The persistent challenge of ‘Islamic exceptionalim’

By Megan Wang|January 27, 2018|General|31 comments

Hadi Enayat explains the basis of Islamic exceptionalism and the ways in which it has been debate in light of recent events

The notion of national or civilisational ‘exceptionalism’ was first used in connection with the USA to explain everything from its propensity for democracy to its apparent resistance to secularisation. The concept of ‘Islamic exceptionalism’ has a more recent pedigree dating back to the 1990s with the publication of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Yet the idea that something sets ‘Muslim societies’ and politics apart has an intellectual genealogy which arguably goes back to 18th-century Orientalist scholarship identified by Edward Said. While this exceptionalism is often cited by critics of Islam as the main reason for its failure to adapt to secular modernity, it is simultaneously celebrated in Islamist discourse as a manifestation of an ‘alternative modernity’. Indeed, proponents of Islamism have enthusiastically endorsed the notion that Islam is exceptional in being a total system in which religion and politics are inseparable, thus reaching the same conclusions as Islam’s detractors. It is mainly for this reason that they regard secularism as a harmful form of cultural imperialism imposed by the West.

Broadly speaking, the notion of ‘Islamic exceptionalism’ is based on three overlapping premises. Firstly, in civilisational terms it is argued that the emergence of Islam constituted a sharp break from the past producing a culture which was in religious and political terms unique compared to those which had preceded it in late antiquity and thus lacking any commonality with other civilisations such as Byzantium, Persia and/or medieval Europe. Of course, this account compliments the traditionalist Muslim vision of the emergence of Islam that emphasises its sudden appearance as a miraculous event which owed nothing to the Jahiliyya (ignorance or barbarism associated with pre-Islamic Arabia) which preceded it. Moreover, this vision assumes that the religion/culture is predominantly scriptural and essentially self-referential. This ‘scriptural determinism’ meant that philology was the main tool of analysis of ‘Islam’ for almost two centuries. Again, we should note the parallel with contemporary ‘fundamentalists’ who are also effectively scriptural determinists in their understanding of a pure Islam stripped of foreign cultural accretions and based on the literal word of God.

A second dimension of exceptionalism is asserted in the realm of imperialism and violence. In this sphere, it has been argued that the novelty of Islam resided in the synthesis of a universal empire with a universal religion. Whilst there had been universal conquerors before (e.g. Alexander the Great), they did not bring a religion; and whilst there had been universal religions before (e.g. Christianity), they were not connected to the idea of a universal empire. Thus jihad was a form of missionary warfare. In some of the more conservative critiques of Islam, as well as in Salafi-Jihadi ideology, Mohammad’s example of a warrior who engaged (according to some accounts) in over 80 military campaigns during his lifetime is seen as a model for a warrior-religion which glorifies violence and imperialism.

The third sphere of exceptionalism is located in the realm of politics and law. Here it is argued that Islam is unique in the ways that it relates to politics because of the status of Mohammad as both Prophet and statesman. Moreover, it is asserted that the sharia is not simply a religious law, but one which represented a set of social, economic, cultural and political practices which governed every aspect of life. These features prevented an autonomous space for politics and law to operate and have often been cited to account for the failure of secularism as well as the ‘democracy gap’ in the ‘Muslim World’.

Since the 1980s, the assumptions outlined above have been critiqued by scholars who have tried to promote a more nuanced understanding of Muslim-majority societies from a broadly materialist perspective. Fred Halliday, Sami Zubaida, Roger Owen, Aziz al-Azmeh and others have argued, in different ways, for an approach which sees the ‘Muslim World’ first and foremost as part of the Third (or non-European) World and subject to the same world historical processes from colonialism to the era of socialist planning to the much more eclectic contemporary combination of crony capitalism and rentierism, both of which are seen, from these perspectives, as the main factors accounting for the persistence of authoritarianism. Other critiques have exposed serious flaws in the scriptural/philological based approach – especially its reliance on the scholastic traditions of the ulama as a privileged, at times exclusive, source of knowledge about Islam to the detriment of less scriptural expressions of the faith and culture. These critiques led to the partial demise of the notion of Islamic exceptionalism, at least in academia, though it continued to persist elsewhere – especially in the world of US-based think tanks and in the discourse of the far right.

The 9/11 attacks saw a revival of Islamic exceptionalism and the notion of a ‘clash of civilizations’, which was eagerly adopted by the far right in Europe and the USA. This trend was boosted by the chaos after the Arab uprisings and the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS), both of which seemed to confirm the ‘democracy-gap’ and ‘violence’ theses outlined above. ‘Maybe the Orientalists were right in the first place!’ a friend morosely quipped to me a few years after the uprisings began, by which time several countries had either reverted to authoritarianism or descended into brutal civil wars. Indeed, this period saw a number of publications which have, implicitly or explicitly, revived the notion of Islamic exceptionalism. These include: Noah Feldman, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State (2008); Patricia Crone, God’s Rule (2004); Michael Cook, Ancient Religions, Modern Politics (2014); Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State (2012); and Shadi Hamid, Islamic Exceptionalism (2016). These studies have restated – in a more sophisticated and updated form – some of the premises of Islamic exceptionalism summarised above, often with great intellectual force and analytical clarity. Moreover, they cannot simply be written off as illegitimate forms of Orientalism having often been produced by scholars who see themselves as working outside (and sometimes against) that tradition. These works are important in that they have emphasised some of the distinctive features of ‘Muslim politics’.

But it remains debatable how cogent, empirically or philosophically, an approach which emphasises the difference of Islam to the point of ‘exceptionalism’ is. Such an approach discounts the complexity and diversity of Muslim-majority societies both historically and in the contemporary world. Indeed, recently published empirical studies of secularism in these societies – such as one edited by Akeel Bilgrami, Beyond the Secular West (2016) and another edited by Mirjam Künkler et al, A Secular Age Beyond the West (2017) – show that they have exhibited a range of religion-state arrangements and multiple secularities which defy essentialist notions of typically ‘Islamic’ religion-state relations, often inspired by the view that Islam knew no separation between religion and state.

The revival of the notion Islamic exceptionalism has, nevertheless, underlined the challenge of forging approaches to understanding the politics of the ‘Muslim World’ without sliding into cultural essentialism on the one hand or reductive ‘difference blind’ materialist analysis on the other.

Hadi Enayat is a visiting lecturer at the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, Aga Khan University, London and a member of the Editorial Board of The Middle East in London magazine


This article appears in the Secularism issue of The Middle East in London.

Enayat, Hadi. ‘The persistent challenge of “Islamic exceptionalism”‘ The Middle East in London 13, no. 5 (October–November 2017); 7-8.

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