Imagining Islam: Can one speak of a scientific understanding of Islam, or must one rather talk about the Western way of imagining Islam?


In a short account designed for a broad Western audience, it is useful and even necessary to start with that question. Ever since the 1940s when national liberation movements emerged, there have been continual debates on this issue, many of them sharp and passionate. Reading on any of the struggles for independence, almost every account is accompanied by polemics and deadly confrontations about the Arab world and Arab culture — generally seen in the context of Nasserism, the emergence of the Third World at the Bandung Conference in 1955, and the Zionist struggle for the establishment of the state of Israel and its resultant wars. The links to these polemics to religious and political quarrels dating from the Middle Ages augmented their propensity to provoke violence.

The wars for independence ended, but the polemics continued as a result of other events such as the revolution in Iran. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power produced a fresh outpouring of emotions around the world, most notably in the United States, which exerts an influence in the Middle East that is widely recognised. The Iranian revolution touched the vital interests of the West in the Middle East, and the reactions that event provoked and continues to provoke have revived and enriched the Western way of “imagining” Islam. The Gulf War, the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, now constitute a new climax in the confrontation between two collection imaginaries: the Arab-Islamic and the Western.

The notion of “imagining” included in the question is not new: most people are not likely to grasp it, for even the experts have not succeeded in mastering the shape, function, and operation of this faculty the “imagination”. In short, I will say that the “imaginary” of an individual, social group or a nation is the collection of images carried by that culture of itself or another culture — once a product of epics, poetry and religious discourse; today a product of primarily the media, and secondarily the school.¹ In this sense, of course, individuals and societies have their own imaginaries tied to their own common languages. There are thus English, French, and German ways of imagining Islam – imaginaries, as they have come to be called – just as there are Egyptian, Iranian and Indian imaginaries of the West. Since the 1950s, the powerful, omnipresent media, drawn daily to reports on the violent happenings of the moment – national liberation movements, protests, and revolts of the numerous and diverse countries inhabited by Muslims – have fed the Western imaginary of Islam.

The misperceptions inherent in this imaginary go beyond current events. Although the problems of Muslim societies have indeed become knottier and more numerous since the emergence of national states in the 1950s and 1960s, another serious confusion – one that has contributed directly to the shaping of the Western imaginary of Islam has emerged in this short time. That is, all the political, social, economic, and cultural shortcomings of Muslim societies are hitched together and to Islam with a capital “I”. Islam then becomes the source and the prime mover of all contemporary history in a world that extends across the globe and consisting of roughly 1.6 billion people all of different colours, languages, and cultures.

It is true that the sort of Islamic discourse common to fundamental movements, especially those engaged in the most decisive political battles, proposes the powerful image of a single, eternal Islam, the ideal model for historic action to liberate the world from the Western, imperialist, materialist model. The media in the West seize upon this monolithic, fundamentalist view of Islam that dominates the contemporary Muslim imaginary and transpose it into a discourse suitable to the social imaginary of Western countries without any intermediate critique from the social sciences. The field of perception is open to the confrontation of two imaginaries overheated by accumulated confusions about each other.

This everyday labour of stimulating and amplifying the two imaginaries is complicated by a much older and more serious issue, one that reaches to the most sacred origins of the three monotheistic religions. Ever since the emergence of Islam between 610-632 AD, there have been continuous rivalry among three religious communities – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim – all striving to establish monopoly on the management of symbolic capital linked to what the three traditions call “revelation”. The issue is enormous and primordial, yet it has nonetheless been buried by secularised, ideological discourse: the ideology of nation-building, scientific progress, and universal humanism in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe. Then, beginning with the Nazi catastrophe and the wars of colonial liberation, of development and underdevelopment (in the 1960s), and of nation-building in the Third World countries that had just recovered their political sovereignty.

To this day, no one has studied revelation in its Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic manifestations, and as a function of the historical and anthropological conditions for the emergence of these three traditions. This constitutes a failure of the comparative history of religions, of social sciences, and of the human sciences, which have left the task of “managing the goods of salvation” to the theologians of each community, That is to say that they have perpetuated the theological discourse in its function of legitimating the drive for power of each community. Therefore, this fact condemns discourse to the confines of a cultural system that excludes all those others who have the sacrilegious pretensions to draw upon the same symbolic capital.

