Hardly a day goes by when someone among us doesn’t ask in print, “What is Islam, and how much does it matter?” OPEC, Israel, and the hostage crisis have powerfully concentrated our minds on the subject. Journalists, scholars, politicians, apologists, even now and then an errant literary figure on a polemical holiday, address themselves to the meaning of the jihad or the doctrine of the Hidden Imam. What was once the province of a handful of people who knew Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, sometimes along with Urdu and Malay, or who happened to be posted to Beau Geste settings, is now almost as open to general discussion as Reaganomics or the cultural significance of television. Like Japanese work habits, Muslim passions are suddenly something about which it is necessary to have views.

Whatever the variety of views or the interests that motivate them, the viewers tend to come in recognizable sorts. There are the more traditional Orientalists, whom Edward Said and others have recently subjected to wholesale attack as field agents of imperialism, but who are mostly finicky textual scholars with the usual woods and trees problems of those who have read everything in sight. The ideologists grind their various axes to so fine an edge as to wound mostly themselves. The historians attempt to arrange elliptical records from a mythicized past into a plausible story. The journalists cover fires. And then there are the social scientists, who are going to explain it all. Whether “Islam” itself is or isn’t single and of a piece, whether it is the sort of thing about which one can ask “What is it?” and expect a synoptic answer, the study of it surely is not.

The matter is rendered yet more difficult by the appearance in such study of a powerful new cliché: “The Revival of Islam.” As such half-thoughts will, the notion of “revival” tends to divert attention from its referent to itself. The question becomes whether there really is such a thing out there in “Islamdom” demanding special explanation or whether there is not and our sense that there is grows out of tuning in late to a historical process, faith-driven politics, that has been going on for a very long time and has come to our attention only because it has begun directly to touch our interests. Islamicists, who not so very long ago were notably untroubled by self-reflexive anxieties, are now becoming as nervous as intelligence testers, uncertain about how much of what they see is mirage, engendered by their own ways of looking rather than by what it is they are looking at.

The chief result of these three developments in Islamic studies—increased popularity, diversification of methods, and heightened self-consciousness—is that the general agreement on what such studies should be about and how they should be conducted that persisted virtually up to yesterday has now disappeared almost altogether. To sample books now appearing that claim to deal somehow with things Islamic is to be confronted with everything from furious assaults on the American mass media to extended meditations on how Hume’s theory of religion connects with the fourteenth-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun. Whatever one gets, it is not a sense of coherent light.


The one dividing line that stands up fairly well, though not entirely, is that between those who approach things from the side of Islamic (or Muslim) society and those who approach them from the side of Islamic (or Muslim) faith. Whatever the differences, and they are vast, between, say, Ernest Gellner and Roy Mottahedeh, or Edward Said and Elie Kedourie, they are all concerned with, to put it more crudely than some of them would like, the “impact” of Islamic ideology on how life is organized in the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, or wherever. And whatever the differences, also great, among the various contributors to Merlin Swartz’s Studies on Islam or between Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Hamid Algar, they all see themselves as trying to grasp the essentials of Muslim faith, or as Smith would more carefully put it, the faith of Muslims. The two sides reach toward each other, of course. To assess Islam as a social creed it is necessary to grasp at least something of what Muslims as Muslims imagine existence to be; and to grasp something of what Muslims imagine existence to be demands that some attention be paid to how they live. But only now and again, and then only in the less peremptory works, do they actually meet. For the most part, we have either third world sociology with an Islamic accent, or comparative religion with a Christian one.

The third world sociology approach, its large strengths and larger weaknesses, is well illustrated in Muslim Society, Ernest Gellner’s stimulating new collection of reviews and articles, all but one of them previously published. The book earns its unbashful title. For all the skipping about from subject to subject and the epigrammatic way with argument, Gellner’s pieces, a number of them scarcely a half-dozen pages long, amount to a treatise—the boldest and most ingenious, as well as the most hard-driven, attempt in recent years to present a general account of the fundamental features of social life in the Islamic world. Applying and reapplying a handful of ideas “stolen from four great thinkers—Ibn Khaldun, David Hume, Robert Montagne, Edward Evans-Pritchard” to anything in some way interesting that happens to catch his eye, he constructs a remarkably unified model of “the basic rules of the game” as it is played in that world; a model which, whatever else one may say about it, is anyway clear.


