The Crisis of Islamic Civilization


In most of the Muslim world, Islamic inner lives survive alongside outer lives shaped by the overwhelming forces of Western civilization. Many in the West view Islam as an obstacle to freedom, democracy, and security, a medieval civilization that violates human rights and blocks a more enlightened, Western path. Ali A. Allawi will  make a compelling and provocative case that the best hope for the world’s Muslims is a rejuvenated Islamic civilization—one that unites the inner world of Islamic spirituality with a public, outer world that is also genuinely Islamic.

I was born into a mildly observant Muslim family in Iraq. The 1950’s in the MiddleEast and the broader Islamic world were a time when the secular elements in society, theruling political class and the cultural and intellectual elites- had moved far from anovert identification with Islam. It appeared then to be only matter of time before Islamwould lose whatever hold it may have still had on the peoples and societies of theMuslim world. Even the latter term was unusual for the period. Muslim countriesidentified themselves more in terms of national or ethnic status or ideologicalaffinities.
For an impressionable child of the time, Islam was not a factor in daily life. Religion
was a mandatory course in school it is true, but the life around us was clearly
decoupling from Islam. Nobody taught us the rules of prayer or expected us to fast in
Ramadan. We learnt the shorter verses of the Quran, but the holy book itself was kept
on the shelves or in drawers mostly unread. The pilgrimage to Mecca was only for the
old, atoning for the transgressions of their lives in preparation for their inevitable endmore
an insurance policy than an act of piety.
 I don’t recall ever coming across the
word jihad in any contemporary context. . The rhetoric was more to do with Arab
destiny and anti imperialism. A bit of religious fervour popped up during the Suez
Crisis of 1956, when Cairo radio blared out martial songs calling for divine support
against the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion, but that was about it. Women, not only in
my own family but throughout the urban middle classes, wore only western clothes.
They had long ceased to wear the hijab. The only connection to a pre-modern past that
I had was my grandfather, who always wore the distinguishing- and dignified- dress
of robes and turbans of an old-line merchant.
Apart from religious holidays, the observances of the public rituals of Islam were not
widely manifested. The Shia rites of Muharram were celebrated, often wildly, but we
were advised to stay well away from them. They were somewhat unbecoming for
genteel folk, who preferred to hold semi-literary soirees to remember the passion of
the martyr Imam Hussein. Tears were ritually shed and after a short catharsis, normal
conversation returned.
Modernity was flooding in everywhere, and people seemed to
want more of it. Cinemas and snack bars; cabarets and country clubs, freely flowing
alcohol and mixed parties, Baghdad was turning into Babylon, its hedonistic
predecessor of yore. And it was not much different, as memoirs of the times amply
testify, in Casablanca, Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, Tehran, Karachi and Jakarta.
Secularism had the Muslim world by the throat. It may not have been in precisely the
form that I had experienced but the end result was the same. Islam was ignored,
marginalised or rejected by the modernising classes. It continued to provide some
form of ethical scaffolding to people’s lives, but even that became frayed as people
moved into a modern, urban environment.
When I first left Iraq, it was as a youth who was far more secularist than religious, far
more confident about the promise of modernity than our own calcified legacy.
Whatever interest in religion I had was ground down by my first exposure to the
stifling atmosphere of an Anglican school in England of the 1950’s. In reaction to the
enforced chapel-going and the tedium of listening to endless formulaic sermons, I
developed an abiding distaste for organised religion- or at least the late Victorian
version of it that was practiced in minor public schools.
 But the seeds of my rekindled interest in Islam may well have been laid then. I know that I used to instinctively react to the slights against Islam that ran throughout the syllabus- from the depiction of the Crusaders as brave knights against marauding Saracens to the casual dismissal of the
leaders of the Indian “Mutiny” as bloodthirsty barbarians.
No one tried to convert me partly.
I suppose because our headmaster, a reverend himself, was undergoing his own
crisis of faith as I would l later discover. I kept going a type of rear guard school boy
rebellion in favour of whatever Islamic identity I had. I used to recite the opening
verses of the Quran at the beginning and end of the day, and every time I entered the
chapel. I firmly refused to eat pork even if it meant skipping entire meals at a time.
