Islam and modernism I – Religions and social change

Mohammad-Reza Shalguni

Islam is no more incompatible with modernisation or even modern culture than other religions
There is a view that in countries where Muslims form the majority, Islam is incompatible with modern culture and, even more, with the modernisation. With the creation of the Islamic republic in Iran and the spread of Islamism as a dynamic mass movement in some Muslim countries this view has apparently gained the reputation of being irrefutable. Questioning such a view is conceived as opposition to modernism.
One factor that gives this view its apparent immutable quality is the breadth and variety of the persons holding it. Approached from different methodological routes and pursuing different aims, they range from racist groups in the West and the most rabid imperialist circles to some of the most radical political and intellectual circles in Muslim countries. This might today be one of the few opinions shared by, say, the public relations of an oil company or arms exporter to the Persian Gulf and a left-radical group from the same region.
Its very breadth and heterogeneity gives it its apparent logic. Some argue that the very existence of such diverse unanimity is the reason for its correctness. This is akin to St Anslem’s logic in Mediaeval taking belief by diverse races in the existence of God as the greatest proof of God’s existence.
However, the belief that Islam and modernism cannot coexist is theoretically untenable and misleading and politically dangerous. I will explain.

Part I. Religion and social change

Weber and Weberites

The general or methodological problem with this view is that, directly or by implication, it gives an unnecessarily important role to the agency of thought in social change. Those who seek the crisis of modernisation in Islamic countries in the incompatibility of Islam and modernism, consciously or otherwise, ignore or undervalue many important factors.
Intellectual factors play an undoubted role in social change. In particular junctures they may even become the deciding factor. But when, over a physical space as broad as that occupied by Islamic countries and a time scale spanning one or even two centuries, Muslim religious beliefs are presented as the factor in their backwardness, or their resistance to accepting modern culture, it is like vainly trying to walk on ones head.
Many holders of these views, looking for a strong theoretical base for their arguments, often resort to the views of Max Weber on the role of Protestantism in the formation of capitalism. Yet this view is untenable even with the aid of Max Weber. Notwithstanding current interpretations, Max Weber never said that throughout history, and everywhere, people’s belief, and especially their religious belief, have a determining role in social changes. He merely argued that Protestantism had a deciding role in the appearance of capitalism in late 16th and early 17th Century Britain, Holland and New England. In other words Weber was explaining a historical conjuncture rather than expounding a thesis on the general relationship of religion and social change throughout history.
Moreover, Max Weber’s assertion that the Protestant ethics had a role in the shaping of “capitalist spirit” (Geist) is itself indefensible. If Protestant ethics was the decisive factor in the formation of the “capitalist spirit” capitalism would have remained entrapped among Protestant Christians. Is the “capitalist spirit” really weaker in, say, Japan than Holland? Have Taiwanese, Hong Kongese or Koreans left their religions (which Weber views as being obstacles to the shaping of conditions giving birth to capitalism) when capitalism bares its “spirit” with such abandon in their lands.
Weber gives Protestant ethics not only historical priority over the spirit of capitalism but also confers to it a determining role in its formation. In order to understand more clearly the meaning of Weber’s statement let us tease out two separate thesis entwined in his statement:
The first thesis insists on the historic primacy of Protestant ethics on the appearance of the spirit of capitalism. The key question is where and when? If Weber confined his analysis to North West Europe and the North East coast of what became the United States one would have little to quarrel with. But if he is saying that everywhere and at all times for the “capitalist spirit” to appear you need to inject something similar to the Protestant ethics (which looking at Weber’s studies of other religions is what he apparently does say) then his words do not tally with the historic facts.
In real life, every society where the “spirit of capitalism” penetrated, it was neither preceded by Protestantism prior to its penetration, nor even changes in the dominant religious belief of the people to produce something akin to Protestant ethics. Thus even Weber’s first thesis: for the appearance of Protestant ethics as one of the pre-conditions for the penetration of the “capitalist spirit” (and not the determining factor, which is at the core of the second thesis), is difficult to defend when confronted with historic reality.
Without moving away from Weber’s analysis in space and time let us ask how the spirit of capitalism entered France? We know that the spirit of capitalism penetrated France later than Holland or Britain and before it did Germany. How did Weber explain this absence of temporal conjuncture. He did so by pointing to the differences between Lutheran and Calvinian Protestantism. Weber states that the “Protestant ethics” conducive of the “capitalist Geist” was better developed in the Calvinic branch (and related doctrines) rather than the Lutheran branch. This explanation might neatly explain the later descent of the “Geist” in Germany and France compared to Britain and Holland but would have difficulty in explaining its earlier penetration of France compared to Germany – both major capitalist countries.
