Reaffirming (Reanimating?) Von Grunebaum’s Standard for the Study of Islam


Wanted: von Grunebaum’s nose for Islamic studies…

Dialogue from “Sleeper”:










The late (d. 2003) Yale scholar of Islam Franz Rosenthal’s own work included lucid, timeless, analyses of Islamic “martyrdom” vs. suicide, and the antithetical Islamic and Western conceptions of “freedom.”


In his 1946 essay, “On Suicide in Islam” (Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 66, pp. 243, 256), Rosenthal noted that in contrast with negative Islamic attitudes towards suicide (for melancholia/depression), acts of jihad martyrdom were extolled in Islam’s foundational texts, i.e., the Koran and hadith:


While the Qur’anic attitude toward suicide remains uncertain, the great authorities of the hadith leave no doubt as to the official attitude of Islam. In their opinion suicide is an unlawful act….On the other hand, death as the result of “suicidal” missions and of the desire of martyrdom occurs not infrequently, since death is considered highly commendable according to Muslim religious concepts. However, such cases are no[t] suicides in the proper sense of the term. (Emphasis added.)


Rosenthal also analyzed the larger context of hurriyya, Arabic for “freedom,” in Muslim society. He notes (in his official Encyclopedia of Islam entry on the subject) the historical absence of hurriyya as  “a fundamental political concept that could have served as a rallying cry for great causes.”  An individual Muslim “was expected to consider subordination of his own freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the group as the only proper course of behavior…” Thus politically, Rosenthal concludes,  “…the individual was not expected to exercise any free choice as to how he wished to be governed…In general, …governmental authority admitted of no participation of the individual as such, who therefore did not possess any real freedom vis-à-vis it.”


Franz Rosenthal wrote an obituary for the Austrian-born US scholar Gustave E. Von Grunebaum (1909-1972) published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3, (Jul., 1973), pp. 355-358, which included these observations about von Gruenbaum’s seminal contributions, and uncompromising standards (from pp. 356-357):


If von Grunebaum was able in addition to produce an amazingly large and significant number of books and articles, to which all these and many other activities ranked second in importance in his estimation as well as ours, it was because everything he did arose from the same source – his personal conviction as to the intellectual obligation resting upon the Western student of Islam. He was convinced that it was his duty to interpret Islam from the point of view of the Westerner deeply steeped in his own civilization at its best, that there was indeed no other way of making the study of Islam meaningful for non-Muslims, professional scholars and educated non-specialists alike, than by scrutinizing it from the outside and measuring it by the most demanding and universally valid standards devised in the West for assessing intellectual and moral worth.


What follows are extracts from but a limited sampling of von Grunebaum’s vast body of illuminating, unapologetic observations on Islam, which includes his trenchant critique of Western apologetics for Islam. Brilliant, forthright analyses by von Grunebaum from four to five decades ago elucidate critical unresolved issues Muslim societies continue to deny, abetted, tragically by sycophantic cadres of Western academic, journalistic, and diplomatic elite apologists for living Islamic institutions and mores that imperil both Muslims, and non-Muslims alike. 


On the real “tragedy” of inchoate Westernization for Muslims—i.e., squandered opportunity—from the essay collection Modern Islam—The Search for Cultural Identity, 1964, pp. 240-242:


…[T]he greater the success of Westernization (unplanned, on the whole, before it gets underway), the greater the political resistance to the West, but all the greater, too, the resistance to every feature of full Westernization, the political utility of which is not immediately discernible. The political retreat of the West makes Western civilization seem less satisfying; the turning back to the legacy of the past, especially the acceptance of traditional habits of thought and judgment, occurred a few decades too early to guarantee the protection of what had been achieved and what was needed to continue the political upsurge. The defense of the past, the frequently moribund habits of culture which could not die because they were not permitted to die, and the political character of this defense have led to rigidity in the view of the self as well as in the view of foreigners, rigidity that is anything but conducive to an adjustment of concurrent cultural tendencies.


On the “binational character” of traditional (“orthodox”) Muslim citizens of contemporary Muslim states, from Modern Islam, p. 247:


Not only is the conflict between the loyalties owed to his religious community and those owed to his nation-state potentially ever present (to become actualized, e.g., in disputes such as that between the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood [NOTE: still true today more than 50-years after this essay originally appeared in 1956]); but the rise of his nation-state is meaningful merely through the implied extension of the autonomous “domain of Islam” as an area within which the traditional [Islamic] law will direct and define the believer’s personal life and status. The intransigence and the flexibility of Islam are those of a power system rather than a religious movement. The raison d’être of the system is organization for the living out of certain spiritual injunctions, but the nature of the organization is part, or, at least ineluctable consequence of those injunctions themselves.