There were other Muslims in the school, mostly from Britain’s shrinking empire, but
they were no different from me. They all came from the same type of secularised
background. Our presence in England was in some ways an affirmation that modern
civilisation was anchored firmly in the West. Our Islamic past may have been
glorious, but it was just that- the past. The future was now and it was in the west- the
more west the better. I spent most of my last year in public school in plotting to leave
England for the US- and I succeeded. I landed in Boston in the fall of 1964, right at
the beginning of the great cultural revolutions of the 1960’s.
It would have been impossible not to have been swept up in the events of the times even
if you were an outsider. Youth and membership in the great global post war baby
boom was what united us. I enthusiastically participated in all the defining events of
the times from the sit-ins and teach-ins, to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam
Moratorium. It was the struggle for black empowerment in America that reawakened
in me the potential of a spiritually charged movement to effect great transformations.
It was not lost on me that Martin Luther King was also a minister of the church, but a
far cry from the establishment churchmen that I had earlier encountered. More
appositely, Malcolm X, the radical black leader, had become a practicing Muslim in
the year before his assassination. His pilgrimage to Mecca had opened up to him the
liberating potential of Islam. It became integral to his struggle for black political and
economic rights. I began to pay a bit more attention to the potential in Islam as a force
for change.
The search for a meaningful ethic to fill the spiritual and moral void of the times
preoccupied me throughout the seventies. A great number of young people were also
trying to find an inner balance to the excesses of the counter culture. But I was
altogether more sober- or reticent- about following fashionable gurus, or attaching
myself to the burgeoning self-awareness movements. I made a few unsuccessful
attempts to find such an outlet within the broader Islamic tradition, but this was a
forlorn exercise in 1970’s Washington, where I resided most of the times. It was in
the unlikely setting of 1976 London, enmeshed in a disintegrating British economy
beset by labour strife and the whiffs of hyperinflation that I came across an
extraordinary event.
 Between April and June of that year, London was hosting
something called “The World of Islam Festival”, an event that strove for nothing less
than representing the richness and diversity of Islam’s culture and civilisation to the
west. But more importantly, it showed the unity of Islamic civilisation over a vast
territory and across a multiplicity of cultures and peoples. Islamic civilisation
transcended its component nations, languages and cultures. Although it was backed
by nearly all the Muslim countries’ embassies in London, the festival was conceived
and organised by an eclectic Englishman with an abiding interest in Islamic
civilisation and spirituality. But behind the formal organisers was the spirit of one of
Islam’s great unsung heroes of modern times, the Raja of Mahmudabad. He had
encouraged the organisers in his project and was instrumental in achieving broad
support for the idea from a number of Muslim countries, the most important of which
in those days was the Shah’s Iran.
Muhammad Amir Ahmad Khan, the Raja of Mahmudabad- or Raja Sahib as we all
knew him- had died in 1973. I had befriended one of his relatives, who then
introduced me to the Raja Sahib. During my stay in London in 1968 and 1969- when I
was doing postgraduate work at the London School of Economics- I frequented the
Raja’s company at his small home adjacent to London’s Regent Park Mosque and
Islamic Centre, of which he was the director. He had moved to London in 1967, for
the second time, from Pakistan, a country which owed a great deal to the Raja. He
was a long time treasurer of the All India Muslim League, led by Pakistan’s founder,
Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The League had pushed for the establishment of Pakistan as
the homeland of the Muslims of India. The Raja was an heir to a vast fortune, which
he expended in its entirety in the cause of the Muslim League and the Muslims of
India. The Raja could not quite adjust to the lethal politics of Pakistan and soon fell
foul of the new political class. . He took issue with the secular politics of Pakistan and
its dominance by the feudal and military castes. He shunned various offers of high
office from Pakistan’s presidents, eager to assuage a person who had been
instrumental in founding the nation, and remained firmly loyal to his vision of the
Islamic state.
