By Gökhan Bacik
November 08, 2015
Almost a century ago, the Ottoman-Muslim scholar Said Nursi commented that the future of Islam depends on the West.
For Nursi, the Muslim world was in a deep state of collapse. Accordingly, it was a kind of civilizational collapse that included many aspects of life, mainly moral and scientific. Like many other scholars of the age, Nursi was in search of an answer to a critical question: How to solve the problems of the Muslim world? Nursi was not alone in this intellectual endeavor. Many others, such as Muhammed Abduh and Jamaluddin Afghani, were also in the same debate.
Unlike many others, Nursi’s proposal was different. He suggested that the West would give birth to a new Islam. Yet, for Nursi, this birth of a new Islam could heal the problems of Muslims. For many years, Nursi’s thesis was analyzed as another apocalyptical argument. Some even suggested that Nursi meant the rise of Islam among Christians. What did Nursi mean by this?
Recently, I went to Chicago for a conference. While there, I met Serhan Tanrıverdi, who is doing his doctorate in religious studies at Loyola University in the city. Tanrıverdi is writing a thesis on recent Western scholars who deal with the problems of Islam such as Tariq Ramadan. Tanrıverdi argues that the intellectual stagnancy in the Muslim world needs a new interpretation that could be done only by Muslim intellectuals who have lived in the West. This automatically reminds me of Nursi’s thesis. Islam is in a state of deep crisis. Yet, a whole century of attempts to reform Islam has failed. As of 2015, the whole Muslim world has become a land of authoritarian governments. Yet, the Muslim contribution to various issues such as technology is at a minimum. So, is it meaningless to be hopeful about Muslims to overcome their problems?
So, we have the same problem: How to solve the problems of the Muslim world? The current state of the Muslim world is also a reflection of the Muslim theory. Thus, what we have is also an intellectual fiasco. But, today, the situation is more critical: Given the political and other conditions in Turkey, Libya or Malaysia, can one be optimistic about the birth of a new theory to overcome the problems of Muslims? The renewal of Islamic thought requires sophisticated social and intellectual capital. Do Muslims have such a capacity today?
I personally am starting to think like Said Nursi. Frankly speaking, traditional Muslims who live in the Middle East today cannot reconstruct Islam. The social, economic, political and intellectual capital that we need to reconstruct Islam does not exist in the traditional heartland of Muslims. So, the logical inference is simple: Those who live in the West can develop a new theory of Islam that may even help others who live in the traditional heartland of Islam.
Most parts of the traditional Muslim geography have become an area of survival. People who live here prioritize security, nutrition and health. Reading even a newspaper is a luxury for many Muslims, even in Turkey. Many other Muslim societies, such as Yemen and Libya, are in deep political crisis. Given such a sociological setting, intellectual investment is a luxury effort with no sociological basis. Yet, there is no social and other type of capacity to do this. In short, the historical heartland of Islam has lost its ability to open its mind to various intellectual projects. In simple terms, you cannot do this here!
In such an environment, Muslim intellectuals who live in the West come to mind as an alternative opportunity to deal with the problems of the Muslim world. As it happened in the 10th and 11th centuries, Muslim intellectuals who live in the West can initiate a new scholarly synthesis between Islam and Western knowledge — something that is a must to overcome the problems of the Islamic world.