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Introduction >
Intellectuals in the Modern Muslim World

During the past two centuries, Muslim societies, like all other societies around the globe, have experienced significant transformations. The lives and roles of intellectuals in every society have been radically changed as a part of these transformations. In the Muslim world, three developments have been of special importance in the emergence of the Muslim activist intellectuals during the final decades of the twentieth century. As a part of the interaction with the West and the consequent Westernization and modernization of significant sectors in Muslim societies, a grouping (or “class”) of “secular intellectuals” emerged. These people were similar to, and possibly both inspired and created by, their counterparts in the evolving modern societies of western Europe and North America. Second, there was a significant decline in the importance of the classically defined ulama among the intellectuals in Muslim societies. Third, by the end of the nineteenth century, a new type of Muslim intellectual began to develop in which many of the characteristics of both the modern secular intellectual and the tradition ulama were visible, at first, often, in uncomfortable compromise and then in increasingly effective synthesis.

Emergence of Secular Intellectuals

At the beginning of the nineteenth century in many parts of the Muslim world, people began conscious efforts to reshape and reform their societies. There was a growing sense of inadequacy and weakness in the face of the expanding European imperial and industrial powers. These reforms involved not only changing structures of government but also increasingly important efforts to provide the information and knowledge necessary for such modernizing (at first almost exclusively “Westernizing”) efforts. Schools of a new type were established, and by the final decades of the nineteenth century the result was the development of “a new educated class looking at itself and the world with eyes sharpened by western teachers, and communicating what it saw in new ways.”44 Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 302.

This “new class” was different from the ulama in training, institutional loyalties, and visions of the world and represented the emergence of a new type of intellectual in Muslim societies. The experience in the Arab world had many special characteristics, but in its general trends it was representative of the broader Muslim world's experiences.

Not since the high Middle Ages had an educated elite arisen in the Arab world that was distinctly separate from the closed religious stratum of the ulema, who for generations had monopolized learning and intellectual activity. The impact of education and of the new ideas slowly but inexorably broke this monopoly; by the end of the nineteenth century a new intelligentsia had emerged.45 Hisham Sharabi, Arab Intellectuals and the West: The Formative Years, 1875–1914 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970), p. 3.

The development of this new intellectual class was a relatively long process, but it emerged as a grouping of “secular intellectuals” similar to what had emerged in Western Europe. This secular character was a fundamental part of this “New Class” as it developed earlier in Western Europe. An “episode decisive in the formation of the New Class” was “a process of secularization in which most intelligentsia are no longer trained by, living within, and subject to close supervision by churchly organization. … Secularization is important because it de-sacralizes authority-claims and facilitates challenges to definitions of social reality made by traditional authorities.”46 Alvin W. Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (New York: Continuum, 1979), p. 1.

There were many different approaches among the intellectuals in the Muslim world of the late nineteenth century, with some making significant efforts to maintain a clear identification with older formal articulations of the Islamic tradition. However, these more Islamically oriented intellectuals were pushed to the periphery, and following World War I, the “intellectual and social orientation shifted toward an irreversible westernizing and secularist direction. … Islam, among the educated strata, was absorbed into secular ideology,” and in the interwar period the group that “gained undisputed political ascendancy in both Egypt and the Fertile Crescent was the Muslim secularists.”47 Sharabi, Arab Intellectuals, pp. 132–33

The domination of a secularist orientation for elite intellectuals in Muslim societies increased during the middle of the twentieth century. In what many observers saw as the Muslim country that was the most successful in its modernizing transformation, Turkey, the political system was officially secular, and most of the intellectual and political elites in the Muslim world accepted and supported that perspective. One popularizing tract on “muslim heroes of the twentieth century” written by a Sri Lankan Muslim included Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish reformer who created the secular republic.48 S. M. H. Mashoor, Muslim Heroes of the Twentieth Century (Lahore: She Muhammad Ashraf, 1978), pp. 51–58. Similarly, Anwar al-Sadat, who in the 1970s proclaimed himself to be the “believing president” of Egypt, spoke of his love and admiration for Ataturk.49 Anwar el-Sadat, In Search of Identity: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 12, 13, 17. Elsewhere secularism was less explicit and official, but it was the dominant tone. A well-informed analysis of Middle Eastern politics noted, in the early 1970s, that in “every Middle Eastern country, political and social change must accomodate itself to the lingering religious consciousness of its inhabitants” but affirmed that the dominant tone and path was set by the fact that the “twentieth century is a secular age.”50 James A. Bill and Carl Leiden, The Middle East, Politics and Power (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1974), pp. 39, 45. Emphasis added. A later edition of this book said that by “the 1960s Arab nationalism appeared to have triumphed … [although] [s]ecular Arab nationalism had never been firmly established as the undisputed state-ideas of countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.”51 James A. Bill and Robert Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, 3rd ed. (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1990), p. 78 By 1990, it was clear that the secular intellectuals and the political elite of which they were a part had been unable to transform their secularist and semisecular ideologies into mass movements or to reconstruct the worldviews of the majorities in their societies in a more fully secularist way. However, the modernizing and westernizing secular intellectuals succeeded in providing the worldviews and visions for the political elite that has been created by the transformations of the past two centuries. Most states in the contemporary Muslim world are based on ideological foundations provided by the secular intellectuals in Muslim societies.