The Raja was a deeply idealistic and egalitarian person. His Islam was entirely
anchored in its virtues and in good works. He performed manual labour and
frequently wore coarse homespun cloth and walked around barefooted, to express his
solidarity with the poor. He could somehow combine deep fealty to Islam, a
pronounced radical and even revolutionary bent, and an incredible charm that
endeared him to all manner of people, including various heads of state. He was
spiritual, even mystical in his leanings, and his passion came through during the
evenings that I spent in his company. The Raja used to be a frequent visitor to the
shrines of the Imams in Iraq. I later discovered that he had been a good friend of my
late father-in-law. In one instance in a story related to me by my father-in-law, the
Raja and he had just left visiting the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala. Walking in
the night air, the Raja was suddenly overcome with a powerful spiritual state, and in a
trance-like condition recited endless verses from the poet Hafiz. The Raja left a
powerful imprint on me, but I would not appreciate its significance until I encountered
Islam once again in the London of 1976.
The 1976 World of Islam Festival has subsequently been criticised for being ‘elitist’
and insufficiently representative of the social and political dimensions of the religion.
In retrospect, some of this criticism may have been valid. The political dimension was
overlooked partly because the issue of the Muslim diaspora in the West was not yet a
controversial matter, and partly because political Islam had not yet exploded on the
However, the mark of the Transcendentalists- Muslims who followed the
perennial philosophy associated with the French metaphysician, Rene Guenon, and
the Swiss-born philosopher Fritjof Schuoun- was clear on a number of publications
and events.
 For example, Syed Hossein Nasr, the noted Philosopher and Historian of
Science, produced a remarkable volume on “Islamic Science”, while the art historian
Titus Burckhardt was responsible for the “Art of Islam”. Both had a pronounced tilt
towards the inner dimensions of Islam. Nevertheless, the Festival was wide-ranging. It
covered a huge array of exhibitions, events and lectures at nearly all of London’s
major museums and art galleries, concert halls and universities. Most of the
publications that the Festival Trust produced have become landmarks in their field.
Without actually seeking it, I stumbled on an entirely new perspective on Islam, one
that was no less resonant with possibilities for the future than the gathering forces of
political Islam.
These two often conflicting currents of my understanding of Islam have dominated
my life ever since- the mystical, inner dimension of the faith; and the outer political
and social expressions of it. Within two years of the Festival, my world would be
turned on its head. One event, the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath, convulsed the
planet. Political Islam erupted on the global stage in a huge social and political
revolution, and whatever we may think of it, embodied the hopes and fears of millions
of people around the world. A parallel revolution was also engulfing the world of
Sunni Islam with the jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of
militant Islamism. The world in general and Muslims in particular, were confronted
with a host of questions and assertions about the role of Islam in society and politics.
 I daresay that no Muslim of the period- and since- has not been exercised in one form
or another, whether recoiling in alarm, perplexed and anxious or as an enthusiastic
advocate, at the rise of political Islam and the increasingly assertive, and controversial
role of Islam in society. But it was another fateful and altogether more personal
encounter that defined my priorities for me.
The increasing turmoil in Lebanon, to which I had briefly relocated, forced my
departure to London in1978. With my revived interest in Islamic spirituality, I began
to frequent the antiquarian and orientalist booksellers near the British Museum. Most
of these stores have long since closed but one in particular stood out. Luzac and Co.
carried a broad selection of literature on oriental religions, Islam and mysticism.
Luzac was then owned by a tweedy Englishman with a Japanese wife. It was the
publisher of a series of classical books on Sufism, mostly translated by the great
interwar Cambridge scholar of Islam Reynold Nicholson. They were sponsored by the
Gibb Memorial Trust, and included possibly the world’s greatest masterpiece of
mystical literature, the Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi.
But my interest in Sufi
literature did not translate into a desire to join any Sufi order or lodge. In fact, my
only experience with a formal Sufi order was brief and unhappy. However it soon
became clear to me that the books in Luzac and Co were not going to provide me, on
their own, with a map for a fulfilling inner life. I needed a person, an accomplished
guide as it were, to accompany me on this journey.
