The End of Two Illusions
Islam After the West
- ISBN: 9780520376922
- Published By: University of California Press
- Published: April 2022
The West and Islam are often understood as opposing entities. In The End of Two Illusions: Islam after the West, Hamid Dabashi implores readers to jettison the “The West and Islam” binary. The book is a journey through global and religious histories, touching on comparative literature, philosophy, and art, showing how the arrogant idea of “the West” arose and became juxtaposed to Islam, consequently perceived as an inferior and monolithic opposite. The author relies on an interdisciplinary approach to redress the issue.
Dabashi’s main argument is that “The West and Islam” are mythological literary by-products of colonialism. Through eight chapters, he illuminates the underpinnings of “The West” and explains how its relation to “Islam” has corrupted the meaning even for Muslims. Dabashi begins with a survey of early Islam, asserting the pluralist makeup of its societies and empires. He then explains how “The West” is premised on a conceptual shift occurring in the Enlightenment. It is in the early stages of colonialism, capitalism, and nationalism that the notion of “Western civilization” developed. The rise of the bourgeois spawned a materialist hierarchy with socio-economic classes and the division of nations (84). A sense of civilizational superiority led Europeans to believe in a false destiny of progress and modernity. Unprecedented political and economic developments led philosophers to rationalize Europe’s new affluence.
During this time, intellectuals began to rationalize such dramatic changes, hence Dabashi discusses the linkage of “The West” as a fetishized commodity to a Freudian illusion, that is, an unfounded but rationalized feeling or belief. He identifies Kantian and Hegelian thought as “The West’s” philosophical foundations. Kantian universal principles constructed a new metaphysics, giving the white European male the pinnacle status in rational and ethical hierarchies—a de-Christianized, ahistorical colonizer (89-90). Hegel’s idea of “historical progress” offered a fallacious foretelling of Europe’s future success as a harbinger for “modernity.” Colonialism contorted the Christian tradition to adopt capitalism and orientalism (123).
Chapter 3 looks at the “condition of coloniality” by which Europeans normalized the idea of “Western Civilization” as they arrived to subjugate peoples and lands. In the Middle East, the exportation created militant Islam—a colonizing of the Muslim mind (108). Dabashi enumerates many figures he views as flawed, such as nationalists Rashid Rida and Ali al-Raziq. The critique continues in the next chapter, arguing that Abdolkarim Soroush and Osama Bin Laden both de-historicized Islamic traditions away from its dialogical nature. It has been no surprise that militant Islam and terrorism has only reinforced the orientalist affirmations of Bernard Lewis and Francis Fukuyama. Dabashi also discusses how Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilization” theory was intended to study the tensions of multiculturalism within the United States (176).
The last three chapters are devoted to cross-cultural connections that defy civilizational divides or Western supremacy. In chapter 6, Dabashi turns to gender. Muslim women have been cast as passive, repressed women in patriarchies (190), a status reinforced and embraced by Western white female scholars. He refutes this racialized stereotype by presenting the Qur’anic portrayal of Queen Sheba while also references other women in more recent cross-cultural currents through film and poetry. Chapter 7 addresses the dilemma of the “Western Core” curriculum at Columbia University. According to Dabashi, students in the 1990s started to challenge the literature program, staging protests including a hunger strike in 1996 (219).
Chapter 8 concludes with Dabashi’s call to thrust “the West and Islam” into its grave. He argues that “[w]e need a wider and longer global imaginary, a deeper historical memory, a more embracing emotive universe to overcome the false bifurcations that are today ripping our world asunder” (241). Given his regional expertise, Dabashi presents the Persian Empire as an example of a fluidity among cultures in which the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was inspired by the works of Hafez, for instance. The influence of Persian culture demonstrates a global resonance, which undercut the binaries and orientalism that frame (according to Dabashi) the work of academics like Gilles Keppel, Olivier Roy and Niall Ferguson.
Dabashi’s concluding remarks reaffirm his claim that “The West” co-invented a conception of “Islam to serve colonial interests by sustaining the illusion of its own civilizational superiority” (269). One of Dabashi’s poignant remarks concerns the ramifications of the binary on religion. He laments that “religions have been reduced to renditions of capitalist modernity, which has damaged these religions’ historical memories of themselves” (280). In the epilogue, Dabashi offers anecdotes on current challenges, including systematic Islamophobia, Israel’s Jewish nationhood, Saudi Arabian Wahhabism, Turkey’s Kemalism, and Iran’s theocracy. He argues that we can desert the binary and overcome civilizational divides once the world seeks to affirm the transnational public sphere to which we all belong.
The End of Two Illusions: Islam after the West is an excellent development of Edward Said’s account of orientalism. Dabashi shows the powerful force of ideas: in this case, “the West and Islam,” which has rationalized violence and led people to condition themselves with racism and avarice through an enduring colonial and capitalist logic. All this time, hostilities have been artificially engineered to create conflicts among societies that have much more in common than they have been led to believe since the Enlightenment. A dialectal reading of world history and historical memory should help recalibrate our reality.
Overall, Dabashi demonstrates his adroit knowledge via historical archeology and epistemic genealogy, although with minor shortcomings. The author mourns an Islam after its contact with colonialism, but at times his depiction of Islam’s early centuries appears too romanticized. Additionally, Dabashi deploys an ad hominem attack against Bernard Lewis, insisting that he was mentally unsound in his later years. But criticizing his writings is sufficient to make the point. Lastly, Dabashi raises fears about multiculturalism, although he does not elaborate on how these anxieties might be realized (and combated) in the transnational public sphere for which he advocates. Nonetheless, Dabashi makes a compelling claim in the epistemic violence created by “The West and Islam” that fits suitably in the ongoing work of decolonial scholarship.
Edward Z. Ablang is a doctoral student in peace studies and history in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.Edward Z. AblangDate Of Review:March 23, 2023