Islam and modernism VII – Gellner’s thinly veiled historic idealism

By Mohammad Reza Shalguni

Ernest Gellner is one of the most well known figures of modern sociology among Western academic circles and one of the most influential exponents of the Weberian tradition. Yet despite the apparent audacity of his views, he is firmly rooted in the mainstream. In this seventh of an eight-part Shalguni shows that not far beneath the surface of Gellner’s views lies a deeply held historic idealism, the bane of all who find Islam incompatible with modernity.In earliar chapters I had pointed out the majority of those who find Islam incompatible with modernity, and as the main obstacle to the modernisation of Islamic countries, directly or indirectly suffer from a form of historic idealism. Unsurprisingly, most try to disguise it. Today it would be difficult to defend the notion that humankind’s thoughts and perceptions are uninfluenced by changes in their material and social existence. Yet some of the analyses that are used to obscure or justify this historic idealism, not only fail to achieve their aim, but sometimes sink to the level of racist literature.

For a detailed critique of these analyses I refer the reader to other sources [1]. I cannot, however, resist briefly dwelling on some of the views of Ernest Gellner – to which I have eluded before [iran bulletin nos 17 and 18]. His example is illuminating since he is one of the most well known figures of modern sociology among Western academic circles and one of the most influential defenders of the Weberian tradition. Moreover, despite the apparent audacity of his views, he is firmly rooted in the mainstream. It would be impossible to ignore the conceptions and preconceptions of such a person as accidental or marginal. [2]

a. Islam: exception to the rule?

Gellner believes that among great religions, Islam is the only one that resists secularisation. He writes: “At the end of the Middle ages, the Old World contained four major civilisations. Of these three are now, in one mwasure or another, secularised. Christian doctrine is bowlderised by its own theologians, and deep, literal conviction is not conspicuous by its presence. In the Sinic world, a secular faith has become formally established and its religious predecesors disawowed. In the Indian world, a state and the elite are neutral vis—vis what is a pervasive folk religion, even if practices such as astrology continue to be widespread. But in one of the four civilisations, the Islamic, the situation is altogethr different” [3].

For Gellner this difference is an irrefutable observed fact. He refers to it repeatedly in his writings and tries to use it as a strong platform to launch his theories. But in truth what he shows us is not an observed fact, but an ill digested assessment of the relatively minor fact that in the last two decades, Islamism has been the most dynamic form of religious fundamentalism. This simple observation cannot, however, be blown up into a general thesis on the incompatibility of Islam and modernity, for the following reasons:

1. To extend a phenomenon of two decades to a history spanning fourteen centuries requires an audacity that might suit the advertising industry, but is lethal for a scientific analysis. I have pointed out in previous sections how, in its long history, Islam has absorbed a variety of intellectual and cultural currents. Compared with other religions Islam has not shown a singular inflexibility, and hence should not normally have any greater resistance to change when faced with modern culture.

Which Islam?

2. When comparing Islam with other religions, we must make it precisely clear what we speak of, and what comparisons we make. The meaning of “Islam” even when used to denote the religion of Islam is too general and imprecise to be useful in an analytical argument. Do we mean the collection of material known as the “Qur’an and the Sunna” compiled in various texts and ascribed to Allah and the Prophet; or is it the aggregate beliefs of the mass of Muslims in Iran today, or in Egypt five centuries ago.

Even if the term “Islam” is limited to the “Qur’an and the Sunna” we are still far from a reliable concept for analytical purposes. Most Islamic sects refer to the same anthology and come away with quite different, and even conflicting, deductions. I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as the “religion of Islam”, but to point out that to use it as a generic term in an analytical argument leads only into a tunnel of ambiguities.

Gellner’s problem is that in order to reach the conclusion he desires he needs a definition of the “religion of Islam” which is much more diffuse. He therefore speaks of Islamic “civilisation”. What is meant by this term is unclear: presumably the “religion of Islam” plus many other things! Gellner even used “civilisation” in a imprecise sense. It is unclear whether Islamic “civilisation” is being compared to the “religion” of Christianity or with the “world” of China or India. Elsewhere he uses “civilisation” with a meaning close to that of “culture” [4].

