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Faithlines – Muslim Conceptions of Islam and Society
Book Review
Aisha Siddiqa Azim

 

Author: Riaz Hassan

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Year: 2002

Synopsis

Faithlines – Muslim Conceptions of Islam and Society, by Riaz Hassan, is a sociological study of Muslims’ attitudes towards the ummah and key contemporary issues in the Muslim world. Using a wide-ranging study based on carefully constructed questionnaires, Hassan takes the reader on a trip to explore the multi-dimensional religious landscapes of four strategically chosen Muslim countries, examining how sociological factors have played a dynamic role in shaping them.

The surveys used have been framed using established sociologists’ and political thinkers’ constructs and typologies. Employing the services and technology of respected surveying institutions in each country, besides well-qualified interviewers, an effort was made to gather together a credible representation of the religiously-aware public. However, as random sampling was not used in selecting the samples, the results, as Hassan himself states, cannot be generalized to the entire population. Using statistical evidence, Hassan explores the relationships between religion and Muslim attitudes towards gender, the state, the Islamic ummah, and the rest of the world. He explores the reasons for and consequences of religious fundamentalism and attempts to map the current and future political and global standing of the Muslim world.

Building on the evidence, Hassan shows that Islam is not a stagnant and unchanging phenomenon as it is generally perceived to be. He challenges traditionalist Islamic thinking, and closes down on some very interesting conclusions.

Chapter-wise Summary

Chapter One: Introduction

Hassan begins his book with a brief overview of the general socio-economical conditions of the Muslim world, and their overall backwardness. He then goes on to discuss possible reasons for their condition, referring to works by prominent Muslim as well as non-Muslim social scientists and politicians. He gives special importance to Fadl al-Rahman, whose understanding of the Muslim world’s backwardness lies in its tendency to contain obstacles to progress in the form of the opposition to the “rethinking and reformulation” of Islam by the ‘ulama within. Talking about Islamic fundamentalism, Hassan presents three established theories which try to explain it. He introduces the basic issues of the contemporary Islamic world covered in the book, mainly: the Islamic ummah and state, gender issues, and Muslim perceptions of the self and the “other”. Finally, he highlights the aims of his study and the methodologies used in conducting the surveys, and briefs the reader about the four Muslim countries surveyed – Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Egypt.

Chapter Two: Muslim Piety

This chapter aims to explore the sociological nature, content and expression of Muslim Piety, based on empirical studies. The author uses the works of Stark and Glock to define Muslim “religiosity” as a multi-dimensional phenomenon, and bases his study of it on five dimensions (Ideological, Ritualistic, Devotional, Experiential and Consequential). Using the results, Hassan concludes that Muslims from all walks of life share a common self-image of Islam and are generally quite religious. Given the social and political differences between the formerly communized Kazakhstan and the other three countries, he maintains that piety is a socially constructed phenomenon, and differentiates between traditional and non-traditional religious commitment.

Chapter Three: The Islamic Ummah – Myth or Reality

Giving a brief overview of the concept and history of the ummah, Hassan establishes that the essentially theological ummah established by the Holy Prophet (sws) to promote unity is not the same institution as the ummah of today, which has evolved, due to political and social influences, into an all-encompassing collective Muslim identity with political implications. The empirical evidence presented proves that the ummah consciousness is very much a reality in all the Muslim countries surveyed.

The last part of the chapter discusses the impact of modernity on the ummah’s development and evolution and its consequences. Noting the current fragmented condition of the Muslim world and the fact that despite all Muslim countries’ conforming to some form of ummah consciousness there remain differences in its pervasiveness and intensity, Hassan concludes that the only way for religion to gain wide acceptance with the masses is by playing an effective role in solving society’s problems. He maintains that it must be autonomous from the state to do so. Hence secularization is the ultimate solution and consequence of an Islamic, or “undifferentiated”, state. Highlighting the clash between “authentic Islam” and “hybrid Islam” – the mix of different Muslim countries’ cultures, which is a result of the globalization process – he proposes that “fundamentalism” is the reaction to Islamic “hybridity” of traditional scholars who support “authentic” Islamic. He concludes that in order for the Muslim world to be successful, the Muslim ummah should divide into several regional ummahs. This will help each regional ummah concentrate, unhindered, on progressing forward according to Islam in the context of its own people, culture, history, and political environment.

