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Written by Louay Safi   
Oct 14, 2001 at 07:00 PM

The Ummatic Intellectual as a Model for Reform

The paper explores the socio-political consequences of the commercialization of modern culture, and the need and possibility of reclaiming the moral and spiritual core of social experience that eroded with the advance of modernization. For this to happen a new breed of intellectuals, the ummatic intellectuals, who can incorporate spirituality into their discourse and action without claiming divine sanction or authority, is needed.


Free market was envisaged by classical liberal economists as a relationship between free and relatively equal peoples trading their products under competitive and equitable conditions. Indeed the notion of free market and the theory of liberal economy were conceived in order to refute mercantilist policies, favored by landed aristocracy in eighteenth century Europe.

Although economic inequality has grown over the last two centuries within and between industrialized countries, one can still talk about free markets with imperfect competition. Economic inequality between market actors is compensated in democratic systems by equal access to education, and the possibility of developing technical and organizational advantages. It is also compensated through a competitive political system, and the possibility of mobilizing popular pressure to effect fair trade legislation within the economy and society.

However, as soon as we move from the national economies of industrial countries to the global economy, capitalism immediately takes a different face. For as soon as one moves away from trade among industrialized countries, the notions of competition and free enterprise break down and disappear. The challenge facing new comers from developing countries to the global market is not simply economic inequality, but disparity pure and simple. The disparity between developing and developed countries is not simply economic, but technological and organizational as well.

The problem is compounded by the fact that market rules are skewed toward well-established industrial nations, and continues to effect transfer of wealth from poor to wealthy countries. Market actors in developing countries have a slim chance to influence market rules. Not only that most developing countries are ruled by oligarchies who are fully dependent on foreign lending and assistance to run the state, but that the very structure of the international system is oligarchical.

To get a feel of the extent to which rules regulating the global economic system are distorted, we need only consider rules regulating creditor-debtor relations. While the rules regulating creditor-debtor relations in the national economies of industrialized countries permit the debtors to end the relationship when it becomes exploitative through bankruptcy laws, thereby distributing moral and legal responsibilities among debtors and creditors alike, in the global system the burden is placed squarely on the debtor countries, hence shielding the creditors from facing the consequences of bad decisions. The problem is made worse when it is realized that those who are asked to pay the price are not the corrupt oligarchy mismanaging and misappropriating the national debt, but the poor and oppressed majority.

The sad state of affairs compels us to ask: How could a political and economic system, rooted in a liberal tradition, and pride itself with its deep faith in freedom, equality, and humanity give rise to the worst forms of slavery and exploitation? How did it come to pass that the liberal tradition that evolved out of humanistic concerns, a tradition that places man at the center of the universe, leads us to a situation in which the bulk of humanity is exploited and abused in the name of free trade and liberalization policies?


At the core of the economic and political excesses of globalization lies a moral and spiritual vacuum. Put in more precise terms, the economic and political excesses of globalization described above are the result of moral and spiritual deficiencies. The moral/spiritual vacuum is the outcome of two intellectual-cultural interrelated processes, spanning two centuries: (1) the decoupling of morality and spirituality, and (2) the fragmentation of reason, and the reduction of the intellectual into an expert for hire.

The decoupling of morality and spirituality is a by-product of the antagonism between the modern scholar and the priest. Because the priest was perceived as the guardian of spirituality, the intellectual sought to distance himself from the religious cult. The scholar endeavored to reconstruct a none-spiritual morality, a moral system liberated from the priest’s sphere of power and influence. Hence the rationalist Kant sought to base morality on rationality via the principle of non-contradiction (the categorical imperative), while the positivist Bentham founded morality on self-interest (utility).

With the demise of religion as a uniting force, reason was fragmented to autonomous spheres of knowledge, lacking any overarching notions and principles. Moral principles do not any more permeate the various spheres of knowledge. It is for this very reason that a political realist can justify subjugating foreign nations in the name of national interests, and liberal economists can defend profit-maximizing enterprises even when they bring misery to impoverished humanity.

The emerging global culture is excessively hedonistic, glorifying pleasure and excess. Excessive lifestyle, excessive sexual gratification, excessive violence, excessive wealth, excessive poverty, excessive use of nature resources, and excessive consumption in general. Consumerism is gradually becoming the new world religion, and multinationals are doing their best to preach this new culture and religion. Individuals and groups who challenge this new religion risk being reduced to the categories of fanaticism, extremism, and radicalism. This tendency can, at least partially, explain the indiscriminate attack on everything Islamic by global media and the generating center of the new global culture, Hollywood.


