InsightMay June 2005

Islamic Discourse between Tradition and Modernity

Dr Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri


One of the prerequisites of an active interaction with the multiple changes witnessed by our world is a reconsideration of the systems and patterns adopted in our intellectual and cultural life, and a rethinking of the positions we adopt and the choices we make in all political and economic matters. Only through such a review that we would be able to assess our work, meet the needs, redress and correct eventual errors, and rationalize, strengthen and steer our march in the right direction.

This reconsideration would pave the way for us to renovate, develop, modernize and keep pace with the swift changes occurring in the various fields of life. It would help us achieve higher levels of global development in a way conducive to a better life, and that aims at developing society, enriching man and edifying civilization.

Among the endeavors to rethink patterns and systems, working methods, stances, choices and policies is the review of the Islamic discourse at its various levels. This discourse is indeed the mirror of the Islamic entity, a vehicle of Islamic call and an instrument for highlighting the truths of Islam, refuting the allegations leveled at it and the doubts cast on it in many ways. This discourse is furthermore the only tool available for the sage, the thinkers, the reformers and the decision and opinion makers of the Ummah to defend its existence before the escalating hostile campaigns that strive to distort the image of Islam and denigrate Muslims, undermine the vital interests of the Islamic world and subjugate it to hegemonic policies that serve the designs of the New World Order imposed by the unique pole on the rest of the international community and which hold the rein of international policy at this stage in history.

Marked from time to time, such conscientious pauses of self-analysis serve the purposes of rethinking, unveiling masked truths in all frankness and mutual counselling. They are likely to guide our steps, bolster our determination and help us fortify and immunize the Islamic edifice at this critical juncture where we have to confront fierce and daunting challenges, and which is rife with real dangers that besiege and threaten the core of our material and financial existence.

This reconsideration will only be effective if in so doing we adopted a sound scientific approach to understand, analyze and assess the matters at hand, define meanings and determine concepts in our drive to achieve positive results that would enable us, with Allah’s will, to reach the noble objectives we aspire to in all our endeavors and in the achievement of which we follow the path of wisdom and the rightful way.

In the present study we will tackle the concept of discourse per se, then analyze the meaning of Islamic discourse, its components and specificities. Then we will address the current reality of the Islamic discourse, before investigating the future of this discourse and closing with a conclusion that will summarize all the points tackled and present the results arrived at.

Meaning of Discourse :

Discourse (khitab) has two meanings. The first one is pure, consistent and simple. It was recognised by the Arabs and mentioned in the Holy Quran, the Hadiths of the Prophet (PBUH), and the early dictionaries. The second one is a contemporary concept, much complex in nature and goes beyond the linguistic information-related. Clear distinctions can be observed in the various connotations of discourse and which vary according to the contexts in which they occur.

First : At the linguistic Level :

Lisan Al Arab defines discourse (Khitab and Mukhataba) as the exchange of speech. Speech is described as the medium of Khitab and Mukhataba, and two interlocutors, engage in a discourse (yatakhataban). It is also defined as a medium of differentiation between two opposites: between right and wrong and the means of distinguishing between a rule and its opposite(1).

Discourse, as defined in Kitab Al Kulliyat, is the speech or the words of which the purpose is to clarify a matter to those able to understand. Words that do not serve the purpose of clarifying a matter to the listener cannot be termed as discourse(2).

Second : At the Quranic Level :

The term “speech” in the form of ‘Khatb’ occurred nine times in the Holy Quran and three times in the form of Khitab. The latter incidences are Allah’s verse ‘And He said : Entrust it to me, and he conquered me in speech’(3) ; in his verse : ‘And we made his kingdom strong and gave him wisdom and decisive speech’ (4), and in the following verse: ‘Lord of the Heavens and the earth, and (all) that is between them, the Beneficent; with whom none can converse’(5).

In the Dictionary of Quranic Terms, the words khatabahu, mukhatabatan’ and ‘Alkhatb’ are defined as: to speak and converse, while Al Khatb is the matter about which the conversation takes place(6).

In the above-mentioned three Quranic instances, the speech is often associated with pride and honour, might, and wisdom, as well as with magnanimity and eminence of Allah, Exalted be His Name. This association provides a good opportunity to ponder the deep meaning of discourse that transcends the original synonym of discourse as the exchange of speech or the desire to enlighten the other, to a much loftier sense closely associated with sublime notions that range from pride and honour “he conquered me in speech’, wisdom ‘And we gave him wisdom and decisive speech’, and divine greatness and eminence: ‘Lord of the Heavens and earth, and (all) that is between them, the Beneficent; with whom none can converse’.