On the “representative self-view of contemporary Islam” expressed in an-Nadwi’s 1951 What Has the World Lost Through the Decline of the Muslims? , from Modern Islam, pp. 253-257:


…[T]he Muslim umma is the only power potentially capable of driving out the European spirit. The sole solution of the world crisis is thus the transfer of leadership to the Muslim world. The message of Islam holds as good now as it did in the seventh century. In the words of one of [second “Rightly Guided” Caliph, r. 634-644 C.E.] ‘Umar’s envoy to Yazdagird [III, d. 651] the last Sasanian king of Iran: “God [Allah] has sent us so we can lead out those he wishes from the service of all the servants to the service of God [Allah] alone, and from secular constraint into freedom and from the oppression of the (earlier) religions to the justice of Islam.” But before Islam can assume leadership once more a spiritual change must come over the Muslims, the primary symptom of which will be the resurrection of faith. In addition, however, scientific leadership needs to be regained in this preparatory phase. The Islamic world has to steep itself in the sciences to gain mastery of technology and commerce, and also the art of war.


In his final chapter Nadwi calls on the Arab world to assume its traditional leadership of Islam. The religious importance of the Arabs is emphatically asserted. The present [circa 1951] weaknesses of the Arab states do not affect the eternal function of the Arabs in the edifice of Islam. Faith will be the principal weapon of the Arab world in rebuilding itself and in readying its might. For it is the Arab world to which will fall the generalship in the final ejection of Europe; its faith, the power of its message, and divine help will assist it. “Behold the world of man looking with rapture at the world of Islam as its savior, and behold the world of Islam fixing its gaze on the Arab world as its secular and spiritual leader. Will the world of Islam realize the hope of the world of men? And will the Arab world realize the hope of the Muslim world?”


It is difficult not to be impressed with the enthusiasm that permeates Nadwi’s presentation, with the drive of his unreflected conviction of the uniqueness of Islam as a religious civilization. But the admiration aroused by his élan son shades off into wonderment, and thence into disappointment and a sense of futility, when one realizes that his prescription for the world is simply an injunction to return to, or, as he would say, to resurrect, a golden age that never existed. Salvation by sameness, the implied belief that what worked once will always work, and the unconcerned readiness to forego the wider horizons that have been opened by man, and for the most part, by Western man, during the last centuries—one cannot help feeling both frightened and depressed by the appeal that Nadwi’s message appears to have for certain Muslim circles. [NOTE: That “appeal” has mushroomed in the intervening half century]. The ultimate impenetrability of one civilization by another is demonstrated, unintentionally it is true, but, for that, all the more convincingly. Even as, in the late Middle Ages, orthodoxy in self-defense was prepared unhesitatingly to narrow down the scope of the Muslim experience by pushing Hellenizing philosophy and the natural sciences to the periphery, in precisely the same way, although perhaps with still greater radicalism, Nadwi is throwing overboard the Western concept of sciencethe objectivization of experience and its interpretation as a rational system—whose philosophical and operational meaningfulness he obviously never realized.


….But Nadwi’s Islam is a tired faith; the vividness of its self-confidence must not deceive us. Nadwi’s Islam wishes to draw its solutions from what has been; it is willing to make one supreme effort to obtain earthly paradise, that is to say, the relaxing beatitude of a static world whose problems are foreseen and taken care of in sacred precedent.


Needless to say, Nadwi shies away from any specific suggestion of how a victorious Islam would remove the illnesses that he diagnoses in our world. Rather, he does not shy away from the specific; it simply does not occur to him that the model of the golden age might not provide the required panaceas. Not a word, therefore, on the position envisaged for the minorities; not a word on how prevent another fall from khilafa [Caliphate, viewed as epitomizing the idyllic order of Islam] into mulukiyya [viewed in Islamic parlance as a “subversion” of the “ideal” of the Caliphate through the venality of family and tribal interests]; not a word about the reconciliation of conflicting power aspirations within a Muslim-controlled system of national states. You cannot learn from history when you derive your history from what exists essentially insofar as it can be protected or salvaged from history. But thus the inherent paradox of Islam as a power system of transcendental aspiration, of a timeless civitas Dei [referring to the concept from Augustine of Hippo’s famous 5th century work De civitate Dei which identified the Church with the kingdom of God, and claimed that it was supreme over all the nations of the earth, which make up the civitas terrena or earthly state]  that to avail man must be visible in this world and must therefore become subject to change and decay, is not attacked, let alone resolved.



On Western Apologetics, from  “Approaching Islam: A Digression,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, (May, 1970), pp. 127-149.


