Thursday, 27 February 2014

"Moderate Islam? Look to Central Asia"

The search for a moderate form of Islam goes on.
In this article, Frederick Starr stakes the claim for Central Asia.
Money quote:
While violence rages on in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the predominantly Muslim countries of the former Soviet Union — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are experimenting with secular governments and free markets. Their efforts have had many fits and starts, but the West should recognize that their struggle to come to terms with modernity holds huge potential for the Muslim world as a whole, and may someday serve as a template for promoting peace among warring nations. Yet Washington continues to underestimate their cultural importance and potential impact.
Bowing low, as I do, before the qualifications of Mr Starr -- inter alia chairman of the Central Asia-Caucusus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program at John Hopkins University -- still, I wonder why he quotes the medieval imam al-Ghazali in support of his thesis.  "Few thinkers stood higher than Abu Hamid al-Ghazali" says Starr.
Indeed, but for good or ill?
I've recently read the excellent -- scholarly, yet readable -- The Closing of the Muslim Mind, by Robert Reilly.
Reilly agrees on the importance of Ghazali (1058-1111).  He is
"considered by many Muslims to be the second most important person in Islam, next only to Muhammad [Reilly, p93].  
In medieval Islam there was a battle of ideas between a rationalist, hellenist group of philosophers, known as the Mu'tazalites, and the anti-hellenists anti-rationalists, known as the Ash'arites.  The Ash'arites found their most potent voice in al-Ghazali.  And al-Ghazali won the battle of ideas, with consequences to this day.
In 1195 CE books by the Ash'arites were incinerated in the town square of Cordoba. Any innovation, any recourse to reason, to cause and effect, was thenceforth banned:
"... In the eleventh century it became accepted that the gate of itjihad [the study and amendment of Islam] was closed... Since then Sunni Islam has adopted the official position that no new interpretations of the law can be entertained and that what seemed right in twelfth-centry Cairo or Baghdad must seem right today" [Reilly, xi]
Al-Ghazali was profoundly anti-science.  Allah, in his view, was the sole agent of all things:
"The catastrophic result of this view was the denial of the relationship between cause and effect in the natural order... [Ghazali] insisted that God is not bound by any order and there is, therefore, no "natural" sequence of cause and effect..." [Reilly p62]. 
Reilly, quoting Ghazali:
"For example, there is no causal connection between the quenching of thirst and drinking, satiety and eating, burning and contact with fire.  Light and the appearance of the sun, death and decapitation, healing and the drinking of medicine, the purging of the bowels and the using of a purgative...." [Al-Ghazali The Incoherence of the Philosphers p170, quoted in Reilly, p63]
Challenging Ghazali, the Mu'tazalite Averroes (1126-1198) said: "The denial of causality makes genuine knowledge impossible" [Reilly 67].  But Averroes' books were burned.  And thus, Reilly shows, the profound abhorrence that Ghazali preached, abhorrence and fear of reason, of rationality, of cause and effect, of investigation, of debate, of curiosity, of tolerance, all became embedded in Sunni Islam.
They became embedded into Sunn-Islam unto this day, in a direct line from Ghazali to Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (and grandfather of the oleaginous Tariq Ramadan), to Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood's greatest -- and still revered -- ideologue, to Al-Qaeda, to Hamas, to Jemaah Islamiyah and to the rest of the Sunni Islamist pantheon.
And in Central Asia, the focus of Starr's hopeful piece, the hateful Hizb ut-Tahrir, another fundamentalist group in debt to Ghazali, has made deep inroads.
So, whether the new secularists, as Starr calls them, are to win in Central Asia -- and thence to influence the rest of the (Sunni) Muslim world, or if the traditional form of Sunni orthodoxy, rooted in Ghazalist thought, the likes of Hizb ut-Tahrir, are to prevail, time alone will tell.
Neither history nor demographic numbers are on the side of rationality and secularism.  One hopes, but fears for the worst.  In short, I hope Starr is right, even if only in central Asia; but I fear he may not be.