According to Gellner, there are two poles of Muslim society. There is the cohesive, egalitarian, virile life of the tribes, where the patterns of alliance and enmity are very strictly if intricately drawn; and there is the individualistic, hierarchical, luxury-softened life of the cities, where fecklessness and opportunism are but fitfully disciplined by sultans and soldiers. Between these two poles there is a continuous oscillation—Gellner calls it a pendulum swing—as the tribes, their power enhanced by horseback toughness and group feeling, push aside the effete city dwellers to found new cities or capture old ones. After a while, enfeebled in their turn by urban life, the new men are displaced by yet another hard wind from the countryside.

Much of this reflects Ibn Khaldun’s ideas. They are recast, however, as modern sociology via Evans-Pritchard’s family-tree models of tribal organization in Sudan and Libya and Robert Montagne’s account of the seesaw relations between the city and countryside in southern Morocco. The contribution of Hume, taken from the Natural History of Religion and restated in an idiom of marabouts and ulema, is that the two poles are characterized by two, also polar, sorts of religiosity: in the countryside, “polytheism,” centered around magic and the cult of holy men; in the cities, “monotheism,” centered around law and the Koranic God. As the social pendulum swings between tribe and town, the religious one swings between a hyper-pluralistic faith—saint worship—and a hyper-unitarian one—legal scripturalism.

And so it goes. “The political microsociology of the world of Ibn Khaldun provides us with the social basis for the polar oscillation [between ‘idolatry’ and ‘theism’] found in Hume.” Only with the coming of modernity and effective political centralization is the entire balance definitively tipped “in favor of urban styles of life against tribal ones.” Both pendulums are “unhinged,” and the inventive personalities of the Islamic revival—Qaddafi, Boumedienne, and someone Gellner refers to as “Che Khomeini”—their hour come round at last, appear to confound our categories and trouble our sleep.

Aside from the doubts all this raises simply as sociology (it reminds one of nothing so much as the hidden-hand clockworks of classical economics—all motions and no movers), and aside from the question whether the model applies to anything actual (even Gellner admits it doesn’t apply very well to the Ottoman lands, which is a bit like having a theory of “Christian society” that doesn’t apply to the Continent), the conception of religion here seems so mechanical that probably even Hume would have found it coarse. (Ibn Khaldun, whom Gellner seems to think some sort of fourteenth-century positivist, would have found it unintelligible.) Islam, schematized, flattened, and sorted into brands, loses any force at all and becomes a kind of social lubricant, a spiritual grease to make the social wheels—any social wheels that happen to be around—turn more easily. Religion is not even the ghost in the machine or the vis in the pendulum; it is an “unguent which oil[s] the friction in [the] joints and between them.” Perhaps. But there would seem, in view of the tendency for the unguent to explode and the pendulum to vaporize, to be rather more to the matter.

That there is, in any case, a different way of looking at “Muslim society,” and what is Muslim about it, than this theomechanics, is evident from Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society, Roy Mottahedeh’s tightly focused study of social bonds during the period of Buyid domination of southern Iraq and western Iran in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Despite its somewhat special subject, a fragmented dynasty in a spasmodical time, it is one of the most broadly suggestive works on Middle Eastern social structure to appear in recent years. Using a panoptic method—Islam everywhere and at all times—is apparently not necessary to having a general vision.

Mottahedeh does not conduct his analysis by using general categories derived from social theorists, trimmed to fit particular cases, but derives cultural categories from “the self-description” of the society—the Buyid—he is concerned to illuminate. His is a kind of sociology from within, a description in its own vocabulary of a distinctive “moral world”—one combining extremely intense personal loyalties with a coercive leadership carefully placed at a distance—which sustained “a resilient and self-renewing social order.” His “Islamic society” is a specimen, not a model. Whatever use defining that society has for defining others elsehwere (a very great deal, in my opinion, rests on family resemblances, the oblique similarities that arise as specific histories take form against the background of persisting ideas.


Mottahedeh sees the Buyid society as divided between loyalties of two sorts: acquired loyalties and loyalties of category. Acquired loyalties were those a person accumulated as he hatched conspiracies, built alliances, collected dependents, and found protectors while navigating his way through life. Loyalties of category were those he had as a result of interests shared with others: common ancestry, occupation, political aim, class standing, religious function, habitat, age level, and, of course, though Mottehedeh has little to say about women, gender. This distinction between loyalties was real enough in Buyid eyes—acquired ties were cemented by formal oaths and public vows, categorical ones by informal promises and private understandings. But it was neither fundamental nor absolute; for, at bottom, all loyalties were radically personal, the result of one person giving, before witnesses and before God, his word to another. “The measure of the man,” Mottahedeh says, was “the company he chose to keep.”

