“Emic” and Etic” Knowledge of Reform – Re-published 5 June 2018


"Once you get the genie out of the bottle, you cannot predict what will happen," says Mohamed Kamal, a political science professor at Cairo University and a member of the influential Policies Secretariat in the ruling National Democratic Party.  "When you use a religious discourse, no one can counter your argument or argue against you," he says. "In that case, you'll be arguing against Islam and against the Koran. You'll no longer be a political opponent. Rather, you'll be an infidel.""  Shadid

Salman Rushdie recently wrote that the time is ripe for a transforming "Reformation" within Islam.  He said that the time had come for Muslims to see their revelation as occurring within history rather than above it.  Rushdie is probably more directly interested in the possibility of this kind of Reform than most people since he has been the target of several "fatwas" declaring him to be outside Islam, an "apostate" and therefore not protected from the wrath of the Believers.

One might ask if his opinion in this matter is shared by many of the Believers, especially since the opinion is his. There have been any number of attempts in Islamic history to place Islam on a more "rationalist" and less "pietist" course.  In the first centuries of Islam, one of the most powerful competing schools of philosophy, theology and law in the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad was that of the "Mu'taziliin" (my own peculiar transliteration).  They sought to relate the message of the Revelation to the knowledge they had acquired of classical Hellenistic and Byzantine learning through their conquests.  For a time they prospered, and there was at least one Caliph who was a member of their school of thinking.  Then, the forces of reaction came to the fore, the "Mu'taziliin" were overthrown with much bloodshed, crucifixions, beheading etc, and "pietism" became the guiding force of Sunni Islam and has  remained such to this day.  Oddly enough, the thinking of the "Mu'taziliin" survives only among the Zaidi Shia of Yemen and in Indonesia.  As I mentioned, there have any number of attempts at reform, some of them claiming large numbers of adherents, and having the protection of princes lucky enough to live beyond the reach of majority opinion.  All of them failed in the end.  As a result, Sunni Islam remains a faith so closely wedded to scripture, precedent and a consensus of conformity that it has changed little in form or doctrine in a thousand years.  It is not surprising that pious Muslims still speak of the Crusades, they are still living in the mindset of that time.  Some will argue that we are as well.  I think not.

The recent American wars against what is euphemistically called "Islamic Extremism" have placed Islam under great stress.  The survival and prosperity of the Islamic Community is always at the front of the minds of Muslims.  The level of pressure and violence against Jihadis is seen by a lot of Muslims as something that threatens to spill over into a general hostility to Muslims.  This frightens them.  As a result, there is now great ferment among the 'Ulema (scholars) of the Sunni world to include such centers of fermentation as al-Azhar and al-Zeituna in Cairo and Tunis respectively.  The relevant discussion there seek a new consensus (Ijma') centered around the question of what it means to be a Muslim in the  21st Century CE.  What could be a more important question?

Are the "moderate" Islamists of the type described in this article also seekers for a "reasonable" answer to the same question or are they just "shamming" in order to reach power so that they can impose their constipated view of religion and  law on the unfortunate inhabitants of Islamic countries?  There are a lot of Islamists (both Sunni and Shia) who wear nice, Western clothes.  A lot of them are "shamming."  The goal of every Islamist I ever met was ultimately to impose Sharia law.  Those of you who were trained in anthropology know the difference betwee "Emic," and Etic" knowledge.  This distinction is particularly important in this case.

Let us not be so foolish as to believe what they say of themselves.  Let us find the truth before we accept their words.

Pat Lang


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12 Responses to “Emic” and Etic” Knowledge of Reform – Re-published 5 June 2018

  1. searp says:

    I am really at a loss when it comes to Sunni Islam. It seems to me that Shia Islam may have more hope, as it is “guided”, so one would hope that leadership can actually have long-lasting impact…

  2. ismoot says:

    What you say is true and may be more true for you if you consider that the “Gate of Ijtihad” remains open in Shia Islam. pl

  3. Mr.Murder says:

    The only people I’ve known of either belief personally were Sunnis. Extremely moderate no less.
    The majority is indeed Sunni in the faith. The notion of their adherence as opposed to tolerance is only within the context of places they’re a minority and feel the need to conform to harsher standards.
    It’s rather alarming to hear their perception within the modes of western civilization’s established policy advisors.

  4. ismoot says:

    Mr. Murder,
    Whatever that meant, it missed me. pl

  5. searp says:

    Pat, About all I know on this is really from Karen Armstrong’s book, which is excellent. It does talk about Ijtihad and basically says Sunni theology was cast in concrete about 800 years ago.
    Do you have any comments on the ront-page 9/11 story in the NYT today?

  6. ismoot says:

    Try “The Social Structure of Islam,” Reuben Levy (out of print)
    Or the “Encyclopedia of Islam.”
    In Re, the NYT, I read it. It is quite possible that a high level joint headquarters like SOCOM, which had no operational responsibilities before 9/11 would decide that such a report was either not credible or not their business.
    The military like all other fields of human endeavor is mostly filled with people of limited imagination. pat

  7. I agree with the basic claim here but I think the call for an Islamic “Reformation” is misguided. It is ignorant of both Sunni Islam and of the real “Reformation,” which was a revolt against clerical rule. Rushdie’s and others’ call for an Islamic Reformation ignores that one has been going on for years — it traces its lineage through ibn Taymiyya and Qutb. It works very much to hurt American security interests. Read Christopher Henzel in the recent issue of _Parameters_ for further information on this point; the bottom line is that mainstream clerical rule in Sunni Islam is not the problem — the problem is the Salafists — these are modern Reformers (mujdadid) who advocate a return to the “wisdom of the fathers” and a purifying of Islam. Throughout the Sunni world you find that the clerical establishment often opposes these forces, sometimes violently. The only reason this particular group of Salafists have gotten so powerful is because they have been able to operate outside the state system and thus also outside of the rule of the clerical elite. The notion of ijtihad is actually a Reformation notion, in many ways, if one can be permitted to make such analogical leaps (and at the risk of gross oversimplification).

  8. ismoot says:

    Thanks for your input. pl

  9. ismoot says:

    I just re-read my post. I didn’t advocate anything for the Muslims. What I advocated for us is that we not be naive with regard to the claims of “moderation” on the part of supposedly acceptable Islamists. pl

  10. I think I was reacting more to the comment from Rushdie than to your overall claim, which I agree with. (And of course it’s not just Sunnis to beware of in this regard — it’s a very different issue, but the power gained by supposedly acceptable Shiites like Sistani ought to be scaring the hell out of neocons who claim to want democratic change in the middle east).

  11. ismoot says:

    I sure agree with that. pl

  12. Hawi Moore says:

    This is interesting

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