Our journey into multiple expressions of the modern - both as the ‘contemporary’ and as historical encounter - brings us today to a central aspect of civic modernity, the rule of law.

In what has come to be called ‘civil society’, everything that we most cherish, from human rights and active citizenship to accountable governance, turns on the quality of the rule of law. It is an institution that requires many things, including an independent judiciary and democratic culture. This is what distinguishes mere ‘law’, which can be oppressive and unjust, from the rule of law. Civic modernity is simply not possible without a serious commitment to this principle.

But we have long discovered that even at its best, the rule of law has limitations. There are limits to what the formal legal system can deliver effectively in timely fashion, and to the access that ordinary citizens have to the system. Above all, there are limits to its capacity to actually deliver justice.

Indeed, this ethical or justice critique of law is something that Muslims know from the historical discourse of the shari'a. After all, a much-quoted hadith or tradition of Prophet Muhammad holds:

You bring me lawsuits to decide, and perhaps one of you is more skilled in presenting his plea than the other and so I judge in his favour according to what I hear. He to whom I give in judgment something that is his brother’s right, let him not take it, for I but give him a piece of the Fire.


This critique of formal law remains very much alive for Muslim legal reformers. When ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Sanhuri (1895-1971) set out to modernise the Egyptian Civil Code in the 1930s, he harnessed the Holy Qur’an in support of what he considered the most progressive and humane choices that the law should make – in the face of the tradionalist formalism of the ulema. Sanhuri went on to do the same with the civil codes of Jordan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

The upshot is that civic modernity may have much to do with the rule of law, but if the rule of law is about formal systems alone it will fail to deliver the kind of civic modernity worth having. To explore the creative tension between legal tradition and modernity in Muslim perspective, we have someone with a robust record of both scholarly work and practice.

This opening lecture for 2008 comes at the half-way mark in our journey into ‘Contemporary Islam(s)’ – which seems an appropriate time to take stock, at least briefly.

Last October, Haleh Afshar looked at the making of modernity by Muslim women, drawing attention to the plural ways of being a feminist in the Middle East, notably among women of faith who root their demands for equality and equity in fresh readings of the Qur’an and shari'a

This harnessing of religious tradition in a secular public sphere is hardly unusual, as Mohamed Tavakoli-Targhi showed in his lecture on 20th century Iran. The languages of science – particularly of medicine - and of faith intertwined in the domain of public health, as they did in the perception of social health, in the run up to the Revolution of 1979.

Public language in all its richness was at the heart of Raficq Abdulla's exploration of how Muslims have approached social reality through a robust tradition of poetic expression. From the passion of Hafez and Rumi in the classical period to the equally fervent modern verse of Adonis and Iqbal, grappling in the here and now with - and through - religion and spirituality is a vital theme. Of course, the ways in which this grappling happens are manifold, not uniform.

Why does all this matter? Because mainstream scholarship as well as the news media tends to insist that the mix of sacred and secular is all about resistance to modernity. This is claimed to be true of all faith traditions – in the view of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for example, but Islam gets singled out for attention.

We are told that Modernity is the domain of the rational and progressive, facing off against religious sensibilities that are primeval and inherently violent. Never mind the violence inflicted in the name of secular ideologies that the courts have deemed to be genocidal, with modern technology mobilised in their service on a grand scale. The recipe for Modernity, we are told, is still supposed to come only out of the European narrative of privatising religion – denying that there are plural ways of being modern, as this series has repeatedly shown.

The everyday evidence of that plurality is simply too strong. On recent trips to Dubai and Tehran, I could see billboards for ‘Islamic credit cards’ that would buy you the same happiness as American Express and MasterCard; women-driven taxicabs in contrast to the ban on women driving cars at all in Saudi Arabia; and ultra-trendy headscarves to protect female modesty. Perhaps the prize for packaging goes to the ‘Mulla Plaza’, squat in the midst of the skyscrapers of downtown Dubai.

Yet there is no escaping the role of state ideology, another of those gifts of modernity that turns out to be a mixed blessing. One only has to recall how Kemal Ataturk saw Europeanised women’s and men’s dress in public as a badge of the new Turkish republic. We know he was influenced by how the French republic in 1905 saw the banishing of public religion as the symbol of liberation from the Catholic clerical establishment.
The tension between ideology and everyday culture raises critical questions about the limits of official policy, the place of public religion in civic modernity, and the capacity of cultural tradition to reinvent itself – notably in what is referred to as ‘the economy of desire’.

To steer us through the rapidly shifting sands of the everyday modern in the Arab world, we have with us today a seasoned sociologist. Sami Zubaida is Emeritus Professor at the University of London’s Birkbeck College. He has held visiting positions in Cairo, Istanbul, Paris and most recently, at New York University.

