Islam’s Second Crisis: the troubles to come

Islam’s Second Crisis: the troubles to come

In What Went Wrong, Bernard Lewis charted the decline of Islam in the modern era and the resulting theological crisis for the Muslim world.

Now Islam is going through a second crisis, caused by the repeated failures of revivalist responses to the first crisis.  This second crisis, combined with the cumulative effect of the first crisis, which remains unresolved, will lead to a long drawn-out period of political and social instability for Muslim societies.

The first millennium of Islam was a period of expansion through conquest.   However for five centuries from around 1500, Western powers were pushing back Islamic rule.  There were numerous landmarks of the ascendancy of the West (which includes Russia), such as:

  • the conquest of Goa in India by the Portuguese in 1510;
  • the liberation of Christian Ethiopia in 1543 with the aid of the Portuguese soldiers;
  • the defeat of the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna in 1683 and
  • the ensuing liberation of Hungary and Transylvania;
  • Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798;
  • the USA-Barbary State Wars of 1801-1815, which put an end to tribute payments by the US to the north African states to prevent piracy and the enslavement of US citizens;
  • a long series of defeats for the Ottomans in Russo-Turkish wars stretching across four centuries and culminating in the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war,
  • which led to the independence of Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria;
  • the overthrow of Muslim principalities in Southeast Asia by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English;
  • the final destruction of Mughal rule in India at the hands by the British in 1857;
  • the defeat and dismantling of the Ottoman Empire as a result of WWI;
  • and finally, the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, in territory formerly ruled by Islam, which was considered by many Muslims to be the crowning humiliation in this long line of defeats.

We are not just talking about Western colonialism.  Some of the victories over Muslim principalities involved the occupation or colonization of primarily Muslim lands, but many involved the liberation of non-Muslim peoples from the yoke of Muslim rule, such as in Ethiopia, Hungary and India, and some were defensive responses to Islamic aggression, such as the defeat of the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna.

While the external borders of Islam kept shrinking, its position of dominance within its own borders was also being challenged.  During this same period there were in many places improvements in the conditions experienced by non-Muslims under Islamic rule – a weakening of the dhimmi system – which communicated to Muslims an impression of their own faith’s loss of dominance and its loss of ‘success’. A landmark in this long process was the Paris Peace Treaty of 1856, which settled the Crimean War.  As part of this settlement the Ottomans were compelled to grant equal rights to Christians throughout their empire.

The gradual process of improvement of conditions for Christians and Jews under Islam was regretted by Muslim scholars, who saw it as evidence of Islam’s decline.  For example a request for a fatwa from a Egyptian Muslim judge in 1772 lamented the ‘deplorable innovations’ of Christians and Jews, who were daring to make themselves equal to Muslims by their manner of dress and behavior, all in violation of Islamic law.

In a similar vein, the Baghdad Quranic commentator Al-Alusi complained that non-Muslims in Syria during the first half of the 19th century were being permitted to make annual tribute payments by means of an agent, thus escaping the personal ritual degradations prescribed by Islamic law.  He concluded:  “All this is caused by the weakness of Islam.”

Why would Islam’s lack of dominance be evidence of weakness?

Islamic doctrine promises falah ‘success’ to the religion’s followers, symbolized by the daily call to prayer which rings out from minarets: ‘come to success, come to success’. The success promised by Islam has always been understood to be both spiritual and material: conquest and rule this life, and paradise in the next. The Qur’an states that Allah has sent Muhammad “with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may cause it to triumph over all (other) religions” (Sura 48:28).

Islam’s theology of success meant that the global failure of Islamic armies and states at the hands of ‘Christian’ states constituted a profound spiritual challenge to Islam’s core claims. Just as Muslim scholars had always pointed to the military victories of Islam as proof of its divine authority, this litany of defeats testified to its failure as the religion of the successful ones.

The urgency of the question ‘What went wrong?’ drove the Islamic revival, an interconnected network of renewal movements which have as their central tenet that Muslims will once again be ‘successful’ – achieving political and military domination over non-Muslims – if they are truly devoted to Allah and implement Islamic laws faithfully.   These are reformation movements in the original (medieval) sense of the Latin word reformatio, for they seek to restore Islam to its former glory by returning to first principles.