Urban or rural, in courts as in camps, Buyid society was a vast, unbroken, heterogeneous field of brittle one-on-one ties involving “four eyes,” a world of handshakes: ties between client and patron, minister and king, notary and judge; between political allies, religious bedfellows, or just “men who rose together”; between cousins, office mates, companions in arms, business partners, local elders, like-minded scholars, natives of a town, a village, a region; between men linked by some moral debt, as in schooling or slavery, or who merely found one another reliable confidants. Continually formed and reformed, acknowledged and repudiated, honored and evaded, as ambition and opportunity dictated, these bonds were, for all their diversity (which Mottahedeh, a master of nuance, traces out in brilliant, vernacular detail, sorting everything delicately from everything else), sociologically of a piece:

All these ties are alike in that they are individual…. Behind [them all] we see the individualistic presupposition that a man can accept or offer an obligation only on his own behalf and not on behalf of a group. Spokesmen existed, of course, but… they were obliged to get the personal agreement of those for whom they spoke. As the Koran repeatedly says, “no man bears the burden of another.”

That is the character of loyalty; and the character of leadership, in what is the most original part of Mottahedeh’s original analysis, arises from it. The problem with organizing society as a loosely oriented set of discrete relationships, each one shaped to person and circumstance, is the difficulty of keeping them discrete. “What men most feared was that one loyalty might overwhelm other loyalties in the consciousness of its adherents,” that different interests might congeal to form a grander interest that “would feed itself at the expense of the rest of the society, which would be oppressed.”

This congealing of particular loyalties into transparticular ones could only be prevented by “a presence that was ‘out of category,’ ” a presence aloof and intrusive at the same time—neutral by virtue of its social distance, coercive by virtue of its military strength. Buyid communities, Mottahedeh says, did not yearn to be free, “they yearned to be ruled.” The result was an institution characteristic not just of Buyid society, for which Mottahedeh traces it out in detail, but, in one form or another, of virtually every Islamic society in the Near East since the death of Muhammad—what we might call (though Mottahedeh does not) extrinsic domination. “The stability of Near Eastern Islamic society and its style grew out of a self-conscious understanding that society needed government and yet, by and large, did not want to generate any government of its own.”

Islam here, then, is seen not as a grease for social wheels, but a frame for social thought, a frame within which the radical specificity of personal ties and the peremptory power of alien authority (often enough, literally alien—minority kings and slave soldiers) could be reconciled. Mottahedeh’s demonstration of the complementarity of Islamic conceptions of loyalty and leadership—the crony’s hand, the king’s fist—reveals less the reason for things than the reason in them.


The “personalist” theme appears, indeed virtually explodes, as part of the analysis of comparative religion in Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s provocative new collection of Arabist essays, On Understanding Islam. For about twenty years now, Smith, professor of the comparative history of religion at Harvard and an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, the union of Methodists, Congregationalists, and softer Presbyterians formed there in the 1920s, has been developing a fideist view of Islam as centered around the inner commitment of the individual Muslim to God, “the act of dedication wherein he as a specific and live person in his concrete situation is deliberately and numinously related to a transcendent divine reality which he recognizes, and to a cosmic imperative which he accepts.”

Smith, canvassing texts, sorting out grammar, anatomizing words, traces this conception of what Islam as a faith amounts to through a series of subjects central to Muslim thought from the Prophet’s time to ours: the foundations of law, the nature of truth and reality, the significance of the Confession of Faith, the relative importance of inward attitude and outward behavior, and the meaning of the term “Islam” itself. Relentlessly, and with a scholastic intensity that may not entirely serve his cause (a fair amount of the book’s Arabic is left untranslated and precious little help is given the reader who may not know Ibn Battah from Ibn Babawah), Smith builds an ingenious case for an ingenious argument: Islam, once a human response to a divine summons, or supposed to be such, has been steadily transformed into a reified system of moralized cultural ideals. Its history is that of the progressive, if yet incomplete, triumph of religio over pietas.

Smith is able in this way to clarify much that is obscure in Islamic history—the crystallization of religious communalism in Mughal India, the peculiar rigidity of Islamic modernism, the equivocal nature of the encounter with Christianity. But the question is whether this deeply Protestant notion of what faith is, and what history does to it, does not itself impose on Islam something alien to it and to its development. The replacement of a primitive vision of the Divine Word and an immediate response to it by a conceptual prison of abstract beliefs, the dogmas of scribes and pedants, is too reminiscent of other faiths to be entirely credible. And when this religious reification of personal faith is discerned as well in every tradition from the Hindu to the Hebraic, so that the history of Islam becomes but “one link in a total chain” of something called “the world history of religion,” the sense of Muslim facts supporting Christian ideas merely grows.