His writings have ranged from the nature of political Islam and the comparative workings of the shari‘a – in such books as Islam, the People and the State (1993) and Law and Power in the Islamic World (2003) – to the delights of food cultures across the Middle East in A Taste of Thyme (2001).

I trust that you are suitably puzzled by our choice of title for today’s session. After all, we have had seven eminent scholars tell us about quite recent struggles for a humane modernity in science and public health, in education and the arts, in law and gender equality, and in the planning of cities. Yet here we are, seemingly satisfied with ourselves and inquiring into Muslim quests ‘after modernity’. You might feel pressed to ask, ‘And how was modernity for you? Have you finished with it while we blinked?’

Well, there is no obligation to master the typewriter before you plunge into text-messaging on your mobile phone. Why resist the ‘paradigm-shift’ and get caught in old debates and technologies when fresh ones are at hand? Now this argument may seem perfectly rational to ordinary citizens. But then some of us scholars would have nothing left to do! Why can’t we continue with our old quarrels between Tradition and Modernity, Secular Rationalism and the Enchantment of Religion, the State and the Individual?

Alas, we are told that matters have moved on and that the terms of discourse had better catch up. According to Ziauddin Sardar, “Islamic culture could be remade, refreshed and re-established by the imaginative use of a new communication technology.”[1] Abdallah El-Tahawy claims that this is already happening, and that in effect the Internet has become ‘the New Mosque’.[2] Akbar Ahmed argues that after September 11, Muslims have all the more reason to counter the absolutist grand narratives of western modernity and of al-Qaeda with a pluralist and decentred cosmopolitanism that is postmodern.[3] For our speaker today, we also need to put arguments about an ‘Islamic state’ in the category of outmoded thinking, and wake up to real issues such as the ethics of biotechnology and protecting democratic rights.

Yet, in the fragmented and relativist world of postmodernity, equal weight seems to be accorded to all responses to hard questions of ethics and political choice. Is this compatible with a society that wishes to privilege Islamic ethical values?

Abdullahi An-Na’im suggests that we place our trust in a ‘civic reason’ that is inspired by the ethical commitments of all faiths, including the shari'a. [4] Similarly, Mohamed Fadel argues that the liberal idea of an ‘overlapping consensus’ put forward by John Rawls can be applied to the spirit of the shari‘a in its relationship to secular state law for an effective civil society.[5]

But how much space will our disenchanted world allow for this? Can we mobilise enough public trust for the institutions we would need to marry secular and faith-based perspectives?

Our speaker has given plenty of thought to these questions as senior lecturer at the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, and co-ordinator of the Centre's Democracy and Islam Programme. Dr. El-Affendi was a co-author of the UNDP’s 2004 Arab Human Development Report, and also contributed to the 2005 report, Toward the Rise of Women in the Arab world.

His numerous books include Who Needs an Islamic State? (1991), a second edition of which has just been published, Revolution and Political Reform in Sudan (1995), and Rethinking Islam and Modernity (2001). He is also a contributor to The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought (2006).

Uniquely among our speakers in this series, he has also worked as a pilot and a diplomat. Perhaps this contributed to his receiving the 2006 Muslim News Allama Iqbal Award for Creativity in Islamic Thought.


[1] Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader, eds. S. Inayatullah & G. Boxwell. Pluto Press, 2003.

[2] Abdallah El-Tahawy, “The Internet is the New Mosque: Fatwa at the Click of a Mouse,” ArabInsight 2/1 (Winter 2008), 11-19.

[3] Akbar Ahmed. Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise. Routledge, 1992.

[4] Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Islam and the Secular State. Harvard University Press, 2008.

[5] Mohammad Fadel, “The True, The Good and The Reasonable: The Theological and Ethical Roots of Public Reason in Islamic Law,” 21 CAN. J. L. & JUR. 5 (2008); and “Public Reason as a Strategy for Principled Reconciliation: The Case of Islamic Law and International Human Rights Law,” CHI. J. INT’L L. 1, 4, 11 (2008).

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk – only the second Middle Eastern novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 2006 – was asked the usual identity question about the ‘confrontation between Eastern and Western impulses’ in an interview with the prestigious Paris Review (2004). Pamuk’s reply was typically provocative, and colourful. He gave short shrift to Samuel Huntington’s anxiety about so-called ‘torn’ societies that sit between ‘clashing civilizations.’ Here is some of what Pamuk said:

“Turkey should not worry about having two souls. Schizophrenia makes you intelligent. If you worry too much about one part of you killing the other, you’ll be left with a single spirit. That is worse than having the sickness. I am criticising the way the ruling elite lacked the confidence to create a culture that would be an organic combination of East and West; they just put Western and Eastern things together. Everyone is sometimes a Westerner and sometimes an Easterner – a constant combination of the two.”

