Taste of Modernity: Sufism and Salafiyya in Late Ottoman Damascus (Islamic History and Civilization. Studies and Texts, Vol 34)

  • Book Title:
 Taste Of Modernity
  • Book Author:
Itzchak Weismann
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Modern Islamic movements in the Arab world generally subscribe to the ideal of a return to the way of the pious forefathers (al-salaf al-ߧliÈ). This SalafÊ ideal, though it has always been part of the Muslim creed, became the hallmark of religious reform in the latter part of the nineteenth century as a reaction to the growing challenge of modernity.

Through it, the reformist men of religion of that time sought to dissociate themselves from latter-day traditions, which they had come to regard as the main cause of the decline of Muslim civilization and of the failure to establish clear criteria for the intro- duction of useful Western innovations.

The SalafÊ trend thus em- ployed the model of the forefathers as a means to sharply criticize both the rigid scholarship of the #ulama within the established juris- prudential and theological schools and, even more so, the theosophical meditations and ecstatic popular rituals of the sufis within their various mystical orders.

The political aspect of this model likewise served to censure the subservience of the #ulama and the sufis to the rulers, which facilitated the drift of the Muslim states towards the path of uncontrolled Westernization and obstructed the reassertion of the unique role of the Arabs in Islam.1

Yet despite the increasing rigidity of religious learning, and the immense spread of popular mystic practices, in the later centuries, the degeneration of Islam had never been universal. Moreover, with the political decline of the great Muslim Empires in the pre-modern era, there evolved among conscientious men of religion an evident revival, aimed at consolidating Muslim society in the face of growing anarchy and at reinstating the rule of the shari#a in its life.

The leaders of this revival normally combined wide erudition (#ilm) with a deep commitment to the mystic path (taßawwuf ). They thus constituted part of a long tradition that in relation to the superficial #ulama who did not delve into the mystic thought and path, on the one hand, and to the popular sufis who neglected religious learn ing, on the other, represented both a more profound orthodoxy and a reformist middle way.

 Prominent among the later sufi #ulama be- longing to this tradition to appear in this study were AÈmad SirhindÊ, the founder of the MujaddidÊ branch in the NaqshbandÊ order, and Ibr§hÊm al-Kår§nÊ, a central figure in the revival of hadith studies, in the seventeenth century, as well as #Abd al-GhanÊ al-N§bulusÊ, Sh§h WalÊall§h and Mußãaf§ al-BakrÊ, their successors in the following century. These were joined at the beginning of the nineteenth cen- tury by the two most outstanding religious reformers of the pre- modern era of Islam, AÈmad ibn IdrÊs and Shaykh Kh§lid.2

As we will see, in earlier periods the orthodox reformist tradition had included both Ibn Taymiyya, on whom the SalafÊs have generally relied as the model of reformist thought and action, and Ibn #ArabÊ, whom they have vehemently denounced as the archetype of latter-day sufi degeneration. The first Islamic responses to the challenge of modenity were formulated within this tradition.

The fundamental approach of this book thus conforms to the view that traditional factors played an important part in determining the course of modernization in non-Western societies, and that their modern transformation should not be confused with Westernization, an all-out adoption of the Western model.

This, however, is not to deny that modernity, or rather the various types of modernity, to which Islam had to adapt itself under overwhelming political, economic, and cultural pressures from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, originated in the West.

Here its major components, as observed already by the founders of modern sociology, revolved around the three large clusters of rationalism, capitalism, and the bureaucratic state. Max Weber saw modernity as rooted in “Occidental rationalism”, the process of disenchantment which in Europe led to a disintegration of religious world-views and resulted in a secular culture.

From this basic principle derived, according to him, the new structures of society which were marked by the differentiation of the two functionally intermeshing systems that had taken shape around the capitalist enterprise and the bureaucratic state

apparatus. Emile Durkheim, observing rationalism from a more psychological point of view, added to the definition of modern man the reflective treatment of traditions that have lost their quasi natural status, universalism of norms of action, and individualism.3

 Almost a century later, in spite of the growing postmodernist critique, rationalism, capitalism, and the bureaucratic state are still largely regarded as the principal features of modernity. Alain Touraine, one of today’s leading French sociologists, while casting serious doubts on the ability of reason to guide society toward freedom and happiness, defines modernity as the diffusion of the products of rational activity: scientific, technological and administrative.4

In a similar vein his British counterpart, Anthony Giddens, who has paid special attention to institutional developments, refers to modernity as a world- wide project of production and control, which includes four major elements: industrialism, capitalism, the industrialization of war, and state surveillance.5

The same tripartite combination can be discerned in theories regarding the formation of nationalism, the ideology that almost completely replaced religion as the basis of identity in the modern West.

Benedict Anderson, in his celebrated Imagined Communities, traces the origins of the national consciousness to print-capitalism, later to be taken up by intellectuals who developed the concept of nation-ness based on a common language, and finally to be crystallized by state administrations into the international system of nation-states.6

Anthony Smith, while attaching more importance to the ethnic origins of the national idea, nonetheless attributes its modern formulation to the impact of three revolutions: the transition to capitalism, the transformation of military and administrative methods of control, and the cultural and educational standardization.7

The Western “project of modernity” has accordingly been executed by three major social forces: the intelligentsia which provided it with its underlying rationalist ideology at the expanse of tradition, the entrepreneurial bourgeois class which developed the capitalist economic system by applying science and technology to the industrialization of production, and the state officialdom which created an increasingly ramified bureaucracy to control the civil society on the basis of an impersonal law.

The inter-relationships between these three agents of modernity were not free from tension. The capital- ist’s interest in the autonomy of the market was incompatible with the state’s tendency to intervene, while the Enlightenment intellectual’s criticism of the operations of the state challenged the officials’ monopoly of rule.

Nevertheless, due to the peculiar historical circumstances in which it arose in the cities of Medieval Europe, the bourgeois class proved strong enough to take control of the state and direct it in accordance with its own needs.

Using the philosophical formulations of the intelligentsia, which it also subsequently subdued, the bourgeoisie restructured the state as a legal-rational organization, which is bound to defend its borders against outside threats while leaving to its citizens an almost free hand in pursuing their diverse private interests.

The interests of the bourgeoisie were guaranteed by the constitutional system of government, in which it posed as the favored representative of the civil society. Gradually throughout the nineteenth century, by the inner logic of both capitalism and constitutionalism, the political and economic privileges of the bourgeoisie were extended to incorporate the whole of civil society, in what Jose Ortega Y Gasset forcefully described as the revolt of the masses.8 This internal democratization coincided with the new external imperialist drive, which by the end of that century brought almost the entire world under Western domination.9

In the Muslim countries on the eve of modernization there was no secular intelligentsia, no entrepreneurial bourgeois class, and no state officialdom in the European sense of these words. In the Ot- toman Empire, as elsewhere, the intelligentsia was represented first and foremost by the men of religion. Commerce and other urban economic activities normally related to the bourgeoisie, albeit considerable, were largely regulated here by communal, corporative, and state structures.

The official bureaucracy, though elaborated, governed the subjects of the Empire through the various regional, religious, and functional communities to which they were affiliated rather than directly. Even more divergent from the European model were…..

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