Monday, 13 August 2012

The Future of Islam (1934)

In part two of our series on literature and the Middle East, we look at one ignored scholar's predictions for Islam's future. Read part one here.

One of life's great pleasures can be found in a second-hand bookshop. The joy of second-hand shopping is in its eclecticism and unpredictability. When applied to books, the results can be fascinating or ecstatic, or, sadly, terribly tedious. While famous books should be loved and appreciated, forgotten books can be filled with gems, that, if more modest than Dickensian diamonds, can cast the light on the wall in the most interesting ways.

Blickling Hall: surprisingly good bookshop. (via
All this is by way of saying that, last summer, on a family outing to a stately home in Norfolk, a ramshackle Elizabethan place with lots of chimneys, if I recall, I discovered such a modest gem in a modest second-hand bookshop. (My enthusiasm had already been raised by the examination of the home's excellent and neglected library, which contained, amongst other things, a beautiful edition of Alexander Pope's poems from the eighteenth century, the leaves still uncut.) Perusing the section labelled religion, I found a battered pocket volume entitled An Outline of Islâm by a man called C.R. North (M.A., Handsworth College, Birmingham). published by the Epworth Press in London in 1934. Both author and publisher are so obscure that all I can find of them in Google is listings by rare books dealers.

I sensed that Mr North's work could be a minor but interesting footnote to my abiding interest in Orientalism. At the very least, I reasoned, there would be some outrageous examples of Imperial British pomposity and ignorance.

My edition is more battered, and blue,
 and has a 3/4 crescent on it where someone
 absent-mindedly left their cup of tea.
(via Amazon)
When I finally got round to reading the book, however, I was disappointed. It was a relatively sober account of Islam, with the expected flaws of Orientalism - constant definition in terms of the West, a tendency to throw multiple peoples and cultures under one all-encompassing label, a slight hostility and a background superiority - all present but muted. North, to be disappointment, was neither a die-hard racist nor a visionary. He was merely a minor, steady academic, slightly blinkered by the prevalent cultural attitudes of his time.

Then, however, I got to the last chapter of his work, entitled 'The Future of Islam'.

Here, things starts to get interesting.

North opens his argument on his baldly stated contention that “Ever since Muhammad declared that Jesus was not crucified Islâm has been deeply committed to the specious half-truth that divine favour is attended and evidence by worldly success.”

This thesis allows for a brief history of Islâm since the Middle Ages that follows a trend of decline and low self-esteem: 

“The result was that Muslim world was held in a steadily tightening grip between a new Europe on the one hand, and the Middle East, dominated by European powers, on the other. Any chance that a united Islâm might have had of maintaining itself on the two fronts was nullified by the fact that the Sunnî Turks and the Shî'a Persians were no sufficiently in sympathy with one another, nor aware of what was happening, to make common cause against the aggressive nations of the West.
This situation may have no bearing whatever upon the truth of religion; but the Muslim belief in connexion between divine favour and worldly prosperity being what it is, it was bound to have a serious effect upon the morale and self-respect of the Islâmic world.”

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (via Wikipedia)
The reasons North attributes for this decline rely on the Orientalist stereotype of monolithic, conservative, theocratic Islâm. North states that “new life came to Europe through the Renaissance. We may regret the extent to which life has since been secularized, but without the Renaissance Christendom would never have been delivered from the domination of an obscurantist ecclesiastical authority. It have an impetus to free scientific inquiry, while Islâm, which continued to cling to mediaeval institutions and modes of thought, was seriously handicapped in the struggle for world dominion.” (It is curious that he manages to maintain a pretence of monolithic Islâm while also identifying the divine within Islâm between Shi'a and Sunni as a reason for decline.)

It is easy to see in this argument implicit justifications for the West's then-current domination of the Middle East. Islâm is exhausted, lacking confidence, trapped in the medieval. Muslims lack the self-will to self-determine. European modernisation will bring light to these backward parts of the world.

So far, so racist. What North predicts next, however, is truly fascinating, especially in the context of the continuation of these monolithic, theocratic Islâmic stereotypes into the present day. He begins to discuss the situation of Turkey, which underwent revolution under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. (Interesting side-fact: Atatürk used to receive regular implants of monkey glands into his testes to increase virility and ward off the ravages of age.)

“the Turks have gone on organizing themselves, on European and distinctly Fascists lines, under Mustaphâ Kemâl as their President. Their study of history has convinced them that since the Renaissance, when thought broke free from the control of the Church, the European nations have progressed until Muslim governments are no match for them. Accordingly Islâm has been disestablished, the Dervish orders have been abolished, and many ecclesiastical endowments and properties have been confiscated for State purposes. No man may wear a fez; he must war a hat (for the significance of this see p. 86). Polygamy is forbidden, and women are accorded equal rights of divorce with men. The Arabic script has been abolished in favour of one based upon the Latin alphabet, and native Turkish words are being substituted for Arabic and Persian importations into the language. The Pan-Islâmism of the nineteenth century has gone in favour of a secular nationalism based on that of the French Revolution. A man's religion is a matter between his own conscience and God, just as it is in Europe.”

From this, North goes on to conclude the following about the future of Islâm:

“the Muslim world is passing through a period similar to that through which Europe passed in the Renaissance, and though many and great changes may take place it must be remembered that religions have an extraordinary power of adapting themselves to new conditions.
It is far better that Islâm should be rehabiliated than that it should be cast aside for its place to be taken by an all-engulfing secularism. The very sense of inferiority which has taken possession of Muslim peoples during the last two centuries has made them extremely sensitive to the indignity – as they view it – of being proselytized; and there is no immediate prospect of any wholesale turning to Christianity. The probability is that Islâm may make out a case for itself as an enlightened Unitarianism, free from metaphysical subtleties and 'mathematical absurdities' like the doctrine of the Trinity, this will go hand in hand with a new apologetic for Muhammed, which will represent him, in the words of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, as 'that innocent, simple-minded, truthful and sweet-tempered Prophet.' But if it is a renaissance, and not death-throes, through which Islâm is passing, it is only a question of time before Muslims themselves begin to apply historical-critical methods to the sources of their religion. The 'Higher Criticism' of the Qur'ân will not result in 'documentary hypotheses' like those of the Pentateuch and the Gospels; but the question of whether the Qur'ân is the word of God or the word of Muhammad will have sooner or later to be faced. And it is difficult to see how, on the traditional Muslim premise, a premise based upon the Qur'ân itself, there is to be any compromise between two alternatives. Christianity has been able to adjust itself to the recognition of a human as well as a divine element in its Scriptures, because, for it, the final Word of God is in a Person. If once the Muslim ventures to admit a human as well as a divine element in the Qur'ân, he will be driven anew to study Muhammad; and here again it is difficult to see how, on an impartial estimate of history, the fiction that Muhammad was 'innocent, simple-minded, truthful and sweet-tempered' can then be maintained.”
I don't think a great deal further needs to be said. It is enough to observe how much things have changed; to remind ourselves that a monolithic, uniform Orientalism is just as much of a fallacy as a monolithic, uniform Islam; to remind ourselves to celebrate the eccentricity of small coincidences and minor, forgotten words.

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