It was a chance remark by my grandmother that set me on this quest. She had
mentioned that a certain Fadhllalah Haeri, from a well known family of Karbala in
Iraq, had abandoned Islam and had joined a guru in an ashram in the Himalayas. She
told the story with a mixture of incredulity and bemusement. The story was garbled
but it stuck in my mind. I had briefly met Fadhlallah Haeri in 1975 in the United Arab
Emirates where he had embarked on a highly successful business career in the oil
industry. The idea that a scion of one of Iraq’s most noted clerical families, and a
wealthy oil entrepreneur to boot, would simply pack up and join an ashram sounded
outlandish. But I must have filed the story somewhere in the deep recesses of my
It was while rummaging in London’s orientalist bookstores that I came across a slim
volume of writings by none other than Fadhlallah Haeri. It immediately triggered in
my mind my grandmother’s story about the runaway oil man. It was really nothing
more than a series of talks that Haeri had given in Pakistan, but the sincerity, passion
and wonder of an enlightened being shone through. I tried to track the man down, but
I discovered that he had left for the US where he had founded a retreat of sorts in the
Texas hill country. However, after a chance meeting with a person that knew him, I
discovered that he was now in London, in fact across Hyde Park from my own office.
That was in the summer of 1983. It was also the month of Ramadan. I had taken to
fasting and the days were interminably long. The fast lasted until 9pm in the evening
when the set would finally set. I began to amble across the park after work to the town
house that served as Haeri’s London centre and remain there in deep discussions with
Haeri about all matters, but mainly the inner life of Islam He was now known
universally as Sheikh Fadhlallah, and it was during these intimate talks that I became
exposed to the vital spirituality that underpinned not only Islam but all living
religions. A number of the stories that I had heard about him were true. He did indeed
leave behind a veritable fortune made in the oil-rich Gulf countries to follow a guru
and Sanskrit master, Swami Chinmayananda. But he had not become a Hindu or
anything else for that matter. It was the Swami who advised Haeri that he should
leave the ashram and try to find his spiritual direction inside his own religious
tradition of Islam. The entire story of Fadhlallah’s spiritual journey is wonderfully
described in his own memoir “Son of Karbala.”
The encounter with Sheikh Fadhlallah Haeri set me on a lifelong path to
understanding and experiencing the inner dimensions of Islam. Whenever I could in
between my investment banking career, I would travel with Sheikh Fadhlallah to
various parts of the world on what could only be described as odysseys of the spirit.
They took us to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, various European countries, and
Pakistan and India. From the mid-1990’s onwards, as I was winding down my earlier
business engagements, I would spend more and more time with Sheikh Fadhlallah.
And this has continued into the present, into South Africa, where Sheikh Fadhlallah
had relocated in the 1990’s.
For a long time, the two worlds of Islam which impacted me, the outer world of
political and social action and the inner world of spiritual and moral realisation
seemed entirely at odds with each other. One was angry at its subordination, insistent
on recognition and power, and challenging to the status quo; the other was serene,
introspective and immersed in the intangible. The canvas of the first was societies and
nations; the background of the second was the self and the individual. The rituals of
worship in Islam were supposed to be the bridge between these worlds but they were
bent to suit the demands of one or another. They did not serve as a connecting isthmus
between these two worlds. I began to recognise that the essential unity of Islam had
been greatly diminished if not quite yet destroyed. People could no longer move
effortlessly between these worlds.
Momentous crises affected the Islamic world in the past quarter century. They all
demanded engagement and action no doubt, but they all tilted the balance towards the
political arena. As I became more involved in these issues- through writings, speeches
and then direct political action- it became clear to me that only a few of the Muslims
that I encountered in the political arena could resonate with the spiritual or ethical
aspects of Islam. In particular, Islamists behaved no differently, and often worse, as
the prospects for power loomed for them in a number of countries, including Iraq. The
Islam that I had experienced was increasingly devoid of any deeply ethical content,
and was at odds with my understanding of Islam’s own legacy. That is not to say that
the preoccupation of the vast majority of Muslims with their outer conditions was in
any ways reprehensible. But it was deficient as it framed the crises that Islam was
facing mainly in terms of the political, social or jurisprudential aspects of the religion.
The moral education of individual Muslims was an altogether different matter and did
not fuse with the preoccupations of the leaders of the Muslim world, whether in
power or in opposition, in mainly Muslim lands or in the growing diasporas in the
West. Muslims may have been overwhelmed by the scale of the real or imagined
disasters befalling them, but this should not have stopped them from holding a mirror
unto themselves. What that mirror would have shown was a fading of their own
civilisational drive and an increasingly obvious indifference, and often abandonment
of the foundational ethical and spiritual bases of the faith.
