The Revolt of Islam

L'Islam et l'état dans le monde d'aujourd'hui

edited by Olivier Carré
Presses Universitaries de France (Paris), 270 pp., F95

Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition

by Fazlur Rahman
University of Chicago Press, 172 pp., $15.00

Lectures du Coran

by Mohammed Arkoun
Maisonneuve and Larose (Paris), 175 pp., F82

Modern Islamic Political Thought

by Hamid Enayat
University of Texas Press, 220 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Ayatollah Khomeini
Ayatollah Khomeini; drawing by David Levine

Until the latter part of 1978 the discussion of Islam as a factor in politics was subject to certain taboos in the Western world. There was no such taboo in the Middle East and generally in the Muslim world, where the rise of nationalism had touched off a continuing debate on the relationship between patriotic or national and religious loyalties, and on the role of Islam in ideology, allegiance, and government.

This debate attracted little attention in the Western world, which in this as in other matters tended to see other societies in its own image. For one thing there was a growing consensus among social scientists that religion was no longer an adequate criterion by which to classify peoples and societies, and that to use it could involve grave distortions. In the second place, and perhaps more important, it was felt that the suggestion that peoples, particularly other peoples, were influenced or, worse, determined by religion in making political choices was somehow insulting. This was particularly true of those who professed the religion of Islam, the great majority of whom were Asians and Africans and thus part of what had come to be known as the third world.

There were still scholars, in both the first and second worlds, who continued to undertake the academic study of Islam, its history and its culture, and some of these from time to time ventured to publish their findings and offer their opinions on the relationship between Islam and politics in the past and even in the present. For the most part their studies, and the impact they made, remained confined within their own professional circles. The International Congress of Orientalists, which has held meetings every few years since 1873, has always devoted one of its major sections to the study of Islam, alongside other sections concerned with India, China, and the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. The one exception was the Twenty-third International Congress, which met in Moscow. On that occasion the local organizing committee deleted the section on Islamic studies and reassigned the papers that had been submitted for consideration by this section to other sections, dealing with the history, languages, and literatures of the Arabs, Persians, Turks, and other predominantly Muslim peoples. For the first time, a section on Afghan studies was added.

In subsequent congresses the section on Islam was restored, but in some circles the Islamicist approach, that is, the approach using Islam as the organizing principle of study, was still viewed with some mistrust. Indeed, as Edward Mortimer remarks in his excellent new book, one angry polemicist came close to implying that Islam itself was an invention of malicious orientalists, who had not only constructed the Orient, but had also devised its component parts.

Paradoxically, this curious reluctance to ascribe political significance to Islam sprang from a deep-seated cultural arrogance, which by this time has become…

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