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 encadrĂ©s, 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."

(Source: Eurozine. Hat-tip: 3QD)


F. said…
"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."

If this is true, and I personally agree it probably is, then
"Why is lslam so astonishingly successful? Why is it resistant to secularization?"
...Is kind of a dumb question.

Consider this--how many Muslim states are modernized or industrial powerhouses? The Middle East is bloated on oil profits, but that's not modernization or industrialization, that's basically just an old culture with new money. Asian and African Muslim nations are trying to make sincere attempts towards modernization and industrialization, but they're addled with sociopolitical instability and poverty. Turkey, then?

Islam is not the 'exception' to the hypothesis, it is the exemption. What's there to be astonished about, then? That you're so stuck in your own frame of reference, you can't really fathom a world significantly less developed than your own?

Secondly, the article seems to present Islam as somehow inherently different from other religions. Whether or not there is a kernel of truth to that (I don't think there is) do keep in mind it is still a young religion, compared to others such as Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. It's 'getting there'. This is the year 1433 according to the Islamic calendar. The Spanish Inquisition started in the year 1480 A.D. according to the 'Christian' calendar. Christianity never lent itself to a people's political protest? My bad, Protestantism (or should I say 'High Christianity'?) never happened. Hilarious that, despite all this, the author still classifies what he declares an 'outlier' religion--albeit using Christian analogies/denominations.

Also, as an afterthought I would like to mention that conversion to Islam is a one-way street. People buy too much into these percentages and statistics; the population of Pakistan may be 96% Muslim, but how many of them are Atheists, Agnostics, mystics, non-practicing, or just plain unhappy? We may never know because to declare it is to invite death under Shariah (or at the hands of a certain kind of pious-minded Muslim...gives the phrase "gunning for jannah" a whole new sinister tone, doesn't it?)
karachikhatmal said…
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karachikhatmal said…
This was an incredible piece. F's comments about his views on Islamic exception notwithstanding, this really undoes a lot of basic assumptions people make about Islam. And it gets really interesting in the diaspora, where Muslims repeatedly identify with and then disassociate themselves from high islam, which in my view is the only Islam that the rest of the world sees.

And in a material world, this is the advantage high Islam has. In the modern world, we look at stuff like spirits and mediums as hocus pocus, while legalistic doctrines are viewed with respect. Consequently, as the murder of Salman Taseer showed, it low-Islam adherents like the contemporary High Islam more simply because it is easier to defend (via scriptures) vs low Islam practices which are derided as malangpun with corrupt raping Pirs and so on. Low Islam types all over the world from Chechnya to Indonesia don't know how to defend themselves against this.

Shias make this issue even more interesting. By the article's definition, the use of mediums in Shiasm makes it low Islam. But the arrival of Iran as an Islamic theocracy and then Lebanon and Iraq as Shia states has given Shiasm a super-high islam mode, with the marajas (intermediaries) becoming immensely powerful. And now Shias in Pakistan, India etc when they come abroad become very High Islam, or are forced to because of wanting to assimilate, and often their own children would look down upon them for their identification with weird-Paki-Shia habits.


The statistic thing you mention is very interesting. Because true 96% overshoots it, but increasingly that is quite irrelevant for Muslims abroad. You are treated as a race even though theoretically you aren't one. It comes through in everything from jobs to buying tickets for the train, and what it means to me is that where I'm from and what I look like and what my name sounds like already condemns me to the 96% statistic, implying that being Muslim is something which is cultural and even ethnic (in terms of how it is perceived) rather than a choice of faith that is being actively practiced. My point being that whether we identify with being Muslim or not, we are treated as such. And I realise that this is very much my sentiment after having lived abroad, but in the context of this post, I think it makes sense.
F. said…
Insightful comment, particularly about Shia Islam!

Anyway, I dare say the majority of Muslims in the world do not live in non-Muslim, Western countries and as such. Your experience does not apply to them, as-is. But there's a question of what it means to be a Muslim even then. My name is Fatima. I come from a respectable Sunni family. Based on that, the people around me assume I am a Muslim and so far that assumption may very well have kept me alive. Islam as a cultural identity? Maybe, maybe not. We're still in the process of sorting it out. In Pakistan, even atheists say Allah hafiz.

Btw, I don't know how this/your comment about your experience was relevant to the article, since the article seemed to focus on non-Western Muslim populations, but I do like talking to you. :>