There can be little doubt that 16th and 17th Century France was one of the main theatres of battle for Calvinism. Yet Calvinism was ultimately defeated there. Indeed the capitalist Geist entered France at a time when the religion of most French people was Catholicism. Moreover it was Catholic France which witnessed the Geist before Protestant Germany. Finally the “spirit” entered France and Germany at a time when neither France had abandoned Catholicism, nor Germany had exchanged the Lutheran for the Calvinist interpretation of Protestantism.
It may have been awareness of these incongruities which gave rise to doubts in Weber himself about his own theory such that he rejected the interpretation of his theories which presents the capitalist Geist as the result and product of Calvinist ethics as “a foolish and doctrinaire thesis” [1]Weber, Max. Protestant Ethics and the capitalist spirit. Part I, Chapter 3, Giddens A. Politics and sociology in the thoughts of Max Weber. Giddens A. Politics and sociology in the thoughts of Max Weber.. The same inconsistencies has led some of his disciples to present a less rigid interpretation of his thesis by claiming that Weber considered the determining effects of Calvinism not in what the latter actively did, but rather in what it did not do.
This particular interpretation claims that the importance of Calvinism lies in the fact that, unlike other religions, it did not kill the spirit of intellectual indulgence and adventurism [2]Parkin, Frank. Max Weber. London 1991 pp43-4. Even if we accept this interpretation we are still left with the inconsistency. We still need to explain when and why Calvinic ethics arose.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Calvinism took shape in conditions of the break-up of feudal relations in Europe and itself was a product of the process of transition from feudalism to capitalism and not a factor in this transition (let alone a determining factor). This of course does not mean that in particular times and specific places Calvinism did not facilitate and indeed speed up the transition to capitalism.
The problem goes further. Many studies have shown that the relation Weber sees between Calvinism and the capitalist Geist was non-existent even in Britain and Holland of the late 16th Century and early 17th century. It has been argued that during this period in Holland it was economic factors, and not Protestant ethics, that promoted the birth of capitalism. Others have shown that contrary to Weber’s assertion, Calvinic ethics rather than promoting the accumulation of capital, and in particular rational calculation, even possessed some anti-capitalist characteristics [3]3. Turner, Bryan. Weber and Islam. London 1974[4]4. Giddens A. Politics and sociology in the thoughts of Max Weber..
Research on the formation and transformation of various religions, including religious development in Europe during the birth of capitalism, convincingly show the correctness of explanations offered by Historical Materialism. If we see religious development, like all other developments in the realm of culture, not as independent entities but as variables dependent on the mode of production, we must presumably accept that religions too, sooner or later, change with changes in the mode of production.
This is not to conceive of religions as passive systems, without internal dynamics, blindly following developments in modes of production. If an idealistic interpretation of the historic evolution of society is incorrect, equally incorrect and misleading is a vulgar and mechanical materialistic understanding of these developments. Such explanations conflicts with the dialectic spirit of Marxist analysis.
While staying faithful to the general line of historical materialism on the links between religious belief and the mode of production, we must be aware that religions, and in particular well established and entrenched religions, fulfil a generally conservative role in the process of modernisation.
The reasons are not hard to find: religion is meaningless without the concept of “holy” which in turn needs defenders to insist on the observance of the limits, and prevent any assault on the holy. Therefore, in every religion there not only exists a belief system that is beyond question, but also a social group with a vested interest in defending it. The two are complementary and reinforce each other: the holy demands protectors and the protectors cannot allow the holy to be weakened. A crack in one is followed by the same in the other.
Modernisation requires that ever wider spheres of life are secularised and made available for debate and questioning. Whatever is sacred comes under threat. In the process of modernisation “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane” [Communist Manifesto]. For this reason a conflict between modernisation and religion is natural and unavoidable.
The more deep rooted, entrenched, with longer traditions a religion, the better shaped and tightly knit its clerical apparatus, the stronger its resistance normally to modernisation. This of course is exactly opposed to what Max Weber tries to convince us on the role of Calvinism. Even if we accept Weber’s views on this score (which for reasons laid out above is doubtful) we must still accept it as an apparent exception to a rule.