What P. Benichou says of our period in general appears especially applicable to a certain trend in Oriental Studies which would buy acceptance by self-betrayal or its pose. ‘Notre epoque prefere . . . repeter sans fin l’apologie pompeuse de son impuissance, a grand peine tournee en gloire.’ (‘Our epoch prefers to repeat incessantly the pompous apology of its impotence, with great difficulty turned into glory.’) Interestingly enough, secularization and ‘laicization’ in a majority of Muslim lands have not diminished the traditional suspicion of the missionaries and, by extension, any other Christian clergymen. It is therefore understandable that clergymen-Orientalists, politically vulnerable on two counts, should feel obliged to set an example of irenicism, their professional comprehension of theological matters somehow contributing to the ambiguity of their position. For, as J. Berque has noted, dislike for the observer is a characteristic part of the psychological syndrome exhibited by most of the Third World, at least in Asia and Africa.  Add to this the intrinsic paradox of an absolute faith in an absolute truth placed at the disposal of a better-than-objective appraisal of a competing and potentially aggressive expansive faith and the picture is sketched of the obstacles besetting a Kenneth Cragg in portraying Islam both to his and the Muslims’ satisfaction, and, more particularly, in portraying any of Islam’s contemporary features.


The most superficial scanning of the statements produced in connection with the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 and the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 provides abundant evidence of the continuing power of the jihad concept in its original drastic and military intent. Fighting the unbeliever is a religious duty of the collectivity and secures religious merit; however ‘secular’ the issues, the simple fact of their involving a confrontation. between Muslim and non-Muslim suffices for popular sentiment, and hence for governmental direction, to identify the armed dispute as religious warfare. Denials of this fact by the authorities when they address them- selves to a Western audience have no meaning beyond constituting an attempt, inevitable in the present international situation, at making their point in a manner likely to be acceptable to a forum averse to the spirit of the religious crusade and altogether disposed to take for granted the separation between religious sentiment and political action. To describe as Cragg does, the division of the World into a region dominated by Islam and a ‘domain of war’, dar al-harb (delicately translated as ‘house- hold of resisters’)-whose separate existence Islam has the obligation to challenge and ultimately to eliminate-as ‘a sublime kind of intolerance’ is without doubt stylistically commendable but in re(ality) a little funny. The best that can be said of a presentation that insists on the political mission of the Muslim community, accepts it as a fact of life, as an inherent, ultimately inalienable trait (as is done in all Cragg’s books), and yet expects permanent accommodation not from a sense of political realism but in virtue of its true spirit, is that it is out of phase; it transfers the ecumenical attitudes of a section of the Christian laity and leadership to the Muslim masses. To find the central doctrine of Islam in ‘the compassionateness of God’ because the Basmala describes the Lord as merciful and compassionate is a sleight of hand unlikely to earn the author the respect of his Muslim readers; that Muhammad’s ‘first “counsel” to the idolaters was to let God be God’ is a bland rephrasing that empties Islam of its dynamism. Blandness will ever yield inoffensive formulae; but the meaning that Cragg finds in the Muslim invocation is his, as is the formula itself. Although he tries to portray Islam in and on its own terms, the final judgment is one dictated by the needs of his Christian audience.



…As long as indigenous Near Eastern scholarship fails to contribute to the understanding of the sociology of French feudalism in the High Middle Ages, for example, or to the origin of German Minnesang [term applied to the whole body of German lyric poetry of the 12th through 14th centuries dealing with love, religion or politics] in a manner comparable with the corresponding effort expended by Western Orientalists for almost two hundred years, the presuppositions for a genuine debate will be missing. This self-limitation, this crippling of interests, must for the time being merely be noted and so must the differential in scholarship and intellectual breadth it entails. Such self-restriction of horizon calls for criticism only when emotional and political cliches come to be supported by information gathered at second and third hand.



What is truly and unqualifiedly reprehensible lies elsewhere. It is to be found in the projection of internal Western self-criticism on to the plane of comparative culture studies, in the reification of Western complexes, in the conferring of objective existence to what is little more than a stage setting for a Western cathartic monologue. Psychological and political needs, anguish kept alive by the weight of four dead centuries, pride and ambition supported by dependence on loaned weapons, they combine quaintly to sustain this deliberate illusionism sprung from history undigested and, almost typical of a faltering denial of reality, proclaimed as a new moral gospel. Transferred to the printed page this mood assumes various shapes of which perhaps the most objectionable-to those promoted to cultural donors as much as to those demoted to recipients, for it is the inadequate system of coordinates which inevitably oversimplifies historical process and works offensive injustice to both artificially constituted ‘parties’- is to be found in such Western writing as tries to buy friendship by self- debasement.




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