The secular intellectuals were products of new modes of education and the transformations resulting from the dynamics of Westernization and modernization and were a separate “new class.” They emerged as the dominant intellectual grouping in the first half of the twentieth century, reaching possibly a peak of influence and power in the days of the worldwide emergence of various forms of “radical socialism” during the 1960s. However, their generic political secularism did not become the hegemonic worldview in societies in the Muslim world (or elsewhere), and by the 1990s, the older style of a relatively “pure” secularism was being challenged significantly, even in some of its most solid bastions like Turkey.

The “secular intellectual” remains an important factor in the Muslim world. The contemporary role of the secular intellectuals is almost “classic” in these societies as a separated, sometimes alienated, grouping. They are most visible as active critics of authorities and policies in the emerging postsecularist world. The “new class” of secular intellectuals first developed as a small minority within the strata of intellectuals in modern Muslim societies. In that context, the major alternative to them was the traditional “religious intellectual” grouping among the ulama. The success of the secular intellectuals in the twentieth century is related both to the needs of modernizing societies and also to the weaknesses of the ulama in the modern era.

Decline of the Ulama

As the ulama developed as a special grouping within Muslim society, they became identified with established institutions and were more preservers and caretakers than moral critics. Already by the fourteenth century, the ulama as a class were coming under criticism. Ibn Khaldoun argued that the scholars of his own time could not be thought of as “the heirs of the prophets.” The standing of the scholars simply “reflects an affectation of respect for their position in the royal councils, where it is desired to make a show of reverence for the religious ranks. … The jurist who is not pious … has not inherited anything. He merely makes rulings for us as to how to act. This applies to the majority of contemporary jurists.”52 Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 1:459, 461.

In some major areas, like the Ottoman Empire, the ulama had become an institutionalized part of the ruling system. This gave real power to the scholars but opened the way for the organizations of scholars to become closely tied to political institutions that were subject to decline. In Ottoman domains, there was a long-term decline of the prestige and effectiveness of the bureaucratic, preserving ulama through intellectual rigidity tied to a standardized official educational system, corruption in the operation of offices, and the emergence of a wealthy and hereditary Ottoman “Molla aristocracy.”53 H. A. R. Gibb and Harold Bowen, Islamic Society and the West, vol. 2, Islamic Society in the Eighteenth Century, pt. 2 (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 107. Although it is clear that the modernizing transformations of the nineteenth century had a major negative impact on the role of the ulama, the roots of the decline are deeper. By the eighteenth century, it

is difficult to avoid the impression that in reality the position of the Ulema was gravely undermined. Though they still preserved the appearance of power, it was beginning to wear thin. … The pitiable spectacle which the Seyhs [teachers] were to present during the nineteenth century was not solely the result of the rapid overthrow of the old social order. It was the sudden culmination of a long process that had gradually sapped their moral position.54 Ibid., pp. 112–13.

Some of the most important criticism of and opposition to the ulama establishments throughout the Muslim world came from ulama in the tajdid tradition. At the beginning of the nineteenth century in West Africa, the great jihad led by Uthman dan Fodio involved a “constant attack” on “the evil scholars” (ulama al-su) who had compromised in practice with local non-Islamic traditions.55 F. H. el Masri, introduction, to Bayan wujub al-hijra ala ‘l-’ibad, by Uthman Ibn Fudi (Khartoum: Khartoum University Press, 1978), p. 9. In the same era, one of the leading intellectuals in Yemen whose works were widely known, Muhammad al-Shawkani (d. 1834), argued that the rigid adherence of ulama to the texts of their law schools (taqlid) was a form of idolatry, which made those ulama unbelievers.56 Muhammad b. Ali al-Shawkani, al-qawl al-mufid fi adalah al-ijtihad wa al-taqlid (n.p.:n.n., 1929/1347), p. 3.

During the nineteenth century, the most active ulama were those within the tajdid tradition of Muslim intellectuals. While they clashed with the emerging secular intellectual, they had, in the long run, little direct impact on the direction in which their societies were moving. They did have a very important indirect effect by keeping alive authentically indigenous traditions of critical intellectual life that could provide inspiration for the later Muslim activist intellectuals.

The majority of the ulama in most Muslim societies emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth century as a declining conservative force. The educational institutions under their control lost resources, students, and influence and in many places were simply taken over by the states, which were increasingly dominated by secularist modernizers. Perhaps the major symbolic culmination of this trend was the nationalization in 1961 of the great historic Islamic university of al-Azhar in Cairo. The justification was the need to “train a new generation committed to and capable of contributing to modernization and development. As a result, the university lost much of its independence both academically and politically.”57 John L. Esposito, Islam and Politics, 3rd ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991), p. 129.

