein Africanness, Arabness, Berberness, Islam, Christianity, and whatever else may enter into the local mix, are not mutually exclusive but porous and intermingling elements. This would allow for political solidarity, but without the reductive logic by which Arabness is equated with nationalism and dismissed out of hand so that Africanness may be set up in its place as more Islamic.

  11. Chapter 4 on "Women's Freedom in Muslim Spaces" is much better argued. Majid draws upon the work of Leila Ahmed and others who have demonstrated the gender-egalitarianism of early Islam vs. the strict patriarchalism of Mediterranean (including Judaeo-Christian) civilizations, which had an adverse effect on the eventual codification of the status of women with the expansion of the Islamic state. Majid insists that clerical Islam is as problematic as Western social science on the issue of women (101), drawing attention to the hypocrisy of Western obsession with Muslim women's rights while ignoring the economic and political rights of imperialized societies within the global order. He challenges literary scholars with the following questions: "Are women to be given their rightful place in the canon only if Islam is depicted in the broadest Orientalist strokes? Is it possible to champion women's rights while extricating progressive Islam from the deadwood of orthodoxy and the biased interpretations of much of Western scholarship?" (104) Majid argues convincingly that the unquestioning acceptance of "a bourgeois notion of human rights and democracy" (105) is responsible for such error. It leads the prominent intellectual Fatima Mernissi to "associat[e] capitalist individualism with women's liberation" (108). Nawal El-Saadawi, however, indicts "the unholy global alliance of Western imperialism and reactionary Islamic jurisprudence and customs to maintain the inferior status of women." Her position is, therefore, "complex enough to allow for a progressive Islamic agenda" (110). Majid finds such an agenda outlined in the work of Taha. Unlike most Arab women's liberation advocates since Qasim Amin, who accepted many Orientalist assumptions, Taha redefines the notion of freedom from an Islamic perspective and posits a liberatory interpretation of the Qur'an.

  12. The Conclusion makes a powerful argument for "polycentricity," Samir Amin's proposed alternative to Eurocentrism. Majid calls upon scholars to discard essentialist and apocalyptic theories about the clash of civilizations whose divisive logic aids the spread of global capitalism: "the project of demonizing Muslim others meets various interwoven ideological needs, including the control of Third World resources and persuading citizens of Western societies, through manipulated differentiation and consent, that they are members of a superior civilization" (138). Scholars committed to freedom and equality must, therefore, embrace a polycentricity which fosters dialogue and solidarity, even if that polycentricity leads them to relinquish the universalist pretensions of secularism.

  13. Majid's argument, however, represents a significant departure from Amin's concepts of polycentricity and delinking, as delineated in books like Delinking, Azmat al-mujtama' al-'arabi, L'empire du Chaos: La nouvelle mondialisation capitaliste, and Africa and the Challenge of development. For Amin, "positive" (as opposed to "ethnic") nationalism, not religious reform, is the guarantor of progressive development, and international alliances are spurred not by common faith, but by shared political and economic interests among states peripheral to the world system. Majid's appropriation of Amin is inadequately theorized, and it is not clear how Majid's faith-based program is more practical than Amin's. Is it not rather utopian to predicate the opposition to the immediate threat of global capitalism on a political model that does not yet exist (progressive Islamic states), rather than on the flawed but still functional (despite its shortcomings) form of the nation-state, especially when the project of progressive Islam remains extremely marginal, embattled, and politically impotent? It would seem that so long as imperialism maintains its stranglehold on the Third World, only reactionary fundamentalism, not progressive religiosity, will thrive, and vice versa. The consequence should not be confused with the cause.

  14. Nevertheless, Majid's core arguments remain valid: 1) for imperialized societies, progressive religious identities and worldviews are a viable alternative to both Eurocentric secular modernity and reactionary fundamentalisms, and 2) Leftist intellectuals ought to take non-secular intellectual projects seriously in the interest of fostering genuine polycentricity, rather than superficial or Eurocentric multiculturalism, and building solidarity in the face of global capitalism.

Works Cited

Al-Masseri, Abdulwahab. "The Secular Epistemological Vision." American Journal of Islamic Social Scientists 11 [fall 1994]: 403.

Amin, Samir. Africa and the Challenge of Development. Ed. Chris Okechukwu Uroh. Ibadan, Nigeria: Hope Publications, 1998.

---. Azmat al-mujtama' al-'arabi. Cairo: Dar al-mustapha al-'arabi, 1985.

---. Delinking. Trans. Michael Wolfers. London and NJ: Zed Books, 1990.

---. L'empire du chaos. La nouvelle mondialisation capitaliste. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1991.

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