Beyond the Rupture: Reconciling Islam with Modernity

George Tarabishi

The Sons of Rifaa: Islamists and Modernists

(Les Enfents de Rifaa: Muslumans et Moderns)
By Guy Sorman
Fayard, Paris, 2003, 370 pp.

The title of this book conveys only half of its contents. Addressing the collective hysteria which plagued some Western culture and media groups in the wake of September 11, Guy Sorman, author of “The Sons of Rifaa,” reminds Westerners that not all Muslims are Islamists, and that bin Laden is only one side of the Islamic coin. 
Besides the fundamentally rigid and violent political Islam, there is another Islam, one which is more enlightened, more modern. The history of this less-known side of Islam begins with Al Azhar Sheikh Rifaa al-Tahtawi, who headed the first Egyptian mission to study the secrets of Western development and, upon returning from his journey to France, wrote “Tahriz al Ibriz fe Paris” (Salvaging the Gold Lies in Summarizing Paris). Al-Tahtawi has entered history as the first advocate of the modernization of Islam because of his openness – technologically, at least – to Western science and culture.
However, Guy Sorman, one of the most prominent French intellectuals, found that recounting the story of “The Sons of Rifaa” was not enough. He also felt obliged, in the wake of 9/11, to explore “The Sons of Sayyid,” Sayyid Qutub, who lived and wrote more than 100 years after Rifaa, led the theoretical coup from Renaissance to Retreat. He is remembered as a first advocate and perhaps the most influential proponent of the ideology that calls for a rupture with the West and the re-Islamization of Islam by purifying it of the stain of Western culture.
Thus, the author of “The Sons of Rifaa” begins his book, not by talking of the Parisian journey of Rifaa al-Tahtawi, but with Sayyid Qutub’s journey to New York. This journey provided the theoretical basis for the operation which bin Laden planned half a century later.
In 1948, a young teacher came to New York to complete his studies, and unlike Rifaa, who fell in love with Paris, Sayyid was filled only with hatred and loathing of New York. The teacher realized with considerable intuition that New York had become the economic, political, and cultural capital of Western civilization. He became convinced (as we know from his political memoirs which he edited in prison) that the future of Western civilization was being built in that city, at that time the largest city in the world. To Sayyid, everything about New York was the very negation of Islam: individualism in contrast to the solidarity of “the nation”; materialism as opposed to Muslims’ religious belief and their acceptance of metaphysics; women’s liberation, interpreted as looseness or lewdness, rather than the modesty of homemakers, veiled in the street.
In addition to these observations, Sayyid Qutub had suffered racism while in New York, which was difficult for him to understand in light of the universality of Islam. Thus, all this led Sayyid Qutub to a particular conviction: New York ought to be erased from the map of the world. Nothing except Islam is capable of salvaging humanity from this “hell on earth” called New York and rescuing it from the moral decadence running rampant in America. Until the salvation of humanity was written, there would be no other alternative but for a new generation of Muslims to see the light and launch a new jihad, a war, which would liberate the capital of modern polytheism the way early Muslims had liberated Mecca. In a holy war, such as this, violence would be justified, even if it is hated, for violence is the starburst of a new man and a new humanity.
Sayyid Qutub befell a violent execution under the Nasserite regime in Egypt, and thus his end gave his discourse and vision a holy nature. What has been condemned in the West as “terrorism” is not terrorism to Qutub’s students and those who continued his battle, among them bin Laden. These acts of violence are the tax that humanity must pay to buy its salvation and to enter the age of universal Islam – Islam’s victory and transformation into a universal religion for all humanity.
Thus, Islamic fundamentalism, with its theories drawing on those of Sayyid Qutub, is not a classical religious ideology. Instead, it is a modern ideology born of conflict with Western modernity. It is a modern ideology in that it allows for the use of Western science, communication, and destructive weapons. It is a modern ideology insofar as it seeks to lead Muslims toward an alternative future. This alternative future has turned its back on the morals of the West and its perceived materialist philosophy, and does not rely on the critical methods upon which Western science was established.
In fact, Islamic fundamentalism, like any religious ideology, ignores the principle of rational criticism. Even though it practices criticism, it always refers to the other and never examines itself. Approaching the world from this perspective, Islamic fundamentalism –nourished by the failures of modern nationalist and leftist movements in the modern Arab world – does not recognize the failure of experiments carried out in its own name in Sudan, Iran, and Afghanistan. These failures of Islamic ideology remain, in the view of the fundamentalist, an application failure only, and not a reflection on the theory itself. At any rate, fundamentalists always find a rationalization. For example, even though Islamic ideology failed in Sudan, it is believed to be because the country was very poor and the victim of a civil war. It did not succeed in Iran, despite its oil wealth, because Iran is a Shiite country and has relied on “religious institutionalization” and the Ayatollah, which, as a hierarchical structure, has no presence in Sunni Islam. In Afghanistan, the experiment did not fail, but collapsed as a result of external aggression.
Fortunately, as Guy Sorman demonstrates, the logic of “The Sons of Sayyid Qutub” is challenged and refuted by the logic of “The Sons of Rifaa al-Tahtawi.” 
Cooperation between Islam and Western development is possible through positive cultural means, without violence. Nothing in the Quran – if it is interpreted in the context of modern times – would prevent the Islamic world from modernizing and developing the same way the Christian world has done. But the prerequisite for such development is an openness to advanced cultures, not neurotic ruptures with them. This is the essence of the “Arab Renaissance” which began in Egypt with Sheikh Rifaa al-Tahtawi and his students. 
Despite the repression by the absolutist and military Arab regimes of the renaissance project which began in the 1950s, and despite the ascendancy of the stars of “The Sons of Sayyid” starting in the 1970s, the “The Sons of Rifaa” have not ceased to exist. They still exist as individuals, groups, and ideas in all countries of the Islamic and Arab world. Guy Sorman has met some of them during his many journeys to Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Palestine, Turkey, Iran, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and has given them a forum to say, each in his own way and based on his own experiences, that the reconciliation between modernity and Islam remains possible and is much needed, even though word of the “Clash of Civilizations” barks loudly these days from the speakers of fundamentalists of all shapes and sects.

Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala.

This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 46.

Translation Copyright © by Al Jadid (2004)

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