Both the linguistic and Quranic connotations affirm the noble significance of discourse for decisive speech can only become ideal if associated with wisdom, and if the purpose behind it is to shed light on truth.

Third: At the level of modern Concepts :

Discourse is a philosophical term(7). that is closer in meaning to the philosophical theory or thesis. The philosophical discourse of a person is his way of thinking, perceiving and expressing his ideas and conceptions. This discourse can either be in line with or opposed to the philosophical discourse of another person.

When this concept became part of modern political thought, it gave rise to the political discourse which carries and intellectual weight as well as an ideological content. Thus, the political discourse of a group becomes the expression of its political creed and its choices. It becomes in this case more than a way of communication or the expression of an opinion, to become the receptacle that stands for spirit, creed, philosophy and doctrine.

This concept is also applicable to the cultural discourse, the literary discourse, the artistic discourse and the information discourse though the latter can be of more comprehensive nature and encompass all other levels of discourse, in such a way as to become for example the religious information discourse, the philosophical information discourse, the political information discourse, etc.

It is this concept that comes to mind when the Islamic discourse comes under discussion, the latter being the way Muslims address the rest of the world, the mould that shapes their ideas, opinions and the standpoints that they wish to convey to the international public opinion.

Based on this, we can safely argue that the Islamic discourse is the larger framework of Islamic Daawa, practiced at its deepest and most comprehensive levels.

Significance of the Islamic Discourse :

Islamic Daawa and Islamic discourse are often described as synonyms, with a correlation between the two notions that often shows them as identical. Yet, the concept of Islamic discourse has a much wider scope and a deeper meaning than Islamic call.

The term Islamic Daawa (call) is a relatively recent one in the Islamic culture. Prior to the renaissance experienced in the Islamic world, and which started towards the end of the nineteenth century, scholars, jurists and reformers never used the phrase Islamic daawa in this form. The phrases used to describe this noble act was the ‘call to Allah’, ‘call to the path of righteousness’, ‘call to the path of Allah’, or in a more comprehensive way ‘exhorting for good deeds and warning against misdeeds’. The majority of scholars, reformers and preachers interpreted the 125th verse of the Annahl chapter: ‘Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation’ as an injunction to all people, for all times and places, to embrace the religion and Sharia of Allah, with wise words and in such a gentle and peaceful method as to succeed in impressing upon people what is desired, and not through reprimand, punishment, or harsh and uncompromising words.

Interpreters of this verse maintain that the phrase “Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation”(8) means to argue with the opponent in the best tradition of argumentation and debate, using proofs and sound arguments in a gentle and temperate way. The verse finishes in this way: ‘Lo! Thy Lord is Best Aware of him who strayeth from His way, and He is Best Aware of those who go aright’(9).

Inviting people to embrace the path f God can only be done in gentleness and flexibility, and in no other way, lest it becomes something other than the call to Allah, and consequently, stop being an Islamic Daawa. The wisdom and fair exhortation that Allah, Exalted be His Name, and his Prophet (PBUH) urge us to practice in calling to the Almighty’s ways are the cornerstone of the Daawa itself. They are the foundation of Islamic discourse at all its levels and through its many channels.

There is no harm in exchanging ‘Islamic discourse’ with ‘Islamic daawa’ since the overriding purpose is to find a more comprehensive and deeper alternative to express the desired meaning and achieve the sought objective. We fully understand the reasons and motives behind the choice of this term, its charging with Islamic concepts and its utilisation to convey the concepts of Islamic daawa in a more ample way. A century ago, reformers and thinkers who took upon themselves the endeavour of enlightening the Islamic world and rationalising the life of the Ummah, opted for the use of a new term that would convey all these meanings, for what mattered most was putting this term to good use and benefiting from its content, impact and implications, and that their actions be more than the mere finding of new derivatives for an old word, and using meaningless term.

Methods and styles are constantly changing to keep pace with the development of society and the emergence of new conditions that dictate adjustment and create the need to keep pace. But the contents, in the Islamic perspective, can only develop and renew in the direction that would make them clearer, more enlightening and effective.

To what extent has the Islamic discourse renewed itself? What direction did this renewal take if indeed it had ever existed? What are the components, specificities and functions of the Islamic discourse? Do these components and these characteristics respond to renewal? Does the renewal of this discourse take place within the framework of constants and definitive predicates?