Some of the main formative strands of Islamic revivalism have been:

  • the Wahhabi movement which originated in the 18th century;
  • the Deobandi movement in India and Pakistan which dates from 1866;
  • Jamaat e-Islami, which was founded 1941 in India;
  • the Muslim Brotherhood, founded 1928;
  • and the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Out of these have come a myriad of offshoots and branches such as the Taliban (from the Deobandi movement); Al Qaida (a product of the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood theologian Said Qutb); the missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat; and Hizb Ut-Tahrir.

Even the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the ‘United Nations’ of the Muslim world, is a revivalist organization: this is reflected in its Charter which states that it exists “to work for revitalizing Islam’s pioneering role in the world”, a euphemism for reestablishing Islam’s dominant place in world affairs.

In essence, Islamic revivalist movements aim to restore the greatness of Islam and make it ‘successful’ again.  This hope is embodied, for example, in the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan “Islam is the solution”.  This implies that when Islam is truly implemented all the problems human beings face – such as poverty, lack of education, corruption, and injustice – will be solved.  The flip-side of this slogan is the thesis that all the problems of the Muslim world have been caused through want of genuine Islamic observance:  Allah allowed his people to fall into disarray because they were not faithful in obeying his laws. The correction to this spiritual problem should therefore be more sharia compliance.  This is the reason why headscarves and burqas have been appearing on Muslim women’s heads with increasing frequency all around the world.

For a time it appeared to many Muslims that the revivalist program was working.  The Iranian Islamic revolution, and the later victory of jihadis in Afghanistan and the break-up of the Soviet Union was considered to be evidence of the success of the revivalist program.  This was the certainly view of the translator of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam’s jihadi tract Join the Caravan:

“The struggle, which he [Sheikh Azzam] stood for, continues, despite the enemies of Islam. ‘They seek to extinguish the light of Allah by their mouths. But Allah refuses save to perfect His light, even if the Disbelievers  are averse. It is He who has sent His messenger with the guidance and the true religion, in order that He may make it prevail over all religions, even if the pagans are averse.’ [Qur’an, 9:32-33] Since the book was written, the Soviets have been expelled from Afghanistan, by Allah’s grace, and the entire  Soviet Union has disintegrated.”

Utopian claims are risky, because they open up the possibility for even greater failure, and amplified cognitive dissonance as the gap between one’s faith and reality widens.  The first crisis of Islam was the rise of West through superior technological, economic and military prowess.  The second crisis is the failure of Islamic revivalism as a response to the first crisis.  The second crisis could prove even more painful and profound in its effects on Islam than the first.

The manifestations of revivalism’s failures are as diverse as the Islamist movements which generated them.  One could point to:

  •  the atrocities and backwardness of the Taliban;
  • the corruption and cruelty after the 1979 Iranian Revolution;
  • the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to govern for the benefit of the Egyptian people, leading to a wildly popular military coup in 2013;
  • the present-day economic collapse of Turkey under big-talking Islamist Prime Minister Erdogan;
  • the genocidal campaigns of Khartoum’s military campaigns against its own citizens, causing more than a million casualties;
  • and the ongoing Iraqi and Syrian jihad-driven bloodbaths.

Everywhere one looks there are good reasons for Muslims to question the Islamic revivalist creed. The outcomes of more than two centuries of theological fervor are not looking good. Muslim states are not realizing the utopian goals set by these movements.  Indeed the opposite is the case: again and again, wherever revivalist movements have gained the ascendancy, human misery has only increased. Too many Muslim states continue to be models of poverty and economic failure, despite all those female heads being covered up.

One inevitable consequence of this trend is disenchantment with Islam, and a growing sense of alienation from the religion. The manifest failure of the revivalist creed creates a sense of anxiety that Islam is under threat, not from the infidel West, but from reputational damage caused by the revivalists themselves.  It is a case of the cure being worse than the disease.

