Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still - Dan Diner Dedication: This review is dedicated to Kelly, my GR Friend, who has patiently and without complaint awaited my thoughts about the book. I take no responsibility for whether it was worth it.

It is unfortunate that the only other review of this book appears to be in Arabic because I would be interested in other people’s opinions of the work, especially from the Muslims, to whom the author wants to speak. Diner is “professor of modern history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Leipzig” (from the jacket blurb) and an advocate for the better qualities of Western civilization and modernity, “modernity” being a world view that believes humans are naturally curious, creative and inventive, and enshrines the values of individualism and self-direction. While modernism respects the sacred and communal dimensions of life, it separates them (particularly the spiritual) into distinct spheres. It’s this lack of a distinction in Islam that Diner believes has kept it economically and politically backward since the 15th century, when Western European (née Christian) civilization embarked on the ascendancy that it still enjoys (more or less) today.

Diner argues that among the world’s great religions, Islam (particularly Arab Muslims) has been the least successful in responding to modernity. Its failure to do so has condemned much of the Muslim world to appalling economic stagnation and squalor and political despotism. To overcome these manifest handicaps, Muslims must find a way to flourish in a contemporary context without sacrificing their faith. The author’s solution is a desacralization of Muslim culture. In other words, it needs to undergo a Reformation similar to that which transformed the society of Medieval Christendom (which was similar to modern Islam in its outlook) into that of the Modern Era – largely secular, with fairly clear limits between religion and mundane life.

“But there is no mention of secularization in the sense of a separation of spheres of life and social intercourse…. Secularization implies an endless process of definition, interpretation, negotiation, transformation, and conversion of the boundaries between the modes of inner life and the outer world. It also means the decoding and appropriation of the world by human reason. Religion as a system of belief impregnating societies hampers this process. This is especially true in the case of Islam, a religion of law that claims to regulate all spheres of life. The arrested development in the Muslim world can be diagnosed, then, as a deficit of secularization” (p. 17).*


While I’m in sympathy with Diner’s position, as it mirrors my own beliefs and reading, I can’t imagine that this position would garner much respect among believing Muslims. In effect, he’s saying, “Your faith’s got it all wrong, and it’s holding you back. Become more like the West and everything will get better.” Even if I were a secularized Muslim happily coping with the paradoxes of modernity and faith, I’d be offended; you can easily imagine the reactions of a more fervid believer. And that is my problem with Lost in the Sacred. Diner’s facts are evident. The Middle East and North Africa are economic basket cases, and their political systems are largely corrupt dictatorships and kleptocracies. Even the “best” of them – Egypt, Syria and Jordan, say – are dependant upon the whims of a ruler and his cronies. There is no long-term economic or political or legal security that would foster a more just culture. So too is it evident that a significant portion of blame lies at the feet of reactionary interpretations of Islamic law and the Quran (both modern and historic) but Diner’s solution just won’t fly. Islam is struggling with the consequences of modernity in all its manifestations (I would say that the West hasn’t come to terms with it) and it does need a “reformation” because retreat into fear-driven fundamentalism offers no solution.

I have little contact with the latest trends in Islamic intellectual and religious currents but I do get the sense from what little I have had that there are any number of voices that are finding ways to integrate the Quran, Sharia law, social tradition, and modernity in innovative ways without sacrificing faith, which seems to me a more fruitful and potentially successful path than the one Diner advocates.

All that having been said, is Diner’s book worth reading? Yes, of course it is! You may disagree with the solution but the problems of Arab Islam as laid out in its six chapters are real, and it’s important that all, Muslim and non-Muslim, should understand the elements that impede progress toward a more just society.**

The jumping off point for Diner’s thesis is the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) – a yearly assessment of the state of the Arab world. It’s compiled by native sociologists, political scientists, economists and cultural scholars and, in the 2002 report, identified five areas of concern:

1. Stagnant economies
2. Restricted freedoms
3. Declining levels of education
4. Restrictions on science and technological development
5. Abysmal human rights records (esp. regarding women)

The efforts of Middle Eastern regimes to import Western technology have ignored and tried to suppress the concomitant social, economic and political changes that fostered and emerged from those technological developments. There is no public sphere for debate, criticism or accountability, and power and wealth are controlled by a tiny oligarchy. Since there is no separation between politics and economics, there’s no stability that might foster long-term growth.

