Islam: The Odd Civilization Out?
Michael M.J. Fischer, director of the Center for Cultural
Studies at Rice University, is author, with Mehdi Abedi, of Debating Muslims:
Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernism and Tradition.
So where do we turn, we who see the limits of liberalism
and fear the absolutist demands of fundamentalism? -Homi Bhabha
It was in the Islamic world that the new revolutions
of the late 20th century began: revolutions midwifed by new technologies
of communication such as the cassette, video camera, fax machine, telephone,
graphic arts, music and the global circulation of images. Some of these
media, such as the fax machine and the telephone, are direct. But some
media, which operate through indirection, are at least as important: music,
the graphic arts. A few, like the audio and the video cassette, work in
The revolution of 1979 in Iran was the moment when the nature of these
new technologies, particularly the cassette tape, began to become clear.
The 1989 revolutions in the Soviet empire suddenly brought Muslim Central
Asia back into the Islamic world as both a potentially modernizing but
also a potentially destabilizing element. In the Soviet instance, it was
the fax machine that seems to have played a key role in blocking the August
1991 counterrevolutionary coup attempt in the Soviet Union.
However, far more powerful than either the fax or the audio cassette have
been the visual and music media, which have been reworking the lifestyles
of Iranians and other Muslims in directions invisible to, or seen blindly
by, those who insist that Islam is an unchanging medieval, patriarchal,
Yet the visual media and new technologies of all kinds are not the only
factors constituting the new conditions of postmodernity. They are registers
where one can see changes relatively clearly, changes whose roots are
deep in changing sociological conditions. Massive demographic movements
are also part of these conditions: Muslims migrate in large numbers to
the West for work, and among countries within the Muslim world as well,
so that local conceptions of Islam and other elements of local idea structures
are confronted with other conceptions of Islam. One thinks of Algerians
and Moroccans in France, Turks in Germany, Lebanese Shi'ites in West Africa
and Brazil, but also Egyptians in Iraq and the Gulf, Palestinians and
Jordanians in Kuwait, Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia, Afghans in Pakistan;
and finally Americans, Indians, Filipinos and Koreans in Saudi Arabia
and the Gulf.
The internal politics of Europe have been changed in ways that are only
beginning to emerge, with great dangers in racist and chauvinist politics,
yet also with great promise of more integrative and dynamic cultural growth.
Similar conflict and cultural fusion are occurring across the Islamic
A third, equally important element of the conditions of postmodernity
is a massive cultural sea change that perhaps most clearly began with
the Algerian revolution and has profoundly reworked the elite culture
of France, followed by a similar if later cultural change in Great Britain
stemming from its colonial immigration.
In differing ways, both of these movements of "cultural decolonization"
have had an effect on American culture. The trendy labels "postmodernism"
and "postmodernity" are part of the aftermath of the Algerian
Revolution. The theorists of postmodernity in France come from a generation
of people who were born in Algeria, who taught as young academics there,
and who were politically formed by the experience of the Algerian struggle
for independence: Helen Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard,
Pierre Bourdieu. (These writers, in fact, constitute a second wave, following
the essayists on the psychology of colonial dependency: Franz Fanon, Albert
Mememi and O. Manoni, who were championed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone
de Beauvoir, and who in turn influenced writers in the Islamic world.)
This is perhaps one of the least well understood aspects of the debate
over postmodernism. There is a generational contrast between the experiences
out of which most political science, philosophy and social theory of modern
societies derives in Europe and America, and the postwar French theories
of postmodernity. The rise of fascism was the powerful generational experience
shaping the thought of German-derived social theory in Europe around World
War II, and it is that set of theories that still provides "common
sense" in most traditional thinking.
Bureaucracy, rationalizing market processes and the defense of civil society
were the obsessive concerns of these theories. They centered on the attempt
to bring all aspects of society under rational control. But they also
focused on the obverse problem of modernity: that rationalizing processes
often got out of control and subjugated their human makers-a philosophical
concern whose lineage could be traced back to the Enlightenment and the
?rst modern revolutions, especially the French Revolution but culminating
with the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions of the early- and mid-20th century.
Algeria provided a different generational experience, one that focused
attention on the need to find alternatives to the construction of totalizing
ideologies, the need for theories and strategies of government that could
accommodate multiple cultural perspectives and not insist that everyone
see history or progress the same way. For this reason, it was often Hegel
who became the object of attack for his commodious "dialectical"
mode of theorizing that claimed to encompass differing points of view
but which always ended up in a synthesis that "just happened"
to confirm a single perspective regarding Truth, Reason, Progress, History.