Now Pamuk is quick to acknowledge that this East-West coupling was one thing for the Turkish children of the Ottoman empire with its particular relationship with Europe, and another matter for, say, Indians and Arabs, whose perspectives were shaped under colonisation. We might also ask whether it is entirely up to the ‘ruling elite’ to ‘create’ a genuinely cosmopolitan culture. What about the role of the populace at large, with its complex everyday encounters with modernity?

Nevertheless, Pamuk draws attention to one of our central themes in this series: there are multiple modernities, in which Muslims have agency in the making of their particulars. These particulars, while often distinctive, overlap time and again with universals. We see this in the work of the first Middle Eastern writer to win the Nobel Prize, in 1988 – Naguib Mahfouz. His ‘Cairo trilogy’ is filled with social and political responses to the colonial Other that remind us just how inescapable ‘multiple identities’ are, no matter how upsetting this may be for some of us.

How fitting, then, that our speaker today, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, shares the national heritage of Mahfouz, as well as the patrimony of Orhan Pamuk’s Ottoman culture, among other identities.

Welcome once again to this journey into contemporary Islams, a series of explorations of the Muslim encounter with modernity.

Our monthly journey began with Haleh Afshar taking us along pathways in feminism that challenged the claim of a Western approach to gender equity as the only legitimate one.

This underscored a central theme of our series: there are plural modernities – cultural, political, social – in which Muslims are not just part of the audience but also among the makers. They have agency, like Afshar’s Muslim women with their indigenous ideas about equality.

We will hear more about this idea when Professor Mohamed Tavakoli-Targhi speaks to us on December 6 about cultural modernity in Iran. And again when Professor Sami Zubaida joins us on January 15 for his talk on the ‘everyday modern’ in the Middle East at large.

Now this notion of the ‘everyday modern’ might conjure up the mundane, the part of modernity that drives thinking citizens to distraction – and to seek shelter anywhere they can find it, perhaps in some imagined world free of neon-signs, noise pretending to be music, i-pods and endless television graphics. 
Then again, the mundane can drive us to poetry.

Consider the background noise against which the scribes would have written our oldest known epic verse, Gilgamesh, based in Mesopotamia some 5,000 years ago. Then as now, Iraq was full of clamour, milling about with soldiers and outcasts in an organised chaos that was the ancient city of Uruk.

Stephen Mitchell’s vividly accessible version of Gilgamesh (Free Press, 2004) reminds us that the story of Noah’s Ark and the Flood is to be found almost fully formed in this epic, a millennium before the Bible. Like all great verse, Gilgamesh takes us on a journey that rises above the ordinary – but not so far above that we lose all sight of it. On the contrary, the final lines of the epic bring us back to the city.

Walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course around the city …

Observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the orchards,

the glorious palaces and temples, the shops and marketplaces,

the houses, the public squares.

This interplay of the lyrical and the ordinary is what makes poetry so pressingly relevant to us today despite - or because - of the conceits of technology and the rest of the glitz of the modern.

Again from Iraq, in particular the city of Basra, Saadi Youssef has emerged as a voice of lyrical protest against the politics of violence and exile, especially with the English translation by Khaled Mattawa of the anthology, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face (Graywold, 2002).

Saadi Youssef has spent his long exile all over the Middle East and Europe. His response to the current state of affairs in his native Iraq found expression in verse that again raised us above our everyday anger, yet engaged with it fully.

As he puts it in one his best known poems, AmericaAmerica (Damascus, 1995):

I too love jeans and jazz and Treasure Island

And John Silver’s parrot and the balconies of New Orleans.

I love the fields of wheat and corn and the smell of Virginia tobacco.

But I am not American.

Is that enough for the Phantom pilot to turn me back to the Stone Age ?

Of course the engagement with reality is not just political but runs the full gamut of human experience.

Muslim poets draw on a heritage that celebrates nature and the sacred, the beauty of females and hairless youths, the pomposity and wisdom of princes and scholars, social conflict and reform.

The ‘shimmering light’ in the title of Faquir Hunzai & Kutub Kassam’s anthology of Ismaili poetry (I.B. Tauris, 1997) is not only about the visions of mystics or Sufis, but also the deeper reality beyond the mundane to which lyrical visions aspire. Surely that light is precious amidst the glitter and glare in the mixed blessings of modernity.

Our speaker today is among the torch-bearers, and like all poets he comes in many guises.

Born in South Africa of Muslim parents, Raficq Abdulla is an Oxford-educated barrister - as well as a writer, public speaker, and broadcaster.

He was formerly the University Secretary and legal adviser to Kingston University, where he now serves as Visiting Fellow.

His publications include Words of Paradise, a new collection of interpretations of the 13th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi, and a fresh interpretation of Conference of the Birds, the allegorical poem by the medieval poet and mystic, Farid al-Din Attar.

