Faith in the future: a Western Muslim perspective

A Lecture given by T. J. Winter; Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge

Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, may I express my warm gratitude to you all for paying me the compliment of attending today?
It is particularly gratifying to me to attend an event in Pakistan, the
only Muslim state established in recent history specifically as a
homeland for Muslims. It is also a privilege to be associated with the
name of the late Altaf Gauhar, whose Translations from the Qur’an
certainly formed, back in the late 1970s, part of my own personal
journey towards Islam.
The subject is, of course, of immense urgency: Islam finds itself, not
unnaturally, we would say, at the epicentre of the current world
debate, but it is not immediately obvious that an eccentric voice from
Cambridge, both British and Muslim, is deserving of the confidence that
the organisers have placed in me. But perhaps Cambridge and the Muslims
of this part of the world retain certain historic ties — one thinks of
the Cambridge years of Iqbal and Abdallah Yusuf Ali, or of Reynold
Nicholson’s translations of Sufi classics which are so exuberantly on
sale around Data Sahib’s tomb — and this is surely a mutually rewarding
relationship which is well worth reviving and celebrating in a time
when the East-West relation has once again begun to worry and to
exercise us all.
I want to talk about religion — our religion — and address the question
of what exactly is going on when we speak about the prospects of a
mutually helpful engagement between Islam and Western modernity. I
propose to tackle this rather large question by invoking what I take to
be the underlying issue in all religious talk, which is its ability
both to propose and to resolve paradoxes.
We might begin by saying that theology is the most ambitious and
fruitful of disciplines because it is all about the successful squaring
of circles. Most obviously, it seeks to capture, in the limited net of
human language, something of the mystery of an infinite God. Most
taxingly, it seeks to demonstrate that an omnipotent God is also
absolutely just, and that an apparently infinite reward or chastisement
can attend upon finite human behaviour. Most scandalously, it holds
that we are more than natural philosophy can describe or know, and that
we can achieve states of being in what we call the soul that are as
movingly palpable as they are inexplicable. The Spirit, as the
scriptures tell us, ‘is of the command of our Lord, and of knowledge
you have been given but little.’
To this list of imponderables, the specifically Islamic form of
monotheism adds at least two additional items. The first is what we
call universalism, that is to say, that Islam does not limit itself to
the upliftment of any given section of humanity, but rather announces a
desire to transform the entire human family. This is, if you like, its
Ishmaelite uniqueness: the religions that spring from Isaac are, in our
understanding, an extension of Hebrew and Occidental particularity,
while Islam is universal. Bibi Hagar, unlike Sarah, is half-Egyptian,
half-Gentile, and it is she who goes forth into the Gentile world.
Rembrandt’s famous picture of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael has
Sarah mockingly peering out of a window. She is old, and stays at home;
while Hagar is young, and looks, with her son, towards limitless
In the hadith, we learn that ‘Every prophet was sent to his own people;
but I am sent to all mankind’ (bu’ithtu li’l-nasi kaffa). This will
demand the squaring of a circle — in fact of many circles – in a way
that is characteristically Islamic. Despite its Arabian origins, Islam
is to be not merely for the nations, but of the nations. No pre-modern
civilisation embraced more cultures than that of Islam — in fact, it
was Muslims who invented globalisation. The many-coloured fabric of the
traditional Umma is not merely part of the glory of the Blessed
Prophet, of whom it is said: ‘Truly your adversary is the one cut off’.
It also demonstrates the divine purpose that this Ishmaelite covenant
is to bring a monotheism that uplifts, rather than devastates cultures.
Islam brought immense fertility to the Indian subcontinent, upgrading
architecture, cuisine, and languages. Nothing could be more unfair than
the Indian chauvinistic thesis, given its most articulate and insidious
voice by V.S. Naipaul, that Islam is a travelling parochialism, an
‘Arab imperialism’.
That, then, has been another circle successfully squared — the bringing
to the very different genius of the Subcontinent an uncompromising
monotheism which fertilised, and brought to the region its highest
artistic and literary moments. Mother India was never more fecund than
when she welcomed the virility of Islam. Remember the words of Allama

Behold and see! In Ind’s domain
Thou shalt not find the like again,
That, though a Brahman’s son I be,
Tabriz and Rum stand wide to me.