Components and Specificities of the Islamic Discourse:

Every discourse is made up of a given number of components and present its own characteristic. A discourse can only by serious and constructive if these components and these characteristics come together. Every discourse is an expression of the identity and thought of its holder. The Islamic discourse is therefore the most genuine and truthful expression and translations of the characteristics of the Islamic society, and the civilizational identity of the Islamic world. A discourse cannot be Islamic unless it reflected the Islamic Ummah’s identity, defended its interests upheld its causes and mirrored its thought. The Islamic discourse shall be articulated on the following:

First: The discourse must be genuine, truthful, honest, serving first and foremost the Islamic interests, moderate, fair, equitable and derived from the principles, virtues and moral values of Islam.

Second: This discourse must be universal. It must be relevant to all human societies, upholding humanity’s interests, achieving co-existence and co-operation among nations and peoples for the welfare of all humanity, and fostering the principles of justice, equity and peace.

Third: It must be flexible, renewable, well formulated and fulfill all the objective conditions required when addressing people in a language understood by all, with a sound and acceptable logic that is compatible with he conditions of every environment and every category of people.

Forth: This discourse must be constructive, beneficial, purposeful and must aim at reforming, renewing and developing at the internal level. It has also to strive to clarify and highlight the truths of Islam and dispel the doubts harbored about it, in a moderate, gentle and flexible way that shuns all forms of extremism, violence, vehemence and zeal, inviting to the righteous path without being impulsive, undermining the interests of the target audience or offending the latter.

Fifth: The discourse must be sublime and elegant in form and content. It must be free of imitation and must transcend ephemeral trends or overwhelming currents, in such a way as to preserve its independence and its distinction.

Sixth: It must be open unto dialogue, and mutual understanding, and must be receptive to the regional and international environment, fully assimilating changes and new developments.

These bases on which rests the Islamic discourse and from which it evolved into a unique discourse, with distinct features that can be summarized in one major specificity, namely faithful attachment to the constants of the Ummah. These constants must under no circumstances be neglected, whatever the justifications, for they stand far above all other considerations, as they constitute the core of the personality of Muslim individual and the essence of the Islamic society.

Much is said nowadays in some cultural and information fora about defining the constants of the Ummah. We have therefore chosen to shed light on this aspect in some detail.

The constants of the Islamic Ummah can be described as:

First: The creed which represents Islam’s all-encompassing vision: on divinity and worship, or in other words, on Allah and man, and on the universe with its two dimensions: the seen and the unseen. The stance of Islam on this is of a creed that describes and informs on the truth of these matters, ordains faith in them, neither making light nor exaggerating them.

Second: Rites of worship that Allah ordained to His subjects as a means of thanking Him and paying tribute to His divinity over them. Most important of these are the four rites that constitute the pillars and backbone supporting Islam: paying, zakat, fasting and performing the pilgrimage.

Third: Supreme moral values that define man’s relationship to his God, such as faith, seeking Allah’s mercy, fear of his punishment, as well as the virtues that govern man’s relationship with his brothers, such as sincerity, mutual trust, fidelity and compassion.

Fourth: The absolute rules that govern all matters related to the individual, family and society, international laws and relations that were confirmed and established through well-devised definitive texts in their constants and import, on which the Ummah concurred and which were confirmed in legal thought and practice (10).

The Islamic discourse cannot negate these constants, neglect or bypass them. It must move ahead, renew and develop within the framework of these constants. Should it veer off these guidelines, it would become a discourse of which the repercussions cannot be borne by Islam.

Status of the Islamic Discourse :

Today, the Islamic discourse is influenced by the political, intellectual and cultural circumstances prevailing in the Islamic world and the economic and social conditions experienced by Muslim societies. The implications of the general conditions in the Islamic world impact on the general intellectual, scientific, cultural and information action of which the Islamic discourse is part and  parcel.

Being an expression of the general Islamic conditions, the Islamic discourse swings between strength and weakness, moderation and extremism, ability and feebleness, adequacy and inadequacy, depending on the environment, the society, and the internal to the external circumstances in which it evolves. Four main aspects could be distinguished here:

First: The general weakness marking most patterns of the Islamic discourse at the level of its content. This is epitomized in the regression of knowledge against a sweeping ignorance, or what is conventionally referred to as religious illiteracy, reflected in the frailty of the content and the failing perception of the matters and issues addressed from an Islamic angle and presented to the public opinion within the Islamic world, as well as the international public opinion.

Second: Improvisation and spontaneity resulting form lack of planning, disregard of the scientific approach commanding specialized study of all issues, topics and situations at hand, reliance on individual capacities in most cases, to the detriment of co-operation, complementarity and co-ordination of efforts, and the waiver to collective action with regard to new developments and emerging situation that require a unified position.