Many of you will know him from the large number of programmes he has written and presented on BBC World Service radio, including The Four CaliphsRumiThe Conference of the Birds, and a series on the life of The Prophet Muhammad. He has written screenplays for Channel 4, including the award-winning films Blood of Hussein, and Born of Fire.

Most recently, he has spoken on the 20th century German poet, Rilke, at festivals across the UK.

As an international public speaker, Raficq has addressed audiences in the US, Spain, Dubai and Canada – where I had the pleasure of introducing him at McGill University in 2005. He has also lectured on Islamic law at the LSE, and on spirituality at Syracuse University in London, and advised Chatham House on multiculturalism and foreign policy.

Raficq is associated with the international writers’ group, PEN. In 1999, he was awarded an MBE for his interfaith work among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

We propose in this new series of lectures to engage with Muslim encounters with modernity - in the arts and culture, in political pluralism and human rights, in spirituality and the interpretation of scripture.

There is a growing interest among scholars and policymakers in the idea of 'alternative modernities', and how this relates to multiple Islams - especially after 11th September 2001. The 'Islam & democracy' debate that picked up with the end of the Cold War was quickly joined by this fresh interest in Muslim modernity.


Aziz al-Azmeh came out in 1993 with his influential 'Islams and Modernities'. Ramin Jahanbegloo's collection, 'Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity' (2004) offered rich readings of the complexity of what it means to be modern. Keith Watenpaugh broadened the locus of that discussion in his elegant 'Being Modern in the Middle East' (2006). Meanwhile, Charles Taylor's seminal 'A Secular Age' (2007) is poised to enrich the philosophical discourse on plural (and pluralist) modernities.


It is on this canvas that our series will have a distinguished line-up of speakers in the coming year. They include Prof. Tavakoli-Targhi of the University of Toronto, Prof. Sami Zubaida of London University, Dr. Ismail Serageldin of the Library of Alexandria, Dr. Amira Bennison of Cambridge University - and next month, Raficq Abdulla, MBE, on the poetics of modernity.


But it seems appropriate to begin our exploration with the subject of gender. Women are - by default and by choice - the target of ideological, religious, economic and cultural wars, even when the warriors are entirely men. But more and more, the warriors include women themselves.


Some would argue it has long been so. Perhaps it all began with a woman's determination to be an apple consumer in the Garden of Eden, and then do a promotion for the benefit of her mate.


In the same fiercely independent spirit, Azizah al-Hibri observes: 'Why is it oppressive to wear a headscarf, but liberating to wear a miniskirt? The crux of the explanation lies in the assumptions each side makes about the women involved and their ability to make choices' (Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women, 1999). In other words, the issue is agency.


In Egypt and Turkey, Muslim students and office workers have time and again insisted that their choice of wearing a headscarf is not about 'retreating' from a full social engagement with their surroundings, but taking control of the terms in which that engagement happens. Again, young women in France, Britain and Canada often insist that 'Muslim dress' - from hijab to jilbab and sometimes niqab - is about publicly asserting a cultural identity that is intimately tied to religion.


For liberal feminists generally, gender equality must trump freedom of religious practice because patriarchy is a key feature of religious traditions at large. The larger clash for them as liberals, of course, is that taking religion seriously in a secular age is simply anti-modern, and not just as a rhetorical matter but as a question of social justice: this brand of civil modernity is cast as the only route to individual dignity and liberty.


Other liberals, like Martha Nussbaum (Okin, 1999), argue that religious freedom is at the heart of pluralist democracy, because it is all about how individual citizens and communities create and live their conception of the good, both civil and private. For Nussbaum, liberal values like equality are vital political goods - but they are not comprehensive moral ends. Ultimately, then, we must make room for plural modernities, instead of setting up a false clash between Tradition and Modernity.


For Max Weber, industrialised society opened the way not only to capitalist modernity but also to the defeat of patriarchy - and of traditional religion, as opposed to the supposedly unique Protestant ethic. This has fed the dominant Western feminist premise about secular gender modernity.


Yet the 'daughters of Shehrazad', as the Iranian scholar Farzaneh Milani casts them in Veils and Words (1992), have narratives that are many and varied and do not fit tidily into a dominant Western template. Perhaps the drift is best captured in the sociologist Nilufer Gole's formulation of the 'forbidden modern' (1996) - the sophisticated veiled female, who threatens not only Kemalist secularists in Ankara, but also Jacobin secularists in Paris.


But if agency is the key to assorted feminisms, then how do we respond to choices that appear to be shaped by the 'agency of patriarchy'? What about other 'qualifiers' of agency?

To reflect on these and other vexing issues, we have with us today a particularly distinguished daughter of Shehrazad, Prof. Haleh Afshar, OBE