Ira Lapidus Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Islamic Societies and Change: Conversation with Ira Lapidus, Professor Emeritus of History, University of California, Berkeley: 1/14/03 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Politics and Religion

A problem that comes up in Islam that we need to address in these different settings is, to what extent has Islam been able to adjust to what we call modernity, to modernization, to secularization? And there is no definitive answer to that question, as I read your book, is that correct? Or is there?

No, there isn't. There are different responses. Some Muslims have adopted it. Certainly, the upper classes, the middle classes all over the Muslim world, live in what is now a Western lifestyle. They may be very devout Muslims, but the physical style of life is basically Western. They adopt all the technologies. Many people adopt the politics that come from Europe and America: political parties; democratic politics, as I mentioned; respect for civil rights, human rights. So, just as Christians remain Christian, or Jews, Jews, but live in a modern world in a modern fashion, so do many Muslims.

At the other extreme, there are many people who reject Western modernity as a fundamentally corrupt way to live. They reject its materialism, its emphasis on consumer goods. They reject its political values, because they believe that there's an absolute truth, and that people have to live by that revealed truth. They don't accept the idea of a marketplace of political competition. Those are the two principal factors.

Let's talk about politics and religion -- Were you going to say something? Did you have another thought?

I had a further idea about why they oppose the contemporary world. They oppose contemporary states. The states many Muslims live in are not democratic states. They're military regimes, or they're tiny oligarchies, even family regimes. Insofar as those regimes commonly identify themselves as modern and secular, the opposition identifies itself as Muslim and anti-secular.

Right. So Islam, because of its plasticity, seems to take a very different shape where it's located.

Yes, it does. Again, I don't want you to think that Islam is different in doing this from other religions. People adapt these basic beliefs and principles to a given circumstantial situation. They look to holy texts for guidance, but they can come out with different interpretations and a different sense of what is called for. Even reading the same text, or reading the Koran, some people will quote one verse as critical and some people will quote another. Yes, Islam is very adaptable. So are other religions. Any religion that has a billion or more adherents is, in practice, extremely adaptable.

Let's talk a little bit about politics and Islam. As one looks at your work, and looks at the sweep of Islamic history, it becomes very clear, again, that there have been different answers to this problem of whether to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's," or whether the two, that is, religion and the state, should be combined. So help us understand that diversity within Islam, and help us understand whether the faith itself points in one direction or another.

There are really two options. One is the example of the prophet Muhammad, in which religious belief and practice, community affairs, and politics all go together. There's one leader. There's one authority. This is the life of a small, integrated community. That example goes on through the centuries in all parts of the Muslim world. And since the eighteenth century and right down to the present, it's invoked as an ideal model. This is the "just" society.

The other model is one in which there is a separation of state and religion. The political elites are one group of people; the religious teachers and their followers are another group of people. Politics is understood to operate by secular norms; the community of religious believers follows religious norms. There's a separation in practice, which is never quite recognized in principle or in theory. But that separation in practice, historically, is the ordinary way in which large-scale countries and societies are governed, right down to the modern national state. So the practice and the theory, the practice and the ideal, are in contrast. And the ideal, the unity of state and religion and politics, is now invoked as a criticism or as an alternative to the actual practice.

And Afghanistan and the Taliban would be an extreme example of that?

That's an extreme example of trying to establish an Islamic state, one which enforces what the Taliban think of as the right religious rules.

You make the point in your work again and again that the Islamic identity goes with multiple identities. And that where Islam has flowered, it's been as part of a complex civilization which it both defines and is shaped by.

If you talk to individuals -- I think if you could talk to anybody in the past and in the present -- most people have, as you say, multiple levels of identity. They're Muslims, but that's not the only thing. They're also members of a family or a tribe. They're people from a particular location. They have a profession. They have political loyalties of one sort of another. They have clientele ties. They have economic interests. These complex connections conflict with each other sometimes, and people have to reconcile which level is important in any given case. So, sometimes, they invoke being Muslim. Sometimes they invoke their families' financial interests. That gives people everywhere a great variety of options.

It's an extreme and it's still a very rare case that people will say they are Muslims only, that they have, in fact, no other loyalties and no other commitments. You can only see that in the case of political extremists and terrorists -- that's why they are free from the obligations that keep everybody else integrated in a society. That's rare.

We shouldn't think of Islam as a single thing that defines a people. It's just one, albeit an important factor that operates in their thinking.

And a different setting has a very ...

Has different, varying weight.

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