SPEAKING FREELY Dogma costs Islam innovative edge
By Nicholas A Biniaris
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Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote that "history is philosophy through paradigm",  while Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in his Philosophy of History lectures said philosophy can view history as a unified narrative with a central theme.
Hegel asserted that history's central theme is the march of Geist to freedom. Upon this Hegelian sweeping vision, Marx built his
own sweeping narrative as did Francis Fukuyama after 1989.
Hegel may have been a better student of history than his epigones because he didn't dabble in actual social-economic-political problems but formed his own conceptual tools to approach his subject in a theoretical way.
He also called Islam the "Enlightenment of the East". According to Hegel, the East gave freedom to one, the emperor, the Satrap; the Hellenes had given freedom to some, the free citizens of Polis; and the Reformation and the Enlightenment gave freedom to all.
Has Islam given freedom to all? In a sense, Hegel was right in the context of Asian imperiums. Islam gave to the faithful a saying in the Mosque, a canon, the Koran, to judge the ruler. But nothing actually changed from the practices of Eastern despotism. Islam didn't produce free citizens as political agents but kept the subjects of Asiatic empires subject to the will of the one.
Hegel got it all wrong. His ad hoc reading of history, as a philosophical research project had lost track of reality and a sense of historical proportion.
Today, the West, as the inheritor of a Christian culture, and the Muslim world, the faithful ones, are in a protracted conflict. Christianity, a religion of a Middle Eastern origin with Egyptian-Jewish roots, turned from an activistic conception of the beyond, Resurrection and Last Judgment, to a strong political force when Constantine the Great adopted it as the official religion of the Roman Empire; it turned to a universal one with the emperor getting the title of "Equal-to-the-Apostle".
However, the Christian salvational universalism was arrested on 636 AD at the battle of Yarmouk River in Syria where the nascent Arab-Muslim Revolution defeated the Byzantine Imperial Army.  It was the most decisive battle of the last two millenniums as present history points to.
Prophet Mohammed, as an original thinker and revolutionary, transformed the religious-political imaginary of the Arabs in just two decades, destroying the idols of the tribes at Mekka and placing the beyond in the hands of a single creator who has no involvement in human affairs.
His epigones moved out of the confined area of Arabia and conquered by the sword the Middle East and North Africa, the cradle of Christianity which withered from Asia and Africa with the exception of Asia Minor and Ethiopia.
Islam became a universal religion, spreading in Asia, destroying central Asia Buddhism, the Zoroastrians, Shamanism, and attempted even to destroy Hinduism. Christianity had to wait another nine centuries to become a universal church through the rise of its military might and its imperial expansion. However, Asia remained non-Christian, with Islam, Hinduism, Chinese Confucianism-Buddhism and a minute Russian Orthodox Church.
The second phase of the Christian universalism was the proselytization of the Russians through the Greek Orthodox Church. The third was the schism of the Christian Church to Western and Eastern dogmas. The universal church was divided between an emerging politically confident Europe versus a Byzantium besieged by Islam.
The fourth and most crucial transformation of the religious grounding of Europe was the Reformation. This last event contemporaneous with printing and in the middle of the Copernican Revolution ended, many years later, with the Westphalian Treaty of 1648.
One of the results of this religious Reformation was an unintended historically political transformation: the subsequent emergence of the nation state. This was the road traveled by the European Geist of the religious-political subject towards what is today an individualistic, liberal, capitalistic, technological and affluent secular social subject.
The transformation of the social-religious to the secular-political lasted for several centuries and is still in progress. The accomplishment was tolerance, and even indifference, towards the religious as part of the public discourse, which was focused on the social, economic and political demands of the individual.
Enlightenment and Islam
Was Islam the Enlightenment of the East? The Enlightenment in the West established natural theology and destroyed faith as a universal category of social interaction. On the contrary, to the East, Islam unequivocally established a religious-social imaginary.
The Ummah [or community of Muslim people] was the testimony of Islam to the social as a political affiliation of the Dar al Islam (House of Faith) versus the Dar al Harb (House of War) or Garb (House of West in the Ottoman period). The distinction of Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb is a legal one. A state with a Muslim minority but with an Islamic legal system is a Dar al Islam as well.
Islam is a system of religious orthopraxy, not of orthodoxy. This basic fact is what keeps Islam in a state of suspension versus the political democratic orthopraxy of the West. What is lacking from the edifice of Islam is a theological philosophical skepticism that raises the crucial distinction between the secular and the religious.
For Islam, orthopraxy towards the religious sanctifies the political. The Reformation in Europe ended up with a Christian subject internalizing the role of faith as a personal engagement with God and not as redemption expected from the Church of Rome assumed to be the political underpinning of salvation.
The Muslim world suffered its first transformation through a political rift, the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. This rift was at times exacerbated and or defused through the universal Islamic state of the various caliphates, but it was never resolved through a Westphalian-type treaty acknowledging the political and religious inclusion of the two distinct expressions of Islam.
Islam's political edifice, contrary to its initial endogenous Arabian phase, the four elected caliphs' period, became Imperial and hereditary. Actually, all up to the 9th century, Islam was the incubator of new ideas, science, philosophy and art.
Its religious-political subject as a new historical-social construct absorbed and cultivated ancient Greek, Persian, and Hindu traditions and inspired creative tensions in the areas of its expansion. This was arrested most probably by the tradition of its own religious-political foundations.