Such "liberalism," as Homi Bhabha indicates in the quote above,
has been found to be oppressive by increasing numbers of people, and not
only in Algeria or India whence Derrida and Bhabha originally hail. Eastern
Europe too has provided a rich literature of the experience of the "small
nations," for whom singular "Progress," the march of "History"
and "Reason" as defined from the point of view of Berlin or
Moscow, has meant subordination.
The conditions of postmodernity, then, are real world conditions: of transnational
population movement not only by merchants or elites but also by proletarianized
groups; of urbanization and politicization; of technological change such
that almost everyone is subject to the accelerated pace and montage-style
of information processing that the television-cinema circuits promote;
and of pressure to admit that multiple cultural perspectives can, do and
must coexist in the same social spaces.
IS ISLAM THE ONE EXCEPTION? | Even some of the French postmodern
theorists can be bigots or have little grounded knowledge of things about
which they theorize. For example, Jean Baudrillard's insistence in a previous
issue of NPQ that Islam stands as the one challenge to the radical indifference
sweeping the world, and his agreement with the interviewer's provocative
suggestion that Islam or Iran, in the personification of Khomeini, is
"the headquarters of the centered Absolute, the ultimate face of
the anti-modern," fits with a widespread myth-making in Europe and
America that operates in unintended collusion with fundamentalist Muslims'
own different, but compatible, myths about themselves.
Anyone who knows anything about the history of the West or the history
of Islam knows about the tremendous diversity of Islamic civilization
and its contributions to the formation of the West's most prized cultural
possessions. Even in grade school, Americans learn that Greek civilization
was passed on to the Renaissance by Muslim scholars. Andalusian and Sicilian
Islamic civilization was "high culture" for Europe from the
11th to 15th centuries.
Europeans looked south for rational philosophy that challenged faith;
for science and math; for the arts; even for the legal forms that were
used by the Spanish in their conquest of the New World.
Not only was troubadour poetry modeled on Arabic forms, but also Dante's
Divine Comedy might well be seen as a counter text by a Christian nativist
to the mi'raj (mystical journey to heaven and hell) traditions of Muhamad.
Think too of the word borrowings we still have in English from Arabic
and Persian: paradise, picnic, algebra, sherbet, sherry, sheriff, pajama.
Ironically, the Islamic civilization I describe was threatened by fundamentalist
Islam, as is cosmopolitan liberal Islam today-and for not entirely dissimilar
The beginnings of Islam were founded on the ability to synthesize Greek,
Byzantine, Persian and Hebraic knowledge bases and to work them into something
new. The brilliance of Perso-Turko-Islamic civilization provided architectural,
painting and music forms to a world stretching from Andalusia to India
to Central Asia. Even the Hajj ritual of Mecca is a vivid example of hybrid
fusion of a pagan cult with Islam, reworked and reinterpreted. The jurisprudential
structure of Islam acknowledges change and innovation explicitly, both
in the Koran and in post-Koranic circumstances: the rules of abrogation
of certain verses of the Koran and the replacement of their commands by
later verses and commands; and the principle of imda, the approval of
new customs as long as they did not violate basic principles of Islam.
Obviously, fundamentalism has less to do with "Islam" per se
than with particular sociological and historical factors within a much
broader world. One could cite the many forms of liberal Islam that are
very vigorous in the contemporary world, ranging from the progressive
Ismailis to the many mystical orders, not to mention the Western-educated
liberal and agnostic members of the professional, middle and upper classes
who live and work both in the West and in the Muslim world. One could
also cite the secular political examples of Turkey and India.
FOUR REGISTERS OF ISLAM | There are four places we might look to
see the ways in which the modern world is reworking even so-called fundamentalist
movements in the Islamic world: the challenge of a literate feminism from
within Islam; the forms of late-20th-century revolution that Islamic movements
draw upon; and, perhaps most important of all, the transnational diasporas
that move cultural forms, as well as labor and capital, back and forth
THE ARTS | Less than two decades ago in Iran, there was no doubt
in the minds of Shi'ite believers that chess was unlawful; that music
and sculpture were among the forbidden forms of art; that painting human
images came too close to carving idols to be allowable; that radio, television
and cinema were means of corruption and were always associated with those
who lacked integrity; and that there was a wide category of prohibited
activities known as laghw, which included many forms of arts and sports.