The protests against the exploitative practices of WTO in Seattle, and later against WTO’s well-established partners, IMF and the World Bank, were protests against corporate excesses—the excess of wealth and power, of self-interest and greed.

But apart from their shared discontent of corporate excesses, the protesters bring no new vision that could unite them and allow them to work together for providing new directions to misguided global trends. In the absence of a comprehensive and uniting vision, the protestors can only be perceived by the general public as themselves being indulged in excessive behavior. Environmentalists appear to be concerned about preserving natural resources, but showing little concern about the economic well being of rainforest countries. Advocates of debt relief appear to be oblivious to political corruption at the core of world debt crisis. Human rights advocates appear to be obsessed with a legalistic approach to human rights issues, but fail to realize that laws are only good insofar as they protect and nurture human dignity. Anarchist are motivated with dislike of the state overreach into all spheres of civil society, but fail to articulate alternative political structures to prevent the return of tribalism and tribal politics.

To arrest the perversion of globalization and its cultural excesses require the development of a viable alternative, and one that can ensure that the moral vision of future humanity is coupled with the spiritual essence of good life. For this to happen a new bread of intellectuals and a new process of intellectualism is required.


The intellectual was instrumental for bringing about liberalization and enlightenment to modern society. But the rounded intellectual who emerged at the dawn of the modern West soon disappeared, leaving in place a one-dimensional intellectual, better known as the expert. The expert is a person who has an in-depth understanding of a single sphere of life, or even one part thereof. While expertise is important and needed, the absence of overarching values and criteria valid across spheres of expertise makes a process of self-correction extremely difficult.

Two interrelated processes have historically contributed to the rise of the current state of affairs:

  1. The subordination of the will to truth to the will to power. Knowledge has practically become subservient to power.
  2. The reluctance of the modern scholar and intellectual to embrace religion and spirituality.

Current cultural excesses cannot be overcome unless the moral/spiritual core is reclaimed, and the will to power is subordinated to the will to truth. Such a profound cultural change cannot be achieved without the development of a civilizational project in which morality/spirituality is restored to its rightful place at the center of societal thought and action. This of course requires a new breed of intellectuals and a new form of intellectualism. The new intellectual must: (1) appropriate the spiritual core of human experience, and generate new meanings and models; and (2) locate him-/her-self within the community while maintaining at all time complete autonomy from the state. This does not mean that the new intellectual should take an anti-statist attitude, or remain aloof to the state. Rather, the intellectual must be involved but free of state control.

The new intellectualism describe above resemble, albeit in a simplistic way, the one adopted by the Islamic Reform Movement, which can be traced back to intellectual like Afghani and Abdul. Obscured by the global media’s obsession with the violent and more literalist expression of contemporary Islam, the Islamic Reform Movement has made a remarkable change in Muslim society and has developed intellectually and morally challenging positions vis-à-vis the globalizing commercial culture.

The new type of intellectuals, the vanguard of contemporary Islamic movement, is the ummatic intellectual. The ummatic intellectual resembles Gramsci’s organic intellectual in that he/she is socially and politically tied to the community, and speaks for its struggle and challenges. Unlike the Gramscian intellectual, however, the ummatic intellectual is not merely a spokesperson of the interests of his/her community, but is actively engaged in developing and promoting a moral vision.

Although the notion of ummatic intellectual is informed by modern experience, it is not completely modern or new, but finds resemblance in countless classical Muslim scholars, who effectively succeeded in limiting state power and mobilizing the historical Muslim community in support of a morally and legally autonomous civil society. The primordial ummatic intellectual is presented by a long chain of scholars, including Malek bin Anas, Abu Yusuf, Al-Juaini, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Taymiyyah, and others.


As long as the one-dimensional intellectual, being a statesman motivated by national interests, or a businessman moved by profit maximization, continue to be the most influential and effective person for deciding global trends, globalization is bound to degrade humanity and demoralize society. An ummatic intellecutual, a community-man that is, can be a hope for profound and serious reform in global structure and culture, and most importantly the way we relate meaning to life.

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