High Islam, Low Islam and Modernity
The following is an excerpt from a lecture Ernest Gellner gave in 1995 in Heidelberg at a conference in which he tried to explain some unexpected developments of the 20th century. The except below deals with the continued strength of Islam in a world where hold of religion over society appears to be declining in general.
"Tonight I will try to explain a few of the major striking events of our century – some very surprising, some a little less surprising. Very surprising is the tremendous success of Islam in maintaining and strengthening itself. Most social scientists accepted the secularization thesis, which argued that in modern or industrial societies the hold of religion over society and over the hearts and minds of men declines. This seems more or less true with one striking exception: the world of Islam, where the hold of religion over society and over men in the past hundred years has certainly not diminished and seems to have increased....
Why is lslam so astonishingly successful? Why is it resistant to secularization? I shall begin by offering a model of what traditional Islam was like (without going into the early History of Islam). To put it simply, Islam, at least that of the arid zone between the Hindu Kush and the Atlantic and the Niger bend, was divided between a high culture and a low culture – a high Islam and a low Islam – and these two coexisted in an unstable way. Most of the time they were peaceful, but nevertheless had conflicts at fairly regular intervals. The chief difference between the two is that high Islam does not permit mediators (it has a special name for the sin of mediation: shirk), while the world of low Islam is full of them. High Islam encourages a direct relationship between a unique deity and the individual believer; it is not attached to ritual, contains little magic and supernatural belief, and is heavily moralistic, scripturalist, puritan, monotheistic, and individualistic. It is the Islam of the scholars – the high Islam recognized as valid by the believers but not practiced by them. It is not practiced because it does not correspond to the needs of the lower classes and above all the rural Muslims, who for obvious reasons require a much more Durkheimian religion – in other words, a religion in which the sacred has its mediators, its incarnation, and which mirrors the social structure. Most of the rural Muslims were encadrés, incorporated in rural autonomous or semi-autonomous congregations, village lineages, tribes, clans, and the like. For their internal organization and life, they had a Durkheimian religion where the sacred is incarnated in periodic rituals, in sacred objects, sacred practices, sacred persons. One can say that an upper-class, urban, individualistic, puritan, "protestant" Islam (which is strangely united by the theologians and jurists who are its main carriers, despite the lack of a central organization and any kind of central secretariats and hierarchy) coexisted with a fragmented, "Catholic" Islam which had the "Catholic" characteristics of hierarchy, ritualization, employment of the sensuous forms of religion, of mystical exercises, and so on. One can see how this fits well with Durkheim's theories of religion having the function of underwriting, rendering visible, and legitimating the communal organization in which Muslims lived. During periodic attempts at self-reformation, these two forms came into conflict, but most of the time they coexisted harmoniously. On this issue I agree with the theory best formulated by David Hume about the oscillation in the religious life of mankind between Protestant-type and Catholic-type religions. In periodic outbursts of zeal and self-reformation, the puritans would temporarily prevail, but the exigence and the demands of social life would again lead to a swing-back to a personalized, hierarchical, ritualized, non-scriptural religion with an ethic of loyalty rather than an ethic of rules. Thus Islam existed in a permanent oscillation between unsuccessful reformations and reversions to the old cultural habits. And, of course, there is a specific difference between Islam and western European Christianity in this matter: in western Europe, the hierarchical, ritualized loyalty-ethics is at the centre and carried by an institution rather than by abstract doctrine, while the individualist, scripturalist, puritan version is fragmented and relatively marginal. In Islam, it is the other way around; the central tradition is individualist and scriptural, and the fragmented deviationists are hierarchical, ritualistic, and so on – a kind of mirror image.
As far as I can see, there is nothing to stop Islam oscillating between these two forms. The oscillation was noted by the superb Muslim sociologist lbn Khaldun around 1400, and echoed by Friedrich Engels in a passage where he obviously uses lbn Khaldun without actually quoting him. He says – contradicting the main thesis of Marxism – that all classes and class-societies are inherently unstable and due for internal destruction through their internal contradictions. In this passage, the dreadful ethnocentrism of the two founding fathers of Marxism comes out as he specifies that the instability of classes and class-societies applies to "us" Europeans, whereas "those" Orientals, especially Arabs and Muslims, are locked in a kind of cyclical world which never manages to break out. And, admittedly, our social conflicts are distorted through the prism of religious language, but at least when the religious conflict is over something new emerges and we reach a higher level. All the Orientals do is go around in a circle.
My theory of why Muslim fundamentalism has the astonishing strength that it does is the following: modern conditions unhinged the pendulum of this unstable oscillation and permanently and definitively shifted the centre of gravity away from the pluralistic, hierarchical, organizational, Durkheimian style to that of high Islam. Of course, the reason why this happened is that the process of modernization, the political and economic centralization employed by the colonial and post-colonial states, destroyed those communities that had provided the basis for the Durkheimian or low- culture style of Islam. By turning clansmen, lineage members, villagers, and tribesmen into labor migrants and shantytown dwellers, it atomized the population and prompted them to find their identity in a high religion, in a high culture, that provides an identity shared by all Muslims, uniting them against the outsiders. Previously there did not exist a national identity in Muslim countries. Most people were first and foremost members of a local community under a local authority. Modern Muslim nations, especially in ex-colonial countries, are simply the summation of Muslims in a given territory. But this does mean that lslam provided the identification against the other.
It provided a ratification of their transition from a rural to an urban world, and it provided an idiom for expressing their change of status from that of rustic ignoramuses to people aspiring to urban sophistication. It also provided them – as is presently visible in the bitter and tragic conflict in Algeria – with a means of criticizing their current rulers. It provided an idiom for those non-Westernized people who take their Islam seriously, as against the technocrat Mamlukes who govern them in virtue of their access to Western technology. I think it is in these terms – the reaction of recently urbanized, disoriented Muslims who are separated from their previous saint cults and local structures but who need to define themselves against an exploitative, semi-Westernized upper class – that the wave of Muslim fundamentalism should be understood."