Exceptional circumstances

To define further the retarding effect of religion on modernisation we must detour for a footnote: In certain junctures the most traditional of religions (occasionally even the most primitive and fossilised of religious beliefs) can play a positive and accelerating role on the process of modernisation.
It has often been overlooked that the emphasis laid by Historical Materialism on the general subservience of cultural (including religious) developments on the process of evolution of the mode of production is by no means a symmetrical relationship between the two threads of development. What on the more general level, and over the whole thread of time, is a consequence of the mode of production, can in this or that juncture take on the task of accelerating, or keeping back, the development of that mode of production. Similarly an intellectual process clearly at odds with the process of evolution of a mode of production can in a particular historical moment ease that development.
Regardless of ones views on Mahatma Gandhi and his beliefs, it is difficult to deny his central role in the Indian independence movement for at least a period, nor that the Independence movement was part of the process of modernisation in India. Yet Gandhi held some convictions that were in themselves highly conservative and even reactionary. Yet these very beliefs had such a pivotal role in provoking and popularising the independence movement. This example and many others, are not an exception to the rule but are indeed the realisation of those very rules in exceptional circumstances.
Why did defenders of religious tradition in India join the independence movement? The answer is clear: to defend their “beliefs”, their traditional, even fossilised culture. Yet they participated in a movement, and even played a large role in popularising, speeding up and strengthening that movement, which was an essential part of the process of modernisation. Neither can this role be ignored, nor the essentially conservative nature of Indian religious beliefs be disregarded because of the part it played in the independence movement. Put differently, it was not the innate nature of Indian religious beliefs that gave them a positive role in the independence movement; the role was thrust on them by the dialectic of a particular historical situation.
If Indians had been Christians and particularly Anglicans, then religion would have been unlikely to play such a role in the independence struggle. This observation does not make Anglicanism, or Christianity as a whole, less compatible with modernism or more conservative than say, Hinduism. What made religious Indians more determined to join the struggle was their holding of different religious beliefs than their colonial rulers. Not being a co-religionist is not a belief-system but a conjunctural factor.
Attention to the dialectics of historic-social conditions requires that no belief or system of beliefs intrinsically once and for all time, and in every circumstance, warrant being landed with a positive or negative role, out of context of the social conditions for their existence and function. In a single historic or social circumstance a conservative belief may play a positive role while a modern belief acts as a hindrance. This is not only true of religions but other spheres of thought.
For Engels, the conservative Walter Scott had a more revolutionary understanding of historic developments than the revolutionary Byron. Both he and Marx considered that the monarchist Balzac’s “Comédie Humain” more closely reflected the social relations of late 18th century early 19th century France than many more progressive analysts. The sharpness of Balzac and Scott’s vision was not despite their conservative views, but can be said to be to some extent the by-product of their conservative views. In the same way perhaps that Malthus’ reactionary position, allowed him to see a point missed by his opponent Ricardo: that in a capitalist society economic balance cannot be automatically achieved through the market.
Indeed, Max Weber’s own analysis on the role of Calvinic ethics in the formation of early capitalism in Europe show that even were Weber’s observations to be correct – on this point too we are firstly facing a conjunctural factor, and secondly, witnessing an interesting example of asymmetrical relationship between a belief system and changes in the mode of production for the following reasons:
Firstly, one cannot defend the concept of Calvinic ethics being an essential common backdrop for the formation and persistence of capitalism. Otherwise, as we saw above, we can neither explain capitalism in, say, Japan and South Korea nor its persistence in the ultra-consumerist and wasteful capitalist societies of today.Secondly, the doctrines of predestination, aestheticism, and a totalitarian religious view of life and society are not an inherent component of capitalist logic and, indeed, are normally incompatible with it. Yet Weber insist that it is just these very set of beliefs in Calvinism that aided the formation of capitalism in Europe. Therefore, even if we accept Weber’s analysis, we must appreciate it simply as an asymmetry in the belief-system versus the productive system at a particular time and place, and no more.
However, if the positive effect of Calvinist thought on the initial shaping of capitalism is accepted as, at most, a conjunctural factor, then:
First: it is impossible to compromise with the historic idealism of Weber and the Weberites. A conjunctural relationship between Calvinic ethics and early capitalism pulls the plug from the main core of Weber’s historic idealism which he tries to prove in his extensive research on world religions.
Second: one cannot be indifferent to the conservative role played, usually and as a rule, by dominant religions with deep roots in society on the process of modernisation.
Third: substantiation of the role of Calvinist ethics on the formation of early capitalism cannot by itself be used to prove the incompatibility of other religions with the logic of capitalism.
Four: if Christian asceticism, under certain conditions, can compromise with, or even encourage, the most earthy of economic spirits, there is no reason why other religions cannot be so portrayed under any circumstances.