Yet, for all that, one does see something of what Smith means when one turns to what, for the moment anyway, is the paradigm expression of “Islamic revivalism,” the writings of Imam Khomeini, now given a scholarly and felicitous translation under the title Islam and Revolution by Hamid Algar, and to the discreetly apologetic commentary and notes, a sort of Muslim catechism, which Algar, an English-born convert to Islam, educated at Cambridge and teaching at Berkeley, appends to them. The ideological quality of Khomeini’s own writings is, of course, intense; even his most purely religious discourses, the “Lectures on the Surat al-Fatiha” (the first verse of the Koran), for example, are laced with references to current conflicts and contemporary enemies (“There’s many a [Sufi] cloak that deserves the fire”). But in Algar’s commentary, extensive, learned, carefully instructive, polite, the cast of mind—what I suppose Smith would call, as he calls that of the rather similar Mughal reformers such as Aurangzeb, “a rigid, structured, crystallized version of Islam…not a [spiritual] revival but a revival…of the view of Islam-as-a-closed-system“—appears in a less headlong and thus in some ways less idiosyncratic form.

The implicit movement of Algar’s commentary is toward portraying the sort of political religionism Khomeini exemplifies as the recovered consensus of the Muslim community. Himself a Sunni, Algar not only minimizes Sunni-Shi’i tensions to the point of barely mentioning them (and then as vanishing relics), but he conceives of the Ayatollah’s doctrinal radicalism as the essential Islam, constantly obscured by Egyptian traditionalists, Iraqi Arabizers, Turkish separationists, and, of course, Western evangelizers. (Khomeini himself is less reticent—“This is the root of the matter: Sunni-populated countries believe in obeying their rulers, whereas the Shi’is have always believed in rebellion.”) Where Algar, its exponent, and Smith, its historian, differ is not on what “Islamic revivalism” is, but on what—authentic faith or flight from it—it is that is being revived.

The tendency has always been marked among Western Islamicists, of whom Algar is one as much as Smith, to try to write Muslim theology from without, to provide the spiritual self-reflection they see either as somehow missing in it or as there but clouded over by routine formula-mongering. D.B. Macdonald made al-Ghazzali into a kind of Muslim St. Thomas. Ignaz Glodziher centered Islam in traditionalist legal debates, and Louis Massignon centered it in the Sufi martyrdom of al-Hallaj. Henri Laoust defended puritan fundamentalism from the charge of heresy. A half-conscious desire not just to understand Islam but to have a hand in its destiny has animated most of the major scholars who have written on it as a form of faith.

Something of the insights thus gained and of the misunderstandings thus engendered, both of them profound, can be seen from the excellent collection of French and German “Orientalist” essays, carefully selected and fluently translated by Merlin Swartz as Studies on Islam. The essays, which range in time from 1913 (Goldziher’s) to 1975 (one on Hanbali rigorism by Laoust’s student, George Makdisi) and in subject from Western interpretations of Sufism (R. Caspar) to recent studies on Muhammad (Maxime Rodinson), make any simple political interpretation of at least modern “Orientalism” seem difficult to sustain; almost all are unworldly to a fault. But they raise, as do Smith’s and Algar’s works, the even more troubling question: how far can a wish to improve Islam comport with the wish to understand it? If studies of “Islam” from the sociological side have trouble getting close enough to their subject to avoid schematizing it, those from the religious side have trouble maintaining enough distance to avoid remaking it.


In any case, whether as a social form, a faith, or some enfoldment of the two, “Islam” has become for us, as it has not been since the relief of Vienna from the Turkish siege in 1683, something to be conjured with, a presence in our cultural world nearly as unsettling as in its own. The reasons for this have more to do with the decline of Western hegemony than with any grand renewal of spiritual concern, but it has led, nonetheless, to a rising tide of parti pris polemic designed to advise us in the rights and wrongs of our established attitudes. Of this sort of thing, what Saul Bellow would call “reality-instructing,” Edward Said and Elie Kedourie, so alike in the temper of their minds and so very different in the contents, serve as useful examples, if only because they seem to bound the limits of possibility: decrying the West as Machiavellian and decrying it as not Machiavellian enough.