Third: Narrow-mindedness and focus on the transient in a total disregard for the future and for the medium and long ranges. This accounts largely for the fact that many patterns of Islamic discourse are confined to the circle of counter-reaction, and for the quasi total absence of initiative.

Fourth: Reflection of the doctrinal, intellectual and cultural differences as well as the local, regional and international conflicts on the Islamic discourse in its entirely, making it disjointed, contradictory, plagued by multiple visions and lacking in harmony and co-ordination.

These negative aspects impact on general conditions in the Islamic world, as well as on the image of Islam and Muslims in the world, and on the capacity to meet challenges and fend off ill-intentioned campaigns that target the Islamic Ummah, threatening its existence, the sovereignty of its states, the stability of its peoples and their prosperity and development.

In addition to these negative conditions, the Islamic discourse is influenced by the state of backwardness where the Islamic world wallows to the extent where this discourse loses credibility effectiveness and influence, and becomes negative and no better than hollow and fake words.

In many of its aspects, the modern discourse is no reflection of the true shining image of Islam, but for a few limited cases, in odd instances and at varying endeavours.

The inadequacy of he Islamic discourse, in addition to the negative aspects that we have described in detail earlier, lies in the overwhelming challenges that the Islamic Ummah has to meet. These challenges fall into two categories: challenges of which the source is internal and other that hail from the outside world, although the internal challenges are much more daunting. These are clear in the state of division and alienation that prevails within the Islamic world, as well as in the state of poverty and backwardness that cripple many sectors in many parts of the Islamic world, as well as in the failure to activate and entrench Islamic solidarity in public Islamic life. They also take the form of an instability that marks the political, economic, administrative, cultural, technological and information realms and which impedes development efforts. All of these challenges impact heavily on the performance level of the Islamic discourse, and on the effectiveness of its mission within the Islamic world as well as on the regional and international arena.

This is the status prevailing internally and externally within the Islamic discourse at the current juncture. At the internal level, and in view of local conditions, some forms of Islamic discourse emerge with the purpose of destroying unity instead of fostering it and sowing discord and conflict instead of trust, mutual respect and brotherhood. This category of Islamic discourse causes further weakness to the Ummah, scatters its efforts apart, and provides external forces with the opportunity to undermine its rights in one way or another.

At the external level, the weak Islamic discourse, with frail sense of belonging, and a heavy load of differences, does nothing but consecrate the stereotypical distorted image of Islam and Muslims, and provides the enemies of Islam and those who support them with the pretexts to double up efforts in plotting against the Islamic Ummah, undermining its rights, subjecting it to tyranny and imposing the new colonial hegemony over Islamic countries.

In fact, an Islamic discourse that lacks in scientific and professional prerequisites could turn to be of a boomerang effect, entailing, therefore, counter-productive results, the more it goes astray of the wisdom, gentle exhortation and fair practice of dialogue.

Future of the Islamic Discourse :

The future of the Islamic discourse is part and parcel of the future of the Islamic world. The more Muslim societies develop, change towards the better by overcoming obstacles, redressing situations, abolishing poverty, illiteracy and backwardness, the more renewed and improved would be the Islamic discourse, thereby, ascending to a level that would enable it to keep pace with changes, fulfil expectations, be in harmony with the identity of the Ummah, translate its specificities and defend its interests.

The phenomenon observed by researchers interested in the analysis of the Islamic discourse, consists of the incompatibility between tradition and modernity. While professional and technical means of discourse evolve dramatically as a result of the information revolution and the progress achieved in the invention of modern information media, this technical and professional progress is not accompanied by another type of progress that would involve the renewal of the contents of the Islamic discourse while remaining attached to the constants of Islam, a good grasping of modern changes and tackling them in a way conducive to the achievement of this revival.

Mention should be made here of the fact that the Islamic discourse is not limited to preaching. It is every form of discourse that expresses the specificities of the Islamic Ummah, defends the supreme interests of the Islamic world, presents the true image of Islam and Muslims, rectifies errors, dispels suspicions, refutes accusations, and stands up, armed with knowledge, logic and the appropriate language, to the malicious campaigns waged against all Islamic countries, no exceptions made.

This all-encompassing discourse of the Ummag, reflecting its identity and defending its interests, is the kind of discourse that fulfils the needs of the future because it possesses the objective conditions of competitiveness at the regional and international arenas, consecrates the presence, and exercises the necessary positive influence.