It may seem excessive to claim that revelation has not been studied anywhere in its three historical manifestations, whilst an immense literature on the subject clutters the shelves of our libraries. I want to point out and emphasise, however, the following evidence: in constructing a Judeo-Christian vision of the story of salvation, Christianity, on both the Catholic and Protestant sides, annexed the Old Testament to the New in such a way that Jews protested the dissolving of their Talmudic and prophetic tradition; as for Muslims, they remained excluded from this theological structure by the fact that Islam follows Christianity chronologically and because the structure portrays Jesus Christ as the final expression of the Word of God. Already in Medina between 622 and 632 AD, Jews and Christians refused to recognise Muhammad as a prophet in the same spiritual line as Moses and Jesus in salvation history. ²

To this historical evidence must be added the abdication of the social and human sciences, loath to take on all the disputes bequeathed by theological structures as problems of religious and anthropological history. I can testify that these problems have not yet been approached in a comparative perspective combining history and cultural-religious anthropology. Islam is always considered apart from other religions and from Western culture and thought. It is often excluded from departments of religion and taught instead as part of Oriental or Near Eastern studies.

Another aggravating factor in the old quarrel between Islam and the West is that Islam, as a force in the historical rise of societies, took control of the Mediterranean area from the seventh to the twelfth centuries and again, with the direction of the Ottoman Turks, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The cultures of the Mediterranean region share a single historical destiny that the scientific study of history, independent of the ideologies that divide the northern and southern or the eastern and western coast of the Mediterranean, is far from confronting. The Mediterranean region I refer to is more cultural than geographic and strategic; it encompasses all those cultures that have been influenced historically by the Iranian religions, and the great ancient cultures of the Near East, including the Mesopotamia, the Chaldean, the Syriac, the Aramaic, the Hebraic, and the Arabic – all before the intervention of Greece, Rome, Byzantium, and “Islam”.

I should note in passing the influence of the vocabulary used to evoke the plurality of the cultures in the Near East. In speaking of the Aramaic, the Syriac, and the Byzantine, I am including Christianity. In speaking of the Hebraic, I am referring to the Jewish religion. But Islam, linked of course to Arabic, designates both the religion begun by Muhammad and the vast empire quickly built the new power centre in Damascus, which shifted to Baghdad and Cordoba. For this reason I have put quotation marks around the word “Islam”.

The confusion of Islam as religion and Islam as historical framework for the elaboration of a culture and a civilisation has been perpetuated and has grown ever more complex to this day. Nonetheless, Islamic societies must be examined in and for themselves as French, German, Belgian, US or say Polish societies are. It is certainly legitimate for research to identify common factors that generate a single Islamic discourse in very different societies, but then it must also return to the history of each of these societies and to its own culture. It is important to identify the ideological obstacles that retard the study of Mediterranean are as a whole and obscure its pertinence to a modern revival of the history of religions, philosophy, and cultures.

The lesson provided by Fernand Braudel in his great book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the Age of Phillip II, has not carried so far as to modify history curricula in high schools and universities. The southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean continue to be the domain of specialists in Arabic and Turkish studies – that is to say, of that nebulous “science” we call Orientalism. What is taught about the Arab or Muslim Mediterranean is highly conditioned by the European perspective of the Mediterranean world.

The European perspective itself has been relegated to the background ever since the U.S. Seventh Fleet established strategic control of the whole of the Mediterranean area extending to Iran. Meanwhile, Europe has dedicated all its resources and energies to the construction of a community in which Germany, a country utterly foreign to Mediterranean culture, occupies a central position. Will the presence in the European Union of Greece, Spain, and Portugal eventually re-establish a long-lasting and effective interest in the Mediterranean dimension of the Union by including the Arab and Islamic contributions in the powerful, dynamic history of European construction? These are crucial political and cultural issues for our generation to address.