It is our confidence, moreover, that this triumphant demonstration of
Islam’s universalism has not come to an end. Perhaps the greatest
single issue exercising the world today is the following: is the
engagement of Islamic monotheism with the new capitalist global reality
a challenge that even Islam, with its proven ability to square circles,
cannot manage?
As Muslims, of course, we believe that every culture, including the
culture of modern consumer liberalism, stands accountable before the
claims of revelation. There must, therefore, be a mode of behaviour
that modernity can adopt that can be meaningfully termed Islamic,
without entailing its transformation into a monochrome Arabness. This
is a consequence of our universalist assumptions, but it is also an
extension of our triumphalism, and our belief that the divine purposes
can be read in history.
Wa-kalimatu’Llahi hiya’l-’ulya — God’s word is uppermost. The current
agreement between zealots on both sides — Islamic and unbelieving —
that Islam and Western modernity can have no conversation, and cannot
inhabit each other, seems difficult given traditional Islamic
assurances about the universal potential of revelation. Those of us who
identify ourselves as entirely Western, and entirely Muslim,
demonstrate that the arguments against the continued ability of Islam
to be universal are simply false.
Yet the question, the big new Eastern Question, will not go away this
easily. Palpably, there are millions of Muslims who are at ease
somewhere within the spectrum of the diverse possibilities of
Westernness. We need, however, a theory to match this practice. Is the
accommodation real? What is the theological or fiqh status of this
claim to an overlap? Can Islam really square this biggest of all
historical circles, or must it now fail, and retreat into impoverished
and hostile marginality, as history passes it by?
Let us refine this question by asking what, exactly, is the case
against Islam’s contemporary claim to universal relevance? Some of the
most frank arguments have come from European politicians, as part of
their campaign to reduce Muslim immigration to Europe. This has, of
course, become a prime political issue in the European Union, a local
extension of a currently global argument.
Sometimes one hears the claim that Muslims cannot inhabit the West, or
— as full participants — the Western-dominated global reality, because
Islam has not passed through a reformation. This is a tiresome and
absent-minded claim that I have heard from senior diplomats who simply
cannot be troubled to read their own history, let alone the history of
Islam. A reformation, that is to say, a bypass operation which avoids
the clogged arteries of medieval history and seeks to refresh us with
the lifeblood of the scriptures themselves, is precisely what is today
underway among those movements and in those places which the West finds
most intimidating. The Islamic world is now in the throes of its own
reformation, and our Calvins and Cromwells are proving no more tolerant
and flexible than their European predecessors.
A reformation, then, is a bad thing to ask us for, if you would like us
to be more pliant. But there is an apparently more intelligible demand,
which is that we must pass through an enlightenment. Take, for
instance, the late Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn. In his book Against
the Islamisation of our Culture, he writes: ‘Christianity and Judaism
have gone through the laundromat of humanism and enlightenment, but
that is not the case with Islam.’
Fortuyn is not a marginal voice. His funeral at Rotterdam Cathedral,
reverently covered by Dutch television, attracted a vast crowd of
mourners. As his coffin passed down the city’s main street, the
Coolsingel, so many flowers were thrown that the vehicle became
invisible, recalling, to many, the scenes attending the funeral of
Princess Diana. The election performance of his party a week later was
a posthumous triumph, as his associate Hilbrand Nawijn was appointed
minister for asylum and immigration. Fortuyn’s desire to close all
Holland’s mosques was not put into effect, but a number of new,
highly-restrictive, policies have been implemented. Asylum seekers now
have to pay a seven thousand Euro deposit for compulsory Dutch language
and citizenship lessons. A 90 percent cut in the budget of asylum
seeker centres has been approved. An official government enquiry into
the Dutch Muslim community was ordered by the new parliament in July.