Part II. Is Islam too rigid?

Today, unlike the last century, and even the early years of this century there are few, even in the West, who try to present Western culture in isolation. Few would argue now that modernity is a tree that can only grow on Western soil. Yet if the cultural essentialism, as far as Western culture is concerned, has few buyers, when it comes to Islam there are no shortage of devotees. Indeed the increasing dramatisation of the confrontation of Islam and the West provides fodder for essentialists on both sides of the divide.

Nation by ©Ardeshir Mohassess

Nation by Ardeshir Mohassess

One of the commonest, and apparently irrefutable, arguments used by the proponents of the thesis that Islam and modernity are incompatible is to point to the periodic appearance of religious fundamentalism in Islam.
History is used to argue that the teachings of Islam, from jihad to amr-e be ma’ruf va nahy as monkar [5]5. To direct [the believer] towards the truth and warn against the forbidden etc. have always had a role in inciting primitive, coarse and improvished communities and groups against more complex, cultured and wealthy ones. This antagonism was the cause of the cyclic disintegration and regression of such societies. Like Max Weber, many consider Islam a “religion of warriors”, an obstacle in the process where civil society becomes more complex and developed in general, and in the specific process of modernism in particular.
It is clear that in the Middle Ages many social and class movements, not only in the East but in Europe, took on a religious cloak. There can also be little doubt that in lands where Islam had become the dominant religion, in certain historic eras there were highly destructive cyclic attacks by nomadic tribes on towns and centres of flourishing agriculture. Some of these, did indeed take on the cloak of religious fundamentalism. But to present Islamic teachings as the motive for these attacks is to fully misunderstand a long era in the history of Islamic lands and the East.
Many who see Islam as a religion of war, and cite the cyclic fundamentalist religious movements in its history as their evidence, have in one form or another been influenced by Abdol-Rahman Ibn-Khaldun – or a particular interpretation of his historic views. Ibn-Khaldun’s influence is such that someone with as broad a vision Engels did not entirely escaped it. Engels does not blame Islamic teachings for causing and motivating the invasions by nomadic tribes to wealthier agricultural lands. But even he sees Islam as a religion wherein “lies the embryo of a periodically recurring collision”, and something more than a “flag and mask” as was Christianity in the west. [6]6. Islam is a religion adapted to orientals, especially Arabs, i.e. on the one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry and on the other to nomadic bedouins. Therin lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The towns people grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the “law”. The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a mahdi, to chasticize the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades. In a hundred years they are naturally in the same position as the renegades were: a new purge of the faith is required….All these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes; and yet, even when they are victorious, they allow the old economic conditions to persist untouched. So the old situation remains unchanged and the collision recurs periodically. In the popular risings of the Christian West, on the contrary, the religious disguise is only a flag and mask for the attacks on the economic order which is becoming antiquated. This is finally overthrown, a new one arises and the world progresses. Engels. On the History of early Christianity. Marx and Engels on Religion. Progress Publications, Moscow
Such an understanding of history of Muslim countries, and even of Ibn-Khaldun is incorrect for the following reasons:

A. Ibn-Khaldun misread

Despite misreading by some Western analysts Ibn-Khaldun did not consider Islamic teachings as the motive for the cyclic waves of invasion by nomadic tribes to agricultural lands but, conversely, explains the appearance of Islam by the logic of these periodic attacks.
It should be pointed out that the meaning of asabiyya (a tribal corporate spirit and solidarity orientated towards obtaining and keeping power), which is Ibn-Khaldun’s core concept, relates to social relations and not to ideas. In other words, he did not believe in historic idealism, but based his historic views on a form of materialism, more accurately, geographic determinism.
He explicitly ascribes the appearance of Islam to the emergence and expression of the asabiyya of Bani Mozar, a branch of the Arabs of which the tribe Quraysh [7]7. The tribe to which Mohammad belonged belonged [8]8. See Ibn Khaldun. Muquadimma (Prolegomena), 3 vols. English translation F Rosenthal London, 1958.. That is he considered Islam as being the result of these recurring cycles.
Moreover, Ibn-Khaldun’s cyclic view of history is not confined to Islamic lands. He saw this as a general historic law universally applicable. He can thus be considered the ancestor of such historians as Vico, Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, all believers in a cyclic movement of history.

