Published in Ljliljan, a Bosnian-language newspaper.
Enes Karic [EK]: Can I start by asking about your belief that Imam al-Ghazali’s books must play a central role in the current campaign to revivify Islam?
AHM: Imam al-Ghazali’s significance is manifold. He not only understood philosophy, but he showed the dangerously speculative nature of its basic premises in a way which anticipates much modern positivism. This awareness led him to develop a Muslim epistemology rooted in ‘tasting’ (dhawq), i.e. the illuminative fruits of systematic and divinely-assisted introspection, as the only sure path to knowledge. This makes him a figure of profound and immediate relevance to Westerners of my generation who often feel that post-modernism and the notion of the ‘equality of all discourse’ have thrown humanity into what is in effect, despite all the information cascading from the universities and science laboratories, a state of ideologically rigorous ignorance. We are now grasping what Ghazali and his school were explaining nine hundred years ago: no universal statements about the world or the human condition can be reached by purely ratiocinative or inductive methods, because these cannot transcend the material context of the world in which they are framed. Ghazali, in short, through his manifesto the Ihya, offers the only intellectually rigorous escape from the trap of postmodernity.
EK: Could you say a little about the West’s relationship with Ghazali?
AHM: In the medieval period Ghazali was known in Europe as ‘Algazel’, through Latin translations by Guindisalvi and others of a few of his books, particularly his ‘Intentions of the Philosophers’ and his ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers’ in which he famously demolishes Arab Aristotelianism. Scholastic thinkers such as Aquinas, Robert Grosseteste and Hugo of St Victor were materially influenced by these books. Medieval Jews such as Maimonides, his commentator Moses of Narbonne, and particularly the pietist writer Bahya ben Paquda, were also profoundly indebted to his ideas on epistemology and logic.His Ihya however appears to have been unknown. In the present century about twenty of the forty volumes have been translated into various European languages, mainly French and German, but also Italian, Dutch and Russian. It is a curious fact that although he is recognised as the most influential Muslim thinker of all time, there are very few serious studies of his thought in the West, with the exception of Richard Frank’s recent Al-Ghazali and the Asharite School, which is of limited compass.
EK: What about Ghazali’s academic influence in the East today?
AHM: Ghazali’s Ihya continues to be reprinted constantly in many countries. It is particularly popular in Turkey, and is also known in Iran in the Shiite version of Muhsin Fayz Kashani. In Malaysia he has a particular influence because he followed the Shafi’i rite in law, which is practiced by almost all Malaysians. Of course, his intellectual approach has provoked the anger of some literalists at the Saudi universities, where any systematic theology is regarded as blasphemous. Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, is a country where most people until recently lived in extremely simple conditions, and have not recognised the need to speak to the modern world in a sophisticated idiom. Literalism and anti-intellectualism may appeal to desert people, but will not survive long in the global academic and intellectual arena. Similarly, Ghazali’s interest in Sufi mysticism is regarded with suspicion by members of the Wahhabi sect, which has its headquarters in Saudi Arabia, because it interferes with their vision of Islam as a purely legalistic, superficial religion with no possibilities of nuanced spiritual or literary discourse. Nonetheless, even in Saudi Arabia, many more educated and sensitive people now seem to be rejecting the Wahhabi sect and are turning to Ghazali for a more thoughtful and advanced understanding of their religion.
EK: Can we turn now to the wider issue of the mutual incomprehension of the Islamic and Western worlds?
