As a humanitarian worker who was professionally involved for decades in crisis- and war-shaken countries, the author strove to understand the political, socioeconomic, and cultural factors contributing to conflicts. This contextualization, with a focus on Arab countries, confirmed what other thinkers found: the majority of political, economic, social, cultural, religious, and finally humanitarian crises in the Arab world are man-made and can be attributed to both extrinsic and intrinsic factors. Central to the latter appears to be a shared cultural construct that can be termed “Arab reason.” This essay tries to present information on various aspects of the crisis; to understand why reform efforts come so late and why are they are more difficult for Arabs than for other Muslims. It continues by looking at the knowledge systems that govern Arab reason and their evolution, including the decisive role of the religious knowledge system. From there, it proposes some reform ideas including a renewed legal reasoning process with the goal of a future-oriented, knowledge-based, and inclusive Arab Islamic vision. A pragmatic way forward could be an additional unifying eighth legal school (madhhab/madhāhib) to counter sectarian conflicts and violence. This essay is built on a targeted literature search and is not a comprehensive review of the growing literature generated by distinguished thinkers on various aspects of Arab Islamic identity.

INTRODUCTION

The humanitarian and socioeconomic-political conditions of the Arab world were rarely as dire in past history as they are today. War and destruction are ongoing in several countries. Regional tension and instability are not only impeding development, but are “de-developing” some countries and threatening the stability and security of others.

External crisis factors are undoubtedly instrumental in the creation, continuation, and escalation of this calamity. These crisis factors date far back in history and include, inter alia, division and colonization of the Arab countries by European colonial powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, resulting in new borders with no cultural or ethnic justification. The escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now reaching into its second century, continues to fuel the anti-West resentment in the region. Recent US-led policies and interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen further aggravate this crisis.

However, these external crisis factors cannot be made solely responsible. Rigidity and weakness of Arab reasoning, as a result of centuries of ideological stagnation are also critical. They reduced the ability of Arab countries to overcome their predicaments and generated a plethora of conflicting ideologies and visions, further resulting in chaos and retreat.

Chaos can be seen in the bizarre and patchy applications of diverse local and global concepts and political ideologies from far left to far right. In countries where al-Baʿth and pan-Arab parties ruled for decades, the “socialist” systems evolved into nation-states that shifted to neoliberal systems. Absolute and constitutional monarchies, some applying rigid Shariʿa legal rules, also tried a spectrum of systems, and are recently considering changing to “secular governance in the coming decade” (al-Otaiba 2017).

Retreat can be seen in how Arab countries assume their responsibilities towards their population, towards each other, and towards their region. Since the 1950s, competition over leadership in the Arab world has been accompanied by conflicts between Arabism and Islamism. The decline of pan-Arabism accelerated the rise of political Islam across the region and triggered decades of retreat into nation-state models. This regression weakened solidarity between wealthy and poor Arab countries, and left the Palestinians without support. Withdrawal into nation-states, however, has not brought these states security, stability, and prosperity. On the contrary, sectarian, ethnic, and clan divisions threaten their very existence. The Arab Spring in 2010 ended with civil wars and contributed to even more fragmentation in the region.

THE DILEMMA OF ARAB REASON

Formation and Composition of Arab Knowledge Systems

As the failing and conflicting sociopolitical experiments described above are not exceptions but rather the rule in most of the Arab region over decades, their causes must be lie in a shared vision: Arab reason.

One of the outstanding Arab thinkers in this field, Mohammed Abed al-Jabri (1935–2010), analyzed the formation of Arab reason (al-Jabri 2017a) in its knowledge system (al-Jabri 2017b). He identified three cognition systems (nizām maʿrifī) forming Arab reason: the language-religious system (al-bayān) (2017b, 14, 22), the cognitive-mystical and hermeneutic system (al-ʿirfān) (2017b, 251, 257) and the rational-scientific system (al-burhān) (2017b, 384). A later trend to integrate these three systems resulted in fragmented subsystems that continue to control Arab reason to-date (al-Jabri 2017b, 558).

Arab culture is a culture based on fiqh (jurisprudence) (2017a, 96) and fiqh is the center of the language-religious knowledge system (al-bayān). Imam al-Shāfiʿī (766–820 CE) is the main founder of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence, limiting their sources to four: the holy Qurʾān, Sunna, consensus (al-ʾijmaʿ), and analogous reasoning (al-qiyās) (al-Jabri 2017a, 113).

