A review of The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, by Ali A. Allawi

In The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, Ali A. Allawi wants to understand how and why "the spirit of Islam" has declined and whether it might be revived. A Sufi Muslim who returned to his native Iraq after Americans deposed Saddam Hussein, Allawi found not liberation there but sectarian murder and corruption. After serving as minister of defense and minister of finance in the new governments, he retreated to an academic appointment at Princeton, giving himself time to think about his country and his religion. He attends to Islam as a set of religious beliefs and as a distinct civilization, a mode and order of civility, wondering whether "a modern society, with all its complexities, institutions and tensions" can "be built on the vision of the divine."

In the past 40 years, Islamic observance has increased worldwide, and what is called "political" Islam has gone from the once-obscure writings of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini and Pakistan's Syed Maududi to being the lifeblood of real regimes. By "political" Allawi means the kind of rule Machiavelli's prince practices: the acquisition of men and things in an exhibition of virtuosity for the benefit of the prince. But according to Allawi, Islamic civilization—that sense of balance, of proportion, "between the individual and the collective" and "between this-worldliness and other-worldliness"—has been ruinously undermined, "undergoing a monumental crisis." 

For Muslims, the modern West lacks genuine civilization, overemphasizing individuality in the pursuit of worldly success. Much of the modern East, with Japan in the lead, now pursues such success too—albeit corporately, not individualistically. West and East alike conjure the impersonal and therefore uncivilized forces of markets and technologies, and succumb to a moral relativism that renders their conquests empty. Allawi argues that the followers of Allah underestimate the modern West, assuming that they have little or nothing to learn from the adherents to imperfect religions. But in my opinion Muslims correctly judge the atheist currents of the new Western irreligion, consonant with Machiavellianism, for being against the ummah, the body of believers. In particular, Western modernity substitutes Machiavelli's invention, the centralized and acquisitive modern state, for the tribes and loosely confederated empires of Muhammad's day, for theummah, and for the European feudal societies that the armies of the ummah so often conquered.

In response to Western moral relativism and politique statism, Muslims pray, but they also tyrannize and terrorize one another, failing to integrate their inner, devout lives with their public conduct. Although "dozens of nation-states…claim, one way or another, to be guided by Islam," Allawi sees "few signs that anything like this has been taking place." He insists that Islam is the only religion that might go beyond a mere critique of modernity to reestablish civilization or genuine politics without sacrificing modernity's benefits, most notably the discoveries of modern science. But he does not go so far as to deem this likely.

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Allawi describes how Islamic civilization advanced for a millennium after Muhammad, "nearly always…coeval with rule by Muslims over Muslims"—and, it might be added, rule by Muslims over non-Muslims. The believers held that the Islamic world flourished according to divine right and with divine aid, morally and politically. With respect to morality, the Koran teaches that "there are no human virtues as such," only divine gifts to individual souls, who cultivate those gifts by observing Islamic law, as reflected in Islamic politics. "The specifically Islamic form of political life" consisted of several elements. The first was empire, but of the pre-modern, non-statist, decentralized sort. Governmental functions included the administration of sharia law and military defense as well as "expansion and conquest." Kinship was the characteristic Muslim regime, undergirded by a society of tribes and other kinship associations, which Allawi calls "key" to a personal rule that avoided the arbitrariness of modern absolutism and tyranny.

The Egyptian monarchy was the first regime effectually to subordinate Islam to modernity, including nationalism and statism, though the project was undertaken most dramatically in Turkey under the regime of Kemal Ataturk. "Political" Islam arose even earlier, in the 18th century, in "the uncompromising and literalist monotheism" of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who allied with the then-obscure House of Saud. Under the pressure of modernism and Islamism—to which Allawi adds Western imperialism—"by the end of the nineteenth century, the territorial, cultural and psychological unity of Islamic civilization had been torn apart." The dichotomy between modernizing secularists and self-described fundamentalist reformers of Islam—both severed from the faith's spiritual roots—more or less guaranteed Muslims' political weakness from then until now. 

Allawi provides an informative, melancholy survey of some lonely figures who opposed both secularism and the non-spiritual, legalistic, and often militaristic forms of Islam. These men include Muhammad Iqbal, "the great poet of modern Islam" and a defender of Sufi spirituality as "the realization of God's absolute uniqueness through the uniqueness of the individual"; Badiuzzaman Said Nursi, a Kurdish scholar in Turkey who upheld a civil-associational strategy against statism; and the Algerian scholar Malek Bennabi, who attempted to explain Islam's decline in Gibbon-like terms, as a complacent triumphalism leading to the absorption of foreign spiritual toxins.

Israel's stunning victory over Arab armies in 1967 fatally discredited the nationalist and socialist modernizing regimes behind those armies. The enrichment of the Saudis, and thereby of the Wahhabis, in the 1970s, along with the 1979 Iranian revolution brought political Islam to power in core Islamic states. Allawi argues that this was too little, too late. Scriptural literalism depends upon an understanding of the relevant language, but the Arabic language, the language of the Koran, had lost much of its original meaning, as many words took on definitions adapted to the concepts of modernity. (For example, in modern Arabic deen means religion; in Koranic Arabic it means "the indebtedness of the created to the Creator," a debt discharged by following the ways of life—the regime—of God as revealed in "Islam or the unsullied revealed religions," Judaism and Christianity.) The schools in which Muslims now learn Arabic teem with modern notions-secularism, historicism—far removed from Islamic learning. As for the madrassas, insofar as they teach political Islam they too lack spirituality, contenting themselves with an "entirely Sharia-defined," legalist-literalist Islam. This is the Islam of the Wahhabists and their offshoots the Salafists, who "radicalize Sunni Islam by weakening its connection with the classical schools of law," which had been "moderate, restrained and subtle in their decisions," being sensitive to circumstances of place and of peoples. "The death knell for Islamic law is sounding," Allawi writes. "All its vitality, originality and appositeness fades away, turning it into a massive manual with rulings often drawn from the shoddy scholarship of bigoted clerics and Islamic activists with little jurisprudential training."