Recently General Sisi has been hailed by the population of Egypt, not merely as a liberator of the nation from the ravages of Muslim Brotherhood rule, but as the Savior of Islam:  he is now a man on a mission is to save the religion.  In a recent speech Sisi called for a ‘new vision and modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam’.  Sisi would rescue Islam’s reputation, by improving ‘the image of this religion in front of the world, after Islam has been for decades convicted of violence and destruction around the world, due to the crimes falsely committed in the name of Islam’.

By ‘crimes’ Sisi no doubt has in mind the prosecution of former President Morsi now underway in the Egyptian courts.  Among other charges, Morsi is alleged to have been in league with Al-Qaida.

Sisi’s statement represents a rejection of Islamic revivalism, because at the core of all revivalist movements is a desire to reinstate and vindicate the institution of jihad, as a symbol and a means of Islam’s longer-for ‘success’.  Thus the eminent Deobandi Jurist Muhammad T. Usmani wrote in Islam and Modernism:  “Aggressive Jehad is lawful even today… Its justification cannot be veiled … we should venerate … this expansionism with complete self-confidence”.

While Sisi’s comments imply a concern for the image of Islam ‘in front of the world’ – i.e. in the eyes of all, including non-Muslims – the deeper, more visceral angst will be about whether Muslims will come to doubt their own faith.

This anxiety is not just theoretical.  Christian aid workers in the Middle East have recently been reporting thousands of Muslim Syrian refugees who are leaving Islam to embrace the Christian faith.  There was a remarkable growth of conversions to Christianity among Algerians in the wake of the Islamist regime in the earlier 1990’s.  There are also many reports of explosive church growth in Iran, in a context of declining mosque attendance and widespread disillusionment with Islam among young Iranians.

It seems that the more intensely a nation is shaped by Islamist revivalism or radical jihad, the more likely it is that significant numbers of Muslims will want to leave Islam.  This is not surprising: one cannot promise utopia and fail to deliver without risking reputational damage to Islam itself.

Another symptom of decline in confidence in Islam is the plummeting birthrates in Islamic states, no least of all in Iran.  David Goldman has pointed out that lower birthrates tend to be correlated with loss of confidence and decline in faith: “A lack of desire for children is typically a symptom of civilizational decline.”

Paradoxically, the revivalist movements have sought to promote the success of Islam but their actual trajectory provides strong evidence against Islam’s ability to solve the problems of living well in this world.

This issue arose in an unusual recent interview on Egyptian television of a burqa-clad woman who declared her intention to leave Islam and become a Christian.

In the interview the woman rejects Islam on the grounds that if Islam was a valid faith, its followers would not be killing each other:   “There is no (true) Islam, because (genuine) Muslims do not kill (other) Muslim(s), brothers do not kill their brothers, brothers do not send people from Hamas or Gaza to bomb us and kill us here; brothers do not kill their brothers in the police; brothers do not kill their brothers in the army.” In essence this woman is agreeing with General Sisi’s observation that some Muslism are causing Islam to be ‘convicted’ of violence.

There are reasons to doubt the authenticity of this interview: it could well be anti-Brotherhood propaganda, effectively saying “Look what a mess the Brotherhood have created: it is so bad that now Muslims are even thinking of leaving Islam because of all the violence and killing being done by Muslims.” Nevertheless, even if this interview is propaganda – and some of what the woman says does sound quite peculiar – what is important is that the interview reflects a growing desire to give air space to the sense of disenchantment caused by the violent acts of the revivalists.  Even as propaganda – if that is what this video is – it points to public anxiety about Islam being judged and found wanting because of the deeds of the reformers.

In the first part of the 20th century, the Dutch Arabist C. Snouck Hurgronje predicted that Islam would follow the path of Christianity in Europe, and become toothless.  Muslims, he argued, would relegate Islam to the domain of personal piety, eschatology and the next life.  He regarded the marginalization of Islamic practice – i.e. of sharia law – as inevitable, under the dominance of European values. He wrote in The Achehnese, “The … laws and institutions of Islam will share the same fate [as the laws of the Bible] … their study will gradually take the place of their practice. … Such is our prediction as to the future of Islam, which we utter with all the more confidence as symptoms of its realization have already appeared.”

