Another "Just So" Story?

by Andrew G. Bostom (Dec. 2007)


Speaking at a December 10-11, 2007 Rome Conference entitled, “Fighting for Democracy in the Islamic World,” renowned historian Bernard Lewis intoned,

The authoritarianism present in the Middle East region is not part of the Arab and Muslim tradition, but it has been imported from Europe

Lewis, according to the account of his lecture in Adnkronos International, then offered as putatively convincing support for his thesis the non-sequitur observation that during the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan (presumably, in the course of making decisions) consulted all the dignitaries, and when he ascended the throne he would greet the crowds, uttering “Allah is greater than you are.”

This ahistorical contention, accompanied by an equally vacuous example of Ottoman era “proof,”   seems like a desynchronized “Spy Versus SpyMad Magazine segment with Lewis playing the role of both “Department of Joke and Dagger” agents, simultaneously, when juxtaposed to Lewis’ own entry on hurriyya—Arabic for freedom—which appears in the venerable Encyclopedia of Islam.

Hurriyya and the uniquely Western concept of freedom are completely at odds. Hurriyya “freedom” — as Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) the lionized “Greatest Sufi Master”, expressed it — “being perfect slavery.” And this conception is not merely confined to the Sufis’ perhaps metaphorical understanding of the relationship between Allah the “master” and his human “slaves.”

The late American scholar of Islam, Franz Rosenthal (d. 2003), who wrote the first part of the Encyclopedia of Islam entry on hurriyya, analyzed its larger context in Muslim society. He notes the historical absence of hurriyya as “…a fundamental political concept that could have served as a rallying cry for great causes.”

An individual Muslim, “…was expected to consider subordination of his own freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the group as the only proper course of behavior…”

Thus politically, Rosenthal concludes, 

…the individual was not expected to exercise any free choice as to how he wished to be governed…In general, …governmental authority admitted of no participation of the individual as such, who therefore did not possess any real freedom vis a vis it.

Lewis (in his complementary Encyclopedia of Islam entry on hurriyya) discusses this concept during the Ottoman Empire, specifically, through the contemporary era. After highlighting a few “cautious” or “conservative” (Lewis’ characterization) reformers and their writings, Lewis maintains,

…there is still no idea that the subjects have any right to share in the formation or conduct of government—to political freedom, or citizenship, in the sense which underlies the development of political thought in the West. While conservative reformers talked of freedom under law, and some Muslim rulers even experimented with councils and assemblies, government was in fact becoming more and not less arbitrary….

Lewis also emphasizes, in sharp contrast to his Rome statement, that Western colonialism ameliorated this chronic situation, and he concludes with a stunningly contradictory observation:

During the period of British and French domination, individual freedom was never much of an issue. Though often limited and sometimes suspended, it was on the whole more extensive and better protected than either before or after. [emphasis added]

In the final revulsion against the West, Western democracy too was rejected as a fraud and a delusion, of no value to Muslims.

The 19th century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt referred to Islam as a despotic (or in 20th century parlance, totalitarian) ideology, the Caliphate being “practically from the outset a despotism,” and the Ottoman incarnation of this system exhibiting a “peculiar steadfastness.” He explained the (Koranic) origins of this despotic system which fused immutably the religious and the temporal:

All religions are exclusive, but Islam is quite notably so, and immediately it developed into a state which seemed to be all of a piece with the religion. The Koran is its spiritual and secular book of law. Its statutes embrace all areas of life…and remain set and rigid; …This is the power of Islam in itself. At the same time, the form of the world empire as well as of the states gradually detaching themselves from it cannot be anything but a despotic monarchy. The very reason and excuse for existence, the holy war, and the possible world conquest, do not brook any other form.

And Burckhardt cited as the “strongest proof of real, extremely despotic power in Islam,” the legacy of Islamic realms having  

…been able to invalidate, in such large measure, the entire history (customs, religion, previous way of looking at things, earlier imagination) of the peoples converted to it [Islam]. It [Islam] accomplished this only by instilling into them a new religious arrogance which was stronger than everything and induced them to be ashamed [emphasis in original] of their past

How might Burckhardt’s conception, contra Lewis, have applied to Ottoman rule? Historian Stoyan Pribichevich’s 1938 study of the Balkans “World Without End” provides these illustrations, beginning with his characterization of the Ottoman Sultans:

Each was a blood descendant of
Osman [d. 1326, founder of the Ottoman dynasty]; the commander of all armed forces; the Caliph, the religious chief of all Moslems; the Padishah or King of Kings with the power of life and death over even his own cabinet ministers; the indisputable executor of the Prophet’s will—the Shadow of God on Earth

Although, the Sultan had a Council composed of ranking dignitaries, headed by an erstwhile “Prime Minister,” the Grand Vizier, who advised him, Pribichevich notes,

But like the Janissaries [military slaves taken from the families of the subjugated Christian populations while adolescents, and forcibly converted to Islam, as part of the Ottoman devshirme levy system] they were Kuls, slaves whose lives and properties belonged to the master. Cases occurred where a Grand Vizier was put to death at a mere whim of the Sultan.