B. Cyclic invasions not confined to Islamic lands.

The importance of Ibn Khaldun’s views is that he throws light on an important happening during a period of human history, namely the frictions between pasturing and agricultural communities or between nomadic and settled tribes. These frictions are not confined to Islamic lands nor have any relation to Islamic teachings.
For example, it would not be possible to explain the duality existing in many pre-Islamic Iranian religions such a Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism without these frictions.

Metamorphosis ©Ardeshir MohassessMohassess

Metamorphosis by Ardeshir Mohassess

Centuries before Islam, Gathas, which is probably the oldest Zoroastrian document, bemoans attacks by savage tribes who pollute the water, destroy the pasture, kill the cow, and extinguish the fire. Indeed the most intense and perhaps oldest circular view history was expressed by pre-Islamic religions in the Iranian plateau who extended their fear of the strife and conflicts between nomadic and agricultural communities to the whole universe.
They presented a permanent battle between good and evil, light and dark and at the same time as they worshipped Ahuramazda (god of lightness and wisdom) and believed in his ultimate triumph, they always lived in the shadow of attack by Ahriman (god of darkness and disorder) which they believe takes place once a millennium (on Ahuramazda time scale) and which plunges the world into corruption.
Nor could one explain the Great Wall of China, built two millennia before the birth of Christ, without reference to these frictions. It was neither erected to fend off Muslims nor were any of its numerous repairs directed against invasions by Muslim tribes.
Indeed the periodic conflicts between settled and nomadic communities is not even confined to Asia. They describe a large part of the history of Europe, both in classical and in Mediaeval times: attacks by Tartars, Turks, Huns, Germanic tribes, not all from Central Asia. It was the attacks of Germanic tribes from the first Century AD which ultimately put an end to the Roman Empire. Interestingly it was the non-Asiatic Germanic tribes which left their clear imprint on the European feudalism which replaced these conquests.
It is obvious that to believe that the periodic attacks by nomadic tribes were confined to Islamic lands, or worse, that they follow Islamic teachings, is to close ones eyes to huge sections of the history of human society.