Both Said and Kedourie were born in the Middle East, Said in a Christian Palestinian family in Jerusalem, Kedourie in a Jewish Iraqi one in Baghdad. They share, thus, a useful marginality both with respect to the Mandarin Western culture into which they have moved, Said as an English professor at Columbia, Kedourie as a political scientist at the London School of Economics, and with respect to the urbane Middle Eastern one within which, neither of them Muslims, neither of them complaisant, they were originally formed. And they share also a certain urgency of tone, half-sardonic, half outraged, nothing if not assured, as well as—Said from the left, Kedourie from the right—a bitterly disapproving response to the Western response to political Islam.

Said’s latest book, Covering Islam, continues an attack, begun in his Orientalism, on Western portrayals of Islam and Islamic society as so many cultural mystifications designed to justify imperial expansion. Here the object of censure is the American press, denounced as providing us—most particularly during the hostage crisis, but in relation to OPEC, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon as well—with “clichés, caricatures, ignorance, unqualified ethnocentrism, and inaccuracy” concerning the Muslim world. A garish Time cover, a trashy documentary followed by a mindless discussion on PBS, a passing comment about the subtleties of Persian in the Atlanta Constitution, a Joseph Kraft column on what to do about the Ayatollah (arm Turkey), John Updike’s The Coup, the New Republic’s Zionism, and a Chicago Tribune prose poem about Iranian blood lust—all of this slanders Muslims and serves power. “It is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially covered, discussed, apprehended, either as oil suppliers or as potential terrorists…. The media, the government, the geopolitical strategists, and…the academic experts on Islam are all in concert: Islam is a threat to Western civilization.”

Kedourie, as befits someone bent on making himself into a Burke for our times, is more collected and sees a more diffuse specter: the unwillingness of Western intellectuals and politicians to face up to the destructive power of Middle Eastern radicalism. His collection of topical studies, Islam in the Modern World, depicts “a Muslim world that has lost its classical poise, and is now highly strung and deeply disturbed.” Two centuries of political and military defeat following ten of success have “brought into doubt the truth of the Muslim revelation itself” and led to a fanatical political messianism whose hostility to their interests Europeans and now Americans have, out of cowardice, stupidity, guilt, and sentimentalism, consistently failed to understand.

The various essays are on how the British and the French engineered the “disaster” of Lebanese independence, on Foreign Office truckling to Ibn Saud’s hatred for the Jews, on the folly of De Gaulle’s “retreat from Algeria,” on how at Suez “beautiful souls,” like Tom Driberg and Guy Burgess, “came to set the tone in a [British] public life distinguished not so long ago by some robustness and realism,” and on T.E: Lawrence as a perverted spiritual romantic pandering “to some of the most dangerous elements to be found in the modern Western mentality.” The essays are all dedicated first to demonstrating Western failures and then to reminding us of our fears, recalling us to our responsibilities. “[It] behooves us, who live in security under a government of laws to reflect how easily all wonted certainties may vanish into smoke and how loyalties which hitherto seemed solid, unshakable pillars can all of a sudden tremble and totter….” “All that [the West] can hope for [in the contemporary Muslim world] is to exploit the instinct for survival of regimes which are narrowly based and insecure…. Every morning one is dealt a new hand…: agility is all.”

Both Said’s and Kedourie’s are what might be called grain-of-truth arguments. It is not difficult for Said to ferret out horrible cases of tendentious misrepresentation of Islam in the press and on television (though, given his easy way with evidence—quote what fits, omit what doesn’t—they are always worth checking), any more than it would be difficult to find similar cases from China to South Africa; and doing so with less heat and more analysis would be a useful enterprise. Nor can it be denied that Kedourie (who is a tireless and ingenious researcher of official archives) uncovers some stunning examples of stupidity in high places or that Western policies toward the Muslim world have often stemmed more from political dreaming than from rational assessment. But grains of truth don’t prosper in phobic climates. Both Said’s tone of high panic (they are stealing our thoughts, the enemy is everywhere) and Kedourie’s (they are selling our honor, infamy is everywhere) leave us with a bad taste in the mind, a sense of having been held by the lapels and screamed at by someone reckless to persuade. There is much to be said, here as elsewhere in the writing about Islam, for the sort of negative capability—tact, openness, tolerance, as Keats has it, “for being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”—that, of the works surveyed, perhaps Mottahedeh’s, Smith’s, and some of the writers in Swartz’s collection (Caspar, Rodinson) best exemplify.

This Issue

May 27, 1982