Islam and the West: Reflecting on Nicholson and Hamid’s Recent Conversation
Robert Nicholson and Shadi Hamid’s recent conversation in Providence brought into focus modern cross-cultural tensions between the West and the Muslim world. If the West is increasingly secular, why does the Muslim world remain fundamentally religious? Can and should democracy take root in the Middle East? And what opportunities exist for positive engagement among different religious communities?
Their conversation addresses these questions in a modern context, but it also contributes to debates that have been going on for centuries. Understanding that these debates do not take place in a vacuum, but rather owe a debt to the dead, is key to making progress for the living and those yet to be born. A good place to start on this question is a series of essays written by the late Princeton Middle East historian Bernard Lewis, entitled, appropriately enough, Islam and the West.
For 1,400 years, these two civilizations—which have affinities both with one another and with their Hellenistic, Middle Eastern, and Judaic predecessors—have been neighbors, rivals, and sometimes enemies. Lewis’ essays overview their encounters with, perceptions of, and responses to one another—all of which underpins much of Hamid and Nicholson’s conversation.
Hamid describes an “Islamic exceptionalism,” a notion which he addresses in a recent book. One tenet of Islamic exceptionalism is that “in both theory and practice [Islam] has proven resistant to secularization and privatization. In much of the Muslim-majority world, Islam continues to play an outsized role in politics and public life.” Why might this be?
In Islam and the West, Lewis details the account of Mirza Abu Talib Khan, a late eighteenth-century Indian Muslim, and his journeys to England and France. Khan was surprised that, unlike the Muslims, “the English…did not accept any divinely revealed holy law to guide them and regulate their lives in [civil and criminal] matters and were therefore reduced to the pitiable expedient of making their own laws ‘in accordance with the exigencies of the time, their own dispositions and the experience of their judges.’”
There is an essential difference between classical Islamic and Western views of the nature and scope of the state that lies at the heart of Khan’s tale.
Christian scripture tells believers to “render…unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s,” explicitly acknowledging a distinction between secular and divine sources of legal authority. There is no such explicit distinction in classical Islam. As Lewis explains, “law in all its details is divine not human, revealed not enacted, and therefore it cannot be repealed or abrogated, supplemented or amended. It deals equally…with what we would call public and private.” The sources of that law are the Holy Qur’an, which to Muslims is the verbatim word of God, and the example of the Prophet Muhammad.
It can be discomfiting to speak of these differences, especially, as Hamid notes, for those on the left and center-left who “tend to be quite secular themselves.” He explains that “talking about how Islam is different than Christianity can be perceived as ‘punching down.’” Perhaps it can imply a cultural chauvinism.
Hamid worries that this attitude has given rise to “anti-Muslim bigotry throughout Western democracies,” a not unreasonable feeling. Complemented by Lewis, that sentiment becomes even more interesting as one realizes what a modern reversal it is that Christendom could “punch down” to Islam.
As Lewis notes, “At first there seemed to be every reason why Islam should triumph, and Europe should succumb. Almost from the beginning, Islam was a world empire and a world civilization expanding over three continents, inhabited by many different races.” The Islamic world was united and burgeoning, shared a sense of community, abided by the rule of law, had a flourishing economy, and inherited the rich civilizational histories of Greece and Persia. Meanwhile, Christians lived in a Dark Age. Their world was “poor, small, backward, and monochromatic…split into squabbling, petty kingdoms, its churches divided by schism and heresy.”
Lewis vividly shows the divisions in Christendom and the Muslim world’s power by quoting a Lutheran prayer book from faraway Iceland. The book calls on parishioners to beseech God to save them both from the “evil designs of the Pope” and from the “terror of the Turk.”
That the Christian world could ever “punch down” to the Muslim world when people in remote Reykjavik feared its power would have been laughable up until the Reconquista at the earliest, and more likely not until the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683. In other words, for a thousand years after the Hijra and the start of the Islamic era in AD 622—for well over half of its history—the Muslim world was stronger and more civilized than the Christian world.
That has changed. Today, the West has surpassed the Muslim world, a fact implicit in Nicholson’s question to Hamid when he asks if there are “any positive indicators in recent years that should give [Americans] more confidence that democracy will take root in the Middle East.” Hamid acknowledges American skepticism on the matter.
But an interesting follow-up to their conversation might take a longer view than “recent years.” For instance, Lewis recounts how in 1786 the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire compared the two governments: “Things here [in Istanbul] are not as they are in France, where the King is sole master; here it is necessary to persuade the ulema, the men of law, the holders of high office, and those who no longer hold them.”
Ironically, this same French king in whose authority the ambassador was so confident would soon be executed in an event that would, after a time, usher in a more democratic and liberal order in Europe. Nonetheless, the ambassador’s statement does indicate that, at one time, the Islamic world was less authoritarian than the West.
Islam has a rich history of the type of consultation that the ambassador described. Is there a democratic strain in that history even if, as Hamid says, “there may be a tension between Islam and liberalism?”
Hamid closes the conversation with Nicholson by declaring that “the room is ripe for a serious, theologically grounded Christian-Muslim engagement, not just the nice fluffy ‘interfaith’ kind we so often make do with.”
Figures like Lewis, a Jew, are essential to that engagement. When the Muslim Brotherhood was translating Lewis’ work into Arabic, the translator wrote in his preface, “I don’t know who this person is, but one thing is clear. He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy.”
The conversation that Hamid hopes for will need both.
Wilson Shirley is a public policy professional based in Washington, DC.