Bassam Tibi, Die Krise des modernen Islams: Eine vorindustrielle Kultur im wissenschaftlich-technischen Zeitalter (The Crisis of Modern Islam: A Pre-industrial Culture in the Age of Science and Technology) (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1980).

There is a time for all things, and this holds true in Middle Eastern studies as well. Nationalism, socialism, the military and development have all been dealt with. Now is the season for Islam — revived, militant and triumphant. Bassam Tibi wrote on all of these subjects at the right time; he started working on the present study in the spring of 1978. A Muslim of Syrian origin who studied sociology and political science in Frankfurt, Tibi’s aim here is to introduce modern Islam to non-specialist readers; to present an original, critical interpretation of Islam as a religious system; and to conceptualize the future of Islamic civilization (Kulturkreis). He situates the revitalization of Islam in the context of what he sees as a global conflict between a hegemonic Western industrial culture (he does not distinguish between culture, civilization and society), based on science and technology, and pre-industrial, non-Western subordinate cultures with little control over nature (Naturbeherrschung). He argues that the colonial imposition of European culture caused socioeconomic and cultural disintegration. The result, in Tibi’s view, is people with a “damaged identity,” exposed to imported norms and values but without the corresponding socioeconomic and political base. They reacted by revitalizing their authentic culture — in this case, one focused on Islam.

Tibi distinguishes three phases of (defensive) Islamic reaction to Western colonialism: first was the revitalization and mobilization of Islam in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; second, secularization of the Westernized elite; and finally, the recent “re-Islamicization” on the basis of “official” shari‘a Islam (as opposed to “popular Islam”).

Islam, according to Tibi, has to be analyzed dialectically, in its historical context. Founded by Muhammad as an Arab religion, it served as a mobilizing political ideology which led the previously un(der)organized Arab bedouin to a higher stage of cultural evolution, and eventually created a world civilization (Hochkultur). The Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, he continues, blocked the beginnings of societal differentiation and caused the Islamic world to stagnate for centuries. As a result, Islamic culture in its various forms turned apologetic, defensive and backward, hampered by narrow dogmatism and a lack of creativity which are the result of historical circumstance and not of any innate deficiency of Islam. But Islam — be it Arab, African, or Iranian — cannot solve the central problem of underdevelopment; only industrialization can do this. Tibi suggests that the process of active cultural assimilation which enriched Islamic civilization in the classical age could be repeated today by integrating the technological-scientific culture (which in Europe was accompanied by the enlightenment ideals of human rights, equality, democracy) without diffusing Islam’s essence. He calls for a “humanization of the Third World” in general and of the Islamic world in particular through industrialization and democratization. Selective, emancipatory Westernization is Tibi’s proposal to end Western dominance over the periphery. In his view this implies, first and foremost, secularization, a separation of the realms of the sacred and the political.

But how can Islam be secularized and “reduced” to a private faith without fundamentally changing its structure and cultural identity? Tibi does not clearly define basic terms such as “culture” (and “technical-scientific culture” in particular), “Islam” (faith and ethics, public and private, social organization, legal system, political ideology) or “secularization,” so this question is left unanswered. To add to the difficulties, Tibi’s argument does not unfold as systematically as this brief summary may suggest. Some chapters are not well integrated, and he has a tendency to invoke certain leitmotifs uncritically, such as “Islam as a pre-industrial culture” or “the correspondence of the sacred and the political.”

Most problematic is Tibi’s linear view of “development” (backward Islam versus advanced industrialized Europe). This is reflected in some remarkably unsubtle language: Pre-Islamic bedouin are primitive and lawless “parasites of the camel,” the Mongols are barbarians, the Muslim Brothers a fanatical sect, the Shi‘a are Islamic sectarians and all (German) Orientalists are incompetent, with the exception of a few younger colleagues, who at least try their best. He passes on some of the very prejudices for which “Orientalism” has been correctly criticized.

It is unfortunate that Tibi did not limit himself to the third part of his agenda, the future of Islamic culture, and elaborate further on his concepts of culture and secularization. This would have been a stimulating and courageous essay.

How to cite this article:

Gudrun Kramer "Tibi, Die Krise des modernen Islams," Middle East Report 130 (February 1985).
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