When it comes to understanding Islam, the Western world has centuries of catching up to do (the reverse is also true); so we can expect the current spate of guides-for-the-culturally-perplexed (by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bernard Lewis and others) to grow and swell. But East being East and West being West, it takes an ecumenical polymath even to try to explain one to the other; and no such explanation will satisfy more than a large minority of readers.
Ali Allawi, who is not to be confused with his more famous and reputedly crooked cousin Iyad Allawi (interim prime minister of Iraq in 2004 and 2005), has impressive credentials. He holds a B.S. in civil and environmental engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology along with an M.B.A. from Harvard. He served as minister of defense and finance for the Iraqi government in 2005-6, and he is presently a senior visiting fellow at Princeton. When he talks politics, economics and history, he is quite convincing, but less so when he tackles philosophy and theology. His topic, in any case, would exhaust and defeat an army of scholars, so the best he could have managed was to raise a lot of provocative questions—and he has done just that.
The first—and one he never comes close to answering—is: What exactly is Islamic civilization? It is not just Islam, which he assumes will survive even the most baleful prospects of contemporary Islamic nations. It is not the original umma of Muhammad and his first companions; it is not the reign of the Abbasids (758-1258); and it is not the golden age of 10th-century Muslim Spain. It is not, to be sure, the Ottoman Empire, though Allawi cannot suppress a twinge of Ottoman nostalgia. In point of fact, he refuses to canonize any historical period or region as the supreme instance of Islamic civilization.
But that civilization did flourish once—for example, when the great 14th-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta set out on his epic journey of more than 70,000 miles across the length and breadth of the Muslim world through Africa, Asia and Europe, where, despite the spectacular diversity of peoples and languages, he always felt more or less at home. Whereas now there is the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai, the largest themed shopping center on the planet. And beyond the glitzy plutocratic excess of the Persian Gulf states lies the all but endless misery of the Muslim world: tyrannical, dysfunctional governments; anemic economies (Muslims make up 22 percent of the earth’s population, but produce only 6 percent of its wealth); wretched educational systems; confusion and anomie.
Allawi pulls no punches and spares no one, from Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists to rigid religious conservatives to Westernizing liberal elites. While he blames the dreadful legacy of colonialism, he acknowledges that Islamic civilization was in trouble long before the Europeans and Americans arrived. The scientific discoveries, technological innovations, military hardware, and sophisticated political and bureaucratic skills that the capitalist West brought in stunned Muslims, precisely because they were eons ahead of anything the Muslims had.
Well, none of that story is news; so what’s to be done now? Still scarred by his up-close-and-personal experience of Saddam’s Baathist nightmare and the sectarian bloodbath that followed, Allawi is not at all confident that the culture he loves can be saved. At times he wonders if it isn’t already lost. His solution is a return to Islam and Shariah. But, once again, what does he mean by that? Having damned both the ideological right and left, where specifically does he want to go?
Allawi does not say. He stresses Islam’s foundational vision of “the absolute transcendence of the divine essence”—but how does that differ from Judaism and Christianity? He is fond of Sufism and Muslim mysticism generally; but how could that esoteric doctrine become a faith for the masses? He speaks warmly of Shariah (or “the Sharia,” as in “the Torah”); but which version of it does he have in mind, especially since the Muslim world today gets by with borrowed Western law codes or mixtures of traditional and modern legislation (and the most “orthodox” Muslim country, Saudi Arabia, is a juridical dystopia)?
For non-Muslims, Allawi’s insistence on “the textual certainty of the Qur’an as the unaltered and unalterable word of God” creates further headaches. What are we to make of Allah’s command (4:34) to beat disobedient wives, cut the hands off thieves (5:38) or “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5)? Many Christians would likely argue that they have been down the road of sola Scriptura before, and they would just as soon avoid it. Fortunately for Allawi, he can assume that his Muslim readers believe without hesitation in a flawless divine text; so he need not descend into sticky details.
In the end, Allawi is oddly reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s narrator in The Waste Land: He throws up his hands in horror at the hideous conditions prevalent in the soulless secular status quo; yet he catches glimpses of salvation rooted in the oldest and apparently abandoned wellsprings of belief. And while quaffing his cup of three parts despair, one part hope, he has shored an interesting set of “fragments against my ruin”: re-interpretations of Islam by authors few Americans have heard of, like the Iranian Abd-el Karim Soroush; new social-charitable groups, like the ‘Adh wal Ihsan Society in Morocco; and a few cosmopolitan scholars, like the aforementioned Nasr.
But one or two swallows do not make a summer. He might feel better if he could go along with a Western-style privatization of religion, but he refuses to. So he is left with a long list of problems that he cannot handle: What is to become of the tens of millions of Muslims living anomalously in the kaffir First World? (They can’t emigrate to the U.A.E.) Can Muslims create a world banking system that does not charge interest? Can there be Muslim science (not value-free)? What about Muslim feminism and environmentalism (subjects Allawi barely touches)? He deplores godless moral relativism, but can’t there be noble atheists? And, finally, what about the secular classics of Muslim civilization, from the frankly impious poetry of Omar Khayyam to the wine-and-lust-filled Arabian Nights, the Persian Book of Kings or, newly translated from Urdu, the Adventures of Amir Hamza? Allawi does not breathe a word about such things. No matter, he raises enough issues—in a mostly balanced, well-documented way—to fuel a host of lively conversations (and heated disputes).