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One Islam Many Muslim Worlds

One Islam, Many Muslim Worlds: Spirituality, Identity, and Resistance across Islamic Lands

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 One Islam Many Muslim Worlds
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Raymond William Baker
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The Mystery of Islam’s Strength – ONE ISLAM MANY MUSLIM WORLDS

It is God Who created you in a state of helpless weakness, Then gave (you) strength after weakness . . .He creates as He wills, and it is He Who has all knowledge and power. qur’a n 30:54

Islam Today presents itself wrapped in a conundrum. By all economic and political measures, the late twentieth century was a time of terrible decline for the Islamic world, particularly its Arab heartland. The deterioration continues in the first decades of the twenty-first century, accelerated by the American shattering of Iraq and Afghanistan, the disintegration of Syria, and the resurgence of virulent extremisms. Sober voices from the Islamic world regularly and accurately describe the condition of Dar al Islam (the Islamic world) as the worst in the 1,400-year-old history of Islam.

Yet, precisely at this time of unprecedented material vulnerability, Islam emerged as the only transnational force to create a galvanizing identity strong enough to challenge America’s homogenizing global power. At the same time, Islam inspired the most successful of the Arab resistances to the expansion of the Israeli state.

 In the spring of 2011 the extraordinary popular uprisings in Arab lands, although not led by Islamic groups, evinced a distinctive Islamic coloration. The ordinary Muslims who made these revolutions, notably in Egypt and Tunisia, framed their mobilizing calls for freedom and justice in an Islamic idiom rarely appreciated or even understood in Western commentary.

 Calls celebrating the greatness of God were as loud as or louder than those demanding the fall of the regime. Such invocations of Islam should not be regarded as the exclusive property of political groupings. They are expressions of faith of all Muslims, including those who explicitly oppose any particular Islamic political party or movement.

Ordinary Muslims quite naturally differentiate between Muslims and Islam. The unexpected assertiveness of Islam should not be obscured by the deadly distortions of extremist forces like al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the failings of par- ticular Islamic parties like the Muslim Brothers in Egypt.

 This assertive- ness of Islam itself, in so many ways, is the central and little-understood paradox of today: How, at a time of such unprecedented weakness, did midstream Islam make itself such a powerful transnational force with so promising a future?

Islam’s Unlikely Strength

Two things are clear. Islam’s unexpected strength does not originate from official political, economic, or religious systems and institutions, all of which are in decline.

Nor can it be explained by focusing exclusively, as we in the West do obsessively, on the often-criminal assertions of violent minorities who rationalize their crimes in Islamic terms. Nor does the explanation lie with political parties that define themselves in Islamic terms, whether ruling or in opposition. The source of Islam’s power derives from the far broader al Tagdid al Islami (Islamic Renewal). First stirring in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Renewal has swept across Islamic lands.

 Those who respond call for revitalizing and rethinking the heritage. At the same time, they resist Western intrusions, challenge established authoritarian systems, and counter criminal Islamic extremists. The Renewal takes multiple forms, ranging from quietism and compliant withdrawal to radical reform (islah) and revolutionary agendas.

The values and higher purposes of Islam, the historian Tareq al Bishri argues, shine through the differences explained by time and place. He adds emphatically that Islam, wherever found and however expressed, is inherently political.2 The most important source of Western confusion about the meaning of the Renewal is the insistence on distinguishing between Islam as religion and so-called political Islam.

Neither of these character- izations is in fact applicable. Islam is far more than a religion, and its political dimensions have no such autonomy. Islam is a pluralistic way of life that in all its varieties is insistently holistic and therefore unavoidably po- litical. The notion of political Islam is an alien construct whose fortunes have little bearing on Islam’s development. Only Marxism rivals “political Islam” in the number of times it has been pronounced dead or dying or in some obscure “post” state.

Meanwhile, Islam itself appears to magically reassert itself in new and more energetic forms, providing inspiration for yet another generation of believers. In the wake of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, assessments once again announced the end of the Islamic wave of renewal.

 The premature obituaries for a failed political Islam miss a simple but fundamental point: Islam as lived faith refuses any division between the religious experience and human efforts to act in this world. In short, there is no such thing as political Islam. There is only Islam, although it is subject to adaptations and a wide vari- ety of human interpretations.

No effort will be made here to pronounce one or another of these many human understandings of Islam authentic, while discrediting all others. The salience of one or another interpretation flows from the aims and pur- poses of the observer rather than any inherent character of one or another form of Islam.

Depending on time and place, all human understandings of Islam draw inspiration from the sacred Islamic texts, no matter how unpersuasive or distorted particular interpretations of those texts might be. All have made contributions, for better or worse, to the development of Islamic civilization at one time and place or another.

The Islamic Midstream and the Renewal

The many incarnations of Islam, however, do not have equal importance for an inquiry like this one that seeks to understand Islam’s unexpected contemporary strength. This book argues that the motivating force of the broad and varied Islamic Renewal is the contemporary Wassatteyya (Islamic midstream) that emerged in complex and adaptive forms as the guiding force of the Renewal. The Wassatteyya is neither myth nor mean- ingless slogan.

It is rather a manifest historical tradition, whose evolu- tion and importance are subject to analysis, documentation, and critical assessment. In the view of its adherents, the Wassatteyya functions as a vital yet flexible midstream, a centrist river out of Islam. Today, the Was- satteyya has made itself a presence everywhere Muslims are found. It con- nects, but does not unify, all parts of the Islamic world or ummah. It plays an important role even in those parts of the globe where Muslims are a minority.

The midstream defines Islam for the vast majority of Muslims, even as it acts as a wellspring for all manner of tributaries that allow Islam to renew itself in the most diverse ways. The Islamic midstream draws, as no other force, on the inherent strengths of the revelation. It is the world of midstream Islam that is safeguarding the faith in these difficult times. It is the world of the midstream that will ultimately shape the future of

 4 one isl am, many muslim worlds

Islam and Islamic societies. The obsessive focus of the West on contem- porary Islamic extremism has obscured and, at times, even obstructed and delayed this outcome. The horrific violence used to combat extrem- ism has had the effect only of augmenting its role at the expense of the midstream. Military invasions, occupations, and bombings radicalize the Islamic world in destructive ways.

They temporarily crowd out the mid- stream. In the end, when calm returns to Islamic lands, midstream Islam of the Wassatteyya will prevail and, consistent with well-established his- torical patterns, reabsorb the extremists into a recentered and inclusive Islamic body.

What exactly is the Islamic Wassatteyya, and how does it work these effects? It is most useful to start with the provisional definition that the Wassatteyya is what its adherents say it is. We can then follow their self- descriptions to discover what supporters take to be its essential elements. At their heart these self-definitions identify the Wassatteyya as a cultural/ institutional configuration, which emerges from a unique Islamic histor- ical tradition that has gained new life as part of the much broader Islamic Awakening of the 1970s.

The transnational midstream tradition com- prises a complex of elements, both intellectual and organizational, linked by shared commitments and a “network of networks” of interaction. These elements form a composite conceptual unit, a “difficult” whole, with a common centrist orientation to Islamic reform, resistance, and a constructive global role, expressed in a shared vocabulary.

As a manifest historical tradition, the Wassatteyya can be critically evaluated, measuring pronouncements against actions, with all the usual tools of historical and social scientific analysis. It is, however, impossible to elaborate the com- prehensive meaning of such a unique historical phenomenon in advance.

A concept of this kind must be constructed gradually from its individual elements, identified and empirically verified as the analysis unfolds. The “final and definitive concept” in such analyses, as Max Weber has pointed out, “cannot stand at the beginning of the investigation, but must come

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