Things have changed dramatically since the Islamic Revolution of 1979,
and they continue to change at a dramatic pace. Chess is no longer regarded
as gambling. Music has revived: At first only classical Persian music
was supported by the Islamic government, but as more and more modern instruments
were integrated and as demand for new pieces of music grew, the music
itself has begun to change. Sculpture is now juridically distinguished
from idol-carving, and the Islamic revolution has embarked on the promotion
of public sculpture. Not only has film production revived, and not only
have a series of first-rate films been produced, but modernist techniques
of filmmaking condemned as "incomprehensible" are now accepted
The most eye-catching change is in representational graphic arts: posters,
postage stamps, caricatures, calligraphy and book illustrations. Revolutionary
posters were perhaps the first art form to draw attention for their artistry
and for their fusion of styles and forms. Some posters adapted traditional
miniature and mural styles, color schemes and icons; other posters drew
on the Third World poster traditions going back to the Bolshevik Revolution,
the red-white-black color scheme, constructivist styles and single-idea
imagery; but others not only fused these two traditions but introduced
others, including contemporary commercial art styles ranging from psychedelic
and heavy metal to birthday-card saccharine.
Music, of course, is another intensely important arena, particularly so
these days in North Africa and France, where rai music has made the pop
charts. Rai music, however, began as political "street" music,
and still operates that way, although it has also become a fusion pop
form. In its street forms, rai operates in France to keep a community
of former North African residents connected; in Algeria it operated for
a time as a Berber nationalist medium against the Islamicizing, Arabizing
currents. Once again this is a medium that can be understood only partly
as a direct medium-in the political content of its messages-but that is
more important in the long run through its indirect reworking of sensibility
and lifestyle. A parallel might be drawn to rock music in the former Soviet
Union, which quietly changed the way a younger generation perceived the
rules of their parents.
Video cassettes are a new arena of cultural competition. If in the Iranian
revolution Khomeini was given a tremendous boost by being in Paris where
Ibrahim Yazdi and others were able to produce cassettes, transmit them
by telephone line to Iran and have them reproduced almost instantly in
the thousands, today video cassettes have become a vehicle of transmitting
sermons from South African preachers to Egypt, or having Sheikh Khish
available to Muslims in the US.
Equally important is the competition to control computer educational technologies
for the dissemination of Islamic ideologies. The Saudis, for example,
are looking into hypertext technologies for packaging their brand of Islam,
while other more progressive groups are doing the same. As the Saudis
increasingly come to see the fundamentalist movements of Iran, the Sudan
and Algeria as potential threats, this competition for educational technologies
will become more and more interesting.
Architecture is yet another indicator of the evolution of the Islamic
world. For some years now the Aga Khan Awards for Islamic architecture
have been an interesting spur of major new projects consisting of both
state-of-the-technological-art and hybridizations of traditional and modern
ISLAMIC FEMINISM | Perhaps the most dramatic way to show the modern
potential of Islam would be to deconstruct the patriarchal conservatism
of historic and more recent Islamic structures. To be sure, it is still
a project in the making, but just as the numbers of working-class Egyptians,
Turks and Palestinians who have traveled abroad are indicators of social
processes for the future, so too is the increasing literacy of women-women
who will be able to read the Koranic and hadith ("sayings" that
indicate authoritative precedent for Islamic law) literature for themselves
and show that patriarchal interpretations have been distorted and can
be challenged on quite Islamic grounds.
During the Iranian revolution, a woman physician from Houston, clad in
the then-distinctive modest head cover, was seen on television around
the world eloquently arguing that the Islamic revolution would not set
back the clock for women's rights. In the short run, she proved wrong,
but time may yet prove her right. For instance, she spoke of the verse
in the Koran which is often taken to permit polygamy and showed how it
might in fact have meant quite the reverse. First of all, she reminded
believers of the context of this verse's revelation: it was after a bloody
war in which many men were killed, and the preceding revelation was about
the difficulties of caring for orphaned children. Thus the verse on polygamy
says, "If you fear that you cannot be just to the orphaned children,
then marry two or three or four wives so as to be able to care for the
She went on to point out that the Koran demands that if a man marries
more than one woman they must all be treated equally and justly, and that
as this is impossible, the verse in fact militates against polygamy. Finally,
she said that Muhammad had only one wife as long as Khadijeh, his first
wife, was alive; and that Ali, the first Imam, was monogamous.
Traditionalists have always defended Islamic marriage as a contractual
affair, and they have pointed out that as times change, women (and their
fathers) can have any sort of protection written into the contract. While
women have often been poorly placed in the power hierarchy of families
and community so as to make this possibility remote, in modern times the
contract has increasingly been used to insure that husbands allow their
wives to get further education or have a voice in where they live. A recent
Islamic marriage in the US included five rights that effectively countered
the notion that a wife must be subservient to her husband. The contract
specified her right to an education, her right to work outside the home,
her right to have the power of attorney so as to be able to divorce her
husband at any time, the right to have custody of her children should
she divorce, and the right to choose her place of residence.
