Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari

One of the ramifications of the cultural clash with the triumphant militant West in 1798 was the appearance of some major intellectual questions: Why did these foreigners prevail over us? Why did they advance and we remain behind? Where was the shortfall?

How can we rise up again? Over a period of a century and a half the number of answers proffered increased in step with the number of directions taken by thinkers and their respective schools of thought. Beginning with the first rank of thinkers such as Al-Tahtāwī, Al-Tūnisī, Al-Kawākibī, Al-Afghānī, Muhammad ‘Abduh, their work was generally one of defensiveness against the prevailing alternative.

Muhammad ‘Abduh: a defensive position

By the beginning of the last century questions were becoming more urgent and presenting a major challenge to Arab thinking, and these demanded different responses. Conspicuous in the 20th century were the efforts of a number of luminaries, the most prominent being the reform project of Imām Muhammad ‘Abduh (ob.1905) who focused in on reforming the pattern of religious thought. Over the last 30 years or so of the previous century there appeared exponents of comprehensive intellectual projects (Marwa, Tīzīnī, Hanafī[1], Arkoun, Al-ʽArawī, Tarbīshī, Al-Jabrī, Zakī Najīb Mahmūd, Fu’ād Zakaryā, Muhammad Jābir al-Ansārī and others).

The first response centred on the cause of backwardness being the alienation of the Muslim community from its religion, arguing that the nation’s affairs could not be reformed until at first it was established that “Islam is the solution.”

The second response, on the other hand, argued that the political crisis manifested by the absence of democracy constituted the chronic ailment, one that was due to the Arabs’ inability to agree upon a political system that guaranteed the peaceful transferral of power.

A third response saw our educational system as the cause of the failure while a fourth response held that Arab backwardness lay in their scientific and technical shortcomings, on the grounds that the challenges they were facing over the last five centuries had been technical ones. These challenges had received no sound response since Portugal, a small nation in 1498, achieved mastery over the Gulf by means of five armoured ships (Antoine Zahlan[2]).

There is no ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’ intellect as opposed to a ‘Western’ or ‘Christian’ intellect

Others saw the solution in Arab socialism and a large sector contented themselves with placing the responsibility for backwardness on western imperialism. Still others saw the case as lying in ‘the Arab mindset’ with its lack of a critical spirit or a historical view, as al-Jābrī stated in his major intellectual project A Critique of the Arab Mind. It was al-Jābrī who perhaps crystallised in 1984 the term ‘the Arab Mind’ and introduced it to intellectual circles. It subsequently gained currency and many were impressed by it until its falsity became apparent. The intellect, in the sense of mental capacity, is unique to all humans, and is the element that most sets them off from [other creatures] (Descartes).

There is no ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’ intellect as opposed to a ‘Western’ or ‘Christian’ intellect. The Arabs cannot be possessed of a different intellect from other peoples, yet peoples do differ in their modes of thought and in the effectiveness of this thought in the face of challenge. Many thinkers observed deficiencies in Arab modes of thought in confronting internal and external challenges due to the following trends that have had an effect on its efficiency:

1- Archaism: the Arab mind is captive to a glorious past and reproduces the work of its forebears and studies the past for solutions to problems of the present;

2- Masculism: the Arab mentality is dominated by a cultural heritage that denigrates woman and believes in the superiority of the male;

3- Sanctification: history is sacralised where its moments of glory are selected out while a thousand years of conflict and division and obscurantism are passed over in silence;

4- Isolationism: the Arab mentality is one that dismisses the other in the belief that it possesses absolute truth;

5- Suspicion of the other: fantasies of a world conspiracy against us occupy a large part of our thinking;

6- Self-aggrandizement: the exaltation of oneself as opposed to the denigration of the other and the magnification of his faults.

On the level of Islam works made their appearance focusing on the Muslim mentality, the most prominent of which was A Critique of the Muslim Mind: The Crisis and the Solution, by Prof. ‘Abd al-Halīm Abū Shaqqa[3], and issued by the Markaz al-Rāya in Cairo in 2001. He is the author of an encyclopaedic work on the liberation of Muslim women which sheds light on ‘the contemporary Muslim mind caught between bodily suicide and cultural suicide and its manifestations in consumerism.’ It aims to liberate the Muslim mentality:

a mentality that is the greatest gift after faith; while religion came to free the mind the legacy of religion has blocked this by narrowing its scope to memorisation, indoctrination and the sanctification of predecessors (and to sanctify the mind of someone else is to cancel out one’s own mind), and exaggerated fears of falling into the ‘sin’ of independent religious interpretation.