The formation, structure, limitations, and early stagnation of Arab reason are elements of a process that started and concluded during the Documentation Era (ʿasr al-tadwīn) between the eighth and tenth centuries CE. This era remains the reference point for Arab reason (al Jabri 2017a, 56–71). Other key elements of Arab culture like language, sciences, and arts, in turn, witnessed various degrees of stagnation at later stages.

Cessation of Major Legal Reasoning (ʾIjtihād)

For developing legal schools, rigid jurisprudence tools and processes were established, and were probably necessary at that time to enforce discipline and prevent the chaos of ʾijtihād. The Documentation Era was followed and replaced by an Era of Imitation or Copy (ʿasr al-taqlīd). All seven main Islamic legal schools (four main Sunni and three main Shi’a schools) were generated during the Documentation Era and none have been formed since the tenth century.

Textbox 1:

Major Sunni ʾijtihād ended after the four scholars who founded the legal schools.

  • The four Sunni imams (scholars)—Abu Hanifa (699–765 CE), Malik (714–796 CE), al-Shafīʿī (766–820 CE), and Ibn Hanbal (780–855 CE)—laid the fundaments of the main Sunni legal schools.

  • No generation of new legal schools has formed since 855 CE. Succeeding scholars have used the same jurisprudence methods and sources and confirmed the finding of their predecessors. The Sunni Muslims and scholars (ʾulamaʿ) continue to depend on this theological-intellectual heritage today.

Textbox 2:

Major Shīʿa ʾijtihād ended after the scholars who founded the legal schools.

  • Shīʿa scholars rely on the reasoning and guidance of a chain of “infallible” imams, direct descendants of Imam ʿAlī Ibn Abī Tālib, in addition to holy texts. The chain ended in 941 CE with the “major occultation” of Imam Muhammad b’al-Hasan al-Mahdī, the twelfth imam (al-ghayba al-kubrā). Since then Shiite believers have been waiting for his return.

  • The main Shīʿa legal school is the Jaʿfarīya, derived from the sixth imam, Jaʿfar ibn Muhammad as-Sādiq (700/702–756 CE). No generation of new legal schools has formed thereafter. Shīʿa Muslims and scholars use interpretation methods confirming the findings of their predecessor.

A Rigid and Divided Reasoning System

The need to elaborate on sanctions relating to belief, deeds, and ethics/morals resulted in an obligatory path of faith and labeling of believers. This “automatism” precipitated religious thinking from belief (al-ʿaqīda) directly to existing legal schools (madhāhib), automatically giving it a sectarian (Sunni/Shīʿa tāyfa) label (figure 1). Furthermore, believers are born with these labels.

Figure 1.

The one-way route of faith from belief to exclusive authority of legal schools.

Figure 1.

The one-way route of faith from belief to exclusive authority of legal schools.

Stagnation of Scientific Movement and Innovations

While nonreligious fields such as medicine, engineering, astrology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics remained dynamic for a longer period (also during the golden centuries in Andalusia), these might have faced the same barriers at a later point in history. These barriers were likely sociopolitical and economic in nature. However, jurisprudence rigidity might have penetrated to non-religious sciences through the gate of philosophy. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the scholars of the Arab Islamic civilization were polymaths (hakīm/hukamāʿ), that is, religious scholars and scientists at the same time. Although Islamic texts clearly encourage thinking and appreciate seeking for science and knowledge, those polymath scientists who worked in the same period of time in the same centers might have been obliged (also by their belief) to respect perceived thinking limitations on scientific research and innovation.

WHY IS REFORM SO CRITICAL?

Failed Development and Fragile States

The UN Arab Development Report 2013 (ESCWA 2013) and other sources (e.g., Arbaoui 2015) posit that the Arab region has made significant progress towards some Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At the same time, the region lags behind on some other important targets, particularly those related to hunger, food insecurity, lack of access to water, lack of improved sanitation in rural areas, and child and maternal mortality. Moreover Arab countries face an important unemployment crisis (Achy 2014) with youth unemployment being double the global unemployment rate of about 12 percent, and 43.4 percent female unemployment.

Seventy years of massive wealth generated by oil exports failed to establish a joined economy and a reasonable degree of development and stability. On the contrary, “the Arab oil states represent an example par excellence of ‘rentier states’ where oil revenues represent more than 90% of budget revenues and 95% or more of exports. The whole Arab world has various undertones of rentier mentalities where reward becomes accidental and not the end result of a long, systematic and organised production circuit” (Beblawi 1987, 383–98).