In Central Asia and India, the Mogul imperial family, in the 16th century, attempted a grant synthesis of religions by its efforts to reconcile the vast and diverse populations of its domain. It failed, but it was a historical paradigmatic failure that marked the difficulties of reconciling dogmas and cultural "otherness" in cases where the social-political imaginary was based upon religion, in empires of subjects.
This would change radically with the emergence of the social-political, a self-contained notion, as it occurred through the great political revolutions in England, America, France and even Russia and China.
The involvement of the West with the Muslim world is an old and tumultuous one. Today, an ancient world immersed in traditionalism and a patriarchal-hierarchical society is consciously or unconsciously trying to cope with a fast-changing human environment that demands adjustment and reconciliation with forces unleashed by the West. The complexity of this conflict confuses the means and ends of the combatants, with the pen or with arms.
In recent decades, we have experienced a rise in what is called Islamic fundamentalism and the subsequent practice of terror as a political instrument to attack the West or to eliminate the "other", identified as heretical Islam.
What the religious-political Muslim subject reinvented was revolutionary tactics from the past: intolerance, war against Dar al Garb, martyrdom, jihad. Osama bin Laden's legacy and al-Qaeda as a Muslim political movement is still playing a huge role in this transformation.
The same holds for the Muslim Brotherhood as a political expression of change inside Islam. Al-Qaeda proclaimed a political agenda: the caliphate and the liberation of all Muslim soils from the heathen. This agenda is a contribution to the political discourse for the ongoing Muslim transformation that may shape the future of these masses if and when all other efforts fail to achieve even limited aims and expectations.
The Salafist movement, as a new regressive effort of proselytization of young Muslim activists in the West, is an ideological approach that is perhaps politically controlled by the Saudis as another counter-Reformation movement versus a more secular approach by those Muslims living in the West.
We observe various other moves on the chessboard of the Muslim world. The Boko Haram movement in Nigeria is becoming a serious threat to that country's cohesion. Similar movements occur in other African states as in Mali. Hence, Islam appears as a global religious-political movement.
What is also global is firstly the liberal, technological, economic challenge of the West, secondly the challenge of the Chinese paradigm and also the rise of Hinduism and Buddhism. The last three challenges are endogenous to Asia, the area where Islam will face its actual test. Because it is there where no public opinion, politically correct journalism and a preoccupation with world opinion can stop a grassroots clash among these neighbors as the case is in Myanmar, Thailand and Philippines. Islam's preoccupation with the West is probably its most serious shortcoming.
There are parts of the Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian, Syrian, Pakistani and even Saudi societies that are struggling for a real down-up Reformation, trying to assess their rights and demands as citizens. If we look carefully at the Philosophy of History, the transformation of the Western paradigm, from the Christian to the secular and the scientific, was not a smooth one.
A transformation of Muslim societies to the secular and the scientific will take time and considerable pain. We observe this in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Mali, and Egypt, and in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. These societies' demands are complex: economic, political, social, emancipatory, national, and even aesthetic. But what is the underlying substratum is Islam and its overbearing presence in the conduct of the individual's life.
The ontological versus the epistemological
What is also important for this overcoming of tradition for the Muslims is the Turkish transformation, which is at the crossroads between the religious-secular divide.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, as an Islamic scholar and an influential political agent, has defended the thesis that the foundation of the social in Islam is the ontico-religious reality that forms the basis for the new Islamic social-political paradigm.
This holds, as he says, in contradistinction to the West's priority of the epistemological, which means an insatiable quest for knowledge of the mundane and an all pervasive skepticism. Davutoglu's thesis is that the social-political should be subject to the religious-ontological imaginary so that a new conceptual and political reality can stand equipotentially along the dominant Western one.
Davutoglu defends a society that has as priority of its social-political imaginary a God and His revealed commands, but at the same time this edifice is amenable to a democratic political order. This is a new universal project, whereas the West after the collapse of its universal Christian Church has proposed a new paradigm: the universal rights of people qua human beings.
This project supervenes upon the Hellenic model for rights qua citizens. The universality of the West's ideological discourse is as confused as the proposed Islamic paradigm. Universalism, as an ideological proposal, was an imperialistic concept religiously inspired.
Today, the West is trying to project a secular universalism founded upon the political advent of democracy. This neo-democracy (the term is a pun) is a mass-democracy that constitutes a magma of skepticism, egoism, instant gratification, hedonism, illiteracy as an effect of the ocular of mass entertainment and an all-out effort to liberate ourselves from history.
What is lacking is the structure and the tools to supersede scarcity, traditions, nostalgia, the social as creative self-reflection and even nationalism as a limit to globalization; in short mass-democracy cannot formulate any policy whatsoever, except the use of force.
Can an Islamist model produce citizens and rights which will shape a "better" individual and governance than the Western one? Up to this day, the Islamic historical paradigm exhibits signs of dystopia among a modern and post-modern world. In a detailed comparison with the Western one, it fails to adapt even to the necessary social or economic demands of the Islamic masses themselves.
As philosophers, we are bound to make the biggest of mistakes if we propose a definitive narrative of human praxis versus the contingency of our existence. On the other hand, history as praxis is a human drama with too many innocent victims and pain. To cross this valley of tears, we may seek redemption not solely through history but also through our own acts of humanity.
1. Hellene rhetor, historian and grammarian 60BC-7AD?
2. The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade operates in Syria.
Nicholas A Biniaris has taught philosophy and political theory at NYC in Athens. His historical novel The Call of the Desert was recently published in Hellas. He is a columnist and an economic and foreign policy analyst.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.