Thus Pribichevich concludes, regarding the Ottoman Sultanate, “Of all known dictators the Sultans were the most dictatorial.”

And Pribichevich goes on to explain how this dictatorial Ottoman Sultanate operated within the overall context of Islam’s religio-political totalitarian system:

Then, Islam was a totalitarian religion.
The Koran regulated not only the relationship of man to God, but all aspects of political organization, economics, and private conduct. Although the Sultan was the sole legislator, his laws, the sheri [Shari’a], were expected to conform to the sacred text. Now, for the proper interpretation of the Prophet’s phrases, there was a body of learned priests and jurists, the Ulemas. While no born Moslem could become a member of the Janissaries, no ex-Christian was ever allowed to enter the sacred corporation of the Ulemas. These theologians were not the slaves of the Sultan, but their opinions nevertheless were only advisory. So, the whole exotic structure of the Ottoman state can be summed up this way: the Koran was the empire’s Constitution; the Sultan, its absolute executor; the Janissaries, the soldiers and administrators; and the thinking Ulemas, a sort of Supreme Court.

A decade later (in 1950), G.H. Bousquet (d. 1978), one of the most widely acclaimed 20th century scholars of Islamic Law, confirmed Pribichevich’s conclusions, unfettered by our current mind numbing, politically correct cultural relativism, which appears to have afflicted even Mr. Lewis:

Islam first came before the world as a doubly totalitarian system.
It claimed to impose itself on the whole world and it claimed also, by the divinely appointed Muhammadan law, by the principles of fiqh [jurisprudence], to regulate down to the smallest details the whole life of the Islamic community and of every individual believer… the study of Muhammadan Law (dry and forbidding though it may appear)… is of great importance to the world of today.

And Ibn Warraq, in a brilliant, dispassionate contemporary analysis, has described 14 characteristics of “Ur Fascism” as enumerated by Umberto Eco, analyzing their potential relationship to the major determinants of Islamic governance and aspirations, through the present. He adduces salient examples which reflect the key attributes discussed by Eco: the unique institution of jihad war; the establishment of a Caliphate under “Allah’s vicegerent on earth,” the Caliph—ruled by Islamic Law, i.e., Shari’a, a rigid system of subservience and sacralized discrimination against non-Muslims and Muslim women, devoid of basic freedoms of conscience, and expression.

Sadly Lewis’ newly minted “Just So Story” for adults is devoid of Kipling’s timeless wit and insight, sharing only the element of pure creative fantasy. The danger is that such an ahistorical pronouncement from on high will engender more apologetic, fantasy-based policies, retarding any progress towards the wrenching reforms required of Islam itself if Muslim societies are to emerge from their current morass of hateful, bellicose totalitarianism. The depressing predicaments observed almost a century ago (in 1909) by W.H.T. Gairdner still hold sway, while his candor is seemingly absent among our contemporary elites:

It remains to be seen how soon the reformers will realize the account that must sooner or later be settled between real civil and religious liberty and Mohammedan sacred law or ‘Shariat’ (including the Koran, and the Traditions)…It remains to be seen… whether the zimmi [dhimmi], (Christian or Jewish subjects) can ever really be accorded equal rights with the Moslem in Moslem states; whether the habit of freedom can be taught; and whether the root of the whole social evil, the position of women, can be touched, while a belief in the Koran remains…But apart from the problematic future, we have the historical past:— by the confession of the entire Moslem world itself, nothing could have been more deplorable from every point of view, moral, social, intellectual, political, and even religious, than the state of all Moslem lands before the reform movement from the West agitated them. This was freely admitted at a Moslem Conference held lately at Mecca…Is this confessed failure, then, due to Islam, or is it not? All that can be said is that Islam had practically had an absolute monopoly of influence where the state of things had been brought about; and that the impulse towards change in no case sprang—apparently could not have sprung—from any purely Islamic source. These are, at least, two solid facts. The ‘movements’ that spring from purely Islamic sources are typified by names like Abd ul Wahhab, the Mahdi, El-Senussi: And these movements are movements—backwards.

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