C. Problems with Ibn-Khaldun

While Ibn-Khaldun’s views throw some light on the cyclic aspects of human social history, they fail to explain the dynamics and course of human history even when limited to one era, or to the geographic confines of the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed even as an explanation for the rise of Islam it leaves a mass of questions unresolved.
Undoubtedly the drawing together of Arab tribes and their coveting of the rich and flourishing lands around the Arabian Peninsula played a very important part in the formation of the Islamic movement and in its spread across the Middle East and North Africa. It would be possible to agree with Ibn-Khaldun that Islam is the expression of the asabiyya of Arab tribes, drawing them closer and an element in their integration. However, this is only a partial picture, which if taken as the whole, will mislead.
i. Islam was born in the most important urban commercial centre of the Arabian peninsula. Islam was not born among nomadic Arabic tribes but in the coastal strip of the Arabian Peninsula and in Mecca which was Arabia’s most important centre of commerce and on the trade route linking the rich and flourishing lands north of Arabia with Yemen and the East African coast.
The Qur’an itself makes clear the vital commercial role of Mecca and its trade links for the economy of Arabia in those days. For example the chapter 105 (“the elephant”) alludes to an event aam al-fil (Year of the Elephant) in which Abrahé, a commander, whose large army including military elephants was destroyed by swarms of birds carrying stones in their beaks on his way to destroy the Ka’aba [9]9. The site of Abraham’s temple towards which all Muslims face to pray = qiblah in Mecca. Or in the next chapter (no 106, Quraysh) it imputes that this divine favour was to draw the Quraysh closer in their seasonal migrations and get them to pray to the “God of this House” [10]10. Abraham’s God – and this at a time when the Ka’aba was still the main temple housing the pagan idols of the pre-Islamic Arabs. Interestingly Islamic custom gives the birth of Mohammad as the Year of the Elephant thus emphasising the vital link between the Islamic movement and the bed among which it was born.
After Mohammad’s emigration to Medina, another important trading centre of Arabia on the same coastal strip, the “Al-Aghsa Mosque” (Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem became for a short time the qiblah of the Muslims [see footnote 9]. This was apparently an attempt to gain the support of the Jewish tribes around Medina into a coalition against the Quraysh aristocracy of Mecca who has seen Mohammad’s invitation to follow him in his new religion as a direct threat to the privileged position of Mecca. Once the Muslims strengthened their position vis a vis the Meccan aristocracy and the Jewish tribes around Medina were no longer needed, they officially switched their qiblah to the “Holy (al-Ahram) Mosque” in Mecca while it still housed the detested pagan idols!
The Qur’anic verses unveil the huge havoc caused among the believers by the changing of the qiblah. This sudden switch took place at a time when Jerusalem was the holy centre of the two related mono-theistic religions of Judaism and Christianity, and while Mecca still housed main idols of the pagan faiths of Arabia. Yet the Qur’an insists that it is Gods orders and without giving a clear reason for this change in the qiblah explains that God is wherever you turn, and “so then pray towards the Holy Mosque (Masjid al-Ahram)” [11]11. Qur’an Chapter 2, the Cow (al- Baghareh), verses 144-50.
It was only when Mohammad and a mass of followers marched towards Mecca to fulfil their obligations of hajj and to circumambulate the Ka’aba (still a pagan temple), as required for the hajj proceedings, that the purpose of change of qiblah becomes clear: Mohammad was trying to reassure all Arabs – including the Quraysh aristocracy – that his invitation to follow his faith was not a threat to the position of Ka’aba and hence Mecca but indeed enhanced its importance. Pulling the rug from under the feet of the Quraysh aristocracy (who were the keepers and defenders of the privileged position Ka’aba) by peaceful means ensured that this move became a turning point in the spread of Mohammad’s religion.
The economic importance of the region of Mecca for the life of most Arab tribes can be seen from another custom. In pre-Islamic days many tribes banned war in Mecca as a place were conflict was “haram” (forbidden) and four months of the year were also set aside as haram months when all conflict and battle between them was suspended. Mohammad continued these conventions and sanctified them. The Qur’an’s explicit commands leave no doubt that the Prophet of Islam and Muslims was well aware of the vital importance Mecca played in the unity of Arabs and for the potential spread of Islam among Arab tribes.
It was through his policy of emphasising the importance of Ka’aba that Mohammad was able to take Mecca in a virtually bloodless conquest eight years after his emigration to Medina. By smashing the pagan idols of the different Arab tribes, he turned Mecca into the most revered centre of worship of a unitary God for the new mono-theistic religion. Moreover, not only were the wealthy of Mecca spared the customary looting of the conqueror, but Mohammad’s conciliatory policies converted them to the new religion.
Mohammad then goes further and attempts to weaken the tribal loyalty of Arab tribes so as to increasingly bind them to the new religion as a “single umma” (community). The Qur’an is quite explicit on this point. It repeatedly calls the Muslims to a single umma united in their worship of a unitary Allah [12]12. Qur’an Chapter 5:48; C 23:52; C 21:92; C 42:8.. Not surprisingly Arab tribes, particularly desert tribes which understood the dangers to their intra-tribal loyalty and independence, resisted this move. The Qur’an admonishes this tendency in no uncertain terms by declaring that “desert Arabs surpass the town-dwellers in unbelief and hypocrisy” [13]13. Qur’an Chapter 9:97.. The Qur’an not only considers the weakening of tribal loyalty as essential to a unity based on mono-theism, but even rejects feeling of superiority that Arabs might feel towards non-Arabs [14].
All the same resistance by Arab tribes towards the new Islamic central authority continued, and even worsened after the death of the Prophet in the form of extensive revolts by tribes against the central authority. The Muslims brutally crushed these revolts under the leadership of Mohammad’s successor, the first Caliph Abubakr, in a series of battles known as “horub al-reddah” (battles of apostasy).
It must be noted that the Muslims did not take any prisoners in these wars, but killed all the enemy, since they considered all those who deserted, having previously sworn in to Islam, as “mahdour al-dam” (whose blood can be spilt). This brutal attitude to mortads (apostates) was later extended to other spheres as entrenched religious laws, and is even now proposed and justified by fanatical Muslims today, can only be understood and explained by the need for early Islam to deal with the centrifugal forces of Arab tribes.
The kind of evidence briefly outlined above show that Islam was not born out of primitive tribes and was not shaped through their tribal loyalty [or what Ibn-Khaldun named asabiyya]. It was born in the most important commercial centre of Arabia, expanded by paying particular attention to the importance of this commercial centre and in its bid to entrench its position was forced to confront tribal loyalty and spirit and to force the Arab tribes to submit to the control of a central authority [14]14. Men, we have created you from a male and a female and divided you into nations and tribes that you might get to know one another. The noblest of you in Allah’s sight is he who fears Him most. Qur’an 49:13 – The Koran, translated N J Dawood, Penguin Books Ltd, London 1956[15]15. Among Western writers some, like the Marxist Maxime Rodenson, have understood this point. See Islam and Capitalism (1974), Mohammad (1971) and Marxism and the Muslim World (1979). Rodenson, however, failed to differentiate between modern capitalism and mercantilism. As B Turner has pointed out in his Weber and Islam, Rodinson’s arguments against Weberites becomes inaccurate. Max Weber clearly differentiates the various forms of capitalism, and whether we accept his arguments on this point or not, we must be aware that the birth of Islam in one of the commercial centres cannot necessarily be transposed to a relationship with modern capitalism.