Chapter Four: The Self-Image of Islam

This chapter discusses sociologists’ ideas in relation to the self-image of Islam, identifying its worldview and self-image and the underlying reasons for the existence of Islamic fundamentalism. The works of Watt identify key features of the traditional world-view and its essentially self-sufficient and monolithic self-image; the main cause for fundamentalism is seen as a “moral panic” due to the “crisis of self-image”, brought about by modernization and globalization. Gellner distinguishes between “High Islam” – the rigid, scripturalistic Islam of the religious elite – and “Folk Islam”, the flexible, practical Islam of the masses. He sees the gradual inclination of Muslims to “High” Islam as an impetus for fundamentalism, which, once again, is a reactionary measure caused by global Western impact. Rahman uses a somewhat similar typology, and discusses the clash as being between the literal and intellectual Islam of the “modernists”, and the rigid and traditionalist, “folk Islam”. Muslim feminist Mernissi believes that Islam today is a male-dominated and politically manipulated phenomenon.

After a discussion of the above, Hassan differentiates between “traditional” and “liberal” self-images of Islam and discusses the piety of those holding these views. Then, based on Gellner’s typologies, he charts out the current positions of Muslim countries today. They can be categorized as fundamentalist-socially radical; liberal-socially radical; fundamentalist-conservative or liberal-conservative.

Hassan sees the prevalent traditional perception of the self-sufficiency of Islam and the “moral polarization” of Muslims presented by the evidence to be an overly optimistic view of one’s religion, and he sees it as one of the main reasons for the intellectual stagnation of the Muslims.

Chapter Five: Islamic State

Hassan bases this chapter on the fact that there is currently no exemplary society where Islam and the state coexist undifferentiated in peace and harmony. He distinguishes between “differentiated” (or secular) states and “Islamic” states (those where religion are not separated). Having developed a framework for the study of the attitudes of Muslims towards different institutions, Hassan notes how, in secular states, Muslims still place a considerable amount of trust in religious institutions, while in undifferentiated Pakistan, religious institutions do not enjoy a lot of the public’s trust. His interpretation of this data points to the fact that in secular states people trust the religious institutions because these institutions play a role in mobilizing resistance against a rather mistrusted government. In the case of Pakistan, he concludes that because religion and state are essentially implemented at the same level, people relate the failure of the state to religion as well, and hence lose faith in both institutions. Hassan reiterates his opinion that for Islam to gain the public’s trust, it should perhaps not be implemented at state level.

Chapter Six: Gender Roles – Islamic Determinism or Social Construction

Hassan admits that Islam is generally perceived to be a misogynist religion, but then points out that this attitude of current Islam is in fact not what it was originally meant to be; rather, he feels that the sacred texts have been interpreted in such a way by influential scholars. This has tainted the minds of the males of society and pushed them to believe that they are superior to women. Hassan’s study of the general perceptions of Muslims of gender roles across the four countries reveals interesting statistics. He observes that Islam had one definite thing to say on this, and given the fact that, according to previously presented evidence, Muslims across all four countries are fairly religious, then the differences in attitudes towards gender roles would not differ geographically as much as they do. He observes that this must be because of the social construction rather than Islamic determinism of gender roles. Kazakhstan, because of being formerly a communist country, has better, more modern views on gender roles than Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia. Discussing the perceptions of gender roles in the four countries, in the context of their individual cultural and historical background, he maintains that gender roles are dynamic and are shaped by social, economic and political events, rather than by Islam itself.

