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What is moderate Islam?

Reader comment on item: [The Search for Moderate Islam:] A Reply to Lawrence Auster

Submitted by LK (Lithuania), Jan 31, 2005 at 03:15

Coming to the dispute of L.Auster and D.Pipes it shoud be first of all defined what the "moderate Islam" is. Whether "moderate Islam" is defined like a variety of Islam that embraces the modernity with all its liberal trappings as women rights etc.(1), or we understand the "moderate Islam" as such which avoids any violent confrontation with other civilizations and shuns the totalitarian model of society(2).

If we understand in the sense (1) then it is almost obvious that such moderate Islam cannot exist or at least it is very unlikely that it could exist. Liberal western values and the values of Islam are incompatible not superficially, but at their very core. It is no the place here to explain the why of this incompatibility, but the only thing would suffice - the autonomous individuum of the liberal culture hardly can have place in Islam where the individuum is nothing outside his relation to God and to the entire creation, where individuum exists not as "thing in itself" but only in the relation to the Universe. The relationism could be formulated as one of the most important principles of the Islamic civilization - everything, ecxept God, exists only in the relation to other. Only God is One.

Moreover the incompatibility exists not only on the level of values, but on the level of the logical fundaments of rationality. As Russian academician A.Smirnov has shown even such crucial, everyday concepts as "intention" and "action"(and many more) cannot be formulated in the terms of Aristotelian logic which largely underpins the Western conceptual thinking.

However one thing is values and logic, and other thing is the agressive, totalitarian and exclusive stance against non Muslim world(and very often if not primarily against the oponents in the Muslim world itself). Here I see no obstacles that a moderate Islam in the sense (2) could really exist. History knows many instances when Muslim states lead quite moderate foreign policy, when 3ulama paid only lip service to some aspects of Islam deemed unsavory by Westerners. Traditional Islam was certainly not exclusivist and totalitarian. It allowed a considerable range of opinions and interpretations. In fact there was never a true orthodoxy in Islam, there could be hardly any interpretation that would be considered final as pronounced by the Heaven itself. Quranic verses certainly were considered the "voice of God" but in order to be made into practical law and rules they had to be interpreted. Even the status of Quran(created, uncreated) was a matter of discussion. What was considered "orthodoxy" was in fact an opinion supported at any given moment by the rulers or by consensus of scholars.

Islam has even created a concept of tolerance which was far broader that the Western culture could even allow. I mean the concept of the great Islamic Sufi scholar Ibn Arabi. And even if the Ibn Arabian views were and are followed only by a tiny minority of Muslims, the very fact that such concept exists within Islam is very interesting. To be noted that the version of tolerance having the breadth of Ibn Arabi would be impossible in the Western culture due to Western fundaments of rationality based on Aristotelian logic. One of the features of Aristotelian logic, as it is known, is so called "tree of kinds and genders" which underpins the hierarchy of things. In order to be made compatible two things must necessarily be given some overarching kind or gender, reduced to one category. While islamic thought in principle could accept different things as genuinely different without trying to reduce them to some common category. Thus there is in the Western culture a hidden drive towards totalization and that has been noted by some leading Western philosphers. It was even noted that it is very difficult to think about the time in the Western philosophy because Western thought tries to eliminate the factor of time reducing everything into some timeless "idea".

Thus Islam can change in some important aspects not because it is not essentialist. In fact every culture has some very basic underpinnings, only that they are not visible but hidden in the entrails of that culture. However they support the entire building of a particular culture and make that certain contents cannot be assimilated by that particular culture or at least cannot be assimiliated without a very serious readaptation and distortion. Each civilization has its own "universe of sense" and the universe of sense of one civilization may not be reducible to another.

Islam could change not because it has no any fixed essence but because it has a large pool of already existing ideas. Moreover the tendency to change could be said one of the essential features of Islam and this despite of Islam's attachment to the past and the aversion to "innovations". The innovations(bid3aat) is in fact not every new thing but merely that which cannot be fitted into the "universe of sense" of Islam. However as it was noted above, the "sense universe" of Islam is relational. Everything exists in relation to something else.As it is said in Quran "God has created many beautiful pairs". Therefore one can be truly itself and truly exist in the islamic universe, if one constantly tries to transcend oneself and become Other. In the Western platonizing concept the change is the sign of imperfection and death and which is perfect has to be immutable. In Islam, on the contrary, that which is perfect has to seek constantly to become Other and to realize, make apparent the potentialities of the Other hidden in himself. Immutability in Islam equals death and non existence. It is not surprising that precisely those forces in Islam which consider their tradition as rigid, totalitarian and immutable, are bearers of death.

Finally I would like to say that if I consider the greatest mistake of L.Auster his inability to understand that Islam has the potential of change and that the essentialism in the Islamic culture could mean something very different than in the Western culture. In fact the essence of Islam is precisely the very absence of such essence conceived in the platonic sense as immutable, static "idea". The "essence" in Islam is something that constantly fluctuates between manifested and unmanifested, between hidden and apparent.

While D.Pipes' mistake is considering Islam as lacking any essential nature and underpinings, therefore he believes that Islam can fully embrace modernity and therefore looks in islam for supporters of the Western modernity and liberal values, and it is not surprising that he finds such people mostly among ex-Muslims and indifferents.

But certainly not such people are the bearers of the moderate islam but those who have a not totalitarian, tolerant outlook even if this outlook could be very different from the modern one. Yet tolerant stance could help to establish a practical working relationship between Islam and the West without any need of Islam becoming West or West becoming Islam.

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Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

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