Why Culture Matters to the Islamic Revival

It is often said that the antidote to the Muslim world’s malaise is the establishing of an all-embracing Caliphate: all territories populated by Muslims bound under a centralised institution whose dictates would govern every corner of the empire, bolstered through communications technology and greater levels of coercion that the modern state has access to. Common perceptions of the Caliphate and how it could materialize are incorrect. Criticisms about such perceptions are neither to discredit the Caliphate as both a pre-modern and a modern revivalist project, nor to malign its proponents, but rather to widen the field of inquiry from the political to a multi-disciplinary analysis of Islamic civilisation.

There are two primary criticisms (the first of which will be analyzed henceforth):

  1. The process for establishing a Caliphate as is commonly theorised by Muslims is incorrectly inverted. Rather than establishing the Caliphate as a catalyser, we must first heal our individual and societal condition and develop a spiritual, psychological, and material basis for the establishment of a strong polity.
  2. However the Caliphate is re-established, it must be radically different from the common conception it holds among most Muslims, regardless of whether they desire to merely replicate pre-modern forms of governance or reproduce an Islamicised modern state. We must strive to theorise a post-liberal, post-modern understanding of governance and the role Islam would play in this.

Malik Bennabi, one of the greatest sociologists of the 20th century, wrote extensively on the sociological condition of Islamic civilisation. Bennabi saw the Ummah as being arrested in development, unable to reproduce the pioneering spirit of the early generations and thus being ripe for colonisation by peoples who instead bore this impulse. He called this phenomenon the post al-Muwahhid person, the archetypal Muslim who was in the dying stages of his civilisation and unable to produce any novel inventions, succumbed to mediocrity and decay. His inability to innovate and ignorance of his own culture and history caused him to latch on to the leftover ideas of the dominant (Western) civilisation, prioritizing its most toxic ideas (such as consumerism and entertainment) over beneficial ideas that could revive his spirit.

What Bennabi saw at the heart of this was a cultural vacuum birthed by the stagnation and domination of Islamic civilisations by Western colonial empires. Bennabi differentiated between culture and knowledge, giving the example of a Muslim medical student who enters the same medical institution as his British counterpart, earns the same degree, but neglects the cultural attitude towards progress, innovation, and “effectiveness” that his British counterpart embodies to provide solutions for social problems. The Muslim student is comfortable where he is: securing the bare minimum required to sustain a luxurious lifestyle, not seeking to toil for solutions that carry the nation forward.

This is what afflicts the Muslim mind: a fear of venturing into the unknown because we do not know our place in the world, where we should contribute, and what we are contributing to. Bereft of our ancestral lands, traditions and “place in the world,” we are shuffled hither and thither to work as cheap labour or as a professional middle-class; our diaspora, integrated into the global monoculture lifestyle of consumerism. One of the remedies that Bennabi offers to this is to develop fa’iliya — a proactive attitude that engages and contributes to the cultural and societal project. This requires a renewed and proper understanding of Islam, not as a religion that completes us by virtue of us simply being Muslim, thus inducing a moral paralysis and hampering our understanding and development of our place in the world, but rather as our individual self and society being a continuous project of improvement and expansion.

Culture has become a dirty word among many Muslims in the West, seen as a regressive hindrance to a purer, monocultural Islam. The mass migration of Muslims to the West has produced vast confusion for second and third-generation Muslim migrants onwards, with the culture of their parents being alien and the culture of their host societies being inimical to the tenets of Islam. This desire for a monocultural Islam that can be adopted and placed anytime, anywhere mirrors the forces of modernity in homogenising and effacing differences. In Islamic civilisation, the institutions that were constructed and the monotheistic norms and values that developed from Timbuktu to Aceh were all part of a complex interaction between Islam and the local culture. The all-embracing message and vitality of Islam yielded both Islam as an Ummah and Islam as a particular and distinctive dynamic with cultural inflections (most forcefully felt in the diverse fiqh corpus we possess today). What is needed today is not the abandonment of culture as a totality, but rather a sustained effort to create a virile culture with relevance to our space and time.

Indeed, the situation of the Muslims cannot be fixed by an all-governing and all-seeing political entity. Bennabi condemned approaches to revival efforts that focused purely on the political, as utilising European approaches of state engineering and control to solve the moral, psychological, and cultural malaise of the Muslims would only yield failure. We must recover the pioneering spirit of our forefathers, creating a dynamic culture that will lead to the spread of Islam and in so doing, become worthy of a strong political entity. A state is only as prosperous as its denizens are resourceful and intelligent, and only as secure as its denizens are strong and proud of not only what they have built, but see it worthy to defend and die for. The state that desires to build a society through social engineering is one prone to collapse. The turn in a man’s heart is predicated upon the will of God and no prodding by state apparatus will overturn this. What we truly require now is the turning of our hearts.

About the Author: Dimashqee is a student of history and politics, focusing on statecraft, geopolitics, and world history (including Islamic civilisation and rise & decline theory).

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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