We do not claim to advocate a unified Islamic discourse, but we do urge for co-ordination, co-operation and complementarity within the framework of Islamic solidarity. This solidarity entails that this discourse be free form internal conflict, and be rather a solidary Islamic discourse that serves the whole Islamic Ummah and excludes no category whatsoever.

We are not looking at the current situation in the Islamic world from the angle of the problems, crises, tension and external threats that besiege it, for all of these are passing worries, and the Islamic Ummah shall remain true to its true faith, its culture, civilization, internal strengths, authentic peoples and prestige. For these reasons, we urge for the Islamic discourse to be freed from all obstacles and all shackles, to overcome the problems standing in its way, renew itself and develop towards a better performance.

This can only be effectively achieved through the liberation of the mind from the shackles of imitation and stagnation, its use in achieving innovation and renewal, the clever and rational opening up to the horizons of human thought in its positive aspects and the deriving of benefits from its fruits.

Conclusion :

A discourse cannot be called Islamic unless it springs from an Islamic referential framework, expressing the cultural and civilizational identity of the Islamic Ummah, and based on the Quranic injunction that came in the verse: ‘Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation and reason with them in a better way’ (11).

Another prerequisite for the Islamic discourse is that its purpose must be to enlighten, not to confuse, to build, not to destroy, strive to preserve the unity, solidarity and harmony and to mobilise the potentialities and efforts of the Ummah for civilizational edification, not to tear the Ummah asunder, scatter its efforts, squander its potentialities and thrust it in the whirlwind of quarrels and conflict.

The Islamic discourse can only be right if it held on to the immutable constants of the Ummah, the true creed, the ordained rites, the comprehensive rulings and sublime moral values. The objective conditions of success for the Islamic dialogue to discharge its role in public life will not come together unless this discourse’s goal is to serve the supreme interests of the Islamic Ummah, defend it in the best way, as decreed in the call to the way of Allah, converse with people and enlighten them a to the ways of virtue, justice and peace, in good knowledge and awareness. One of the prerequisites of this knowledge is to adopt the modern and developed means in addressing, analysing and renewing discourse through an interactive relation with changes and developments.

In form and content, the Islamic discourse is a human discourse that seeks to promote dialogue, understanding, co-existence and co-operation with all the parties of the international community, in order to spread the values of justice, peace and welfare. With Islam as its reference, the Islamic discourse shuns violence and extremism, calls for the respect and preservation of human rights, and for banishing injustice, hegemony and the earth’s spoliation.

Renewing the Islamic discourse to establish a harmony between tradition and modernity entails renewing the civilizational edifice of the Islamic world by strengthening and immunising the self, reaching high levels in knowledge and science and being creative in these fields, instilling the spirit of Islamic solidarity for the latter to become a force of advancement and civilizational competitiveness, and a source of inspiration and impetus for progress in all fields.

(1) Ibn Manzur, Lisan Alarab, Volume 2, page 856, Edition of Dar Al Jeel and Dar Lisan Al Arab, Beirut, 1988.

(2) Abu Albaqaa Al Kafawi, Al Kulliyat, page 419. Edition of Arrisala Institution. Dr Adnan Drawiche and Muhammed Al Basri. Beirut, 1992.

(3) Sad, verse 23.

(4) Sad, verse 20.

(5) Annabae, verse 37.

(6) Moujame Al-Fath Al Qorane Al-Karim, V.2, Arabic Language Academy, General Body in charge of the Emiral Libraries Affairs, Cairo, 1996.

(7) Al Amadi, Al ahkam Fi Usul Al Ahkam, Part 1, page 136, Dar Al Kutub Al Ilmiyya, Beirut 1980, Al Amadi says in this book ‘Discourse is the term agreed upon to mean explain a matter to he who is receptive and ready to understand it’, Dr Taha Abdulrahlane says in his book’ Al-Lisan Wal Mizan’, page 215 (edition of the Arab Cultural Centre-Casablanca 1998): “What is spoken-the speech or discourse- and is fit to be considered as speech, is what serves the purposes of communication that are compulsory in what is referred to as discourses. Discourse is no more than every utterance addressed to the other with the purpose of explaining to him a given idea.

(8) Annahl, verse 125.

(9) Mohammed Ali Al Sabouni, Safwat Attafaseer, Part II, page 148. Directorate of Religious Affairs, State of Qatar. 1981.

(10) Dr Yusuf Al Qaradawi: Islamic Revival From adolescence to Maturity; page 86, Dr Achchourouq, Cairo 2002.

(11)  Annahl, verse 125.


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