In all his generalisations two points are clear: Islam is different from other religions and religion is the defining element in “civilisation” or “culture” or “world”. This is a bold version of that same historic idealism.

Fragile secular states

3. It is also too early yet to conclude that Chinese or Indian religions have come to terms with modernity and secularism. The population of India and China are mainly rural while in the majority of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, which is where political Islam is on the offensive, over half the population are urbanised. Thus the majority of the Chinese and Indian population live in conditions clearly more traditional than those in the Middle East and North Africa. It would be naïve to think that the process of secularisation of religion in China and India has come to a certain end. The present official secularism in these countries is largely superficial and can crack in the subsequent stages of deeper modernisation.

The experience of Turkey may be instructive. The record of secularisation there, if not longer than China or India, is certainly not less. Over the last decade, with the spread of rural migration to the cities a powerful movement of political Islam is threatening the very existence of the Kemalist regime, [5] shattering the long-held belief that the 70 years of secularisation, supported by the Turkish state and the majority of its leaders, had reached a decisive conclusion.

The rise of the Hindu fundamentalist party BJP in the Indian scene shows that the crisis of official secularism has began there as well. The ultranationalist BJP gained power by fanning Hindu religious fanaticism, and in particular by directing it against Indian Muslims. It was the political earthquake of the pulling down of the Babri Mosque in December 1992 by BJP shock troops that transformed it into a powerful nation-wide party. It has followed the same policies in one way or other since. For example, its religious wing, the Vishva Hindu Prishad (VHP) is mobilising across India to destroy 3,000 Muslim mosques, claiming they have been erected on the ruins of Hindu temples. The BJP became the most powerful party in the land on three promises: to pass a law permitting the building of a temple on the ruins of the Babri Mosque, to remove the special status of Kashmir and to pass a unified civil law [6]. All three are a declaration of war on Indian Muslims and if realised would signal the beginning of the end of a secular state in India.

What has started in India, could also appear in China where 75% of the population still live in villages and the Maoist state is still in control. Both these can change with the rapid spread of capitalism. The government itself estimates that over the next few years over 300 million people will be urbanised. If, as is likely, there is a slowdown in the current high rate of capitalist growth in China, we may well witness the same trends there we saw in India. Furthermore, religious beliefs in China is more hidden than India, making conclusions about the irreversibility of official secularism more problematic. One thing, however, is certain. Religious beliefs there are more powerful than finds open expression. The experience of the former Soviet Union, where modernity had penetrated popular consciousness many times more than today’s China, and where state control over the religious apparatus was longer and harsher is instructive. Immediately after the Soviet state collapsed religion raised its head as a major political force, showing yet again that forced secularisation rarely weakens people’s beliefs, and indeed may strengthen them..

Already part-modernised

4. Gellner’s claims that there is an immovable dam against the spread of modernity in Islamic countries can be shown to be clearly false. In the last few centuries religion has lost its influence in many spheres of life. The evidence for the retreat of religion in the social life of the people is so widespread as to be undeniable. I will only give a few examples from Iran in the last few decades – the very same decades which saw the Islamic movement in the country at its most agressive.

Iran is a country where the clergy hold the reigns of power and are deliberately, and with all their might, trying to redefine and reconstruct all aspects of social life on the basis of Islamic sharia’. Experience, however, speaks for itself. The more they moved forward, the more they expose their inability to block the deeper processes of modernity:

The Shah’s so-called White Revolution of 1960’s, put an end to the alliance of the clergy and the monarchy, which had been forged after the war in the face of the potential nightmare of political power by the left. Almost the entire Shi’ite clergy went into open opposition with the state, with Khomeini at its head. They were provoked principally by the land reform and the giving of voting rights to women.

