Discursive pluralism and Islamic modernism in Egypt.

Author:Moaddel, Mansoor

THE TWENTY-FIVE YEARS BEFORE and after 1900 constituted one of the most ideologically innovative episodes in the intellectual history of modern Egypt. A prime example of this ideological creativity is the rise of a new movement among the country's Muslim thinkers. This movement displayed an affinity with the Enlightenment, daring criticisms of the orthodoxy, re-examinations of Islamic theology and its normative rules of conduct in light of the prevailing scientific standards, and an orientation towards social reforms and political moderation. The profusion of books, articles, Quranic exegesis, and treatises produced by such harbingers of Islamic modernism as Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Farid Wajdi, Qasim Amin and Ali Abd al-Raziq on historically significant issues not only generated a storm of controversy in Egypt but also affected the general course of the country's intellectual development. What were the historical conditions that promoted this new discourse in Islam? Who create d the necessary social space and resources for the rise of Islamic modernism? What were the determinants of its theme and orientation? While the literature abounds in thick descriptions of this remarkable intellectual movement, (1) the aim of this paper is to explain the historical factors underpinning its development and growth.


The correspondence perspective has long governed the historical thinking of the relations of ideas to social conditions. Rooted in Durkheim's mimetic conception of ideas, Marx's superstructure metaphor, and Weber's conception of elective affinity, this perspective presumes a duality of, and a determinate relationship between social structure and ideology. The scientific merits of this perspective, however, turned out to be its most serious weakness. It has been unable to answer its own central question--who or what connects social structure to ideology? Wuthnow casts doubts on the tenability of the correspondence premise by arguing that social structure and ideology relate in an enigmatic manner. Since ideologies are produced, rather than being reflections of social structure, Wuthnow reasoned that there must be sufficient resources for their production and a social space that permits them to grow. Since social structure and ideology are autonomous processes without one necessarily determining the other, then there must be specific historical conjunctures that would make cultural innovation possible. He thus poses the relation of ideology to social environment in terms of the problems of articulation. For Wuthnow, while exceptional economic growth provided the resources, the state furnished the necessary social space for the rise of diverse ideologies in Europe. (2) Collins also offers an alternative model based on an amended Durkheimian approach to ideological production. He claims that intellectual creativity takes place through contrasting position, these positions are generated by the dynamic of creation through opposition, and creation is fueled by the intellectual's emotional energy and cultural capital. He offers a two-step model of causality to explain the effect of external social conditions on intellectual diversity by indirectly rearranging the material base for intellectual life. Thus when external conditions disrupt the intellectual attention space, internal realignment takes place; and this in turn unleashes the creativity for formulating new positions and new tensions among the privileged arguers at the core of the network. (3)

Wuthnow and Collins still fall short of explaining how ideologies are actually produced and how their sociopolitical orientations take shape. As an alternative, it is argued here ideological production involves (i) the expression of opinions and beliefs, and (ii) the dissemination of these opinions and beliefs. The first refers to the actual production of ideas, and the second to the reproduction of their conditions of production. While conceding that concrete social conditions are important because they furnish the necessary resources, making culture production possible, I argue that the actual production of ideas takes place within the context of debate and back-and-forth discussions among the proponents of diverse ideas. I use Bakhtin's concept of "dialogic" to explain the production of ideas as a result of "constant interaction between meanings, all of which have the potential of conditioning others. Which will affect the other, how it will do so and in what degree is what is actually settled at the momen t of utterance." (4) "Understanding," says Holquist of Bakhtin, "comes about as a response to a sign with signs." (5) Expressions are made, meanings come about, and ideas are produced in relation to other expressions, meanings, and ideas that are present, occupying simultaneous but different space. (6) This relationship is mutual--words are responded to with words, rituals with rituals, symbols with symbols, and body movements with body movements. Idea causes idea.

Ideologies are thus produced within the dialogic of debates in the market of ideas, where the adherents of diverse ideological groups, in the words of Berger and Luckmann, "compete for the patronage of potential consumers of Weltanschauungen." (7) Debates, back-and-forth discussions, and ideological disputations set the internal dynamics of ideological production as each side of the debate structures the kind of argument its opponent is likely to advance against it and vice versa. Each side constitutes the target of ideological production for the other. On a more concrete level, I argue that ideological production is a discontinuous process that proceeds in an episodic fashion. Episodes begin and end with such dramatic events as a military coup, a significant social and political upheaval, the outbreak of a war or a revolution, dramatic changes in government's policies, a sudden economic swing, or an important cultural innovation, whether indigenously created or imported.

These theoretical propositions are used to explain the conditions of Islamic modernism. I argue that a new episode for culture production began following the Napoleon invasion of Egypt (1798-1801) and ended in the 1930s. (8) In this period, social transformation provided favorable social and political conditions for the rise of Islamic modernism. It also promoted a cultural pluralism in Egypt. This pluralism was reflected in the presence of such diverse groups as Christian missionaries, Westernizers (and the think-tank connected to British colonial administration), the followers of the Enlightenment, and the orthodox ulama. Intellectual debates and religious disputatious among these groups set the dynamic of meaning formation, each group constituting a target of ideological attack for the others. Naturally, this dynamic tended to modify or change the discourses of the parties involved. (9) The criticisms leveled against Islam by diverse ideological groups within the changing social conditions of nineteenth-ce ntury Egypt raised a set of historically significant issues. These issues are categorized into five broad binaries: (i) the empirical versus the Islamic sciences, (ii) the rational basis of law versus the shari'a, (iii) Western civilization versus the abode of Islam, (iv) gender equality versus male supremacy, and (v) constitutionalism versus Islamic conception of sovereignty. (10) The discourse of the Islamic modernists was one major resolution of these issues, as these thinkers formulated their ideas to bridge the rational sciences and the Islamic conception of knowledge, to appreciate Western civilization, to defend gender equality, and to favor constitutionalism.


Through a rationalist exegesis, the modernists aimed at opening the gate of ijtihad to examine the traditional sources of the Islamic jurisprudence--the Quran, hadith, qiyas, and ijma. Their rationalist approach was contrary to the traditionalists--Ahl as-Sunna wal-Jamma--who believed that anything that did not conforms to the Quran and the tradition of the prophet was false, that the ruling based on the consensus of the early generations of Muslim scholars is binding for all Muslims, that the Quran and the tradition cannot be opposed by rational reasoning, and that Islamic laws were immutable and unchangeable. In the pine-modern period, however, the odds of success for the modernists' intellectual endeavor were slim. The orthodox ulama were a powerful group, with close ties to the ruling elite. In addition, they enjoyed considerable social influences. (11) This formidable power secured their privileged cultural status and enabled them to frustrate any attempt at rethinking Islamic theology. (12) Key to the r ise of modern discourses was the social transformation of the nineteenth century. This transformation not only involved the expansion of commerce, the decline of the old and the emergence of new social classes, and changes in the structure and politics of the state, but also the decline of the traditional Islamic discourse and the emergence of competing ideologies.

This is not, however, to argue that modernist thought was absent in Islam's intellectual history before the nineteenth century. While for some modernism may be a cultural orientation and lifestyle associated with modern industrial democracies, in an intellectual sense modernism may be defined as the use of rational and empirical analysis to understand the natural and social reality based on certain objective rules and methodologies. In the latter sense, historical Islam displayed many instances of intellectual modernity. One early example of Islamic modernism was the Mu'tazilite rationalist school of the tenth century that considered the universe as "a rationally integrated system governed by laws of cause and effect, which God had created and set in...

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