I take the case of the Netherlands because it was, until very recently,
a model of liberalism and multiculturalism. Without wishing to sound
the alarm, it is evident that if Holland can adopt an implicitly
inquisitorial attitude to Islam, there is no reason why other states
should not do likewise.
But again, the question has not been answered. Fortuyn, a
highly-educated and liberal Islamophobe, is convinced that Islam cannot
square the circle. He would say that the past genius of Islam in
adapting itself to cultures from Senegal to Sumatra cannot be extended
into our era, because the rules of that game no longer apply. Success
today demands membership of a global reality, which means signing up to
the terms of its philosophy. The alternative is poverty, failure, and —
just possibly — the B52s.
How should Islam answer this charge? The answer is, of course, that it
can’t. Islam’s strength stems in large degree from its internal
diversity. Different readings of the scriptures attract different
species of humanity. There will be no unified Islamic voice answering
Fortuyn’s interrogation. The more useful question is: who should answer
the charge? What sort of Muslim is best equipped to speak for us?
Fortuyn’s error was to impose a Christian squint on Islam. As a
practicing Catholic, he imported assumptions about the nature of
religious authority that ignore the multi-centred reality of Islam. On
doctrine, we try to be united — but he is not interested in our
doctrine. On fiqh, we are substantially diverse. Even in the medieval
period, one of the great moral and methodological triumphs of the
Muslim mind was the confidence that a variety of madhhabs could
conflict formally, but could all be acceptable to God. In fact, we
could propose as the key distinction between a great religion and a
sect the ability of the former to accommodate and respect diversity.
Fortuyn, and other European politicians, seek to build a new Iron
Curtain between Islam and Christendom, on the assumption that Islam is
an ideology functionally akin to communism.
The great tragedy is that some of our brethren would agree with him.
There are many Muslims who are happy to describe Islam as an ideology.
One suspects that they have not troubled to look the term up, and
locate its totalitarian and positivistic undercurrents. It is
impossible to deny that certain formulations of Islam in the twentieth
century resembled European ideologies, with their obsession with the
latest certainties of science, their regimented cellular structure,
their utopianism, and their self-definition as advocates of communalism
rather than metaphysical responsibility. The emergence of ‘ideological
Islam’ was, particularly in the mid-twentieth century, entirely
predictable. Everything at that time was ideology. Spirituality seemed
to have ended, and post-modernism was not yet a twinkle in a Parisian
eye. In fact, the British historian John Gray goes so far as to
describe the process which Washington describes as the ‘war on terror’
as an internal Western argument which has nothing to do with
traditional Islam. As he puts it: ‘The ideologues of political Islam
are western voices, no less than Marx or Hayek. The struggle with
radical Islam is yet another western family quarrel.’
There are, of course, significant oversimplications in this analysis.
There are some individuals in the new movements who do have a
substantial grounding in Islamic studies. And the juxtaposition of
‘political’ and ‘Islam’ will always be redundant, given that the
Islamic, Ishmaelite message is inherently liberative, and hence
militantly opposed to oppression.
Nonetheless, the irony remains. We are represented by the
unrepresentative, and the West sees in us a mirror image of its less
attractive potentialities. Western Muslim theologians such as myself
frequently point out that the movements which seek to represent Islam
globally, or in Western minority situations, are typically movements
which arose as reactions against Western political hegemony that
themselves internalised substantial aspects of Western political
method. In Britain, Muslim community leaders who are called upon to
justify Islam in the face of recent terrorist activities are ironically
often individuals who subscribe to ideologised forms of Islam which
adopt aspects of Western modernity to secure an anti-Western profile.
It is no surprise that such leaders arouse the suspicion of the likes
of Pim Fortuyn, or, indeed, a remarkably wide spectrum of commentators
across the political spectrum.