The decadence of the Muslim mind

Still peddling the first response to Muslim failure

The book observes the main symptoms of this decadence – the denial of any dialogue with one’s opponent, the generalisation of rulings, the judging of another’s intentions, accusations launched against the other, a pre-occupation with slogans, the personification of principles and ideas, an interest in the past at the expense of the present and the future, one-sided thinking, exaggerated demonstration of our own virtues and of the faults of those who differ with us, impotence in the field of modern sciences, the merging the religious with the human, and of the fixed with the variable.

The position of Islamic movements vis-à-vis the crisis of the Muslim mind:

Perhaps one of the most credible criticisms directed at the Islamic movements by one of their own luminaries is this author’s statement that even if the Islamic movements have been able to extract religion from the realm of partial reform to one of general reform, it has hastened the matter in a foolish, superficial way, through confirming ultra-conservative rulings upon modern life and attempting an armed assault on authority in order to establish God’s rule. They have corrupted religion and politics alike. If they have renewed religio-political thought this has been in a sectarian direction that has remained traditionalist and fanatical, one that has sacralised heritage and warred upon humanistic thought. The author points to the germs that have spread throughout the body of these movements that demonstrate conceptual confusion: such as the merging of the concept of jihad with violence, the tyranny of the concept of Islamic governance, and the dividing up of society into heathen and Islamic.

Aspects of the crisis

There are ten aspects to the crisis which the Muslim mind is living through: an erroneous view on world history in considering it a conflict between civilizations and it therefore being incumbent upon us to fight civilisation; arresting the action of the intellect out of concern for the Revelation; the diffusion of mental narcotics as in brain stuffing; custodianship over others; the spreading of a politics of reactions; one-sided, superficial viewpoints; a lack of distinction made between the teachings of religion and the interpretations of clerics; the thwarting of the purposes of the Sharīʻa; negative attitudes towards humanistic thought and rejection of it on the grounds of our own perfection; in its stead there is a tendency towards religious thinking inherited from ages of decline, a thought that sees religion as having brought everything there is to know, down to the last detail. Both of these attitudes are false.

The results of decadence in the Islamic world

We inheritors of the faith have imprisoned both the faith and humanity alike

Decadence set it in the 5th century AH and has come to dominate most aspects of life. It produced intellectual stagnation, denominational imitativeness, the rejection of the physical sciences and the extinction of political stability. The author ascribes this to the unconscious sanctification of heritage, something which has cost Muslims 500 years of stagnation, decline and intellectual obscurantism. God made obligatory the sanctification of the religion but not the sanctification of human interpretation, even if these interpretations hail from the Companions of the Prophet. But we inheritors of the faith have imprisoned both the faith and humanity alike by subjecting them to the legacy of former centuries, and by terrorizing opponents with the sword of ‘consensus’. Independent creative interpreters have been extinguished while imitators have prevailed and fanaticism increased. The author states with a praiseworthy boldness that we must free ourselves from the prohibitions we slap upon anything that is new, just as Europe freed itself from the prohibitions set down by the Church.

Exaggerated sanctification of the heritage and everything connected with religion

One of the failings of a distorted religious mindset is its readiness to unthinkingly sanctify things and as a result of this sanctification surrender itself absolutely. And one of the failings resulting from this is the enthusiastic acceptance of religious severity (on the basis that ‘you can’t have too much of a good thing’). This leads to the weakening of vision, of investigation or evaluation. There must therefore come about a psychological freeing from this sanctification, else the Muslim mind will remain uncreative.

The standpoint on culture

The author is perhaps one of the rare Islamists who maintain a balanced view on the West as a culture. He concludes that the Muslim mind can only escape from its crisis if it understands contemporary culture through studying it in depth and adopting a positive standpoint towards it. For it is a world culture, not the culture of a particular people. The author goes on to astonish us when he states:

If we fail to understand western civilisation properly we cannot understand our own age properly, and if we fail to understand our own age we fail to understand our own faith with understanding that emanates from the mentality of our age, so we will not be able to make interpretations suitable to these conditions.

I do not think that anyone before him has said the like, or indeed any of those dazzled by contemporary civilisation, myself included! He then goes on to say:

The scholar Edward Lane: one of the distinguished elements of Orientalism

Whenever we take from the West and go beyond feelings of rejecting it, we must not stop at the physical sciences and its technologies, but as the balance of truth is within our hands, we must make every effort in the field of the humanistic sciences. This is what the majority of Islamists refuse to do. Yet if it was permitted for our forefathers to reject the West when the invasion was in force, or to adopt a standpoint of defensiveness since while felt besieged in their cultural strongholds, such a defensiveness is not right for us today. For we are perfectly able to present Islam in the very midst of the invaders.