Fifteen years later women played a crucial role in broadening and making unbeatable the revolution that brought Khomeini to power. Khomeini’s main assault columns in the same revolution were the urban and rural destitute. Thus women and the peasants became a major headache for the new regime. On the one hand sharia’ demanded that both should be put down. On the other hand this meant calling the support bases of the revolution to a duel.

Faced with this contradiction the clergy quietly shelved some of its previous slogans and, for instance, accepted the right of women to vote. Moreover, having opposed, and on gaining power scrapped, the Shah’s Family Protection law of 1966 (minor reforms for women well within the framework of sharia’ laws) they sheepishly reinstated it after a decade of popular protest by women – if in a more conservative form.

Before they gained power the clergy saw the modern taxation system as against the sharia’ and claimed that through such religious taxes as khoms and zakkat they could arrive at a just society and a strong Islamic government. These claims too were quietly shelved when faced with running a modern state [7]. They also turned a similar blind eye to the laws of feqh on mines. To take the laws of the “lands of Islam” seriously

in an oil producing country would have been ruinous. The religious ban on music, the game of chess and eating of scale-less fish were also toned down after pressure from below. The feqh (religous law), in the name of which the clergy rule, has many chapters on slavery and special taxation on non-Muslims (jezieh) but they dare not mention these aloud – not just yet [8].

The most notorious and disputed example of such retraction was on the labour code. For years the explicit contradiction between normally accepted labour laws in modern capitalist societies and the concepts and principles of Islamic sharia’ meant that attempts to come up with a code was stuck in a blind circle. Khomeini and his circle freared that this festering dispute would provoke widespread labour unrest, especially in the heat of the Iran-Iraq war. He therefore pronounced a fatwa authorising the ratification of the Labour Code by the Majles (parliament) in 1987. He bypassed its incompatibility with the principles of Islamic feqh by sumsuming these under the umbrella of the “expedience of the system”. This is how he replied to the criticisms of some of his bewildered followers: “… government which is a branch of the absolute rule of Allah’s prophet … is one of Islam’s primary commandments (ahkam) and has priority over all subordinate commandments including prayers, fasting, the haj … Government can stop any undertaking, whether devotional or non-devotional whose conduct is against the interests of Islam, [and] for as long as it remains such” [9].

The very invention of the concept of the “expediency of the system”, placing it on par with “primary commandments” (or even above the latter so as to defend them) and the creation of an “Expediency Council” to preside over the Majles and the Council of Guardians can only mean one thing: under pressure of the modern world the most rabid defenders of Islamic government have admitted that in many arenas of modern life sharia’ is unenforceable. They have recognised the necessity of secularisation of the state. The ruling clergy has openly admitted that wherever “expediency”, and its own interests, demand it is prepared to abandon its self-declared mission – in the name of which it has shed a sea of blood [10].

No doubt all these retreats are to make Islamic rule more palatable, or in other words, to counter secularisation. Yet being a reaction to the pressures of contemporary society and life, they upset the ideological cohesion of the religious regime and reduce it capacity to survive. Two decades of religious state in Iran, has made the separation of religion and state into such a popular demand today that, without exaggeration, it can be said to be the greatest and most immediate threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic.

Obviously the temptation to generalise the Iranian experience should be resisted. That experience in the last few decades is in some ways special. Yet here is a country that has also displayed the most serious resistance against modernism. If secularism shows such a crushing power in this country, then we have to accept that in the “Islamic world” too, there are no unbridgeable barriers to modernity.

b. Opacity passing as explanation

Gellner assertion that Islam has become stronger in the last 100 years [11] reveals his remarkable lack of regard to reality as it is actually experienced. The reasons he gives for this further uncovers the disorder and lack of logic in his thinking. According to Gellner up to a century years ago Islamic history was made up by the confrontation of “High” and “Low Islam “.

The former are the urban ulema who rose principally from the merchant bourgeoisie, often combined learning and commerce and reflected the values and tastes of the urban middle class. This version of Islam encourages order, observing limits, alertness, and collecting knowledge while censoring abandoning onself and excessive passions. It stresses an extreme monotheism, and rejects any intermediary between God and man. The emphasis is on puritanism and scripturalism.

