Freedom, Modernity, and Islam: Toward a Creative Synthesis

By Martin, Richard C. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Freedom, Modernity, and Islam: Toward a Creative Synthesis


Martin, Richard C., The Middle East Journal


Freedom, Modernity, and Islam: Toward a Creative Synthesis, by Richard K. Khuri. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998. xli + 338 pages. Notes to p. 362. Bibl. to p. 368. Index to p. 384. $59.95.

The encounter of Muslim societies and intellectuals with Western modernism has been the subject of numerous studies in recent years by both Muslim and non-Muslim authors. Some scholars believe that traditionalist Islamic resistance and reaction to post-Enlightenment modernism is due to incurable medieval mentalities among traditionalist Muslims. Others believe that secularism tied to Western political and cultural imperialism is the main source of the problem. In Freedom, Modernity and Islam, Richard K. Khuri tries to synthesize these two extreme attitudes. This book is, then, not about Islam as such (there is virtually no reference to Islamic solutions to the problems of modernity in South or Southeast Asia). Rather, it is a reflective philosophical essay on how to view Arab Muslim problems of religion, freedom, and modernity in Kantian terms.

Accordingly, the focus of Freedom, Modernity, and Islam is on what the author consistently terms the "Arab Muslim world," and in that sense has the tone of a personal meditation. In some passages, Khuri suggests that the main issue is not a problem of Islam versus the West but, following Jacques Berque, "the cleavage between the old and the new in contemporary Arab society," which applies particularly to the conflict between Muslim fundamentalists and modernist Muslims (p. 33). The main lines of the argument begin with what philosopher Charles Taylor distinguishes as two kinds of freedom, the negative and the positive. The negative kind of freedom is the freedom of choice for the individual in a materialistic, but hollow, modern society.

This is identified as the freedom of postEnlightenment modernity, characteristic of Western civilization. The positive kind of freedom is that of traditional, and nowadays generally impoverished, societies where family and community enable the individual to be and become what he or she can through group support mechanisms. Khuri believes that postEnlightenment modernity and negative freedom (sovereign reason, individual freedom and choice, voluntary association, etc.) has something to contribute to Islamic traditionalism, and vice versa. Indeed, each is moving toward the other, as the presuppositions of the Enlightenment unravel and the failure of traditionalist absolutism fails to function to the social and political benefit of contemporary Muslims.

Following the preface and introduction, the work comprises seven substantial chapters, beginning with chapter one on the problem with freedom(s). …

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