AHM: The West sees itself as a fundamentally Christian civilisation, despite many years of creeping but in many ways superficial secularisation. In 1993, Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission, announced that ‘Membership of the European Community is conditional on the possession of a shared Christian heritage’ – a remark which was not well received in Turkey, for instance, but reflects a general assumption in Europe. And Christianity is historically a religion which, thanks to its idea of the unique salvific status of Christ, has often found it difficult to tolerate large non-Christian minorities. In the middle ages, you could be a Christian in Cairo, but you could not be a Muslim in London. Christians and Jews lived under Muslim rule in Spain for eight hundred years; but when Granada fell in 1492, the Inquisition soon demolished the mosques, and burned and exiled the Muslim and Jewish population. Since the Enlightenment, which was in fact the considered though usually discreet rejection of Christianity by many educated people, this situation has been changed, but even the present century has seen ‘civilised Europe’ supervise the massacre of six million Jews, something which never happened in the Muslim world.What is ironic is that this traditional contest – between the exclusivist Christian world and the multi-ethnic world of Islam – has been strangely inverted, so that the usual international discourse today presents the Christian West as pluralist and the Islamic East as totalitarian. This is largely untrue – for instance, there are many Christian members of the Egyptian and Iranian parliaments, but no Muslim members of the British, French, German or Italian parliaments. Many Muslim countries support the schools of their Christian minorities, whereas the Muslim schools in Britain are consistently denied state funding, which is freely given to Christian and Jewish schools. So while the media headlines may suggest that the Christian West is somehow more tolerant and provides more equality of opportunity for its minorities, the reality, both in the past and the present, is quite otherwise. Of course, there are conspicuous exceptions: one thinks of the poor minority rights situation in some Muslim countries, for instance. But the fact is that an Eastern Christian can become Secretary-General of the United Nations, a position to which no Western Muslim could realistically aspire, given the discreet but heavy cultural preferences which exists in our societies.
EK: What about the much-touted growth of a contemporary dialogue of civilisations, an ‘East-West encounter’?
AHM: I do not believe that there is an East-West encounter. There are in fact two contests presently taking shape in the modern world. Firstly, there is the competition for resources between the industrialised North and the poor South. Despite all the rhetoric of ‘aid’, the reality is that the net transfer of capital from the South to the North now exceeds seven billion dollars every month. Secondly, there is a contest between traditional religion and materialism. I believe that in our time the major religions should postpone debates on their doctrinal differences and recognise that they all face the same enemy: the spirit of negation and greed which is the driving force of modernity. The cooperation between the Muslims and the Vatican delegation to the UN Population Conference in Cairo in 1994, which resulted in the modification of many anti-religious and anti-family provisions, proves that such a cooperation can be of mutual benefit. We all have our backs against the same wall, and I constantly urge Muslims to develop links with serious believers in the earlier revelations to see how we can unite against the destructive individualism of the modern world, which is increasingly the polemical and activist agenda of the UN and similar world agencies.
EK: We hear much about Western converts to Islam. How powerful is the movement in reality?
AHM: A few years ago I helped a couple of French journalists who were writing a book on the phenomenon of conversion, and was interested to learn from them that most conversions in Western Europe today are to Islam, with Buddhism as a close second. They calculate that around 100,000 French people have joined Islam, with the number increasing substantially if we include those who convert for purposes of marrying a Muslim woman. In Britain, partly because of the English sense of reticence, many educated converts do not make their conversion known, even to close members of their families, and it is hence not possible to speculate about numbers. I myself know, for instance, a professor at my university who with his wife has practised Islam for thirty years totally unknown to his colleagues at work. Some prominent British cultural figures, such as Lord Northbourne, were only known as converts after their death. In France the situation is rather different: you have philosophers such as Roger Garaudy, and cultural leaders such as the painter Alijs Mojon, or the Sorbonne professor of Arabic Vincent Monteil, who are very public about their faith, and defend Islam controversially in a public arena increasingly noted for right-wing xenophobia and mounting support for neo-fascist parties.
EK: You have spent much time in Western universities. Do you think that academic attitudes to Muslims are changing?
