The study of Islam, Islamic or Muslim society and polity, and the Arab, Iranian and Turkish Middle East has a history. It is, after all, no different from any other intellectual pursuit except perhaps in its relative newness. As with any attempt to learn about the unknown, scholarship focused on the world of Islam, its traditions and its social as well as political subgroups has sometimes erred by making overly simplistic general conclusions, focusing too much on some phenomena while neglecting others, even by using inadequate research tools or heuristic concepts. That can be admitted, as can the fact that some of the earliest individuals to study Islam and the Islamic Middle East did so less out of disinterested curiosity than out of a desire to gain control - spiritual, economic or political - over its peoples and social groupings.
This much is needed by way of preface to appreciate why Mohammed Arkoun considers his own work so novel. Taking a cue from Michel Foucault, if not his publicist Edward Said, Arkoun claims to have seen what his predecessors missed: the multiple expressions of Islam, the shortcomings of overly circumscribed social-scientific study, and the tendency of scholarship to distort reality so as to subjugate it. He seems to think no one else has recognized that, given so many Muslims, it is difficult to speak of one Islam. And in so doing, he overlooks that many Muslims think they have something in common with other Muslims - that this commonality is what makes them Muslims and is what scholars seek to define. He also gives the impression of considering himself the first to identify the shortcomings of social science, as though Thomas Kuhn were unknown to him.
For example, Arkoun contends that his approach is (1) dynamic rather than static, in that he uses a "bundle of methods taught by the social sciences rather than one method privileged over all others" and is comparative rather than ethnographic and specific. So he claims (2) to battle "the great Western experts in Islamology [sic]" and to be engaged in "constructing a historical and epistemological critique of the principles, postulates, definitions, conceptual tools and discursive procedures of logical reasoning used in the Islamic context." He identifies his critique as informed by the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz and the postmodern thinking of Foucault. Thus, (3) his approach, insofar as it "aims to problematize a domain of knowledge, to think through and reflect upon historical circumstances, to deconstruct cognitive systems and ethico-juridical codes, and to historicize beliefs and nonbeliefs," is superior to one that seeks "to increase the mass of available data, rework interpretations, or extend the exploration of a single domain of reality." It is not that Arkoun considers the latter completely void of merit. Rather, the exclusiveness of the approach bothers him, even though in following the first he must exclude the second. Most important, however, is his denial that there is such a thing as objective reason. For him, the demands that "arguments be more 'objective,' more 'neutral,' less 'polemical"' are merely part of the Western attempt to extend and enforce its hegemony. How sad that he never identifies the insight permitting this judgment.
Arkoun's book, consisting of his responses to 24 questions organized according to no discernible order, provides more a sociology of Islam than anything else. Indeed, he brings back environmental and social determinants much as W. Montgomery Watt first sought to apply them, yet refuses to take seriously the actual phenomena of religion - even to the point of explaining them all away. Thus, in speaking of revelation, he asserts:
Taking into consideration all the experiments generated in the societies of the Book/book, one could say it is a revelation each time that a new vocabulary comes to radically change man's view of his condition, his being-in-the-world, his participation in the production of meaning (p. 34, emphasis in the original).
Such a "definition of revelation," he boasts, "has the merit of making a place for the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, African elders, and all the great voices that recapitulate the collective experience of a group in order to project it toward new horizons and enrich the human experience of the divine." In other words, Arkoun calls things as he sees them and cares little for how they are presented by those who first brought them to our attention. Symptomatic of this tendency is his novel phrase "societies of the Book/book," that is, a denial - even a rejection - of the idea that Scripture of any sort, be it the Bible or the Quran, is anything but another writing. At the same time, despite his insistence on how mistaken previous interpreters have been he never analyzes their arguments in detail or by name: instead, he presents them as dupes of a particular movement - Orientalism - or victims of a historical period, especially the Enlightenment.
Clearly, then, this book by Arkoun fails on at least two counts. First, by condemning traditional scholars for giving a monolithic view of Islam without ever citing whom he has in mind, he obliges the reader to accept on faith a claim to the effect that all prior scholars - especially those who focus on the tradition - have misunderstood what they studied. In other writings, but not in the volume under review, Arkoun has studied the tradition. Were it not for his penchant in those other works to mistake the ephemeral and the peripheral for the core, one might think he did understand the tradition.
Second, in claiming that there are many Muslims but no Islam, he betrays a curious lack of common sense. On the one hand, it is obvious that manifold difficulties await anyone temerarious enough to attempt a description or definition of Islam as a single phenomenon. But on the other, we must ask what practicing Muslims think of as they invoke the word. Surely, we must strive for a working idea of a single Islam, all the while being aware that it is only a working idea or definition. To do so is not to engage in a self-defeating Oriental ism or to prolong a meaningless and romantic notion of religion as monolithic. It is, rather, to start with the phenomena, to take those phenomena as they first appear, that is, to gain a full appreciation of the surface before attempting to delve beneath it.
Only by a firm grasp of what Islam represents in its multitudinous manifestations as well as in its historical development can anyone hope to address intelligently the questions Mohammed Arkoun's interlocutors put to him. An attempt to renounce reason as a Western imposition offers nothing in and of itself. What might a scholar, or any normally intelligent person, propose as a substitute for reason? Sentiment?