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  • Islam and Liberal DemocracyThe Challenge Of Secularization
  • Abdou Filali-Ansary (bio)

Robin Wright and Bernard Lewis both seem to address the question of whether there is an “Islamic Reformation” going on now, and if there is, what content, direction, and influence it is likely to have. The raising of this question betokens an important shift in the way that Western observers view the Islamic world. Wright and Lewis implicitly acknowledge that behind the confrontations and violence that we witness today in many Muslim societies, there lies a situation marked by some kind of pluralism and opposition of ideas. In other words, there is not merely a fight, but a debate. To recognize this is already to take a giant step away from the familiar Western academic and journalistic stereotypes of Muslim societies as places overwhelmed by religious fanaticism, rejection of “the other,” and crises of identity.

The dramatic importance of the question under discussion should need no emphasis: Islam, one of the major world religions, may be living through a turning point in its history, one that will bring it face-to-face with the challenges of the human condition at the end of the twentieth century.

Bernard Lewis proceeds according to his well-known “macrohistorical” approach. He casts his gaze across large spans of history, constitutive elements of Islamic faith, and some features of Middle Eastern languages in order to construct a grand schema that explains what is happening now and illuminates its links with the mainstream of Islamic (and also Middle Eastern) history. He draws on a larger arsenal of disciplines (history, theology, linguistics) than does Wright, and discusses a greater variety of subjects (religious beliefs, historical facts, [End Page 76] linguistic usages and concepts) in order to create a highly seductive synthesis of his own.

While Lewis acknowledges that the term “Islam” can be confusing, he himself is not always sufficiently careful in his use of it. He goes back and forth from Islam as a religion to Islam as a historical civilization, from detailed observations to general remarks. He seems to be guided by the “inner logics” that he sees lurking behind the observed data, molding attitudes, behaviors, and ways of understanding. His conclusions about the present situation point to a clash of such logics, one that pits Muslim communities against their Western counterparts. These inner logics are what he considers to be the true core of observed reality; facts, which appear on the surface, manifest the core imperfectly, much as the shadows that flicker on the wall of Plato’s cave provide only a crude representation of the realities that give them shape.

Robin Wright, in contrast, adopts an approach at loggerheads with the one prevailing in specialized academic circles. She prefers to try to understand the debate by “listening” to two of its key participants: Iranian philosopher Abdul Karim Soroush and Tunisian political leader Sheikh Rachid al-Ghannouchi. Wright assumes that ideas, not conscious or unconscious determinisms, rule human societies, which simply cannot be understood through external observation or historical reconstruction alone. This, it would seem, is why she has chosen, among living Muslim thinkers, to discuss two prominent and highly controversial figures, each of whom is thought to exert a large (and in all likelihood growing) influence on thoughtful people in the Muslim world.

Strange Companions

This approach, much simpler than Lewis’s and apparently without major risks, nonetheless raises a troubling question: How and why did Wright choose her two subjects? In posing this question I intend much more than the usual perfunctory observation, to be completed by remarks about the complexity of the situation, the availability of a large set of potential subjects, and the unavoidable arbitrariness of choice. In no way can one say that the two thinkers presented are minor, ordinary, or random specimens of contemporary Islamic thought. Indeed, they are generally considered to represent something close to opposite extremes on a spectrum: Ghannouchi is a main representative of Islamist attitudes and thought (and faces persecution from his government for that); Soroush is a formidable intellectual opponent of Islamism (for which he, too, faces persecution from his government). These considerations are by no means peripheral; they must be...

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pp. 76-80
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