Islam in crisis: Observations by German religious scholar Michael Blume

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The assumption that ‘Islam’ – usually conceived as a monolithic force – is on an expansionary path is widely shared. Islamists herald the onset of an age of Islamic renewal and dominance; anxious Westerners take to the streets against the ‘Islamisation’ of the occident; and colourful videos highlighting that Islam is set to overtake Christianity as the world’s largest religious group in the coming decades regularly go viral in social networks.

Declining levels of orthopraxy

It is in order to go against this conventional wisdom that German religious scholar Michael Blume has written his latest book Islam in Crisis: A World Religion between Radicalization and Silent Retreat. Blume asserts that Islam is not about to conquer the world but rather that it is in existential trouble.

Blume paints a picture of a religion that is rapidly losing in relevance in the lives of those who are commonly seen as ‘Muslim’. Focusing particularly on figures taken from his native Germany, Blume shows how Muslim communities are marked by a pronounced decline in orthopraxy: young Muslims in Germany pray less than their ancestors, fewer girls wear headscarves, and fewer boys go to the mosque.1) http://cicero.de/kultur/islam-die-saekularisierung-als-symptom-der-krise

Detachment from the religious tradition

Concomitantly, Muslims are increasingly heterodox in their religious outlook: in 2013, 42 per cent of German Muslim respondents asserted that in their spiritual lives they “draw upon the teachings of different religious traditions”.2) http://cicero.de/kultur/islam-die-saekularisierung-als-symptom-der-krise

At the same time, Blume sees most Muslims as more and more distant from and disenchanted with the traditions of their own faith. Violent groups such as the ‘Islamic State’ only foment this disenchantment, according to Blume: their despicable acts further alienate many Muslims from the religion of their parents.

In fact, the warriors of the ‘Islamic State’ are engaged in a battle against the progressing secularisation of the Islamic world. In this respect, they are a product of the present age and of the crisis of Islamic thought, rather than an organic outgrowth of the religious tradition.

Intellectual and theological stasis

According to Blume, this civilisational crisis goes back to Sultan Bayezid’s fateful decision to ban the printing press from Ottoman lands after its invention in Europe in the 15th century. This decision, according to Blume, led to societal and intellectual stasis in the Arab heartlands of the Islamic world – a state of affairs that was perpetuated by subsequent authoritarian regimes buttressed by oil rent.3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCgN5dsls0M

Ever since the 15th century, the Islamic religious establishment has been unable to develop answers that could be meaningful to all those Muslims who seek to live in the modern age, or so Blume argues. Yet inevitably Muslims do lead modern lives – a fact that fosters their increasing disconnect from petrified religious traditions.

Looking beyond jihadism

The refreshing element of Blume’s discussion resides in its unflinching focus away from the flashy band of religious radicals who, in spite of being small in number, have managed to capture the world’s attention by their jihadist violence. Instead, Blume seeks to shed light on the religious dynamics among the majority of the world’s Muslim population.

Equally important is the related observation that these ‘Muslims’ are not a homogeneous mass. The implicit assumption in popular discourses as well as in official statistics (for instance from the German government) is the fact that being born to parents from a Muslim-majority region makes one ‘Muslim’ – irrespective of actual levels of belief and observance.

A long-standing argument made anew

At the same time, the observation that the rise of political Islam and of present-day jihadism has gone hand in hand with – in fact proceeded via – a weakening of the authority of the Islamic tradition and its institutions is scarcely new.

There are, after all, entire bookshelves filled with studies demonstrating how local Islamic traditions have been remodeled by the rise of authoritarian nation-states,4)For a concise overview of this phenomenon across the Muslim world, see Part I of Jocelyne Cesari’s book The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). A particularly insightful study of a single case is provided by Brinkley Messick in The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). how traditional modes of Islamic reasoning have ossified in this process,5)For a monumental work in that category, see Wael Hallaq’s Shari’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). and how Islamist laymen have stepped in to fill the void.6)An excellent introduction is provided by the essays in the collection edited by Ali Rahnema, Pioneers of Islamic Revival (London: Zed Books, 1994).

Differences between Islamic heartlands and the immigrant context

Nor have the processes of change undergone by Muslim communities across the world been completely uniform everywhere: Muslims lives in Germany are, surely, necessarily different from Muslim lives in Indonesia. One is left to wonder whether Blume at times underestimates the resulting diversity.

After all, detachment from traditional religion seems easier and more likely in immigrant settings, where religious networks are less deep, religious expertise less profound, and where Muslims are permanently forced to come to terms with a plurality of lifestyles and with an often hostile perception of Islamic religiosity.

Put differently, in a context where there are hardly any mosques and few well-educated Imams; where headscarf-wearing women are often seen with suspicion; and where halal meat is difficult to come by, it is not surprising to observe declining levels of orthopraxy.

Reaffirmations of orthopraxy

Yet even in the European or German context, from whence Blume draws most of his hard figures apparently demonstrating the decline of Islamic orthopraxy, we also observe countervailing dynamics.

Well-educated daughters of secularist Turkish parents are choosing to don a headscarf, in a statement of ostentatious orthopraxy serving to reaffirm their Muslim identity. Salafis carry this identitarian reemphasis of (allegedly) traditional behaviour to its extremes. Yet while Salafis use orthopraxy to withdraw from a mainstream society seen as ‘infidel’, the young woman wearing the hijab may have very different reasons.

A recent study observed that urban, well-educated Muslim women covered up more often in order to reconcile their Muslim faith with the demands of being out of their homes and with employment in gender-mixed environments.7) http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-09-02-veil-worn-muslim-women-may-signal-they-are-integrating-more Here, ‘modernisation’ – understood as female participation in the labour market – actually reinforced rather than undermined religious orthopraxy.

Modernisation = secularisation?

One is thus left to wonder whether the “silent retreat” and the “radicalisation” observed by Blume are really a convincing (let alone an exhaustive) portrayal of the possibilities of Islamic religiosity in the modern world. For Blume, these are the twin reactions in the face of the secularisation processes undergone by the Islamic world and by Muslim communities.

Yet at the heart of this argument lies the supposition that ‘modernisation’ always goes hand in hand with ‘secularisation’ – a teleological claim that social science has long abandoned for being overly simplistic.

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1, 2. http://cicero.de/kultur/islam-die-saekularisierung-als-symptom-der-krise
3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCgN5dsls0M
4. For a concise overview of this phenomenon across the Muslim world, see Part I of Jocelyne Cesari’s book The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). A particularly insightful study of a single case is provided by Brinkley Messick in The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
5. For a monumental work in that category, see Wael Hallaq’s Shari’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
6. An excellent introduction is provided by the essays in the collection edited by Ali Rahnema, Pioneers of Islamic Revival (London: Zed Books, 1994).
7. http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-09-02-veil-worn-muslim-women-may-signal-they-are-integrating-more