On the other side “Low Islam” alternatively known as “folk Islam” usually has a fuzzy barrier with magic and worship of local saints – who are usually living “sheikhs” and “elders”. It emphasises ecstasy and abandoning onself and has special regard for talismans and miracles. This version of Islam prevails especially among villagers, tribes and the urban poor. It is their means of escaping the rigours of poverty and deprivation. So if High Islam is the behavioural “charter” for the believer, Low Islam can be considered their tranquillising “opium”.

According to Gellener the two versions of Islam periodically confront one another when a religious reformer, of urban origin, begins a religious-tribal movement for cleaning up religion. He would gather around himself a group of tribes in order to turn Low into High Islam and destroy the polytheistic innovations and impurities. He would overthrow the central government in towns and, under the banner of religious reform, create a new ruling dynasty. But since the living conditions of peasants and tribal people clashes with the rigours and abstract concepts of High Islam, the control of the latter on rural and tribal areas weakens once again and the common people return to vulgar Islam, completing the cycle.

Gellner then goes on to argue that the modern spread of roads and communications and the improvement in military technology has created an effective political concentration, thereby drastically weakening the social basis for “Folk Islam”. Alongside urbanisation “High Islam” gained strength. The pattern of periodic religious reforms gave way to an irreversible religious reform. The new Islamic community took shape with a “uniform umma” (community of believers) [12].

Gellner’s has reached his conclusions by ignoring large tracts of historic facts and observed experience. The more he goes into detail, the more the frailty of his views are unmasked. I will summarise his main weaknesses.

Irreducible essence or essentialism

1. The most important weakness in Gellner’s theories is in his analytical methodology where he insists on offering a general historic model for the development of “Islamic societies”. With a dogmatic frankness, he insists that he is after general investigative models, and believes that such a model exists for “traditional Islam”. He pursues his methodology with such dogma that he dismisses as exceptions to the rule those instances which he cannot manipulate into conforming to his “general model” [14]. Not withstanding their variety, he insists on a common determining feature in all “Islamic societies”, one which determines their common fates and distinguishes them from other societies.

Yet the common specific strand that runs through say Mauritania and Malaysia or Uzbekistan and Indonesia, is no other than the belief of the majority of the population in Islam. To insist on their common fate, in a period spanning over a millennium, uncovers the most superstitious historic idealism.

With the help of anthropological studies (limited to the slopes of the Atlas mountains in N Africa) Gellner is trying to propagate the same pre-conceptions that previously Hegel (under the guise of philosophy of history), Weber (under the cover of sociology), Renan (under the cloak of linguistics), and others (under other apparently scientific masks) did. Clearly someone like Gellner, cannot talk at the end of the 20th century with the same tone as such racists as Gobinaux or Renan in the era of colonial empires; but his analytical style shows that he, wittingly or otherwise, follows their very same logic and tradition.

Aziz Al-Azmeh, criticising the intellectual tradition of the Orientalists, says their “Islamic studies is thus a cluster of pseudo-causal chains. These chains are meant eventually to be reducible to the irreducible essence of Islam, which really performs an explanatory function very much akin to the of Plogistine in 18th century chemistry.” Al-Azmeh calls the creature they paint homo islamicus “structured by the three meta-historical notions…: unreason, despotism and backwardness” that is the exact “inversion of the three cardinal notions through which the bourgeois-capitalist epoch conceives itself: reason, freedom and perfectibility” [15].

Gellner’s analysis is the latest and most telling of the “Islamic studies” Al-Azmeh has in mind. Indeed the “irreducible essence of Islam” has a central role in Gellner’s “general model”. It is this irreducible, hence inexplicable, essence of Islam that distinguishes it from all other religions. It is this that makes it the only religion indigestible to modernity.

