Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

As Communism loses its menacing posture and its threat recedes globally. Western concentration is beginning to focus increasingly on an old and inscrutable foe: Islam. The vast natural resources of the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam, coupled with the inherent political instability of the region have hastened this shift of Western attention. The clash of opposing values between Islam and the West has recently been vividly played out in the sands of Arabia, where young American soldiers have come face to face with strict prohibitions placed by an alien culture on alcohol, women, freedom of expression, and freedom of worship. This “encounter in the desert” between the secular West and the closed Islamic society of Saudi Arabia raises basic age-old questions that transcend the narrow confines of any single crisis or set of historical circumstances: How compatible is Islam with modernity, democracy, and pluralism? What sort of relationship will Islam have with the West in the coming century?

Islam is a centuries-tested total outlook on life. There is a greater organic unity in Islam between the temporal and spiritual than is found in either Judaism or Christianity. This stems from the central concept of the Islamic Umma, the community of Muslims formed by Mohammed in the seventh century AD. when he unified the scattered tribes of Arabia into a single supra-tribal structure that became a socio-political and metaphysical amalgam. Any member of the Umma who declared obedience to God and his Prophet and who fulfilled his prescribed duties as a Muslim was assured of rewards in the afterlife. As Islam grew and spread, diversity and internal conflict arose, but the notion of Umma remained paramount everywhere the religion found a foothold.

Two important implications of the Umma motif set Islam apart and they indicate the difficulties involved in reconciling it with modernity as understood in the West. First, Islam in its pristine form is theocratic: it makes no separation between church and state. Strict observance to the Shari’a, the Islamic law based on Koranic precepts and derivative guidelines extrapolated by early scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, remains normative in such places as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikdoms, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and, to a certain extent, Pakistan. It is true that many Islamic countries have to one degree or another taken on the trappings of the modern nation-state, the product of more than 200 years of secularization and political development in the West. But even in the most open and externally westernized of Islamic countries, the underlying assumption remains that Muslims must eventually exercise political power and rule according to the Shari’a if they are to feel completely fulfilled as Muslims. Such countries are thus inherently unstable, open at any time to a sudden reassertion, in one form or another, of strict Islamic norms and practices. A worldview, therefore, in which politics and religion form an intricately woven tapestry and which in the Shari’a maintains a law unto itself presents formidable obstacles to hopes of its harmonious integration within the modern international order.

The second implication of the Umma perspective is attitudinal in nature and has to do with a deeply ingrained dualistic view of the world”a basic “us and them” syndrome. Islam divides the world into two distinct realms or abodes, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. Technically, the former encompasses the lands that are under Muslim control while the latter represents all other territories. But the dualism does not stop at this formal or geopolitical distinction; rather it penetrates the very psyche of individual Muslims, permeating their lives and determining their behavior. One not infrequently observes among Muslims an internalized double standard of behavior. They may, while traveling or residing temporarily in the West, abandon themselves to license, but abide by a system of rigid prohibitions and punishments back home. It is in any case the duty of the Muslim to preserve the Abode of Islam from contamination, and when possible to help enlarge it at the expense of the Abode of War where the “infidel” rules.

This division into two abodes among Muslims received reinforcement throughout the centuries from successive bloody confrontations with “the other”: first the early Islamic conquests of the Near East and parts of Asia, and then the Crusades, the reconquest of Spain by the Christians, the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire, and in more recent times the experience of Western imperialism and colonial domination as well as Hindu resistance in the Indian subcontinent. The historical experience has reinforced Islamic skepticism toward such Western concepts as modernity, with its secularizing bias, and democracy, with its tendency toward homogenization.

Nor has the Western ideal of religious pluralism any more likely chance of making much headway in Islamic societies where native non-Muslim minorities are, at best, tolerated as second-class citizens, or dhimmis. Jews and Christians, considered as “People of the Book,” are assigned a special subordinate status in Muslim society and expected to abide by a set of specific restrictions, including the curtailment of freedom of expression. The Koran contains many passages with a strong anti-Jewish flavor, and through a Muslim misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, Christians came to be regarded as polytheists or tritheists (Mushrikeen), causing Muslim attitudes towards them to waver between ambivalence and outright hostility. Thus, reputed Muslim tolerance notwithstanding, the overall record of treatment of non-Muslim minorities in Islamic societies through-out the centuries is disappointing when measured by Western human rights standards.

