Modern Islam The Search for Cultural Identity by G.E. von Grunebaum
This book is a collection of scholarly papers collected in 1962. You might ask why on earth would I bother reading something so old—the Middle East has changed a lot since then. The big noise then was Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism. Oddly enough, those are still around to some degree. The lurker in the shadows was Islamic reassertion.
And that’s the reason I was interested. The landscape was quite a bit different, and yet still very much similar. The Saudis had not yet succeeded in dominating the Islamic landscape, but the Muslim Brotherhood was already tagged as the main opponent of Arab nationalism in Egypt. But then, as now, the Arabs were hostile to the West.
Grunebaum’s main focus was Egypt, probably because Egypt was the center of culture and learning. The problem addressed in the book is that
- The Arabs (and Egyptians, and Berbers, etc) understand their extreme backwardness in science and technology and social organization, and resent it.
- They try to semi-Westernize themselves to acquire the powers of the West (which to some extent includes the social organization of the nation-state and the fashions of democracy).
- To assert themselves they need to reach back into their traditions to find something to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world, something that will make them superior.
- These traditions often conflict in important ways with Western ways of thought. They look back to an ideal (usually imaginary) and canonical age which needs to be imitated. This universal tendency is magnified by Islam, which generally looks back to the era of the rightly guided caliphs as an example for the ages. An example of assassination and revolution, btw.
- Islam in particular, with its focus on eternal law that can only be studied and not developed, conflicts with Western notions of analysis and refinement and redesign; and with Western notions of democracy. The intellectual framework of Islam doesn’t mesh well with that of the West.
Grunebaum studied the various approaches people used. Some people invent history. Russians and French did this in earlier centuries, the Arabs and some Africans were doing it in the last century. (Similarly Black Studies in the US is larded with lies.) Since few Muslims over the centuries had bothered to learn much about the West, making up history was quite easy. Some the Muslims concluded that their predicament was because of infidelity, and worked to try to renew Islam—notably the political aspects of forbidding and commanding. I’m aware that there are a lot of pietists, but that’s not his concern here
The Arab nationalism theorists, in the process of trying to define themselves as nations, incidentally showed clearly how central Arabs and Arabic is within Islam. Non-Arabs are second-class religionists (though the Arab nationalists were willing to consider them as honorary Arabs if they wanted to be).
Grunebaum cited other researchers as noting that newly formed nations, especially those that have recently thrown off a foreign yoke, are generally imperialist. Subsequent history of the Middle East suggests that this is indeed common (Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, etc) but not universal. He reminded the reader of what the most cursory reading of Middle Eastern history will reveal: that Muslims don’t care nearly as much about a universal caliphate as they say they do—Egypt and Persia and Iraq have been national rivals within the umma for over a thousand years. The family matters, then the tribe, then the tribal cluster (nation). They idealize the caliphate, but much prefer that their tribe run it.
He pointed up the irony that it was the West, which alone among civilizations has tried to achieve self-understanding by understanding other cultures, that gave the lands of the Middle East back their ancient literature and glories. The Muslims preserved Aristotle for the West, but then lost it again themselves.
The book is larded with footnotes, some amusing (see earlier post). It is larded with quotes from French and German as well. I don’t read German, but I didn’t find the French to be amazingly better phrased than English translation. Sometimes Grunebaum turned a felicitous phrase, but on the whole the book is heavy slogging.