Gellner’s theory is even more illogical than Samuel Huntington’s celebrated “clash of civilisations” –a political view that justifies the global strategy of US imperialism in the period after the end of the Cold War. Despite all his illogicalities, Huntington uses a clear logic when he argues that the gulf in values between Western civilisation and the other six civilisations he refers to is central to the inevitable clash of civilisations. Gellner never makes the origins of this “exceptional essence” of Islam clear.

Mystical sprit of Islam

2. Gellner admits to basing his “general model” on ibn Khaldun’s historic views, makes it more palatable by adding materials from David Hume and Max Weber and sauces this concoction with some of his own anthropological studies on popular religious views in North Africa? Yet despite all these efforts, what Gellner presents is clearly more irrational and incomprehensible than ibn Khaldun’s views.

Firstly, ibn Khaldun’s had based his theories on a form of geographic materialism. What underlies Gellner’s “general model” is a belief in the mystical spirit of Islam which surfaces under different circumstances (even when a confrontation between urban dwellers and nomads is no longer meangful) and under different guises to haunt homo islamicus.

Secondly, ibn Khaldun’s theory, at least in his view, was not exclusive to Islamic lands, but addressed relations between nomadic tribes and political power in agricultural societies in general [16]. Gellner, who tries to cut a garment for Islam out of this thesis, transforms this relationship into a special characteristics of Islamic societies. In the process he stretches the interpretaion of the relations between “centre-periphery” so much that the question of what periodically provokes the nomadic tribes against the city dweller is lost: was it the powerful scripturalism and puritanism permanently inherent to Islam or was it a disturbance in the balance of power between the tribes and political power in the centre? Apparently ibn Khaldun, writing six centuries before Gellner, was more bound to the logic of studying documented history [17].

Gellner, of course, insists that the confrontation between High and Low Islam is a function of the periodic political confrontation of the centre-periphery. Yet he himself does not always stay true to this principle. Otherwise he has to accept that neither the confrontations of nomadic tribes and agricultural society, nor the relation of these tribes to political power in these societies are necessarily linked to Islam nor confined to this religion.

Thirdly, Gellner model regarding the confrontation of High and Low Islam is fundamentally an imaginary model. In pre-modern societies the difference between “high” or official religion and popular religion, and their occasional confrontation, is a general phenomenon and by no means confined to the “world of Islam”. How else are we to explain the presence for six centuries of the inquisition in Christian Europe? [18].

Moreover, despite Gellner’s claims, in the “Islamic world” too what differentiates high and low religion was more the gulf and conflict between classes rather than differences between the living conditions of urban dwellers and nomadic tribes. The influence of low Islam extends to not just nomads, but also to peasants and the urban poor. Even Gellner had to admit this – if only in passing. He justifies his model, however, by introducing nomadic tribes as the main carriers of “low Islam”. Yet the peasants (the largest class and also the main creator of wealth in these societies) undoubtedly had a much more important role in reproducing “low Islam”.

Fourthly, Gellner in practice confuses “low Islam” with mystical Islam. This is one of his biggest mistakes. It is true that in much of the “Islamic world” a mystical version of Islam, under the name of Sufism or tariqat, was active alongside the Islam of the faqihs and sharia’. Every once in a while these two clashed. It is also true that sharia’ had greater status among the upper classes and was intertwined with political power as a lever for social control. In contrast, tariqat offered an inward interpretation of Islam, and instead of clinging to the appearance and religious rituals, emphasised the individual’s internal experience and spiritual knowledge and proposed social easing and contentment. It had a greater attraction for the lower classes and the majority of the ruled. Yet, tariqat can in no way be equated with “common Islam”. Indeed, compared to sharia’, tariqat opens up wider horizons for its followers. It expressed a more complex view of the world and mankind. More importantly, the centres of mystical Islam was predominately urban. To ascribe it to nomadic tribes or even villagers is to distort historic realities. Vulgar versions of tariqat (and indeed sharia’) were doubtless rife among some tribes and many villages. Yet their presence neither denotes the identity of mystical and common Islam nor a non-urban source for the former.

