01 Mar 2010
Islam’s Great Culture Is Dyingby Sean SilverthorneTopics:
In the early 1970s, as Ali Allawi (MBA ’71) graduated from HBS, Islam was flexing both religious and political muscles that had long been dormant. It came to a head with Iran’s 1979 revolution, an uprising against the ruling political elite and Western-inspired modernity. But today, the “Islamic resurgence” has metamorphosed into a death march of Islamic civilization, Allawi writes in his recent book, The Crisis of Islamic Civilization (Yale University Press). Although Islam as a religious faith nurturing millions of believers remains strong and growing, Islam’s once great culture is dying.
Allawi, who held several ministry positions in postwar Iraq, writes with forceful language and a scholar’s command of world history, philosophy, and culture. Having been raised in Iraq, he displays the command of an insider.
“Islamic civilization is now nearly bereft of most of the vital elements that had previously given it coherence and meaning,” Allawi argues, asserting that under colonial rule, traditional institutions and ways of life were replaced by modern equivalents that spoke little to the people. The deterioration accelerated as Western influence swept eastward and, more recently, as globalism spread. Few Muslims today live lives linked to truly universal Islamic institutions that provide governance, education, economies, legal systems, or cultural expression.
Instead, the author describes a civilization in name only, with the cultures of Islam becoming increasingly parochial and national, intertwined with racial or ethnic identities and loyalties. Certainly not the “universal civilization,” united by a sense of the sacred, it once was.
Why did this come to be? Allawi points to a lack of political, religious, academic, and social leadership that could have helped Islam redefine itself in modern times based on its own values and beliefs. In the current crisis, Allawi sees the politicization of Islam and rejection of the modern world as its possible undoing because both remove the possibility of a political route to reform.
To reclaim the Islamic heritage, Allawi concludes, leaders must find ways to rekindle its artistic and creative forces while also restoring a physical-spiritual balance in the people’s lives. If not, “Islamic civilization will . . . suffer the fate of previous world civilizations, which have disappeared as living entities.” He does not sound optimistic.
One leaves this book with many assumptions blasted away, a clear understanding of the complex forces that roil Islam, and, at least for this reader, hope that this civilization can continue as a force for good in the world.
Class of MBA 1971, Section I