The notion of Westernization in the Middle East raises a number of interrelated issues. First, it refers to a period (nineteenth to twentieth centuries) in which Middle Eastern intellectuals engaged Western political philosophy in a self-conscious search for modernity. Albert Hourani, in his groundbreaking Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939 (1983), dates this engagement from Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798. This defeat revealed the weaknesses of Ottoman government and sent shockwaves throughout the Ottoman Empire. How had the Europeans gained such superiority, and how could the Muslims catch up? Selim III (1761–1808), the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, and Muhammad Ali (1769?–1849), the Ottoman governor of Egypt, enlisted European advisors to implement military and governmental reforms on the Western model (tanzimat). A generation of "new men," many graduates of these European-style schools, began a period of intense reflection and critique. They studied Rousseau, the Manchester textile mills, and parliamentary government for clues to European power. They also criticized traditional Islamic institutions and advocated reform of education, government, and the Arabic language.
These two avenues of reform raise a second issue: did the reform movement mark "Westernization" or a local modernity forged by traditional intellectuals? Many historians have defined Westernization narrowly as the "all-out adoption of the Western model," which they contrast to "modernization," an Islamic response to political, economic, and social pressures from the West. Modernity and Westernization cannot be separated, however. Islamic modernist thought was formulated as a specific response to the European challenge. Thinkers from Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) to Ali Shari'ati (1933–1977) had to explain European superiority and propose specific solutions for Muslim decline. Even when Western models were not adopted, the West provided the terms of the debate: industrialization, women's rights, secular law, the bureaucratic state, and popular sovereignty. Finally, modernism itself, a self-conscious effort to organize and govern society according to rational principles, was invented in the West. Islamic modernizers embraced the centrality of reason, which led them back to a classical question: "What is the relationship of reason to revelation?"
Yet the Muslim modernizers posed the question in a new way. How could reason and religion be reconciled to reform Islam, and how could this purified Islam be applied to society? Thus, our subject is actually the reform of Islam and its new transformative role, a program formulated in engagement with the West. The relationship between the Middle East and the West occurred at a number of levels. First, the reforms on the Western model (tanzimat) centralized the states in Egypt and Anatolia, disciplined their populations, and laid the social foundations of modern Egyptian and Turkish nationalisms. Second, the modernizers adapted Western ideologies (liberalism, socialism, nationalism) to create cultural hybrids. Colonial industrialization was part of this process, for changes in labor and production produced new classes and new consciousness. Finally, even those intellectuals who rejected the West unwittingly adopted Western approaches to knowledge. Islamic modernizers rejected Gnostic knowledge and mysticism (Sufism), much as Western positivists tried to fit all knowledge into a rational framework. This helps to explain a central puzzle in Islamic history: the secularists and the Islamic fundamentalists (one branch of the Salafiyya) spring from the same intellectual root.
At first contact, Egyptians were not impressed with liberalism and the French Republic. Consider the Egyptian chronicler Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti's reaction to the French and their political ideas:
[Napoléon] saying "[all people] are equal in the eyes of God the Almighty," this is a lie and stupidity. How can this be when God has made some superior to others as is testified by the dwellers in the Heavens and on the Earth … those people are opposed to both Christians and Muslims, and do not hold fast to any religion. You see that they are materialists, who deny all God's attributes.… (p. 31).
Yet as Ottoman rulers adopted European institutions, a new generation of intellectuals adopted French political ideas. The Egyptian Rifa'a Rafi'a al-Tahtawi (1801–1873) tried to reconcile the republic with the umma (community of believers), secular law with the shari'a (Islamic law), the ulema (religious scholars) with the republican legislator. Tahtawi argued that Muslims had failed to develop theories of government; they saw the executive only as a guardian of Islamic law and spiritual guidance. However, government also gave order to society and should thus be used to promote the public welfare. Creating the just society and upholding the will of God were thus compatible if not identical projects. Drawing on the thought of al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and the Mu'tazili school of the Middle Ages, al-Tahtawi argued that reason and philosophy were two paths to the same ultimate reality and thus must be reconcilable. Al-Tahtawi was the first to articulate the notion of an Egyptian nation, a historical community of the Muslim and Christian occupants of Egypt, and a brotherhood "over and above the brotherhood in religion." He attributed Egyptian decadence to foreign rule, specifically that of the Turkish overlords (Mamluks and later Ottomans) who ruled Egypt from the thirteenth century.