Uncontested high Islam

3. Gellner’s breaks with retionality is at its greatest when he tries to explain the relation between the past and the present of “Islamic societies”. He claims that in the last century, technological breakthroughs has given the central government unprecedented powers which no tribe can withstand. With tribal power vis a vis state power becoming meaningless, “low Islam” has also lost its meaning. High Islam now stands unchallenged.

Why should High Islam not only remained untouched, but become stronger and the sole contender? This is where Gellner’s naked historic idealism, and theoretical contradictions reveals themselves, which he tries to hide this by resorting to the confrontation of Islam and colonialism [19].

I would argue that, firstly, the confrontation of Islam and colonialism (either directly or in an indirect form) could only strengthen the religious solidarity of Muslims for a limited period. For Gellner the incompatibility of Islam and secularism is not a passing phenomenon, but an essential attribute of Islam. He speaks of the absolute flight of Islam from secularism. Secondly, confrontation with colonialism was not confined to the “Islamic world”. The majority of the people in Asia, most of who are neither Muslim nor Christian, have been in one way or another in the last two centuries in conflict with colonialism and the domination of major powers. Why then have only Muslims, according to Gellner, stuck to their religious dogmas?

Thirdly, the the confrontation of the “Islamic world” and colonial powers in the last century had not always, and everywhere, strengthened Islam. On the contrary, on the whole it has reduced the influence of religion, especially traditional religion [20]. What has encouraged the activity of traditional Islam in some periods of this confrontation has been the contradictions and unevenness of the process of modernisation of these societies, more than the confrontation itself.

The big discrepancy in Gellner’s thesis of “confrontation with colonialism” is that indirectly he presents “High Islam”, in its conflict with the outside world, as beyond change and invincible. Why “high Islam” should remain immutable in its confrontation with world conquering “western” culture – which is undoubtedly the active and critical pole of this confrontation – and even attain greater influence and uniformity remains unclear. None of Gellner’s explanations can cover the logical breaks in his thesis.

Even if we accept all his assertions about the previous history of Islam we are still left wondering why “Islamic societies” cannot accept secularism because of this past. Of course Gellner is not alone in this logical breaks. All those who refer to this or that characteristic of the past history of the “Islamic societies” to doubt the ability of these societies to become secularised and modernised face the same dilemma [21].

False image

4. The picture Gellner paints of contemporary “Islamic societies” has little relation to reality as it exists there. To save space I will allude to only a few: Gellner claims that in today’s world Islam can create a uniform umma (community), which defines itself through its religious identity, and therefore, without acute internal clashes, can create a stable society. He says that Islam creates a society which functions well without individualism and plurality of views [22]. Those who know the Islamic world from the inside, and particularly those who have experienced the hell of the Islamic Republic over the last two decades, know well how inverted this picture is.

In Iran a continuous civil war, one can call a cultural war, has been ongoing. Throughout the whole period a form of mass passive resistance, with a solid central core of at least 7-8 million people, has been active against the cultural policies of the regime. Using the hit and run tactics of guerrilla warfare, they have worn down the support base of the regime. Today a clear majority of the population completely confront the regime. Gellner, who was greatly influenced by the Islamic revolution in Iran in formulating his theories, refering indirectly to that country, claims that in the “new puritancal religion” of Islam the leaders, because issues of conscience play an important role, are less likely to be corrupted even after attaining political power [23]. Tell this to tens of millions of Iranians, who are reeling form rampant and singular corruption of the Islamic leaders there.

Gellner claims that in confrontation with Europe, Islam can escape the cross roads of backwardness: turning its back to its traditions or turning away from the requirements of industrialisation. He says that in Islamic countries, the shock from the blows of the West has never pushed “Islamic thinkers” into two extreme poles of westernisers and populists as happened, for instance, in Russia [24].