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Allawi defends a version of Islam that accommodates the variety of Islamic sects as well as resident non-Muslims. He points to the 11th-century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who made arguments similar to those of Hugo Grotius and some Orthodox Jewish scholars. For these thinkers, the solution to the theological-political question required no endorsement of a natural right to worship peacefully, but rather an acknowledgment of a shared core of beliefs, small in number but indispensable to the health of human souls and societies alike. Within Islam, this is the conviction that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Messenger. This Islamic liberalism, so to speak, allowed Shia Muslims to hold high offices under the (Sunni) Abbasid Caliphate, much to the astonishment of today's Wahhabists and Salafists. "The closing of the Islamic mind," he avers, "at least in this respect, is very much a modern phenomenon."

He suggests that if Muslims had glimpsed the Enlightenment's glare from a distance, they might have followed a Tocquevillian path from monarchy and tribalism to some more republican form of self-rule. But "the maturing of Islam's political culture into the modern period was thwarted by the violent disruption of Islam's civilization by European powers." Absent imperialism, Islam could have produced, on "its own impetus," "its own version of checks and balances on rulers and its own system of rights and duties, compatible with its own legacy." He finds a basis for Islamic self-government in "a short but decisive Quranic verse [Koran 42:38]": "[The Muslims'] communal business is to be transacted in consultation among themselves." Allawi prefers an expansive reading of the term "themselves," maintaining that it refers to the "entire community; in effect, across the entire adult population," and not merely tribal elders or adult males.

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Would such a "civilized" politics include non-Muslims in the ruling body? Allawi does not explicitly say if "accommodation" means shared rule. He inclines to brush aside non-Muslim reservations concerning such matters. To associate Islam "with fanaticism and violence" has become a "deeply rooted" habit "in the psyche of westerners." But in places like Southeast Asia, he asserts, Muslim conquests were mostly not conquests at all but voluntary conversions "prompted by the example of Muslim merchants." And dhimmitude—the subordination of non-Muslim minorities in majority-Muslim regimes—was primarily an attempt to protect those minorities.

This description of peaceable, accommodating Islamic rule might be more reassuring if it were more believable. From its beginning, Islam came to sight as a fighting faith. It combined the military conquest and civil rule seen in ancient Israel with the universality of Christianity; Islam has always been imperial in its ambitions. Like the experienced merchant that he was, Muhammad never hesitated to negotiate his way to the next expansion, whenever possible; but neither did he shrink from the use of force, especially in the last decade of his life. His successors shrank from it a great deal less.

Today, Allawi writes, "the issue is whether Muslims want to create and dwell in a civilizational space which grows out of their own beliefs without disrupting the world of others." Indeed so, but would Muhammad approve? And if he would approve such a strategy as a temporary measure, would he deem "live and let live" a godly policy after such a civilization were achieved?

Allawi's testimony itself gives pause. Although "the idea of human rights can be traced both to biblical sources and to the notion of a natural law which would be separate from divine revelation," modern human rights derive from Western convention or "tradition." Such modern "ideals" as liberalism, democracy, and secularism, if adopted by Islam, would destroy its "separate civilizational space." For example, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees not only the right to choose your religion but to "change it"—a violation of Islamic law, which permits conversion to Islam but never from Islam. This means that Muslims must insist that what's ours is ours and what's yours is—negotiable, a stance impossible to reconcile with natural right, ancient or modern.

Allawi assures his readers that Islam is the only major religion that rules no major state—or "core state," to use Samuel Huntington's term—and therefore harbors no new empire. Perhaps so, but hasn't that made terrorism all the more attractive to radical Islamists? Neither the destruction of the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon, nor the attempted attack on the White House could make America collapse, but they were to say the least vigorous efforts in that direction, and part of a larger war of attrition against the United States and, in principle, all regimes radical Islamists anathematize—a fair number, as it happens. Allawi wants sharply to distinguish classical Islamic rule from modern Islamist tyranny, but the two do rather bleed together at times, despite his best efforts. He doesn't help his case by insisting that "the war against terror was really a war against Islam itself."

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These criticisms should not detract too much from what Allawi does well. He strikes me as a successor to the sober, moderate Muslim scholars he admires and writes about with such feeling. In deploring the attempt by modern liberalism to "privatize" religion, to reduce its authority in public life, and at the same time insisting that Muslims govern themselves justly and civilly, has he not, through his very virtues, effectively "privatized" himself? Can his form of Islam, whether the true Islam or not, ever find a home—except in exile? Is he finally—despite his longings—most nearly at home in the natural-rights republic, where George Washington welcomed Catholic, Jew, and Quaker so long as they "demean themselves as good citizens"?