I experienced this at first hand in the conflicts and wars that engulfed Muslims and the
Muslim world in the past thirty years. The divisions within and between Islam were
breaking out into incredible paroxysms of violence. Sectarian, ethnic and racial
hatreds continuously trumped the ideals of Islamic unity. The Iran-Iraq War and the
internecine warfare that accompanied the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan
were just such examples.
It was in post-Saddam Iraq however, that I encountered the
extent that the dissonance in Islamic political and social life had reached. The
murderous violence that was unleashed by radical Wahhabi-inspired Islamists was
accompanied by laborious jurisprudential “justifications”. These were accepted by a
large number of Muslims world-wide and legitimated the indiscriminate slaughter of
innocent civilians. The counter-terror that followed in its wake, which was mainly the
doing of Shia militias, was largely arbitrary in its selection of victims. Hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis were killed, and millions displaced or exiled, in the country’s
descent into chaos and strife.
This ghastly work was done mainly by people who claimed an Islamic motivation for
their deeds. Political Islamists of all stripes jettisoned their entire ideologies- for
which many of their militants had given their lives- in indecent haste as they
scrambled for political advantage in the new order. Not once during my entire three
year stint in the Iraqi government did I witness a single episode of a formerly Islamist
party, now in power, promote or champion an Islamic cause that they had earlier
propounded in their manifestoes. The ethical standards of the holders of public office
fell to appallingly low and squalid levels. The obsessive drive for personal material
gain at the public expense seized the minds of a huge swathe of the political class and
fed the extraordinary levels of corruption.  It was a sad and dispiriting spectacle.
Muslims by and large seemed to have decoupled from the wellsprings of Islamic
ethics. I had actually guessed as much before I returned to Iraq, but it was in Iraq that
I began to systematically reflect on the matter. The end result of this process was my
writing of the book “The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation”. It is one person’s attempt to
understand the factors behind the decay of the spirit of Islam, and what the future
entails if this process is not halted or reversed.
Islamic civilisation has its own perspectives on the relations between God and man,
the individual and the group, the powers and responsibilities of the state, the
appropriate balance between human rights and duties, as well as the nature of justice,
freedom and equality.
 In many ways, these perspectives are different from other
civilisations and in particular from the dominant, globalising world order. Almost by
definition, Islamic civilisation has to acknowledge the role of the transcendent (or the
sacred or divine- call it what you will) in its make-up. If that element is absent, then
Islam cannot be forced into the dynamics of modernity without affecting its integrity.
But the shocks to Islamic civilisation by the encounter with expanding western
powers, and then with the forces of modernity and globalisation severely jolted this
The ascendant forces of the modern global order have made deep
inroads into the outer world of Islam and equally importantly, into the minds of
Muslims. They may deny it and fight numerous rearguard actions but this reality
cannot be easily effaced unless Muslims confront another harsh fact. Any civilisation
has an inner and outer aspect, an inner aspect of beliefs, ideas and values that inform
the outer aspects of institutions, laws, government and culture. The inner dimensions
of Islam no longer have the significance or power to affect the outer world in which
most Muslims live. Most Muslims- knowingly or otherwise- have lost sight of the
utter centrality of the sense of the sacred in the make-up of their historic civilisation.
Their world has become gradually “de-sacralised” and this has affected entire aspects
of how Muslims now think, believe and behave. Islam’s outer civilsational presence
has been in constant retreat as a result, and this has affected Muslims’ perspectives on
the state, power, institutions, laws, politics, values, economic life, and culture and
society. These are the areas where the debate on the future of Islam has mainly taken
place, but the answer to the question of whether a uniquely Islamic order can ever be
recreated again does not lie only there.
I have no doubt that Islam as a religion or as a code of outer conduct and transactions
will continue into the indefinite future. But I cannot say the same about Islamic
civilisation- a universe that is recognisably Islamic and which draws its vitality and
inspiration from the inner and outer aspects of Islam and the bridge that connects the
two. It is this world that is in danger of disappearing.
*Ali A. Allawi has served as Minister of Defence and Minister of Finance in the Iraqi postwar governments. A graduate of LSE, Harvard University and MIT, he is Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College, Oxford . He is author of  The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation. He has written one previous book, The Occupation of Iraq (Yale 2007).

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