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In contemporary Muslim societies, a cultural reform aiming at liberating the individual from traditionalist interpretations of Islam is already underway. Reformers are appealing to the values and ethos embodied in the Islamic sources to restore the moral autonomy of the individual, and to develop an egalitarian political culture. The reform is therefore Islamic in nature and intent, and cannot be otherwise. All reform movements that have brought about profound cultural reform have been religious. The essentially secularist and individualistic modern West owes its genesis, as Weber reminded us in his Protestant Ethic, to the Religious Reformation that took place in the Occident at the dawn of the modern West. The Orient should be allowed to undertake its own reformation, which would inevitably result in the reorientation and rationalization of the religious values and beliefs of the people of the orient, and must hence take the form of a Confucian, Hindu, or Islamic Reformation.
The Creative and Transcendental Mission of Western Muslims
Muslim presence is the US as a growing and vibrant community is quite recent, and it is still too early to tell the direction to which this almost unprecedented experimentation is going. But regardless of that direction, the US provides a free, relatively speaking, environment for Islam to interact with modern society.
And here lies the tremendous responsibility, and possibly the historical meaning, of Muslim Americans. The question we face today is two fold: can we do it and how? Can we reconcile modern practices and institutions with Islamic values and assumptions.
In the last two or three decades, Muslim Americans displayed a great energy and marked ability to build communities and to reassert their Islamic commitments and identities. The vibrancy of the Muslim American community is manifested in the many Islamic centers, schools, and national organizations developed over the last two decades. In many ways those efforts reflect a marked ability to adapt and catch up with the vibrant American society.
September 11 tragedy came to complicate the life of Muslims in the West, but also to bring Muslim Americans closer to achieving their historical role. September 11 put American Muslims in the spotlight, and pushed them to the heart of evolution of world history. Muslim Americans no more afford to speak to themselves or to operate in the splendid isolation of the past three decades.
American Muslims are faced with tremendous challenges but we also have unparalleled opportunities. We have the opportunity to give Islam a new expression, suitable to our age that it had never had in recent years. We have also the opportunity to rescue modern society of its current predicaments.
Islamic traditionalism permeates our practices and thinking. Many of our customs and social habits are the continuation of historical practices. The core of the Islamic message consist of universal values and principles, as well as basic concepts and beliefs: justice, compassion, honesty, cooperation, equal dignity of human beings, respect for the religious and moral freedom of others, etc. Those values are abstract notions that can function only when they are given a specific interpretation. All interpretation are historically bound because they are provided by historically bound human beings.
Today, many of the social, economic, and political ideas that were hsitorical learnt may not be suitable for today’s and future society, because these ideas dealt with historical situations that were particular to past generations of Muslims.
At the same time we live in a modern society that emerged, and have been greatly influence by particular historical experiences. At the heart of these experiences is the process of secularization.
In ancient times, the secular and religious worlds were kept apart and thus operated under markedly different rules. The secular world adhered to the paradigm of power, in which domination and control are intrinsic values and effectiveness served as an overarching criterion. The most eloquent expression of the purely secular rationale was captured in Machiavelli’s The Prince. “The end justifies the means” was the guiding principle of the secular world.
The religious world was a world of sheer spirituality and utter goodness, one completely divorced from the secular world. Religious people were expected to eschew and shun secular injustice and corruption, avoid politics and remain aloof from the state, instead of confronting and overcoming such developments. The uneasy coexistence of the secular and religious, and their utter separation, is best captured in St. Augustine’s The City of God. As one reads his attempt to isolate the “city of man” from the “city of God,” one is compelled to conclude that the two can never intersect, and that the latter can only be experienced in a heavenly, rather than an earthly, mode of existence.