I am here only to re-establish proper historical perspective on the political, economic, and strategic stakes of the unending wars around the Mediterranean. More fundamentally, the task of historians of religions, cultures, and philosophy is to show how different ethno-cultural groups of varying size and dynamism have dipped into the common stock of signs and symbols to produce systems of belief and non-belief that, whilst assigning ultimate meaning to human existence, have served to legitimate power drives, hegemonic empires, and deadly wars. All “believers,” whether they adhere to revealed religions or contemporary secular regions, would thus be equally constrained to envisage the question of meaning not from the angle of unchanging transcendence – that is, of an ontology sheltered from all historicity – but in the light of historical forces that transmute the most sacred values, those regarded as most divine by virtue of their symbolic capital and as inseparable from necessarily mythical accounts of the founding, and from which each ethno-cultural group extracts and recognises what it calls identity or personality.

It is in this new field of intelligibility beyond the dogmatic definitions that continue to safeguard the mobilising, ideological force of revealed religions, that the phenomenon of revelation must be re-examined. Only when this perspective holds sway will multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary analysis of a phenomenon with many faces and functions penetrate to the radical imaginary common to the societies of the Book/Books.

First, though, we need to revise history textbooks in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere. We must acknowledge the intellectual and cultural poverty of the brief chapters devoted to Islam in high school courses. As for the universities, rare are those even now in history departments willing to tolerate the intrusion of a historian of Islam. The teaching of history of “Islamic cultures” is all too often left to the department of so-called Oriental languages, where one exists. This observation, which holds for most universities in the West, demonstrates the extent to which an ideological vision of the Mediterranean area has been translated administratively and institutionally into the universities themselves. And the field is therefore open for essayists and journalists to construct imagery of Islam and Muslims based on current events and locked into a short-term perspective dominated by Nasserism, Khomeinism, bin Laden, Taleban, Israel and Palestinians.

To be fair in this description of mutual perceptions of “Islam”³ (I repeat: This global designation of multiple and different realities is very dangerous; hence I use quotation marks) and of the “West”4 (another no less dangerous global designation), I must speak briefly of the situation from the Muslim side. First, I must distinguish the perpetual framework of classical Islam from that of contemporary Islam. For classical Islam, the inhabited world was theologically and juridically divided between dār al-islām, where Divine Law applied, and dār al-harb, where “infidels” always threatened to substitute “pagan” laws for the True Law as they did in Mecca and Medina at the time of the Prophet (a similar division existed for Christianity before Vatican II in 1965). The Divine Law, revealed in the Qur’an5, was rendered explicit and applied by the Prophet and the so-called “orthodox caliphs” in Medina from 622 to 661, and for the Shi’a by the line of designated Imams. From this division of the world into two parts came a special status for “protected peoples” (dhimmī), Jews and Christians recognised as peoples often Book (ahl al-kitāb) but as theologically beyond the “community promised salvation” (al fiqa al-nājiya). Today’s Jews and Christians are wrong to use this status as a theme of polemics against today’s Muslims; they should rather deal with this problem as historians would, avoiding the anachronism of projecting the philosophy of human rights and religious liberty – conquered late in the West (French revolution) on a theoretical level and still incompletely and randomly applied on a practical level – onto a theological mentality common to the three revealed religions.

The theological vision similarly divides the time into before and after the founding moment of the new salvation history. Therefore, Jews and Christians, and Muslims have their respective eras, and all face this question about the theological position of human beings who lived before the “final” revelation was manifest.

Understanding that space and time are for all human beings the coordinates of every perception of an object of knowledge, one can measure the impact of theological systems on all modes of intelligibility in the societies of the Book, where the revealed Holy Book has engendered all other books containing the knowledge constitutes of each cultural “tradition”. Scholars have not yet abandoned these frameworks of perception, and my observations about textbooks and departments of history shows that the conditions for intelligibility in a desacralised, secularised time and space carry forward in ideological form the prevailing distinctions established by religions.

Inside theological space and time, Muslim geographies of the classical epoch wrote and taught “profane” perceptions of peoples and cultures outside the Muslim domain.6 What is interesting about this vast geographical literature is its demonstration that the miraculous – hence, the imaginary – intervenes in the perception and psycho-cultural process tied to typical histories and frameworks of intelligibility is an intriguing new practice of scientific history.

What can be said now about the perception of the “West” by contemporary “Islam”?