to be continued

footnotes

1. Weber, Max. Protestant Ethics and the capitalist spirit. Part I, Chapter 3.
2. Parkin, Frank. Max Weber. London 1991 pp43-4
3. Turner, Bryan. Weber and Islam. London 1974
4. Giddens A. Politics and sociology in the thoughts of Max Weber.
5. To direct [the believer] towards the truth and warn against the forbidden
6. Islam is a religion adapted to orientals, especially Arabs, i.e. on the one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry and on the other to nomadic bedouins. Therin lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The towns people grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the “law”. The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a mahdi, to chasticize the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades. In a hundred years they are naturally in the same position as the renegades were: a new purge of the faith is required….All these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes; and yet, even when they are victorious, they allow the old economic conditions to persist untouched. So the old situation remains unchanged and the collision recurs periodically. In the popular risings of the Christian West, on the contrary, the religious disguise is only a flag and mask for the attacks on the economic order which is becoming antiquated. This is finally overthrown, a new one arises and the world progresses. Engels. On the History of early Christianity. Marx and Engels on Religion. Progress Publications, Moscow
7. The tribe to which Mohammad belonged
8. See Ibn Khaldun. Muquadimma (Prolegomena), 3 vols. English translation F Rosenthal London, 1958.
9. The site of Abraham’s temple towards which all Muslims face to pray = qiblah
10. Abraham’s God
11. Qur’an Chapter 2, the Cow (al- Baghareh), verses 144-50
12. Qur’an Chapter 5:48; C 23:52; C 21:92; C 42:8.
13. Qur’an Chapter 9:97.
14. Men, we have created you from a male and a female and divided you into nations and tribes that you might get to know one another. The noblest of you in Allah’s sight is he who fears Him most. Qur’an 49:13 (The Koran, translated N J Dawood, Penguin Books Ltd, London 1956)
15. Among Western writers some, like the Marxist Maxime Rodenson, have understood this point. See Islam and Capitalism (1974), Mohammad (1971) and Marxism and the Muslim World (1979). Rodenson, however, failed to differentiate between modern capitalism and mercantilism. As B Turner has pointed out in his Weber and Islam, Rodinson’s arguments against Weberites becomes inaccurate. Max Weber clearly differentiates the various forms of capitalism, and whether we accept his arguments on this point or not, we must be aware that the birth of Islam in one of the commercial centres cannot necessarily be transposed to a relationship with modern capitalism.

NEXT ISSUES
Part II continues with a critique of Ibn-Khaldun’s influential historic views:
Islamic civilisation is not principally that of desert tribes.
The steppe or the desert was not the birthplace of many radical Islamic revolts.
Many nomadic uprisings were non-Islamic, and many in fact came to the aid of monarchies in wealthy urban lands.
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 of the positions of the left

 

References   [ + ]

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