Without oil exports, the entire region of over four hundred million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland (Klein 2011) and imports more than 50 percent of the daily caloric intake of its population (IFPRI 2015). In many Arab countries access to basic social services like education and health is limited due to a lack of resources, chronic mismanagement, and violent conflicts. More than 12.3 million children were out of schools in the Middle East and North African region in 2015 (UNICEF 2015).

Together, the twenty-two Arab countries produce a total of around fifteen thousand scientific publications per year, identical to Romania alone (Mahroum 2016). The fifty-seven Islamic states (including Arab countries), reported 1.4 percent of all invention patents and 6 percent of scientific publications worldwide in 2012 (Osama and Guessoum 2016). Only twelve universities in OIC states were among the world’s best four hundred universities and none were among the top one hundred (Abdul Basit 2012, 180). Out of ninety medical colleges in the Arab world, only five teach in Arabic (al-Farian 2011). The Arab reading index varies from less than ten hours to over sixty hours a year (UNDP 2017, 16).

Possible Individual and Collective Ethical Identity Factors of the Current Crisis within Countries: The Arab Ethical Reason

According to al-Jabri, Arab ethical reason (al-ʿaql al-ʿakhlāqī al-ʿarabī) has tapped on several heritages for its formation since the Documentation Era. These are: “chivalry” from the Arabic heritage (al-Jabri 2016, 506, 511); “devotion” (al-taqwa) (al-Jabri 2016, 523–24, 294) and “good deeds” (al-ʿamal al-sālih) from the Islamic heritage; “self-annihilation” (al-fanāʿ) from the Sufi heritage, evolving from Greek (al-Jabri 2016, 430), Persian (al-Jabri 2016, 438) and Sunni (2016, 439) sources; “severance” from the Persian heritage (al-Jabri 2016, 140–42, 145, 150, 171–73); and “happiness” from the Greek heritage (al-Jabri 2016, 271, 279). Despite being recent, the globalized digital revolution and consumerism have also changed the sources of happiness from the Greek heritage to the “western US-dominated heritage,” breaking all cultural exchange barriers in the Arab world and globally. Some cultures may be better positioned to face (and use) globalization than the Arab one (Belgziz 2017).

While the minority Arab elite can study abroad or in islands of quality education, poverty, oppression, and weakness of public educational systems limit the access of millions of Arabs to knowledge and to the cultural and ethical heritages mentioned above, severely constraining their view of the surrounding world. Other thinkers attribute cultural collapse to radical imbalance in the abstraction/concreteness dynamics characterizing Arab reason (Abdennur 2017, 324–26) in favor of narrow utilitarian-opportunistic concreteness.

Failed Region: Collapse of Bilateral and Multilateral Political Cooperation Initiatives

The failure of state building in the Arab world has been accompanied by an equally dramatic failure of regional and subregional cooperation initiatives. Because of lack of solidarity, the Arab region continues to encompass some of the richest and poorest countries in the world. The per capita GDP in 2002 ranged from an estimated high of US$ 37,600 for Qatar to a low of US$ 930 for Yemen (Abed/Davoodi 2003, box 1).

During the second half of the twentieth century, several bilateral/multilateral unification attempts failed. A number of subregional cooperation initiatives were supposed to foster collaboration. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was founded in 1981, and the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC) and Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) were both founded in 1989.

The ACC ceased to exist seventeen months after its establishment, following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 2, 1990. The AMU was paralyzed by the dispute between Algeria and Morocco over western Sahara and the last AMU summit was held in 2008.

Sanctions imposed against Qatar by three GCC-countries since June 5, 2017 are the herald of the collapse of, or perhaps the coup de grâce to the GCC, the last functioning Arab regional cooperation initiative.

In 2008, inter-Arab trade totaled around 10 percent of total Arab trade (Hussein 2011). Between 68 and 85 percent of Arab trade is conducted with non-Middle Eastern countries, many with former colonial powers, suggesting neocolonial relationships (Kibaroglu and Karim 2015). Within most of these countries, an additional dramatic urban-rural divide of wealth and access to health and education prevails.

Though many appear on the list of the thirty most militarized countries in the world, many countries in the region are among most insecure worldwide (Mutschler 2017, 8). Military expenditures have not translated to security.