Is the very appearance of Islamism not itself a clear reason of the polarisation of “Islamic societies”, compared to which what happened to Russian intellectuals confronted by the West is a mere joke. Today in most Islamic countries that have deeply absorbed the “blows of the West” cultural schizophrenia has become a paralysing social phenomenon.

Gellner considers the Islamic umma that took shape in confrontation with the West as so homogenous that he denies the chance of creating any crack in it, and hence the likelihood of intellectual pluralism resulting in secularism. He even criticises the views of Charles Lindholm – who while accepting Gellner’s central thesis, has proposed that like in the USA, a move towards religion may end up in a powerful civil society and hence democracy. Gellner says American puritans went for simplicity only because they were in a minority, and after the defeat of the English revolution had abandoned the thought of imposing their views on the whole of society. Muslims, on the other hand, are in a majority and bound by their obligations [25].

Is not the massive popular pull towards secularism in Iran a living negation of these views? Of course this pull is not limited to Iran. The very pressures of Islamism to make the whole of society religious can increase the pull to secularism in “Islamic societies” [26].

If a theory’s closeness to reality is held to be the main proof of its correctness, then Gellner’s views must be judged as being way off the mark. The difficulty of Gellner, as for the Orientalists and Weberites, is that in their attempt to explain the causes and reasons for spread of modernism, they cling above all to its European origins. Yet what has made modernity global is, essentially, the capitalist mode of production. And although capitalism did arise in Europe, it could not remain limited to that zone. In order to study the capacity and obstacles, for the spread of modernity and also its contradictions, one cannot ignore the logic of capitalism.

To be continued


1. Of course some valuable work has been done in this field: See Aziz Al-Azmeh: Islam and modernities, Verso 1993; Sami Zubaida: Islam, the people and the state, Routledge, 1989; Edward Said: Orientalism, Penguin Books, 1995.
2. Gellner’s reputation is such that despite his open enmity with Marxism, one of the most reputable publications of left views in the West celebrates him. See New Left Review 215 and 221.
3. Ernest Gellner: Postmodernism, reason and religion. London 1992, pp5-6.
4. In Conditions of liberty, which is probably the last book he wrote before his death, he writes of “four literate civilisations” each of which have their own “specific religion or religious groups” (page 15). In Muslim Society he speaks of the “four major world literate civilisations” (page 4).
5. Interestingly Gellner uses the Turkish experience as another example of the incompatibilty between Islam and modernism. For example in his article called Kemalism [E Gellner: Encounter with nationalism. Oxford 1994 pp 81-91] he points to P Sterling’s analysis – where spread of rulal migration to cities is considered one of the main elements underlying the strengthening of political Islam – while claiming to be influenced by Sterling’s explanation, by insisting on his particular intrepretation of the views of Ibn Khaldun, he reveals that his words are no more than a gesture. He even points to the ideological rigidity of Kemalism as a form of the “a kind of perpetuation of High Islam” and the repeated coup d’etats by the Turkish military as “The consequence seems to be a new version of cyclical politics, though rather diferent from the fmous theory of Ibn Khaldun” .
6. Economist April 4, 1998. For the increasing religious and nationalist dogmatism see Achin Vanaick. The Furies of Indian Communalism. Verso 1997.
7. After Khomeini gained power, he saw the rules relating to khoms and zakat as being so out of their time that he called those who defended their use “ignorant” and out of touch with the needs of modern society. “The share of the iman is only enough to run the seminaries … where are we going to get the share of the imam and the sadat [direct decendents of Mohammad – to whom zakat belongs] to run a government? We could not run all these people who are stuck to the government and cost money”. Sahifeh Nur volume 18, p 292 quoted in Akbar Ganji, Kian monthly no 41 [in Farsi].