Islam’s universalism, however, is not well-represented by the advocates
of movement Islam. Islamic universalism is represented by the great
bulk of ordinary mosque-going Muslims who around the world live out
different degrees of accommodation with the global reality. One could
argue, against Fortuyn, that Muslim communities are far more open to
the West than vice-versa, and know far more about it. Muslims return
from the mosques in Cairo in time for the latest American soaps. There
is no equivalent desire in the West to learn from and integrate into
other cultures. On the ground, the West is keener to export than to
import, to shape, rather than be shaped. As such, its universalism can
seem imperial and hierarchical, driven by corporations and strategic
imperatives that owe nothing whatsoever to non-Western cultures, and
acknowledge their existence only where they might turn out to be
obstacles. Islam, we will insist, is more flexible than the West. Our
laws, mediated through the due instruments of ijtihad, have been
reshaped substantially by encounter with the Western juggernaut,
through faculties such as the concern for public interest, or urf —
customary legislation. Western law and society, by contrast, have not
admitted significant emendation at the hands of another culture for
many centuries.
From our perspective, then, it can seem that it is the West, not the
Islamic world, which stands in need of reform in a more pluralistic
direction. It claims to be open, while we are closed, but in reality,
on the ground, seems closed, while we are open.
I think there is force to this defence. But does it help us answer the
insistent question of Mr Fortuyn? Do we have to pass through his
laundromat to be made internally white, as it were, to have an
authentic and honoured place of belonging at the table of the modern
Historians would probably argue that since history cannot repeat
itself, the demand that Islam experience an enlightenment is strange,
and that if the task be attempted, it cannot remotely guarantee an
outcome analogous to that experienced by Europe. If honest and erudite
enough, they may also recognise that the enlightenment possibilities in
Europe were themselves the consequence of a renaissance humanism which
was triggered not by internal European or Christian logic, but by the
encounter with Islamic thought, and particularly the Islamised version
of Aristotle which, via Ibn Rushd, took fourteenth-century Italy by
storm. The stress on the individual, the reluctance to establish
clerical hierarchies which hold sway over earthly kingdoms, the
generalised dislike of superstition, the opposition to persecution for
the sake of credal difference: all these may well be European
transformations that were eased, or even enabled, by the transfusion of
Muslim wisdom from Spain.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the Christian and Jewish enlightenments
of the eighteenth century did not move Europe in a religious, still
less an Islamic direction. Instead, they produced a disenchantment, a
desacralising of the world, which opened the gates for two enormous
transformations in human experience. One of these has been the
subjugation of nature to the will (or more usually the lower desires),
of man. The consequences for the environment, and even the sustainable
habitability of our planet, are looking increasingly disturbing. There
is certainly an oddness about the Western desire to convert the Third
World to a high-consumption market economy, when it is certain that if
the world were to reach American levels of fossil-fuel consumption,
global warming would soon render the planet entirely uninhabitable.
The second dangerous consequence of ‘enlightenment’, as Muslims see it,
is the replacement of religious autocracy and sacred kingship with
either a totalitarian political order, or with a democratic liberal
arrangement that has no fail-safe resistance to moving in a
totalitarian direction. Take, for instance, the American Jewish
philosopher Peter Ochs, for whom the Enlightenment did away with Jewish
faith in God, while the Holocaust did away with Jewish faith in
humanity. As he writes:
They lost faith in a utopian humanism that promised: ‘Give up your
superstitions! Abandon the ethnic and religious traditions that
separate us one from the other! Subject all aspects of life to rational
scrutiny and the disciplines of science! This is how we will be saved.’
It didn’t work. Not that science and rationality are unworthy; what
failed was the effort to abstract these from their setting in the
ethics and wisdoms of received tradition.
Here is another voice from deep in the American Jewish intellectual
tradition that many in the Muslim world assume provides the staunchest
advocates of the Enlightenment. This time it is Irving Greenberg:
The humanistic revolt for the ‘liberation’ of humankind from centuries
of dependence upon God and nature has been shown to sustain a capacity
for demonic evil. Twentieth-century European civilization, in part the
product of the Enlightenment and liberal culture, was a Frankenstein
that authored the German monster’s being … Moreover, the holocaust
and the failure to confront it make a repetition more likely — a limit
was broken, a control or awe is gone — and the murder procedure is now
better laid out and understood.