Possible Roots of the Current Political Regional Crisis: A Glance inside Arab Political Reason

Considering the building blocks of Arab political reason (al-ʿaql al-siyāsī al-ʿarabī), al-Jabri defined three systems, which have been established during the Documentation Era and are still valid in the contemporary Arab political reason. These three Arab political reason systems are: al-ʿaqīda (faith/believe) (al-Jabri 2017c: 50, 71), al-qabīla (clan affiliation) (al-Jabri 2017c: 79, 82, 84–93), and al-ghanīma (economic motivation) (al-Jabri 2017c: 100, 104, 113).

Taking into consideration visions and political experiments at both state and opposition levels, one can regard modern Arab unity movements (pan-Arabism) as trying to combine and expand the definition of clan affiliations (al-qabīla) with Islamic belief (al-ʿaqīda) and culture, in order to reunite the entire Arab world (al-ʾumma al-ʿarabiya). However, prevailing Arab identity and political crises suggest the dominance of lower-level clan affiliations (including nepotism and patriarchy) and narrow economic interest over Arab unity and Islamic solidarity. This concept yields to system-wide corruption in all aspects of political life. Once again, this identity and moral decline towards concrete short-term (here and now) opportunistic political gains can be seen as result of the balance shift within the abstraction-concreteness dynamics characterizing Arab reason (Abdennur 2017, 314–16).

Arab Refugees and IDPs Flooding the Region and Europe

The 4.9 million Syrian refugees make up 30 percent of refugees globally. The MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) hosts 18 percent of the world’s refugees. Over five million Palestinian refugees have been assisted by UNRWA in recent decades (UNRWA 2017). In addition to refugees, there are roughly 16.4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the MENA region accounting for roughly 40 percent of all internal displacements due to conflict and violence worldwide (IOM 2016).

This massive influx of Arab refugees into Europe is changing the composition of its population. It is also facilitating the rise of populist parties (Bröning 2016) and tendencies, and heating the discussions about national identity and the role of “Leitkulturen” (de Maizière 2017) in societies with otherwise growing multicultural landscapes.

Terrorism

Following the 9/11 al-Qaʿida-attacks in New York and Washington, the US and allies invaded Afghanistan 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Since that date, tens of thousands have died in terror attacks and the majority of victims are Muslims in Arab countries (MacAskill 2014). Recently, there has been a rise of terrorist attacks in several European capitals (Forster 2017). Currently most terrorist attacks are attributed to ISIL/Daʿesh, which has evolved as a metamorphosis of al-Qāʿida. Daʿesh has expanded beyond Iraq and the Levant (where it is now collapsing) to Sinai/Egypt (le Bras 2017); and in Derna and Sert (Libya) through direct infiltration or through bayʿa, the oath of allegiance. Daʿesh in Sinai was originally Ansār Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), which had pledged the oath of allegiance to ISIL in 2013 and adopted the name Sinai Province (Wilāyat Sīnāʿ). Individual bayʿa may have been the way ISIL reached areas as distant as the Philippines (Liljas 2016).

WHY IS REFORM ESPECIALLY DIFFICULT FOR ARABS?

Arabs are more burdened and especially challenged by reform that touches the religious source of their identity. Non-Arab Muslim nations existed independently before Islam and Islam just gave them another cultural layer. For Arabs, Islam is their primary identity-maker.

Between 622 and 750 CE, the new religion Islam radically changed the life of dispersed and fighting Arab clans in the Arabian Peninsula. From that time, Arabs had a uniting mission to spread religion, and common spoken and written language, a state and the beginning of a great civilization. In essence, the Arab nation is a gift of Islam!

The League of Arab States (LAS) defines an Arab as “one who, considering him/herself a member of the Arab Nation, shares a common heritage, language and culture with the people of that nation” (League of Arab States 2017). Arabic is therefore a cultural (not racial or religious) identity created by common language, history, and culture. Arabs are not only Muslims but also Christians and Jews. Arabs represent less than 25 percent of Muslims worldwide.

Islam-Accelerated Development and the Maturing of the Arab Language (Figure 2)

Pre-Islamic Arab clans used various forms and accents of spoken Arabic language, beginning many centuries BC. Because this spoken language was not fully comprehensible between these clans, they used the Hijaz-Quraysh language for their communication, especially when coming to Mecca for worshipping their “gods,” located in the Kaʿba, exchanging goods, news, and reciting poems in Ukadh, the marketplace in Mecca.

Figure 2.

The role of Islam in the genesis, maturation, and spread of the Arabic language. Figure made using information from (Jawad 1993, 624–70) and (Hoyland 2001, 198–203).

Figure 2.

The role of Islam in the genesis, maturation, and spread of the Arabic language. Figure made using information from (Jawad 1993, 624–70) and (Hoyland 2001, 198–203).

The first Arabic script was found in Tamar in Syria and dates to 328 CE, almost three hundred years before Islam. Modern Arabic script evolved from the northern Nabataenan script. The high Arab language (al-fushā) and Arab language sciences we know today emerged under the pressure created by the Islamic religion and state expansion during the seventh and eighth centuries.

The Birth of Arab-Muslim History and Military Power

Unlike the glorious pre-Arab civilizations in the Middle East and North Africa (Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Phoenician, Carthaginian, etc.), the pre-Islamic Arab history reports only a small battle in southern Iraq against the Sassanid in Dhi Qar (probably some time between 604 and 611 CE).

The rise of Islam is associated with a long list of military victories against superpowers of that time. The names of military leaders and figures including Khalid Ibn al-Walid (Palestine and Syria), Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas (Persia), Amr Ibn al-As (Egypt), Mousa Ibn Nasir and Ukba bin Nafe (North Africa), Mohammed Ibn al-Qasim (Sindh), Qutayba ibn Muslim (Transoxania), and many others remain vivid in the collective memory of contemporary Arabs.

Many outstanding military leaders also came from non-Arab backgrounds. Examples are Tariq Ibn Ziad (a Berber), Salah al-Din al-Ayyoubi-Saladin (a Kurd), and the Fatimide military leader Gawhar al-Siqilli (a Greek born in Sicily).

Formation of an Arab “Homeland”: The Arab World

Before Islam, “ethnic Arabs” were living in the Arab peninsula. At the time of the death of the Prophet in 632 CE, the “State of Medina” covered the west and south of the peninsula.

In the next 120 years, the state expanded to an area of over 11 million square kilometers in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The new religion was the guarantee of unity and continuity of this empire. Islam gave the Arabs the space that became the “Arab world”.

The Rise of an Arab Islamic Culture

Apart from an outstanding culture of poetry long before Islam, the pre-Islamic Arab culture was that of nomadic Bedouin life. The Arab Muslim conquests (al-futūh, openings) in the seventh century destroyed the longstanding Persian-Byzantine barriers in the Levant/Iraq. This unification established a cultural melting pot for ancient civilizations like the Persian, Greek, Indian, Copt, Berber, and Chinese cultures, giving them common places, like the House of Wisdom (dār al-hikma) in Baghdad, and a common language, Arabic (Lunde 1982, 6–13). Probably after the Arab-Chinese battle of Talas/Kirgizstan in 751 CE (Putz 2016), the Arabs learned the Chinese invention of making paper. This knowledge was put into practice and contributed to the proliferation of libraries and bookshops across the state and beyond.

The same period witnessed the development of basic social institutions to a very high level—hospitals, universities, et cetera. Many Muslim polymaths are remembered as pioneers in certain sciences like al-Kindī (Alkindus, 801–873 CE), Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (Razes, 865–925 CE), al-Fārābī (Alpharabius, 872–951 CE), the famous physician Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, 980–1037 CE), and many others. The most prominent philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126–1198 CE), who lived between Cordoba and Marrakesh, is possibly the best known in the West.

Calligraphy, architecture, poetry, storytelling, story writing, and music flourished across the Arab Islamic empire. The perceived prohibition of painting and sculpture in Islam may be the cause of the striking absence of statues and pictures in the Islamic (especially Arabic) culture compared to other civilizations and to pre-Arabic cultures.

A MILLENNIUM OF HIBERNATION

The standstill since the tenth century is depicted by some scholars as a sign of the resilience and perfection of the legal schools. Among the striking theological-political structures put in place during foundational centuries of Islam is the Islamic Caliphate, which continued to exist for nearly thirteen hundred years, from 632 CE to 1924, with an interruption of three years (1258–1261 CE) (see figure 3).

Figure 3.

The history of the Islamic Caliphate. Illustration built on information from Pay 2015 (107) and other sources.

Figure 3.

The history of the Islamic Caliphate. Illustration built on information from Pay 2015 (107) and other sources.

The Caliphate (and caliphs) worked as a religious/political umbrella. It ensured the perception of the continuity of both the rightful religion and the political unity of the Islamic-Arab world. This perception might have reduced urgency for reforms and delayed the reform process for centuries.

What supports this hypothesis is the proliferation of initiatives to revive the Caliphate after its annulation in 1924, on one side, and the subsequent rise of reform movement among Arab and Islamic scholars on the other side.

Four years after the abolition of the caliphate, the Muslim Brotherhood movement was created, calling for resumption of the caliphate. Between 1924 and 1945, some rulers attempted to revive and reclaim the caliphate, including rulers in al-Ḥijāz, Saudi Arabia in 1924 and in Egypt 1926 and 1936 (David 2014).

The year 1945 witnessed the establishment of the League of Arab States (LAS). The official (governmental) discussions around the caliphate came to an end, though they continued within popular political Islam. As a symbolic umbrella, the LAS might have replaced the caliphate.

REFORM CURRENTS AND A POSSIBLE WAY FORWARD

Reform Currents in the Arab World

Historically, the discourse between Islamic conservative Ashʿarites and liberal Muʿtazilites started early in Islamic history. The main Ashʿarite figures are Imam Abū l-asan Alī ibn Ismāʿīl al-Ašʿarī and Imam Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī. One of the most important Muʿtazilite figures is Ibn Rushd (Averroes). This discourse peaked in decades of long, passionate, public discussions between the leader of Ashʿarites, at that time Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī (1058–1111 CE), against Avicenna and al-Fārābi (Alpharabius). A decade later, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) resumed the discourse. Since then, conservative currents have prevailed.

During the contacts with European colonialism beginning in the nineteenth century, initial reactions were admiration and desire to imitate. Over time this changed gradually to a mixture of envy and mistrust that increased with escalating European incursions in the Arab world. The most prominent reformers were Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1839–1897 CE), Muhammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905 CE), Muḥammad Rashīd Ridhā (1865–1935 CE). Many others followed.

The cultural-political challenge also triggered the formation of political currents and organizations across the Arab region, with an ongoing impact. These include the pan-Arab movements, the liberal currents (localized to nation-states), the Marxists, and political Islam.

Within political Islam, the strongest among all currents, there are four main forms currently dominating the discourse:

  • State-Controlled Islam

    In most of the fifty-seven Islamic countries, a religious advisor (mufti), supported by an advisory institution, Dār al-Fatwa or Dār al-ʾIftāʿ, officially advises and guides the government and people of that country by issuing fatāwā (legal rulings; singular: fatwā).

    Ministries of endowments and Islamic affairs (wizārāt al-ʾawqāf wa al-shuʾūn al- dīnīya) usually manage and control the majority of each country’s mosques. There are over 3.5 million mosques worldwide: approximately one mosque per five hundred Muslim individuals (al-Sayyid 2015). Applying this rate for four hundred million Arabs translates into eight hundred thousand mosques in the Arab world. State muftis mostly preach a conservative (Ashʿarīya) approach to Islam.

  • Conservative Islamic Currents

    Conservative Islam is currently the most powerful popular form of political Islam and some changes in its vision appear more relevant than others. Following the theological interpretation as it has been largely established in the tenth century, Islamist popular movements present themselves as enlightening revolutionary Islamic projects, opposing both conservative institutions and state-geared Islam on one side and enlightenment projects of liberal, leftist, and secular thinkers and organizations on the other.

    One indicator of potential reforms is the question of an Islamic constitution that could also be compatible with modernity (al-Utaibi 2013). Examples are the draft constitution of Hizb al-Tahrīr in 1957, which has been updated (Hizb al-Tahrīr 2014), and most importantly, that of al-Azhar delivered in 1977 (al-Azhar 2011). Other draft Islamic constitutions are that of Jamaa Islami in Pakistan in the 1950s and the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (al-Wahda al-Islamiya 2012).

    Signals of change also include reflections on personal freedoms and human rights. For example, Hassan al-Turabi (1932–2016), a controversial ideological hardliner, raised the possibility of a Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim (Christian or Jewish) man and of the right of women to lead prayers as imāma (Nasr al-Din 2016). He also suggested limiting punishment for alcohol consumption to those who show aggressive behavior (Muhammad 2016).

  • Liberal Islam

    Among the first liberal Muslims and pioneer reformers in modern times are Rifaʿa al-Tahtāwi, Taha Hussein, Abbas el-Akkad, Abdel Hamid bin Badis, and Allal al-Fassi, followed by Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, Fahmi Jadaan, Abdullah Belgziz, and Abdulla al Aroui. Conservative currents consider some other liberal Muslims as being secular (al-ʿilmāniyyūn), sometimes branding them as apostates.

    Despite current criticism, the AKP Turkish Islam provides a liberal and comprehensive Islam interpretation. This Islamic program is missing among most political-Islam organizations in the Arab world, whose slogan “Islam is the solution,” remains empty of any written “worldly” programs.

  • The Islamic Left

    The Islamic Left (Khalil 2011) was inspired and motivated by the need to reconcile various socialist experiments in some Arab countries, especially Egypt, and by the Christian Left movement, that is, Liberation Theology (Cline 2017). The leader of this stream in the last decades is Hassan Hanafi, who calls for liberation, freedom, and wealth sharing as parts of the Arab unity concept (Hanafi and al-Jabri 1999, 11–14). Social justice prevails in the writings of Muslim thinkers like Mohammed Amara (Amara 2015). Strong social components can even be found in Sayyid Qutb’s writings like “Social Justice in Islam” and “Islam’s Battle with Capitalism.”

A Possible Way Forward: Renewed Legal Reasoning (ʾIjtihād)

As stated before, the Islamic belief complex is the most shared, historically continuous, and geographically omnipresent denominator of Arab reason (see figure 4).

Figure 4.

Representation of Islam in various blocs of Arab reason. Figure compiled using headings from al-Jabri (2016, 2017b, 2017c).

Figure 4.

Representation of Islam in various blocs of Arab reason. Figure compiled using headings from al-Jabri (2016, 2017b, 2017c).

Once initiated, it is hoped that the renewed reasoning process will reduce ongoing sectarian tensions, and even that it will finish by generating a new, uniting legal school and the generic outlines of an Islamic governance program (figure 7). A renewed legal reasoning could capitalize on centers, a group of distinguished scholars and thinkers, rich historical and contemporary thinking, and reasoning assets.

The Main Reasoning Actors

  • The main reasoning actors are Islamic reference centers that possess both technical capacities and religious authorities. They could undertake the entire reasoning, or delegating it to other centers. These reference centers could be al-Azhar in Cairo, al-Zaytūna in Tunisia, al-Qarawīyīn in Morocco, and Najaf in Iraq. Al-Azhar is best situated to initiate and coordinate this multicentric reasoning process.

    Most importantly, religious scholars should be supported, guided, and mentored by groups of experts in all aspects of modern life including Islamic scientists, Arab language experts, politicians, economists, engineers, experts in agriculture and the environment, industry, tourism, trade, fiscal and banking affairs, IT, media and information specialists, historians, philosophers, sociologists, and gender and ethics advisors. Such a gathering should recall the “House of Wisdom” in Baghdad.

  • To the second category of actors belong the discourse groups dispersed among various currents of political Islam mentioned above. Because of their intellectual prominence, their dispersion, their persistence, and their massive use of social media, these actors have unwittingly created a sort of “public sphere” (Soules 2007). This platform could also ensure intellectual community involvement.

The Main Reasoning Assets

  • A major asset would be an inventory of legal reasoning, the decisions (fatwas) issued over time by Islamic authorities and scholars worldwide. One should tap into the historical archives of all OIC-states and of reference centers, also compiling a list of political governance forms and experiences across Arab Islamic history.

  • Literature stemming from the seven main legal schools is another asset. This should not be taken as primary but as reference material.

A Renewed Reasoning Will Use Traditional Sources of Jurisprudence

  • For new reasoning, traditional sources/rules of jurisprudence can be used as such, amended, or reduced by scholars for the purpose of ʾijtihād (figure 5).

Figure 5.

Sources of Islamic jurisprudence. Extracted from various religious literature.

Figure 5.

Sources of Islamic jurisprudence. Extracted from various religious literature.

An Eighth Legal School (Madhhab)

Generating a new legal school could be one of the possible tangible products of renewed reasoning (ʾijtihād). Legal reasoning can start with the interpretation of holy Qurʾān and Sunna (see figure 6). This is primarily necessary to stay outside the sectarian sphere (also outside the existing four main Sunni and three main Shīʿa legal schools).

Figure 6.

A nonexhaustive tree of additional contemporary issues affiliated to the five essentials of Sharīʿa- religious laws (al-dharūriyyat al-khamsa). Similar trees can be established for complementary needs (al-hajiyyat) and embellishments/improvements (al-tahsinat).

Figure 6.

A nonexhaustive tree of additional contemporary issues affiliated to the five essentials of Sharīʿa- religious laws (al-dharūriyyat al-khamsa). Similar trees can be established for complementary needs (al-hajiyyat) and embellishments/improvements (al-tahsinat).

Figure 7.

Illustration of a potential renewed reasoning: actors, inputs, process and outputs.

Figure 7.

Illustration of a potential renewed reasoning: actors, inputs, process and outputs.

Renewed reasoning should be generally structured along the lines of the three objectives of Sharīʿa: the essentials (al-dharūriyyat), the complementary needs (al-hajiyyat), and the embellishment/improvements (al-tahsinat) that can be accessed by all citizens. On top are the five essentials (al-dharūriyyat al-khamsa).

The discussions/elaborations within the new legal reasoning should specifically tackle some negative virtues that are perceived to be directly responsible for backwardness, fragmentation, violence, and dependency. Passivity and dependency on others (al-ʾittikāliya) should be replaced by self-reliance. Prevention of bad habits such as waste of food and water is important. Diligent work, as a value, should be promoted using available religious texts. An example is the Calvinist-Protestant philosophy that has promoted “faithful labor,” as the only means of attaining certainty of grace (Weber 1930). Prioritizing education and scientific research, promoting literacy, reading (outside the professional domain), and improving public hygiene through community work should also be included.

Promoting family planning is needed to better manage population growth. Islam’s outstanding historical inclusiveness and tolerance should also be highlighted. Equity between men and women should be revisited, including woman’s work, heritage, and marriage age. The internationally condemned female genital mutilation/circumcision (UNGA 2015) should be prohibited.

Scholars may consider shifting elements between the three Shariʿa pillars, moving “optional” virtues and conducts from the embellishment/improvements space to the essentials.

The new legal school would be the eighth Islamic legal school (madhhab). It could provide additional freedom of choice for Muslims and could partially contribute to reducing the polarization and violence of the ongoing Sunni/Shīʿa a divide.

A Framework for an Islamic Political Program

Besides the new additional legal school, the renewed legal concept could become an “Islamic Program Framework” to be regularly reviewed and updated. Such a framework could further develop previous drafts (al-Banna 1991), also compiling an inventory of past “Islamic Programs.” While the legal schools have remained unchanged since their conception and stayed valid for more than a thousand years, political programs (including Islamic programs) are time limited (five to ten years) and subject to public discussion and monitoring.

A ROLE FOR DIASPORA ARABS?

The proportion of Arabs among Muslim migrants and second-generation migrants has doubled in the last two decades, due to the influx of the Arab war refugees. In Germany for example, Arabs currently represent a large part of the 4.7 million Muslims, formerly mainly Turkish in origin (Stich 2016). The newly arriving Arab refugees find an Arab and Muslim community with various degrees of integration (Hasselbach 2017) and diverse social stratification. These arrivals refresh and revive the relationship of this community with the countries of their origin and contribute to political and identity debates. They could be first to benefit from the new (eighth) legal school.

Europe could also contribute to Arab reform efforts through political reorientation addressing consequences of previous EU policies in the region. Examples are promoting inter-Arab trade and cooperation, helping victims of conflicts in the region, and working for a just solution of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

CONCLUSIONS

Islam is the Arab identity maker and is a central component of Arab reason. Thus, any reform appears to be especially difficult for Arabs. The centuries-long delay in reform can also be attributed to reliance on an old philosophical construct that is both resilient and rigid and by blind trust in historical institutions like the caliphate.

Religious interpretation is neither the sole cause nor the sole solution of the Arab world’s crisis. Phased and planned work for Arab unity, independent sustainable development, educational reform, democracy, human rights, equity and socioeconomic justice are key to overcoming the crisis. However, reforming Arab reason cannot materialize without new religious reasoning. This is complex but possible. One of the results of this process could be an additional, eighth legal school.

Scholars in the Arab-Islamic world should be aware that renewed interpretation is already taking place in islands of discourse by various Islamic currents and personalities outside their domain. With time, a new religious legal school (madhhab) will inevitably emerge.

A reform success will positively contribute to reforms in the Islamic world and beyond.

THANKS AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank Ms. Gabriele Fürstenberg for her valuable feedback and critique that helped in shaping various versions of this essay. Special thanks for her effort to put the essay’s references in proper order and form.

The author also thanks Ms. Alison Katz for her kind support in English editing and for her valuable comments on some sections of the document.

Special thanks to Dr. Thomas von der Heijden for his comments and overall notes in the early stage of writing.

The author is indebted to many friends and colleagues who provided feedback or advice.

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