News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: bin-Laden: Luther of an Islamic Reformation?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

bin-Laden: Luther of an Islamic Reformation?

In a very penetrating and incisive review of Osama bin-Laden's speeches that have been printed in book form recently, Faisal Devji provides a glimmer of Islam's future. Devji makes the prescient observation that bin-Laden's brand of Islam is unique because it breaks up an Islam that has for the past thousand years presented a somewhat monolithic face.

What makes bin-Laden's speeches important is that he provides a space where Sunni and Shi'a understandings of Islam can find a common ground...

For Devji, bin-Laden's speeches show a fragmentation of the traditional institutional structure, theological assumptions, and religious alignments within Islam. This relates specifically to the split between Shi'ism, practised mostly in Iran, and Sunnism, practiced by the majority of Moslems.

Bin-Laden's speeches display an appreciation for Sufist and Shia concepts, says Devji. As such, bin-Laden shows himself as an eclectic in his theological assumptions. This theological eclecticism allows him to craft a message that speaks to Moslems from many different cultural backgrounds, something that in the past has contributed to the lack of a pan-Islamic message.

For Devji, bin-Laden's message represents a globalization of the Islamic religion in such a way that those Moslems who would not otherwise care about Moslems in other parts of the world actually find in the persecution and deaths of these others an echo of their own struggles.

In a world of media that provides a means to view violence on a mass scale and almost instantaneously, Moslems from countries where the political structures have failed or are failing will see in terrorist acts a model for their own religious sentiments and emulation.

The fragmentation and globalisation of Islam does more than send British citizens of Pakistani descent to blow themselves up in Israel, for such an act poses a problem much larger than itself.

Movements like al-Qaida represent our global interrelatedness by such acts, in which any one person can be related to any other through schemes of violence or virtue. Indeed these acts function like shadows of our global interrelatedness, which possesses as yet no political form of its own.

Osama bin Laden’s Islam represents this global predicament in the fragmentation of its own history, geography and doctrine. His war against the west represents the same global predicament by making possible a universal reciprocity of violence, which has replaced failed forms of freedom or democracy as the new currency of global equality.
I have noted elsewhere that bin-Laden represents a Luther-like gesture to the traditional interpretive structure and religious auhtority within the Islamic religious hierarchy. While it is true that Islam does not have priests or preachers, there is a traditional structure of education that those who run the mosques must undergo before they are recognized as entitled to interpret the Koran and to preach on it.

It is this traditional hierarchy and structure, as well as its thousand year-old method of interpreting the Koran, that bin-Laden has ostensibly threatened to topple. In publishing and propagating his own interpretation of what the Koran means, bin-Laden has taken on himself a role that, by the rules, he does not have the right to do.

Yet, in doing so he has shown Moslems without this education that they too can interpret the Koran for themselves and perhaps find a meaning in it that the official authorities do not espouse, by implication for politically motivated reasons.

A question that Devji does not pose nor undertake to answer is whether this nascent Islamic reformation can withstand the forces ranged against it. These forces are exactly those that in many ways make this reformation possible: the spread of mass media and secular dissolution of traditional lifestyles.

While it took the Enlightenment and Romanticism in the west to undermine and ultimately destroy Luther's call for a pure Christianity, the similar call to a pure form of Islam may find itself overwhlemed by a much more corrosive and deadly movement in the form of consumerism, global capitalism, and technology.

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