The West is loathe to refer to this possibility in its makeup, as it
urges, in Messianic fashion, its pattern of life upon the world. It
believes that Srebrenica, or Mr Fortuyn, are an aberration, not a
recurrent possibility. Muslims, however, surely have the right to
express deep unease about the demand to submit to an Enlightenment
project that seems to have produced so much darkness as well as light.
Iqbal, identifying himself with the character Zinda-Rud in his
Javid-name, declaims, to consummate the final moment of his own version
of the Mi’raj: Inghelab-i Rus ve Alman dide am: ‘I have seen the
revolutions of Russia and of Germany!’ This in a great, final
crying-out to God.
We European Muslims, born already amid the ambiguities of the
Enlightenment, have also wrestled with this legacy. Alija Izetbegovic,
the former Bosnian president, has discussed the relationship in his
book Between East and West. A lesser-known voice has been that of the
Swedish theologian Tage Lindbom, who died three years ago. Lindbom is
particularly important to European Muslim thought because of his own
personal journey. A founder member of the Swedish Social Democratic
Party, and one of the major theorists of the Swedish welfare state,
Lindbom experienced an almost Ghazalian crisis of doubt, and repented
of his Enlightenment ideology in favour of Islamic traditionalism. In
1962 he published his book The Windmills of Sancho Panza, which
generated enough of a scandal to force him from his job, and he
composed the remainder of his twenty-odd books in retirement. For
Lindbom, the liberation promised by the Enlightenment did not only lead
to the explicit totalitarianisms which ruined most of Europe for much
of the twentieth century, but also to an implicit, hidden
totalitarianism, which is hardly less dangerous to human freedom. We
are now increasingly slaves to the self, via the market, and our
endlessly proliferating desires and lifestyles are designed for us by
corporation executives and media moguls.
There can be no brotherhood among human beings, Lindbom insists, unless
there is a God under whom we may be brothers. As he writes: ‘The
perennial question is always whether we humans are to understand our
presence on this earth as a vice-regency or trusteeship under the
mandate of Heaven, or whether we must strive to emancipate ourselves
from any higher dominion, with human supremacy as our ultimate aim.’

He goes on as follows:
Secularization increasingly becomes identified with two motives: the
reduction of human intelligence to rationalism, and sensual desire; the
one is grafted onto the vertebral nervous system, and the other is a
function of the involuntary and subconscious elements of man’s
composite nature. Rationalism and sensualism will prove to be the
mental currents and the two forms of consciousness whereby
secularization floods the Western world. Human pride, superbia, the
first and greatest of the seven deadly sins, grows unceasingly; and it
is during the eighteenth century that man begins to formulate the
notion that he is discovering himself as the earthly agent of power.
Lindbom’s works have provoked sharp discussion amongst Western Muslims
in the universities. Enlightenment leads to sensualism and to
rationality. It cannot guarantee that these principles will secure a
moral consensus, or protect the weak. It also — and here Lindbom has
less to say — yields its own destruction. Western intellectuals now
speak of post-modernism as an end of Enlightenment reason. Hence, the
new Muslim question becomes: why jump into the laundromat if European
thinkers have themselves turned it off? Is the Third World to be
brought to heel by importing only Europe’s yesterdays?
These are troubled waters, and perhaps will carry us too far from our
purpose in this lecture. Let me, however, offer a few reflections on
what our prospects might look like if we excuse ourselves the duty of
spinning in Mr Fortuyn’s machine.
Islam, as I rather conventionally observed a few minutes ago, speaks
with many voices. Fortuyn and the new groundswell of educated Western
Islamophobia has heard only a few of them. Iqbal, I would suggest, and
Altaf Gauhar, represent a very different tradition. It is a tradition
which insists that Islam is only itself when it recognises that
authenticity arises from recognising the versatility of classical
Islam, rather than taking any single reading of the scriptures as
uniquely true. Ijtihad, after all, is scarcely a modern invention. In
the earliest and most sainted days of our story, there were many more
than four madhhabs.

Iqbal puts it this way:
The ultimate spiritual basis of all life, as conceived by Islam, is
eternal and reveals itself in variety and change. A society based on
such a conception of Reality must reconcile in its life the categories
of permanence of change.