8. They have not abadoned them, but do not dare EJRA this under the pressure of today’s values institutionalised in society. When they get a chance they do not hesitate to EJRA them. The massacre of political prisoners in 1981-4 and especially the summer of 1988 was not just an uncontrolled barbarism. It was the EJRA of theose very sharia’ laws and commandments. More frighteninly was the rape of virgin girls bbefore execution. Under sharia’ law they are captives of war, and therefore slaves! As a result their rape was carried out as a sharia’ comandmen!
9. Safieh Nur. Book 20, p170 quoted in Ganji ibid.
10. For more examples on the inevitable proceess of seculariasation of the state see Jahangir Saleh-Pour: the process of secularisation of Shi’i feqh. Kian no 24; and Akbar Ganji: Religious state and state religion. Kian no 41
11.See Conditions of liberty p 15
12. See Gellner Muslim society, especially chapter one. For a more concise description see Conditions of liberty chapter 3; and Postmodernism, reason and religion pp 22-4
13. See his defence of his views in The social philosophy of Ernest Gellner, Amsterdam 1996. A summary of this was oublished in New Left Review no 221 after his death.
14. For example he admits that the Ottoman empire cannot be explained on the Ibn Khadunian model. Yet he is not prepared to see it as another model alongside his prefared model, but as an exception. See Muslim society ibid p 74 or Encounter with nationalisms ibid p 90.
15. Aziz Al-Azmeh. Islams and modernities. Verso 1993 pp 137-139.
16. See iran Bulletin nos 12 and 13.
17. “In this book I…… will recall … events in this part of the lands of the west… without talking of other lands. Because I have no knowledge of the state of affairs in the east and its nations and narrated accounts are inadequate to reach to the essence of that which I want” Ibn Khaldun: Introduction. Farsi translation pp 59-61
18. Antonio Gramsci writes: “The strength of the Catholic Church has consisted and still consists in the fact that it feels strongly the necessity for the doctrinal unity of all the mass of ‘religious’ people and strives to prevent the intellectually superior levels from splitting away from the inferior levels. The Roman Church has always been the most tenacious in the struggle to prevent the ‘official’ formation of the two religions, that of the intellectuals and that of the ordinary believer.” Quoted in David McLellan. Marxism and religion p 122
19. He says: “Colonialism could do for Islam something similar to that which the dispersion effected Judaism. And … the inner intensity can be kept alive even after independence, fed by the jealousy felt by the lower urban orders when contemplating their co-national, co-religious, but nevertheless inevitably more or less westernised rulers.” E Gellner. Muslim Society. Cambridge 1983, p 66
20. For developments in in Islamic movements of the last two centuries see YM Choueiri. Islamic fundamentalism. London 1990
21. Included among tehs is Bertrand Badie in Les deux etats: Pouvoire et societe en Occident et en terre d’Islam. Paris 1986 who refers to the past hsitories of Islamic countries to conclude the imposibilty of separation of religion and state in them.
22. Conditions of liberty p 29.
23. Muslim society p 66.
24. Postmodernism, reason and religion p 19.
25. See footnote 13
26. See for example O Roy. The failure of political Islam. London 1994 p 199


Islam and Modernism by Mohammad Reza Shalguni – overview

Part I Discusses how Islam is no more incompatible with modernisation or even modern culture than other religions.
Part II continues with a critique of Ibn-Khaldun’s influential historic views:
q Islamic civilisation is not principally that of desert tribes.
q The steppe or the desert was not the birthplace of many radical Islamic revolts.
q Many nomadic uprisings were non-Islamic, and many in fact came to the aid of monarchies in wealthy urban lands.
n The historical materialist perspective on Ibn-Khaldun’s and related views on history
Part III Examines Islamic teachings and compares them to other religions to demonstrate they are no more, or less, rigid and immutable.
Part IV Uses the relation of Islam to women to argue that the mechanisms through which modernisation was introduced to Islamic lands caused the current crisis rather than the innate resistance of Islam as a religion.
Part V Reviews racist-imperialist, anti-democratic and radical ways of confronting the question of modernisation in Muslim lands.
Part VI Argues that despite some views Islam is open to modernity.
Part VII Is a discussion of Ernest Gellner and his thinly disguised historic idealism
Part VIII Is dedicated to a critique if the positions of the left

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