A Critical Narrative of Hope
UNVEILING TRADITIONS: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World by Anouar Majid, Duke University Press, 2000, 208 pp.
The furor surrounding the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan gives this book an urgent timeliness. Professor Anouar Majid's wide-ranging critique of Western capitalism, Muslim revivalist movements, and postcolonial theory is provocative and eloquent. It is a profound challenge both to those who champion globalization and those of Samuel Huntington's ilk, who see Islam as the future global adversary of the West. Majid's critique also deserves a careful reading by anyone who makes a living interpreting Muslim cultures.
Majid is clear about his goal:
This book tries to challenge secular academics to include the world's nonsecular expressions as equally worthy of consideration and valid alternatives, and Muslim scholars to rethink their attachment to texts and canons that have obscured the egalitarian and viable legacies
He addresses these issues by analyzing the interconnecting influences of capitalism, "Islamic fundamentalism" (an admittedly contested term), Muslim feminist scholarship, contemporary Arab/African literature, and postmodern and postcolonial theories. A Muslim himself, Majid writes with significant knowledge of Islamic traditions and scholarship, though convinced that his argument might be applied to any cultural tradition threatened with extinction by the inexorable march of globalization.
A passionate scholar, Majid's critique radically questions the assumptions underlying both Western and Islamic scholarship. One way to read this book - though it slights the range and subtlety of the argument - as a series of challenges to contemporary theorists.
First, he challenges Western scholars to examine the significance of Islamic expressions in their cultural critiques of Muslim societies. Majid admits this will be difficult, since the Western critical tradition is patently secular and distrustful of religious cultures, unlikely to include them in theoretical paradigms. One can hardly deny that if the Western academy considers Islamic expressions at all, it usually does so in a negative sense, as a hindrance to the modernization of a culture. Sympathetic Western readings of Islamic influence are rare. Majid sees this bias mirrored in scholars from Muslim societies who also wish to expunge Islamic tradition from their cultures in the process of (Western) modernization.
Second, Majid also challenges Western scholars to critique the foundational assumptions of the liberal tradition. He finds that scholars from this tradition seldom acknowledge it as historically and culturally specific, which can lead to their theorizing about Muslim societies with an unrecognized bias, what Majid calls a sort of "neo-Orientalism." In postcolonial theory in particular, scholars in fact tend to reinforce a painful colonial condition by favoring the concept of hybridity and of Edward Said's preferential perspective of the exile.
Majid examines the critical discourse surrounding Sudanese Tayeb Salih's novel, "Season of Migration to the North," in his chapter on Arab/African novels. He describes protagonist Mustafa Sa'eed as Aa dangerously alienated Western-educated Muslim," caught between a patriarchal Sudanese/Islamic society and a racist European one. Are we to see Sa'eed's painful experience valorized as hybridity? Is the solution to Sa'eed's profound alienation a "cultural syncretism" between the colonizing and colonized identities struggling within him? What about the continuing effects of European capitalist expansion into Sudan, which has created an increasingly poorer Third World market less and less able to employ the Sa'eeds in its midst? Is it only incidental that Sa'eed is an economist? Majid raises these and other questions about a postcolonial theory which can "transform the catastrophe of homelessness, rootlessness, and just plain displacement into a virtue."
Third, he also challenges Muslim intellectuals and activists: "While extremism can take on both secular and religious aspects, it is the progressive Islamic contestation of both [my emphasis] that has been conspicuously absent from the debate." He credits Muslim feminists with showing the way by reinterpreting the canons of Islam to "break the theoretical impasse that seems to block the emergence of viable non-Western, indigenous alternatives."
Progressive Muslim scholars must be as knowledgeable about their own tradition as they are about Western culture. Those that are, according to Majid, can see that women's rights were present in the original Islamic community in a way that they are not today: "... Islam evolved from an initial phase of tolerance to the gradual subjugation of women and their enclosure in the dark world of a theologically illegitimate patriarchy." Majid sees no future for an interpretation of Islam that denies the patriarchal development of its tradition - including that of the shari'a, which he claims is not divine, but historically developed by the male Muslim 'ulama.
On the other hand, he also sees an irony in the West's focus on women's rights while ignoring the economic and cultural rights of entire societies.
Fourth, as Majid argues, many in both the Islamic and Western worlds see freedom of speech as the touchstone of a society's democratic and egalitarian values. This right developed in the Western liberal tradition as a highly individual one, and thus it may have a different definition and/or implementation in a progressive Muslim society, which may give more weight to the social context. After more than 200 years, Americans still struggle with a highly individualistic interpretation of this right.
Western attitudes toward human rights often prioritize individual rights over economic and social rights, which may be more important to postcolonial Muslim societies. Western capitalism may in fact undermine what are seen as the rights to "life, democracy, development, food, health, employment, and education" in Third World countries, because the implementation of these rights would make the countries less stable markets for Western - or multinational - companies.
While challenging the basic assumptions of both Western and mainstream Muslim perspectives, however, Majid constructs a "narrative of hope" for a more just and compassionate world:
New progressive cultural identities, able and willing to change within the broad parameters of their traditions, ... if [they were] informed by an awareness of the interdependence of the world's cultures and peoples and the threat of global capitalism to the survivability of all cultures... could emerge as viable alternatives for the building of a more harmonious
In his analysis of the deculturing effects of globalization, reactionary Arab and Muslim nationalism, and Western critical theory, Majid reminds his readers that theories are indeed moral expressions. His polycentric paradigm of progressive, self-critical cultures engaging with each other is a welcome ethical alternative to the unipolar world being crafted by American economic interests.
This article appeared in Vol. 7, no. 34 (Winter 2001).
Copyright © 2001 by Al Jadid