The basic fact about the role of the “traditional” ulama in the modern world is “that the ‘ulama as a group lost their position as an uncontested intellectual elite in the Arab world,”58 Menahem Milson, “Medieval and Modern Intellectual Traditions in the Arab World,” Daedalus (Summer 1972): 24. and this is true elsewhere as well. Except “for a few bold spirits … the ‘ulama’ responded to the challenge of modernity by withdrawing into a defensive conservatism”59 Ibid. at the same time that the modernizing secular intellectuals were emerging as a major force. The old-style ulama proved to be unable to provide inspiration or help for the emerging modern-educated Muslims in the context of the rising influence of secularism.

The experience of Hasan al-Banna as recounted in his autobiography illustrates this weakness well. In the 1920s, al-Banna was a modern-educated Egyptian who was training to be a schoolteacher. He was concerned by what he saw as the increasing moral corruption of his society caused by Western intellectual and political domination. Al-Banna went to leading ulama in hopes of finding ways of resisting this growing corruption and instead was advised to retreat quietly into his own personal world of religious thought.60 Memoirs of Hasan al Banna Shaheed, trans. M. N. Shaikh (Karachi: International Islamic Publishers, 1981), pp. 112–13. It was only after this disillusionment with the leading ulama that al-Banna began to organize his own activist (and non-ulama) association dedicated to strengthening Islamic faith and practice.

The failure of the old-style ulama to provide any real alternative to the secular intellectuals in the nineteenth and early twentieth century may be the single most important aspect of the rise of the contemporary Muslim activist intellectual. The conservative ulama have not had much success in maintaining their influence either in the days of imperial rule or under the conditions of political independence.

The colonial and postcolonial moment in the Arab world has led to a noticeable erosion in the religious and social position of the “ulama” as the traditonal intelligentsia class in the world of Islam. The function of the traditional ‘alim is to preserve and transmit religious knowledge. A new type of Muslim intellectual (the Islamist) is being born—one who is critical of the “ulama,” yet who, nevertheless, shares nearly the same worldview of Islam. The new Muslim intellectual takes a more activist role, and is forced, therefore, to interpret the contents of Islam in a new way.61 Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi', Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), pp. 37–38

In the final decades of the twentieth century, it was the challenge from the new Muslim intellectuals rather than from the Westernizing secular intellectuals that was transforming the role of the old-style ulama most dramatically. The secular intellectuals were unable to create effective ties with the masses or with the new, increasingly large, educated classes in Muslim societies. Secularist nationalism and radicalism also were unable to coopt the old-style ulama and transform them. Even though the states could secure their grudging cooperation in issuing appropriately nationalist or socialist rulings, few of the old ulama establishment ever were convincingly converted to radical socialism or secularist nationalism.

The ineffectiveness of the traditional ulama meant that the way was open for the emergence of a new style of Muslim intellectual who would work to create a modern but not secularist alternative to both the conservative ulama and the secular intellectuals. To a remarkable degree, the new intellectual perspectives peripheralized the old secular intellectuals and converted the traditional ulama into more activist Islamic advocates and reformers.

Notes:

44. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 302.

45. Hisham Sharabi, Arab Intellectuals and the West: The Formative Years, 1875–1914 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970), p. 3.

46. Alvin W. Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (New York: Continuum, 1979), p. 1.

47. Sharabi, Arab Intellectuals, pp. 132–33

48. S. M. H. Mashoor, Muslim Heroes of the Twentieth Century (Lahore: She Muhammad Ashraf, 1978), pp. 51–58.

49. Anwar el-Sadat, In Search of Identity: An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 12, 13, 17.

50. James A. Bill and Carl Leiden, The Middle East, Politics and Power (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1974), pp. 39, 45. Emphasis added.

51. James A. Bill and Robert Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, 3rd ed. (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1990), p. 78

52. Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, 1:459, 461.

53. H. A. R. Gibb and Harold Bowen, Islamic Society and the West, vol. 2, Islamic Society in the Eighteenth Century, pt. 2 (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 107.

54. Ibid., pp. 112–13.

55. F. H. el Masri, introduction, to Bayan wujub al-hijra ala ‘l-’ibad, by Uthman Ibn Fudi (Khartoum: Khartoum University Press, 1978), p. 9.

56. Muhammad b. Ali al-Shawkani, al-qawl al-mufid fi adalah al-ijtihad wa al-taqlid (n.p.:n.n., 1929/1347), p. 3.

57. John L. Esposito, Islam and Politics, 3rd ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991), p. 129.

58. Menahem Milson, “Medieval and Modern Intellectual Traditions in the Arab World,” Daedalus (Summer 1972): 24.

59. Ibid.

60. Memoirs of Hasan al Banna Shaheed, trans. M. N. Shaikh (Karachi: International Islamic Publishers, 1981), pp. 112–13.

61. Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi', Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), pp. 37–38

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