Defenders of patriarchy often invoke a fund of sayings from the Prophet
or his Companions-or, if Shi'ite, from the Imams. An important effort
is now being made by Islamic feminists to show that many of these invocations
are improperly conducted, and that what is alleged to have been said was
not quite what the partriarchalists think. Fatima Mernissi's book The
Veil and the Male Elite adopts this strategy. For instance, she takes
the famous hadith of Abu Hurayra that women, dogs and asses interrupt
prayer if they pass in front of the believer, interposing themselves between
him and the qibla (the direction of prayer), and shows that when Abu Hurayra
in the early days of Islam tried to pass this off as a valid saying of
the Prophet, he was immediately contradicted by Ayesha, the youngest wife
of the Prophet, who reported that the Prophet himself had said prayers
while she was in front of him laying on the bed between him and the qibla.
Indeed, as it turns out, Ayesha is an important feminist source. In the
eighth century of Islam, the great jurist Zarkashi put together a collection
of Ayesha's corrections to the Statements of the Companions. It remained
unpublished until the modernist Jamaluddin al-Afghani found it in the
al-Dahiriya Library of Damascus and it was finally published in 1939.
Among the other themes that Ayesha's collection disputes is the extreme
obsession with ritual pollution that some of the Companions of the Prophet
attributed to Muhamad, and which were subsequently used to segregate and
repress menstruating women.
Through contract, and through the reinterpretation of traditional texts,
Islam is being fundamentally reworked from a feminist and egalitarian
point of view.
New Balance | While armed-struggle ideologies still have appeal
in the Islamic world (the assassins of Sadat are an important case in
point), many Islamic movements have thrown their lot in with a kind of
populist mass-movement style rather than a guerrilla, armed-uprising strategy.
The balance between guns and massive demonstrations remains unstable in
many countries in the Middle East, but one of the most interesting developments
is the introduction of Muslim Central Asia back into the world of the
Middle East. Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all jockeying for alliances,
and it should be pointed out that Shi'ite but Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan
is more interested in alliances with Turkey at the moment than with Shi'ite
Iran. A predominantly secularist, modernizing set of Muslim states would
introduce a startling new balance into the Muslim world.
TRANSNATIONAL DIASPORAS | Finally, there is the effect that Muslims
already living in Europe and America may have on the development of their
lands of origin. We have already mentioned the flow of guest workers from
the Middle East to Europe, between Muslim countries and from the non-Muslim
world to the Middle East. But there is also the dynamics of organized
Muslim communities in Europe and America evolving new modern cultural
forms that will interact with changes in the lands of origin. Not all
these dynamics need be progressive: It is often observed that migrants
can fossilize their nostalgic memories and may even fund conservative
movements in their lands of origin. (The cases of Hindu fundamentalists,
Irish conservatives and Gush Emonim in Israel come to mind as comparative
examples.) It is certainly the case that fundamentalist Muslims as well
as liberals and others have often found it easier to meet and strategize
in the freedom of Europe and America than in their countries of origin.
On the other hand, new progressive forms-like the marriage contract with
the five "protections" described above-are often more easily
developed in places like America and can then serve as models for innovation
in the lands of origin. The development of the London-based Middle East
Broadcasting Center, a satellite television network with news bureaus
in Jerusalem as well as the capitals of the Arab world, is an interesting
development to watch. Like the satellite programs beamed from Hong Kong
and Singapore to India that have displaced any control the Indian government
had over the television airwaves, MBC too is a satellite-based route around
local government control of the media. Financed by Saudi investors with
connections to King Fahd, it is a potentially liberal force in the market
of 300 million Muslims from Oman to Morocco.
In sum, while there is no doubt that fundamentalist movements in the Islamic
world are strong and growing, for good sociological reasons, there is
at the same time dramatic cultural change pervading these societies-changes
that have also managed to affect the sensibilities of the fundamentalists
themselves. There is no point in demonizing the struggles of the Middle
East as some land of absolutes, or in dichotomizing it as the polar opposite
of "postmodernity in the West." The dichotomy is false, not
only because the Muslim world is now more than ever part of the West through
its demographic presence in Europe and America, but also because the ethical
and political objectives of postmodern theorizing originated historically
in the Muslim world of North Africa, then were rapidly recognized and
carried out into the world by migrants from India-Homi Bhabha, Salman
Rushdie, Gayatri Spivak-and other parts of the former colonized world.