The opposite has proved to be true.  The trend Snouck Hurgonje saw proved illusory and short-lived:  in the post-colonial area, revivalist movements gathered force and credibility among Muslims the world over, until they became the dominant theological trend of twentieth century Islam.  It is telling that Snouck Hurgonje completely underestimated the Wahhabi movement when he wrote:  “The Wahhabite movement, which set Arabia in a tumult on the threshold of the nineteenth century … was subdued by Mohammad Ali and Wahhabitism has since been confined to an insignificant sect…”

Confidence in Islam is now being punctured as the bitter fruits of violent Islamist revolutions become more apparent.  Snouck Hugronje also observed that “All uniformity of public and domestic life that prevails among Mohammedans of difference races… owes its origin to external force.  The foreign missionaries of Islam were her fighting men, and her internal propaganda was the work of her police.”  While force may have worked in the past, it is not working as well today.  In the modern era, with mobile phones and ready access to information via the internet, the attempt to impose conformity based upon the use of force is more likely to result in disillusionment.  Today people know better and can find out information to help them choose what to believe.

Islamic revivalist groups are being convicted by Muslim public opinion of damaging the reputation of Islam itself, and this can only lead to further spiritual disorientation among Muslim populations.  The first crisis of Islam led to such far-reaching effects, from the re-Islamicization of Muslim communities around the globe, to the 9-11 atrocity.  The second crisis of Islam will also have a far-reaching impact no less profound in its effects.

For a long time revivalist movements have offered the only serious Islamic theological response to the first crisis of Islam.  They were the only dog on the street.   Now that this second crisis is unfolding and revealing its bitter fruit to the Muslim world, the manifest failure of Islamic revivalism means that there is no remaining theological safe-haven left where Islam can hide. The spiritual disorientation caused by revivalist movements, which only bring conflict and death instead of the promised utopia, will increasingly lead some Muslims to agree with the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, that ‘Islam is the problem’.

While some will welcome this development, it will almost certainly lead to increasing political and social destabilization of Muslim societies, including aggressive backlash reactions in the form of attempts to shore up Islam’s credibility.  Communism, another utopian ideology, was also discredited due to its many abject failures, from Stalin to Pol Pot, but this did not prevent some from remaining true believers, even to this day.

The Australian Imams Council, in response to reports of under-age marriages among Australian Muslims, recently stated “any religion … should not be held accountable for violations by its followers.”  Yet this is the nub of the matter and a naming of an anxiety gripping the Muslim world:  Muslims will hold Islam accountable when Islamic revivalists promise utopia but deliver chaos and human rights abuses.

The Iranian nuclear threat is serious, not only because of traditional Shi’ite infidel hatred, but also because Iran’s leaders are undoubtedly aware that the hold of Islam upon ordinary Iranians is slipping away.  Spiritually, the revolution has failed.  A nuclear bomb could be deployed as a desperate ploy to shore up Islam’s credibility.  It is the unpredictability of such ‘backlash’ reactions to the decline of Islam that is particularly concerning in the times ahead.

The religion of Islam has long been regarded by Muslims as a prestigious brand, a symbol of stability in Islamic politics.  Thus politicians would be obliged to advertize their Islamic credentials.  If Islam itself loses credibility– which is already happening – a spiritual vacuum of considerable proportions will be created.  How this vacuum is filled will be difficult to predict, but what we can be sure of is that revivalism and the revivalists will not go quietly.

Fasten your seat-belts: the world will be in for quite a ride in the years to come, as Muslims – who constitute around a quarter of the world’s population – struggle to make theological sense of the trashing of their religion’s utopian vision.  It is one thing to blame the infidels for this – or the proxy tyrants which revivalists claim the West has foisted on the Muslim world – what is more threatening by far is the damage being done to Islam’s name by revivalist Muslims themselves.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

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