The first assignment I give the graduate students in my class at Chicago Theological Seminary is Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. I figure it is only fair for them to do a thorough reading of perhaps the most prevalent theory of our times.
And then I spend the rest of the semester trying to dig out of that hole.
It’s not that my students – most of them bright, progressive, hopeful people of faith – want to believe that there is a clash of civilizations. It is that Huntington has created a framework that facts seem to fit in. And as our media continues to provide a microphone and a stage for religious totalitarians, the Huntington thesis that civilizations are inherently at odds with each other acquires the force of inevitability, which makes it the single most dangerous idea of our time.
So I am continually looking for resources that are as wide-ranging as Huntington’s book – that pull together history, politics, religious scholarship and personal narrative into a coherent framework which can counter the force of inevitability with the power of possibility.
I have found one such resource in Akbar Ahmed’s important new book, Journey Into Islam.
Professor Ahmed’s personal range is remarkable. He is a devoted Muslim who was trained as an anthropologist at the University of London, served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, lived for extended periods of time on three continents, and seems comfortable in situations that range from tribal rituals to state dinners. He brings every inch of his access, erudition and aplomb to this book.
He also brings a deep and nuanced understanding of Islam, something shockingly absent from most of the current books on Muslims in the modern world. For Ahmed, Islam is not just a handful of sacred verses or a particular political movement, but a broad tradition inspired by a religious ethos that includes poetry, philosophy, prayer, politics and every other aspect of human life. This breadth of understanding is distilled into a fascinating three-part typology of Muslim leadership – the mystical, the modernist and the fundamentalist. Each of these archetypes is rooted within the tradition and has had various incarnations throughout Muslim history.
Choosing the rickshaw over the armchair, Ahmed sets off for an extended journey through the Muslim world to find out how these archetypes are playing out in reality. He gives us conversations with students at fundamentalist Muslim schools, meetings with powerful political leaders like President Musharraf of Pakistan and interactions with Muslim intellectual giants like Bosnia’s Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric. He unpacks how the Muslim world views America’s post-9/11 actions. And he brings an anthropologist’s eyes to the journey – for example, pointing out how Muslim women on a flight back to the Middle East employ the restroom on the plane to change from their European skirts and blouses to the robes and headscarves required by their lives in the Arab world.
He also brings several of his young students along, and includes their insights in the book in the form of their journal entries. It is a brilliant addition for several reasons. First, it affirms the idea that the clash of civilizations is ultimately going to be ended when young people are able to connect and understand one another. Second, it spices up Ahmed’s narrative, making it a particularly interesting read for students. And finally, it provides eyes on Ahmed’s experience that he can’t provide himself. For example, this is Hadia’s account of Ahmed at the shrine of the sufi saint Moin-uddin Chisti in Ajmer: “I suddenly saw our dear professor, Dr. Akbar, transform from the seasoned diplomat and the analytical researcher to a calm, peaceful mystic, overtaken by the spirituality around him.”
Ahmed is not afraid to ask tough questions. Where were the American politicians who knew enough of both American history and Muslim civilization and took the long-view in rebuilding that relationship? Where were the Muslim leaders who could adapt the Islamic models of mystical and modernist leadership to the present times to challenge the fundamentalist path?
But ultimately, this is a book of hope. First and foremost, Ahmed has hope in all the traditions that he is a part of – Islam and the west, South Asia and America. He suggests that each return to its own first principles – democracy and equal rights for America, knowledge and balance for Islam – implying that, at bottom, these civilizations are not only compatible but can learn a great deal from one another.
And Ahmed provides a way forward in the form of a man named Aijaz, a powerful Muslim hardliner and author of books calling on Muslims to wage violent war against the west. Ahmed introduces us to Aijaz at the beginning of the book, and portrays him as an intransigent example of fundamentalist Islam.
But Aijaz listens carefully when Ahmed and his students visit his school. He begins to accept the message that real Christians and Jews are far more complex than the stereotypical images fundamentalist Muslim preachers insist on. He is drawn to the idea that Islam and America are not inevitably in conflict, that he can play a part in bridging the divide, and in fact there are many dimensions in the Muslim tradition that call him to do so.
Aijaz changes. He begins to give different speeches, write different books, even leaves his position at the fundamentalist Muslim school.
An end to the clash of civilizations? No. But it is amazing how much easier it is to find your way out of the darkness when candles begin to light up.