Chapter Seven: Attitudes towards Veiling and Patriarchy

Hassan presents information which he opines proves that veiling is not a part of Islam itself but a function of the historical and social influences of Arabia at the time that Islam was evolving. Given the fact that Islam is a natural religion, Hassan argues against the claims of religious scholars who give the impression that the entire woman is an embodiment of sex, therefore to conceal her provocative sexuality she must cover her whole self. This has ultimately led to the evolution of a society in which woman must be hidden away from others, to the extent that it impinges on her ability to work in public roles. Hassan’s empirical study tries to gauge how people view women’s roles in society, and their attitudes towards patriarchy. He finds that in general, Muslims, especially male Muslims, do believe in the traditionalist stance. Where countries are differentiated and more secularized, so that the women enjoy a higher standard of citizenship, he notes that it is the women in these countries who are more traditional than their very liberal counterparts residing in countries where their rights and citizenship status are apparently not at par with modernity. He explains this by proposing that as the status of woman increases, man’s status decreases, and his reaction is to develop more traditionalist views about woman’s roles. However, as the women of these societies feel a certain level of satisfaction with the State and religion, they do not have reason to object to the traditionalist stance of the men. Hassan feels that women in Muslim countries will inevitably face obstacles in their struggle for equality.

Chapter Eight: Muslim Perceptions of the “Other”

Hassan shows that Muslims generally feel optimistic about the global role of Islam. Also, a great proportion view other major countries as anti-Islamic. This can prove problematic for those working towards an understanding between Islam and the West. Hassan sees the positive self-image of Islam, and especially the perceptions of other countries being anti-Islamic, as an almost direct function of the cultural and political scenarios enshrouding the general public of the four countries. But he feels that these “anti-Islamic country” perceptions are exaggerated.

Chapter Nine: Conclusions

Having established the Muslims’ positive self-image and general religiosity, Hassan states that the more education they obtain, the more the general populations of Muslims shift away from fundamentalism, while still remaining religious. He states once more that Muslims will place more trust in religion if it is differentiated from the State, and believes this disintegration will be the ultimate end of Muslim countries. Discussing Iran as the case of a country which started out as an Islamic state but is today quite successful with regards to modernity, Hassan feels this can be attributed to Iran’s gradual secularization1. He sees Muslims’ universal intellectual stagnation as due to the old, traditionalist and rigid interpretations of Qur’an and Sunnah. Finally, he sees “hybridity” versus “authenticity” to be the main internal battle going on in the Muslim world. The fight put up against hybridity is explained as the fear of a loss of identity of the traditionalistic Islamicists. However, as globalization necessitates cultural hybridity, they will have to accept that many different interpretations can be made of sacred texts, which will ultimately give way to modernity. Globalization is challenging the belief that Islam is a complete and coded way of life, and it may facilitate the disintegration of the Islamic ummah into small regional ones, where each ummah will abide by its own culture of Islam. Then, having avoided conflict with each other, individual Muslim ummahs may perhaps be able to revive the ‘sacred past’, as they will be able to make progress without hindrance. The only thing left would be reform the politics of Islam’s holy centers, Makkah and Madinah, to accommodate for the new ummahs.

Reviews

In her review of Faithlines, Pocock-Behiery feels that the author has not been able to keep cleanly in the direction of his aims, and has presented some contradictory explanations to the statistics presented. Most of her dissatisfaction lies in the formulation of the survey questions used in the surveys throughout the study.2 She finds a “general lack of unity”3 in the book and perceives it to be a rather ambitious attempt to cover too many aspects of the Muslim worldview in too much detail.