It would seem from all this that achieving compatibility between Islam and the West is a thankless and prohibitive undertaking. Indeed, unless new interpretations of established theological and dogmatic positions are hazarded by authoritative Muslims—interpretations that blunt the sharp contrasts between Islam and modernity by making serious attempts to modify and reconcile the best insights of both—the future of Islam’s relations with the West will be bleak. The problem is that since around the tenth century fewer and fewer efforts at ijtihad, or the reinterpretation and reformulation of doctrine to respond to new challenges and realities, have occurred within Islam as a whole.

The nature of Islam and the intense Muslim reverence for the Koran as God’s very words confer a certain finality on early dogmas and practices, making it exceedingly difficult to envisage or plan any significant alterations, let alone departures from the textual understanding. Furthermore, even if such bold reassessments were to take place, the problems of legitimizing them sufficiently within the Muslim world so that they might strike roots and bear fruit would be nothing short of awesome. Experience has shown, in fact, that it is regressive steps, reassertions of traditional views, that throughout Islamic history have tended to receive easier legitimization than attempts to move in the opposite direction.

There are, in the history of Islam, a few cautiously encouraging precedents that may offer a faint glimmer of hope for future ijtihad with legitimacy One of these is the Mu’tazila movement of the eighth and ninth centuries that was subsequently suppressed. The Mu’tazila originated in Baghdad and founded the discipline of kalam (theology), a movement eventually dominated by conservatives. They adhered to a strict monotheism and emphasized the utter transcendence of the divine. But they also regarded the Koran as created rather than supernatural and coeternal with God, and they believed in human free will and the importance of reason.

A millennium later, towards the end of the nineteenth-century, a reformist movement arose among certain Muslim thinkers in Egypt who had some exposure to European culture. Members of this group, the Muslim cleric Mohammad ‘Abduh in particular, harked back to the rationalism of the Mu’tazila in an attempt to harmonize Islam with Western liberal ideas. This neo-Mu’tazilism developed a small following in intellectual and religious circles and remained alive for a few decades before lapsing into oblivion. A similar reformist movement arose about the same time in India and culminated in the innovative figure of Mohammad Iqbal, who might be said to have invented the idea of Pakistan. But here too ground-breaking reforms were unable to gain lasting recognition and legitimacy.

While these experiments are significant if only to indicate that no system, no matter how insular and self-contained, can remain indefinitely ossified and impervious to external influences, they ought not to be romanticized as many Western scholars have tended to do. No process of ijtihad—understood as a radical transformation of Islam—can be measured in anything but geological time. Realistic expectations of peaceful and creative coexistence between Islam and the West must for the foreseeable future dispense with wishful anticipation of speedy evolution within Islam that would lead to something like a Koranic higher criticism. This means that hopes for coexistence can only be based on mutually beneficial practical arrangements, and on the secular West’s sober recognition that ultimate identity in the Islamic world will continue to be determined more by religion than by any other force.

To reduce the possibility of militant Islam moving beyond being a nuisance factor to becoming a threat to world peace and order, the West must continue to be vigilant, particularly with regard to the proliferation of nuclear technology It is necessary that a policy of containment be devised that will at the same time allow for the free flow of ideas and the promotion of human interaction. The West should attempt to depoliticize its dealings with Islam enough to introduce in diplomatic and other relations the human dimension, thereby offsetting the present inordinate emphasis on material interests. This would open the way for the West to insist on a genuine exchange of respect and reciprocity in treatment, especially as regards issues of human rights and non-Muslim minorities living equitably under Islam.

Even under the best of circumstances, there will remain into the indefinite future a basic irreducible incompatibility between Islam and modernity that will generate perpetual friction. That being understood, however, the secular materialism of modernity could well benefit from a measured infusion of the primordial spirituality of Islam. And assuming a West faithful to its deepest spiritual wellsprings, Islam too is bound to be challenged and affected by prolonged peaceful contact with a civilization alien to itself.

Habib C. Malik is affiliated with the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He previously taught for a number of years at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift