Interview with Ali Allawi

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Is there any longer such a thing as a cohesive Islamic civilisation?

It appears to me that Islamic civilisation as a living, vital entity is losing whatever elan it had. But people still talk about the outer aspects of Islamic civilisation as being something substantial, particularly Muslims who have not yet recognised that their civilisation has been seriously degraded. They still think it has a vitality in all aspects of human life and culture. While in reality, Islamic civilisation is reduced to two aspects, namely the political and the religious, but the other aspects of it – the economic, the social, the cultural, the aesthetic – are no longer valid markers for Muslims.

Why is it in crisis?

Irrespective of the material or technological state of Muslim societies prior to modernity, the outer forms – the laws, institutions and cultures – in which Muslims lived were basically indigenous. They reflected Muslims’ authentic spiritual experiences. You had institutions, relationships, transactions, that were grounded in a certain way of looking at things. This aspect of Muslim civilisation has basically collapsed, so that when Muslims deal with the world they deal with something not defined by their inner precepts. Which causes, to my mind, a tension and sense of inadequacy when it comes to dealing with the modern world. It’s not that the modern world is and of itself antithetical to Islamic values, or precepts.

For how long has this been the case?

I bring it down to three different waves that have engulfed the Muslim world over the past two hundred years. The first: expansion of colonial Western powers into Islamic territory. The second is to do with aspects of modernisation or Westernisation that challenged the Islamic perspective on life and values. And lastly, globalisation and the integration of key aspects of the Islamic world into the global order. These waves have engulfed it, and in none of these episodes has there been an authentic Islamic response. There has been resistance, and rejection, but in reality it has basically been a retreat.

Why do you think Western or other alien frameworks were adopted so uncritically in the Muslim world?

It’s do with powerlessness, or the sense of retreat that Muslims feel when they confront a superior technological and material civilisation. They try to determine what the causes of that civilisation are and they try to emulate them, not recognising that these practices are related sui generis to that particular civilisation’s approach to matters of production, power, technology etc., rather than an intuitive Islamic response. So, it’s basically a capitulation to what is manifestly stronger, and seems to have produced material superiority.

In your book you say ‘Sharia did not leave much room for economics’. How alien is capitalism to the Islamic world-view?

The Islamic way of looking at economic transactions is not so much in terms of the way that 19th century utilitarians looked at it, or the way that people are trying to confront the issues today. It is seen mainly in terms of what are acceptable norms for ethical transactions. It’s a different way of understanding economics. We [once] had the possibility for creating a value-laden form of economic transaction in the Islamic banking movement, but that very soon capitulated to the contemporary or conventional form, and became attached to it.

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