In other words, to use my own idiom, it must square the circle to be
dynamic. The immutable, to be alive, must be rubbed by the mill-wheel
of the transient.
One of Altaf Gauhar’s intellectual associates, Allahbakhsh Brohi, used
the following metaphor:
We need a bi-focal vision: we must have an eye on the eternal
principles sanctioned by the Qur’anic view of man’s place in the scheme
of things, and also have the eye firmly fixed on the ever-changing
concourse of economic-political situation which confronts man from time
to time.
We do indeed need to be bi-focal. It is, after all, a quality of the
Antichrist that he sees with only one eye. An age of decadence, whether
or not framed by an Enlightenment, is an age of extremes, and the
twentieth century was, in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, precisely that. Islam
has been Westernised enough, it sometimes appears, to have joined that
logic. We are either neutralised by a supposedly benign Islamic
liberalism that in practice allows nothing distinctively Islamic to
leave the home or the mosque — an Enlightenment-style privatisation of
religion that leaves the world to the morality of the market leaders
and the demagogues. Or we fall back into the sensual embrace of
extremism, justifying our refusal to deal with the real world by
dismissing it as absolute evil, as kufr, unworthy of serious attention,
which will disappear if we curse it enough.
Islam, as is scripturally evident, cannot sanction either policy.
Extremism, however, is probably the more damaging of the two.
Al-Bukhari and Muslim both narrate from A’isha, radiya’Llahu ‘anha, the
hadith that runs: ‘Allah loves kindness is all matters.’ Imam Muslim
also narrates from Ibn Mas’ud, radiya’Llahu ‘anh, that the Prophet
(salla’Llahu ‘alayhi wa-sallam) said: ‘Extremists shall perish’
(halaka’l-mutanatti’un). Commenting on this, Imam al-Nawawi defines
extremism as ‘fanatical zealots’ (al-muta’ammiqun al-ghalun), who are
simply ‘too intense’ (al-mushaddidun).
Revelation, as always, requires the middle way. Extremism, in any case,
never succeeds even on its own terms. It usually repels more people
from religion than it holds within it. Attempts to reject all of global
modernity simply cannot succeed, and have not succeeded anywhere. A
more sane policy, albeit a more complex and nuanced one, has to be the
introduction of Islam within the reality of the modern world.
Who should undertake this task? It is no accident that the overwhelming
majority of Western Muslim thinkers, including Lindbom himself, have
been drawn into the religion by the appeal of Sufism. For us, the
ideological redefinitions of Islam are hardly more appealing than they
are to the new European xenophobes. We need a form of religion that
elegantly and persuasively squares the circle, rather than insists on a
conflict that is unlikely to damage the West as much as Islam. A purely
non-spiritual reading of Islam, lacking the vertical dimension, tends
to produce only liberals or zealots.
The most recurrent theme of Islamic architecture is the dome
surmounting the cube. Between the two there are complex arrangements of
arabesques and geometrical forms. Religion is worth having because it
can turn a circle into a square in a way that delights the eye. Through
logic and definition the theologian shows how the infinite engages with
the finite. Imam al-Ghazali, and our tradition generally, came to the
conclusion that the Sufi does the job more elegantly, while not
abolishing the science of theology. But Sufism has also, as Iqbal and
the consensus of Muslim academics in the West have seen, been the
instrument whereby Islam has been embedded in the divergent cultures of
the rainbow that is the traditional Islamic world. It thus brings real,
rather than illusory, enlightenment, a true ishraq. This is because
there is only one ‘Light of the heavens and the earth.’ Seeking truth
in the many, while ignoring the One, is the cardinal, Luciferian error.
Its consequences for recent human history have already been tragic. Its
prospects, as it yields more and more methods of destruction, and fewer
and fewer arguments for a universal morality, are surely unnerving.
Genetic engineering now threatens to redefine our very humanity,
precisely that principle which the Enlightenment found to be the basis
of truth. In such a world, religion, for all its failings, is likely to
be the only force which can genuinely reconnect us with our humanity,
and with our fellow men.