One of the first breaks with classical framework goes back to an Egyptian traveller in France in the nineteenth century. Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi, who left a moving account of his “discoveries” in a France freshly emerged from revolutionary battles and Napoleonic wars. His view is positive, admiring, and uneasy. The contrast between a free, dynamic society open to change and a Muslim society that was repetitive, conformist, and conservative touched off a desire for progress, reform, and revision. Despite brutal colonial conquests, notably in Algeria, Western civilisation stunned him, provoking admiration and envy. It elicited an irrepressible desire for change and movement in the Muslim society. Political, literary, artistic, and university figures opened themselves to the lessons of the Enlightenment philosophy. They believed they could lead Muslim societies along the same historical course the West had followed toward a civilisation perceived as superior, effective, and liberating.

In the years between 1920 and 1940, a secular a nationalist movement supported by a reformist Islamic current began to oppose the liberals, who favoured imitation of the Western cultural model. The reformist movement, tracing itself back to Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abdu in the nineteenth century, continued and grew with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and with the Association of Reformist Ulema in Algeria. The rivalry between the liberal and reformist-nationalist positions took a decisive turn with the end of World War II, the creation of the state of Israel, and the coming to power of the Free Officers and Nasserism in Egypt in July 1952. During the Algerian war, which began in November 1954, a nationalist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist perspective gradually took the place of the liberal view held by small “Westernised” groups with their naïve, depoliticised conception of cultural transformation in Muslim societies.

To complete this picture, I would have to recount the stories of Nasserism’s confrontation with the demands of the Muslim Brothers, of the confrontation between Atatürk’s secularism and a Europe looking for political hegemony and economic domination, of Bourguibism in its struggle for Westernisation in the framework of Tunisia’s reacquired political sovereignty, of the populist revolutions eager to take shortcuts to industrialise, Arabise, and Islamicise Algerian society in a single historic movement, and of Ba‘athist socialism in Syria and Iraq, which aimed to build the Arab nation by combining bits and pieces of Enlightenment philosophy with a romantic version of Islam and a projection of Arab culture back onto the legacy (turāth) of the classical age, also called the Golden Age of Arab-Islamic civilisation.

All these movements enjoyed a fleeting success owing to the availability of peoples still sensitive to Messianic promises and eschatological expectations. The leaders who benefited from this availability did not perceive the corrosive action and the devastating effects of their ideological discourse, which substituted unrealisable political programmes for the millenary, trans-historical hopes nourished by the mythical discourse of traditional religion.7

The emergence of Khomeini and the disruption of “Islamic” revolution in 1979 brought a new illustration of the distinction, not only for the case of Islam but also for other historical trajectories. When Khomeini used “Islamic” discourse to regenerate the ethos of the Shi‘ite consciousness and to eliminate the “Pharaonic” regime of the Shah, he benefited from the disappointed hopes of the Arab and Muslim peoples, who had been mobilised ever since the 1950s by socialist-inspired ideologies such as Ba‘athism. The confusion between mythical religious discourse and mobilising, desanctifying, ideological discourse reached maximum mobilisational efficacy and destructive effect on the semantic of ordering the community. It produced a particularly dangerous inversion of values, because engagés of social actors understood this regeneration of Shi‘ite consciousness as social promotion. What was presented as restoration of “Islamic” legitimacy of power, law, and ethical values proved to be only a tragic parody of the formal practices of “democracy” cut off from Islamic principles of authority and foundational philosophy for the rights of man.

With the dissipation of the mythical force of the Arab nation and the Arab Socialist revolution as models for the liberation of other peoples of Third World, all of a sudden religious consciousness had been de-mythologised not by historicising religious knowledge8 but through ideological manipulation of popular belief and of the richest parts of the tradition. In a great historic drama, Muslim peoples were brutally confronted with material civilisation and intellectual modernity. Neither the “Socialist revolution” (in its Arab phase) nor the “Islamic revolution” (in its Iranian phase) reflected a powerful movement of philosophical and scientific criticism of the religious tradition, and political practice in the inherited culture, or of the problem of knowledge in general; there was nothing to compare in these regards with the eighteenth-century movement that prepared the way for the French Revolution. When in the 1950s and 1960s Nasser sent the Muslim Brothers to prison and even had them hung, he was not thereby encouraging a modernisation of Islamic consciousness; likewise Boumedine in Algeria after 1965 simultaneously fostered slogans of Socialist revolution and spectacular, official operations to traditionalise society with a “return” to ritual, fragmentary expressions of Islam. With the “Islamic revolution,” the restoration of the law and ritual practice is more systematic, but the crucial problems inherited from what I call the exhaustive Islamic tradition9 are further than ever removed from scientific and philosophical examination.