AHM: Islamic Studies departments in the West are an anachronism, inasmuch as Jewish Studies are almost always taught by Jews, Christian studies by Christians, feminist studies by feminists, and so on; while Islamic studies are almost invariably taught by people indifferent to the religion, and in some cases actively hostile. I have encountered several cases of Muslim scholars excluded from jobs for which they are well-qualified simply because appointments committees believe that Muslims cannot be ‘objective’ when teaching Islam. Using that logic, one would have to prevent Christians from teaching Christianity, and feminists from teaching feminism, and so on! The only way around this really is for British Muslims whose Islam is not conspicuous or even known to enter university life. Oddly, there seems to be less prejudice against converts than against native Muslims, perhaps because converts understand how to be inconspicuous when the interests of Islam require this. Most Muslim teachers of Islam in British universities now are in fact from the convert community. They face an interesting task, since Islamic studies, which was until recently a minor academic ghetto, has taken on immediate and heavy political and cultural significance in the past two decades. It is on the basis of the advice and literary output of academics that politicians often take their decisions in parts of the world about which they know little. Hence it is of vital importance for Muslims to rectify the current asymmetry in universities and play a central role.
EK: What is your experience of Bosnia?
AHM: I first visited Bosnia before going to university – I was one of those long-haired teenagers with back-packs who wander around Europe for no apparent reason. I remember how impressed I was at the age of 18, having spent a day in Belgrade, a city which I found to be of ntolerable greyness and ugly heaviness, waking up on a train near Zavidovici, and being startled by the verdant green of the hills, the yellow mounds of hay on the slopes, and the white minarets in the villages. It was like seeing a beautiful woman for the first time after leaving prison!I visited Bosnia several times thereafter – I was in Sarajevo during the trial of Alija Izetbegovic and the others, and was able to bring some information to Amnesty International as a result. I spent time at the offices of Preporod and at the Gazi Husrev-begova Biblioteka. I was impressed by the conviviality of the three religious communities, which I took to be proof of the fact that religious toleration in its truest and most durable sense has only ever been able to flourish in the Muslim parts of Europe. And in 1992, the 500th anniversary of the fall of Granada to the forces of the Reconquista, the war launched by the Serbian nationalists seemed to prove that my theory remained valid even at the end of the twentieth century.
I visited Bosnia several times after the war began, and found myself horrified by the violence of the Serbs, and also the Croats of the HVO. Even if you are not a Christian, it is unpleasant to see swastikas being sold side by side with images of the Blessed Virgin at Medjugorje, and to see Ante Pavelic’s portrait hanging in police stations in ‘Herzeg-Bosna’.
I also noted with alarm the presence and influence of some of our brothers from the Arab world, who try to bring to Bosnia a rigorist and exclusivist understanding of Islam which is alien to Balkan Islam, and can have no true future in today’s pluralistic and sophisticated world. One of Islam’s sources of strength is its cultural diversity: Malaysians have their own style of Islam, so do Turks, Nigerians, Uzbeks, and so on. The Arab aid workers should not imagine that the Bosnian Muslims can become Arab Muslims. Their cultural context is quite different. And there is a danger, I feel, that the intensity and narrow-mindedness of some Middle Eastern aid workers will in fact frighten young Bosnians away from Islam, rather than bring them back to it. The Bosniaks have their own very fine style of being Muslim, as expounded by men such as Mustafa Ceric and Ismet Spahic, and have a right to be proud of their identity.
The future of Bosnia, as an island of Muslim toleration in a bigoted corner of Europe, will depend on many things. But most importantly, it will depend on the continued state of readiness of the Bosnian Army. If the Jews had had an army in 1939, and had been fighting for their lives, the Holocaust might never have happened. If the Chechens had been better armed in 1994, they might now have won their independence. The sad lesson is that non-Christian minorities in Europe, given the absence of a medieval tradition of tolerance, must be constantly on their guard. In 1992, the Bosniaks were caught by surprise, having believed the silly rhetoric of the EU and the UN about the inalienable rights of small peoples. They are wiser now; and in a stronger position. I have every confidence that they will weather the storms which still await them, and become a model of Muslim decency, hospitality and tolerance.