Yet Tahtawi's project failed to address a basic tension between secular and religious law. In a republic, the people are sovereign and the social contract defines the members of the political body. The law is the expression of the general will and thus utilitarian and subject to change. In the umma, the community is defined in relation to God; the Muslims are those who submit to God's will, (a Muslim is "he who submits [to God]"). Since God is sovereign and the law is the expression of his will, many Muslim jurists argued that once the Koran and hadith had been elaborated into a legal code (shar'ia), by the fourteenth century, it was universally valid and permanent, and so "the gates of ijtihad [independent legal reasoning] are closed." A second question arose: if Islamic law is divine, what checks, if any, should there be on the executive? Finally, Muslim scholars feared that Western institutions might be inseparable from a secular worldview. Indeed, historians of the scientific revolution have argued that elements of Western modernity could not be conceived before the "paradigm shift," the replacement of religious worldviews by a Newtonian universe. Finally, Muslims had to answer Orientalists like Ernest Renan, who claimed that Islam was antithetical to science.
In response to all of this, Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897) presented a synthesis that "rationalized" Islam and opened the door to both secularism and Islamic fundamentalism. Abduh argued that the true Islam of the Companions (al-salaf) of the prophet Muhammad was the tool for social modernity. Islam must be freed of antiquated scholarship; he demanded that the traditional Islamic institutions like Al-Azhar in Egypt replace rote memorization with a new ijtihad and teach the modern sciences. Islam must be unified into a single creed: Shiism was a "heresy" and Shiites must be brought into the fold. Abduh suggested unifying the four Sunni schools of Islamic law (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafa'i, Maliki) into a single school. Islam was to be purified of heterodoxy and foreign elements; thus the modernizers condemned Sufism (mystical Islam), visitation of the graves of the awliya' (holy men), and other popular practices (amulet-writing, healing) as shirk, or worship of things other than God.
Abduh collapsed the divide between the secular and the religious in The Sociological Laws of the Qur'an. He argued that Islam and Western civilization were of the same order of knowledge and that a purified Islam held the answers to all modern social problems. Parliaments, railroads, and space travel were anticipated in the Koran and fully compatible with its message. He translated legal conceptions of the medieval period to the "modern day": ijma' (consensus of the jurists) was "public opinion," shura' (consultation, especially in the selection of the caliph) was "parliamentary democracy." Among his disciples, this synthesis split into two strands.
One strand was secular nationalism (1900–1939), and nationalists in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Iraq, and Iran embraced the institutions of political liberalism under French and British "protection." Secularists dropped the project of "Islamic government" because, as they argued, the Koran contained or prefigured (or so they believed) Western institutions. Religious minorities—Copts, Druze, Maronites, Jews—welcomed the opportunity for full participation in political life. The Egyptian Qasim Amin advocated women's emancipation as a national project. However, as liberals failed to address growing labor and social problems or bring an end to colonial rule, liberal constitutionalism lost popular support.
Other secularists turned to Marxist socialism. Lenin's Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism provided an economic critique of colonialism and a plan of revolutionary action. The 1952 "Arab Socialist" revolution of Jamal 'Abd al-Nasser (1918–1970) proposed social equality for all citizens through state capitalism. Nationalism in Algeria and Tunisia grew from the trade unionism of migrant labor in France (Étoile Nord-Africaine). However, the materialism of Marx was difficult to reconcile with Islam, and the Iranian Islamist intellectual Ali Shari'ati rejected Marxism as a solution to social ills.
Finally, the second group of Abduh's successors, led by Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865–1935), focused on the rationalization of Islam to create a "true Islamic state." Rida believed that Sufism (mystical Islam) had created division in the Islamic community and that westernizers undermined its moral foundation; only a strict adherence to shari'a and the Islam of the salaf would rejuvenate the umma. This strain of thought found various expressions in the work of Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb, the premier theoretician of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Shii form in the work of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini (1900–1989), leader of the 1978–1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Thus, even the ideas of the contemporary Islamist radicals were formulated in dialogue with the West.
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