The unthought and the unthinkable in Islamic thought have been accumulating ever since ideologies of struggle for political liberation took over the whole of the social arena. Forced to forswear colonial domination, the West has since the 1960s launched a search for expressions of modernity, while the Muslim world has, quite to the contrary, turned away from these opportunities and proposed instead an “Islamic” model, which is beyond all scientific investigation. This notion constitutes the triumph of a social imaginary that is termed “Islamic” but that in fact sacralises an irreversible operation of political, economic, social, and cultural secularisation. Analysts have now noticed this new role in Islam used at the collective as an instrument of disguising behaviours, institutions, and cultural and scientific activities inspired by the very Western model that has been ideologically rejected.

We must try, as we go along, to rethink the historical situation created by the evolution of Muslim societies during the past sixty years. We must linger over those problems rendered unthinkable by the ideology of struggle in the hope of opening a new historic phase in this modernity itself and contributing to its enrichment through recourse to Islamic example – should accompany, even for once precede, political action, economic decisions, and great social movements.

Till Next Post!

¹ For an extensive discussion of the “imaginary,” see Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institutions of Society, translated by Kathleen Blamey (Cambridge: Polity, 1987). Castoriadis offers this initial effort at definition, p. 127: “Recall the common meaning of the term ‘imaginary,’ which is sufficient for the moment: we speak of the ‘imaginary’ when we want to talk about something ‘invented’ – whether this refers to a ‘sheer’ invention (‘a story entirely dreamed up’), or a slippage, a shift of meaning in which available symbols are invested with other significations than their ‘normal’ or canonical significations. (‘What are you imagining now?’ says the woman to the man chiding for a smile she exchanged with someone else.) In both cases, it is assumed that the imaginary is separate from the real, whether it claims to take the latter’s place (a lie) or makes no such claim (a novel).”
² “Salvation history” is a translation of the term
Heilgeschicte, first used by J.C. von Hofman (1810-1877) “to refer to those events which the Bible narrates as manifesting God’s deeds for the salvation of the world”. That history would include creation, exodus, covenant, ancient Israel, the prophets, and the advent of the New Testament, among other events. Thomas P. McCreesh, “Salvation History,” The New Dictionary of Theology (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1988). Other possible translations of the German term would be “history of salvation,” “redemptive history,” and “holy history”. The term in French is histoire du salut.
³ Cultures where Islam has been practiced and where Muslims have left their imprint are often called Islamic cultures. I use quotation marks to remind us that much of what happens in such cultures is secular, un-Islamic, or even anti-Islamic in the eyes of many believers or simply explicable in terms of local customs quite unrelated to Islam.
4 I would distinguish the Christian West from the lay or secular West, but both terms are open to question as a result of the planet-wide gestation of a single world of technology and communication
5 Note that the Arabic word has often been translated into Western languages as “Koran,” or “Coran”. In the system of transliteration employed in this work, “qur’ān” is the most accurate rendering. That spelling will be used when used in lowercase, and when referring to the literary work then it will be written as “Qur’an”
6 I refer to the rich work by André Miquel, who has published four volumes on human geography in the Muslim world called La géographie humaine du monde musulman jusqu’au milieu de XIe siècle (La Haye: Mouton, 1963-1988). To André Miquel’s great credit, his work has caused an important sector of the Arab cultural production to benefit from methods and problematics of history conceived and understood as anthropology of a particular past and an archaeology of collective consciousness.
7 For more distinction, see Muhammad Arkoun, Pour une critique de la raison islamique (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1984), pp. 205-215
8 See Rudolf Bultmann, History and Eschatology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 1975)
9 See L’Islam actuel devant sa tradition,” in Aspects de la foi de l’Islam (Brussels: Facultés Universitaires Saint-Louis, 1985) translated as “Background Essay: Current Islam Faces its Tradition,” in Architecture in the Islamic World (The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, 1986)


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