Dr Gulzar Shah has mixed views on the book. He feels that the extensive use of quantitative methods which back Hassan’s analysis greatly enhance the reliability of the study. He appreciates the maturity and readability of the framework of the study, and the fact that Hassan employs tested and proven theories. For example, his study of religiosity is based on established works by Stark and Glock. However, Dr Shah finds limitations in the work, especially in the inherent weaknesses in the sampling techniques employed. The samples used give a highly biased picture of Muslims’ perceptions, being as over-represented by the literate population as they are. (Over 90% of respondents had High School degrees, while the literacy rate in Pakistan is very low.)4

 Notwithstanding the above, I feel that the primary aim of this study is no doubt a laudable effort in providing a balanced sociological analysis of the Muslim worldviews. However, I feel that Hassan falls somewhat short of providing such an entirely balanced view, because, as Pocock-Behiery contends, in trying to steer clear of apologetics, he ends up presenting once again a somewhat stereotyped portrait of the Muslim world.

The issue of inappropriate survey questions, (besides displaying a somewhat deficient understanding of Islam from within its own perspectives) is in my opinion a manifestation of what I see to be a central weakness of the paper – the fact that the main approach it has adopted is an essentialist one. In attempting to present an objective view, the author borrows heavily from Western constructs and ideas so that the study ultimately becomes a Western perception of the facts.5 Examining Muslim conceptions using Western frameworks, I feel, impair the individuality of Islam. Dr Zaman6 voiced the same opinion in his review of the book.

I also feel that Hassan’s presentation of Islam as a divinely revealed religion, like Christianity or Judaism, is contradictory. On one hand he admits that the sacred texts of Islam have been manipulated by those in power7, thereby acknowledging it to be a divine and static phenomenon. Yet on the other hand he seems to be drawing general conclusions about Islam itself using people’s perceptions. This contradiction and essentialist approach is embodied in his idea of regional ummahs, each with its own practicing version of Islam.8 This idea, of each ummah operating according to its own Islam within the context of its own cultural and political milieu, means that Islam itself is little more than a sociological construct altogether. Hassan admits that its true message has been manipulated9; yet he would have it evolve according to the cultural, economical and socio-political milieu of the region under question.

Hassan divides Muslims into those who are “traditionals” and those who are “liberals” and takes a stand with the liberals. With regard to gender issues and moral values, he approves of Communism and the West. The key idea he develops in his book is that Islam is not a monolithic phenomenon but a construct shaped complexly by the dynamics of culture, history, politics, geography, and other external and sociological factors.

Overall, while realizing the value of all the work, time and money employed in developing such a comprehensive and well thought-out study, and besides appreciating the fact that Hassan did come up with some fresh and innovative interpretations to the results of his surveys, I feel that the book in general leaves a lot to be desired in terms of presenting a truly “new and objective” view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. See Hassan, Faithlines (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 228-31 for an explanation of Iran’s shift to secularization through amendments in the constitution, etc.

2. For example, in developing an analysis of the experiential dimension of Muslim piety, one of the survey questions asks for the experience of having felt saved by the Prophet (sws). Ibid., 60. Pocock-Behiery asserts that such a question is far more applicable to Christian theology than to Islam.

3. Valerie Pocock-Behiery, Review of Faithlines by Riaz Hassan, available at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=164871049307645

4. Gulzar Shah. Personal Interview. November 4, 2004.

5. To cite two examples: firstly, he attempts to confine Muslim piety into the dimensions of “religiosity” proposed by Western scholars, whereas Islam is so unlike other Western religions in several respects that this does not seem an appropriate methodology to follow. See Hassan, Faithlines (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 41. Also, his use of GEM to gauge the status of women in Muslim countries economically in relation to their male counterparts displays a purely Western understanding of “gender equality”. Ibid., 203.

6. Iftikhar Zaman. Personal Interview. October 28, 2004.

7. For example, Hassan sees attitudes towards gender roles as made up today by religious scholars through a manipulation of the sacred texts, and presents Mernissis’ contention on it as well. Ibid., 170.

8. Ibid., 244-245.

9. Ibid., 191. ‘ulama have also been said to have “invented” traditions in order to bolster their own interpretations.

   
 
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