The standpoint on imported thought

The author does not accept this expression and argues that

The truth of the matter is that we categorise thought according how far its content is constructive or destructive. Consider how much imported thought is good and how much indigenous thought is corrosive.

So is everything with us good and everything with others bad? And does not Islamic thought today constitute an ‘imported thought’ in the West?

What are we to take and what to leave from humanistic thought?

Some like to make a distinction between the physical sciences and the humanistic sciences, and hold that one should take from the former and leave the latter. But we should actually take from one and the other equally. The touchstone is the level of its scientificness.

That is, in humanistic sciences in general there is right guidance that has been produced by human genius and intelligent intellectual effort.

Westernisation and modernisation

We must distinguish between ‘intellectual attack’ and ‘cultural interaction’

Westernisation means the absolute acceptance of the culture of the West for good or for bad, whereas modernisation means making a considered choice for the best that is in the culture of the other. In doing so we preserve our identity as a nation with its own history and message, but at the standard of the present age. Why is there this negative relationship with the West? One of the negative aspects of confusing the invasion of imperialism with modern civilisation is the emergence of this narrow barrier between ourselves and humanistic thought, and the deepening of the mistaken understanding of the relationship between cultures. We must therefore make a distinction between what may be termed the ‘intellectual attack’ and ‘cultural interaction’.

The standpoint on Orientalism

The author presents a balanced view on Orientalism since in their study of Islamic sects its exponents were not biased towards a specific group. Even if there are some faults in Orientalism, there are many distinguished elements that demand that we draw benefit from it.

Space does not allow us to present the author’s conceptions on how to reform the Muslim mind. What is important is that we indicate that one of the most important of these conceptions is the strengthening in society of the place of ‘the scientific mentality.’ Along with this is the importance of standing among the ranks of reason and science against superstition and its hamstringing of the intellect. So too the importance of strengthening the culture of dialogue in society, for we will not be able to uncover our failings without a dialogue with those who differ with us. The author also insists on ‘renewal’ as a religious and cultural necessity and sees that it is this that constitutes ‘the absent obligation.’[4]

In my view this book is a powerful work of the mind that embraces the best of our culture and the finest intellectual features of contemporary civilisation. D. Muhammad ‘Ammāra[5] evaluated this work as:

one of the most important intellectual works written on the critique of the contemporary Muslim mind and its ways of thinking.


[1] See his article for Almuslih: A Manifesto for Reform.

[2] Antoine Zahlan writes: “Prince Henry the Navigator (of Portugal) (1394-1460) promoted the development of transoceanic ship design with a view of projecting Portuguese naval power in the Indian Ocean ... one of the many advantages of these transoceanic ships was their ability to carry 40 to 180 guns compared to Arab and Venetian ships that barely carried one. Venice joined forces with Egypt ... to fight the Portuguese naval invasion of the Gulf. Venice and Egypt lost the battle ... One would have expected that the Arab countries would have invented a suitable response: such as learning how to design transoceanic ships with which to fight the intrusion of the hostile western navies and/or to adapt their trading system to compete with the better capitalized western companies. Surprisingly none of these obvious measures were taken. Probably the reason for this poor response to these severe challenges was a decline in creativity. Very briefly, subsequent to the adoption of the Mamluk system of rule during the 9th century [AH], by the Caliph Al-Muʽtassim, the Arabs went into a state of decline, chaos and political surrealism.” (University Cooperation and Employment, paper submitted to the International Conference on ‘Human Capital and Employment in the European and Mediterranean Area’, Bologna, 2011, p.10).  (Ed.)

[3] ‘Abd al-Halīm Abū Shaqqa (ob. 1996) was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, on the more reformist wing, and author of a famous work تحرير المرأة في عصر الرسالة  (‘The liberation of Women in the Era of the Message’). His (incomplete) work on the Critique of the Muslim Mind was published posthumously. (Ed.)

[4] The author is alluding here to the term adopted by jihadists in their view that the waging of militant jihad is a religious obligation currently conspicuous by its absence. Its most celebrated proponent was Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salām Farag in his work  الجهاد: الفريضة الغائبة (‘Jihād, the Absent Obligation’). (Ed.)

[5] D. Muhammad ʽAmmāra is an Egyptian intellectual, a member of the Majmaʽ al-Buhūth al-Islāmiyya in Al-Azhar Universtiy, Cairo. He wrote an introduction to Abū Shaqqa’s study. (Ed.)