If the attacks of September 11 accomplished anything it was this, that great attention was focussed on Western and Islamic relations and their glaring differences in the way they handled political, social and religious values. The West is associated with words like secularism, individual freedom and tolerance, the Islamic world is associated on the other hands with words like collective rights, despotism and intolerance. The east and the west are separated by things like ‘clash of civilizations’ and these differences can be attributed to some of the irreconcilable differences and natural clashes. What makes these clashes all the more difficult is the fact that they both share a history of borrowing from each other, coexistence and cultural influence. The actions of September 11 has ensured that we look at the things that separate them instead of seeing the many ways their cultural and religious integration made up the many layers of our style of existence. In 1996, Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations divided the world into different segments while reinforcing the pathological status of the other. This document makes the claim that ‘patterns of cohesion’ are made by the cultural identities of our post-Cold War World. The major criticism felt by this ideology is the fact that religion was made the focal point of these cultures. On the other hand also religion has seen such a growth with the various new religions been formed every day and has once again become the gauge by which people measure societies, history and culture.
The academic world in the recent past has viewed ethnicity and religion as two forms of identification that were getting outdated and would be replaced by secularism in the modern world. Many of the theorists of modernisation felt that urbanization and industrialization would transform the identities of people as they became new men and women becoming modern and urban and secular. It was assumed by theorists of nationalism that these factors coupled with the desire of success at a high level of industrialization would lead to a larger national identity and a subsidizing of ethnicity and religion into the background. These assumptions were founded on the fact that since secularism and modernism were indivisible countries that were modernised would also be secularised. European countries were not strangers to secularisation that was wrought often by force after revolutions and wars of independence like Nasser in Egypt or Ataturk in Turkey.
The question of religion’s rebirth and how it coexists with modernity is often raised with respect to Islam and the significant role it plays in countries like Iran, Algeria, Egypt and Turkey. This discourse has also gotten more attention with events like that of September 11. Events akin to this have ensured that the west views Islam as intolerant and adverse to change. While Judaism and Christianity cannot be exempt from behaviours of extremism, the onus still falls on Islam to prove that religion can be viewed as tolerant. We need to be able to ask ourselves in the conditions that may make Islam or any other religion flexible. If we try to see the world only through the lens of religion we miss the point as this revelation only leads to bitter debates between the west and Islam. As a result we see how a clash of religions and ideologies are used to support the differences of the determinants of modernity and development. While these can be seen to have a negative effect on modernity the positives of Islam is attributed as the accomplishment of the Muslim societies based off the backbone of things like purity and the strength of their teachings.
Social scientists over time have been able to draw a correlation between culture and politics and religion and how they always seem to be intertwined. Religion especially has always played an important role in its support of cultural and social contexts that provides different types of meanings on existence. The social scientist Geertz in 1968 spoke of how Islam came into Indonesia and Morocco and blended into the economic and cultural milieu that was at that time present. He therefore claimed that religion as it were was shaped by the conditions it met on the ground as opposed to it being the other way round as he viewed religion to be dependent on external conditions. If this is true then we can say that the version of the Ottoman Islam from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century is different from the versions we see together as their landscape and economies were totally different as well.
The Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire came to prominence in the 14th century and for 400 years they were still a force to be reckoned with. How did the Ottoman system operate in a way to successfully incorporate Islam and the state? I believe that the Ottoman state succeeded because they intertwined their administrative and political interests with their Islamic views, making the Ottoman state an Islamic one as well. As a state they learnt flexibility in how they moved from secular law to religious law and from orthodoxy to a variety of syncretism. Hence religion for them became an anchor – as a mechanism that enabled the rule of an empire and a guide to a community of the faithful. This is where the theory of most social scientists comes into play because we see from the Ottoman Empire that they were able to separate religion as a system of beliefs from religion that became an institution. These differences were able to thrive in the Ottoman state as they connected all the aspects of their society to the Islamic idiom. The Ottoman Empire had many things working in their favour at this point in time to help them make a success of their style of survival.
- The rulers had a relatively weak Islamic identification that made it possible for forbearance and permissiveness
- The divisions in religious institutions meant that the state could invoke the accommodation of religion the empire’s life
- The way religion was integrated into the state through the use of secular law created a unique relationship of religion and politics that was lacking in medieval Europe.
- The mosque in the empire was not an outside effect but rather necessary for the livelihood and existence of the state.
The Nature of the Early Ottoman Polity and Islam
The Ottoman Empire ran through the Asian, African and European continents and as a result encompassed a variety of cultures, languages, political structures, peoples and even religions. A series of dynasties passed through these lands in the 400 years of their significance as we saw the Osmanli dynasty that was named after the first Osman start from the foothills and expand to south Eastern Europe to Mecca and Medina. The Ottomans begun by conquering lands of the Balkans, they also acquired some predominantly Christian localities. With a variety of peoples and religions, the challenge seemed to be establishing a rule that was coherent and lasting. They aimed to accomplish this by balancing a rule that would not exclude the Christians and Jews, Armenians and Shi’a, the Muslims of Sunni and many other Sufi beliefs. So while they were allowed to live in their communities and observe their local traditions they were also expected to pay taxes. This local autonomy meant that although religion may mean something different locally, it still had to have legitimacy and eventually focus on the rule and legitimacy of the state. Religion therefore took pride of place as an institution of the state and their practitioners could only rise to be state officials.
Religion and secular law were built into the society and while an instance of people who defaulted in the Catholic Church were seen as heretics and persecuted, the Ottomans preferred a heterodox style of Islam and viewed such nuances as a part of the cultural gamut of the society. So while Islam states that the only available and acceptable law is the shari’a law, the Ottomans believed that sultan had the power to transmit secular law. We therefore see the Ottomans grant sovereignty to the sultan’s law over the religious law and once again the relationship between religion and politics is exposed. The Byzantine institutions and customs also helped in the rise of the Ottoman institutions as they too began to demonstrate a culture specific accumulation of approaches to ruling. These were a people who were willing to borrow across tribes and religions and peoples as long as they felt it would eventually benefit the state. So it was not unheard of for them to pick up Christian or Jewish society norms for their own betterment. This worked so well for them that even European Christians were so impressed with their tactics and they too hoped they could inculcate this pattern of religious openness and toleration into their systems and while we know from history that they didn’t, they did in fact try to convert these Muslims to Christians.
Modernisation is often used in our parlance today and especially with regards our world becoming a global village and it always seems to be assumed that Europe is the mother of modernity. And although the European world today looks closer to what modernisation is about it should be understood that modernisation has been practiced successfully by the Ottoman dynasty and African dynasties and Asians dynasties and many other dynasties that are not been mentioned today because the people occupying those lands today could not build on the foundation that had been set by their predecessors.
People may look at the Islamic world today and all they can see are a people of fanatics who express themselves by spreading terror and fear in the name of their translated religion, the truth remains that one of the most tolerant and modern societies in the 14th century and the 400 years that followed was in fact an Islamic state. A state that succeeded and flourished because they understood the differences experienced by the people in their land and they realised that they had to be flexible in the way the land was run for the benefit of all involved and also the ruling party. That was modernism at its finest and it was not practiced by a European nation but rather an Islamic one.
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