The most familiar attempt by Islam to accommodate modernity is Kemal Ataturk’s creation of the Turkish state. Despite pressures from its religious community, Turkey remains the most secularized, most Western state in the region, and – from a Western point of view – remains the most “successful,” however that term is defined. Ataturk’s experiment created a backlash (in part, an anti-Western/anti-colonialism reaction but one can never underestimate the Arab loathing of the Turks as usurpers). All of these efforts were characterized by a desire to return to an “uncorrupted, pure Islam.” The Indian Mawdudi denied any comparison between the West and Islam and called upon believers to rely solely on the Quran and Sharia. Of even greater influence was Hasan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood. Diner writes of his views: “The way out of the decadence of Arab and Muslim societies…passes through awareness of original pure, uncorrupted Islam, an Islam freed from the burden of the interpretations piled up by theologians across the centuries, an Islam that rejects all writings that have appeared in the interim, basing itself solely on the Koran (sic), the Sunna, and their classical interpreters” (p. 58). And explains Sayyid Qutb’s, the philosopher of the movement, views: “Islam depicts a self-contained, divine truth that cannot…be compared with the knowledge-fixated culture of the West and the modernity it had spawned. Muslims live in a timeless temporal order imbued with the sacred, for which any historical conception of time is anathema. Everything is laid down in the Koran and Sunna. An alteration is…heresy. Compromises or adaptations to other worldviews are to be resisted by all means” (p. 62).

Chapter 3 – “Test and Speech” – argues that classical Arabic, the language of the Quran, is sacred, complex and is not allowed to adapt as a living language. Since the regional dialects by and large have no literature, it’s difficult to express modern concepts in an acceptable medium, and to work in academics, one needs to learn and write in a second language (shades of Medieval Europe vis-à-vis Latin).

Emblematic of Islam’s technological retardation is the printing press. In the West, the printing press was ubiquitous by 1500, only two generations after its invention. By contrast, the first printing press in the Ottoman Empire began in 1727, and the printing of sacred texts was forbidden. Also, significantly, the press was controlled by the central government, and subject to the resulting censorship. In the West, the press sparked the Reformation, inspired vernaculars and political involvement, and made knowledge (theoretically) accessible to everyone. In Muslim lands, “Islamic civilization remained committed to an orally transmitted culture based on scripture” (p. 73). Diner makes the point that Islam has always been chary of the written word. “True” knowledge is transmitted orally and memorized – “all written texts other than the Quran are the object of intense suspicion” (p. 75).***

Briefly, chapter 4 details the economic stagnation that set in when the Old World was flooded with the wealth of the New. Diner writes that it reduced Ottoman revenues by 60% - a devastating blow to any economy – but that the Turks were unable to adopt political or economic policies that could compete with capitalism.

I’m fascinated by Diner’s explanation for why the Ottomans failed to adapt, and I understand the distaste they expressed for Western methods: Istanbul remained committed to a morally grounded economic order. The West embraced the idea that states were referees of markets controlled by private interests whose guiding ethos was maximum productivity at maximum profit without regard for social consequences or the well being of the have-nots.

Chapter 5 touches upon three things mentioned in the book earlier but now explored in detail. The first is the different conceptions of public and private space in Western (i.e., Roman) law and Sharia. The clear, precise distinction in Roman law between public and private property is not found in Islam, where the natural tendency for private interests to trump public utility occurs frequently. Since law was also the sphere of the imams, every aspect of legality was sacred; the notion of a separate canon law (of the Church) and a secular law never developed.

The second idea is the Western concept of time as a factor in its material success. Western time is abstract, regulated and independent of nature. Eastern time remained “agricultural” – defined by seasons, the rising of sun and moon, etc. – and not conducive to fixing recurrent events or regulating human activities in a factory.

The final thing is what Diner says is the fundamental difference between Western society and Islamic, and deserves to be quoted in full:

“The Western notion that a person’s personal integrity has to be protected from injury by immediate public intervention, and the Muslim command to encourage what is right and forbid what is wrong – these seek to protect different goods. In the first, harm to a person must be prevented; in the second, a sin against God must be averted. In the context of Western civilization, intervention is called for when a person … is threatened. In the Muslim context, it is less a matter of the person than of preventing damage to the umma (the community of believers). Damage is considered to have been inflicted when no concrete harm to a person results. The fact that in Islam conduct can be harmful, even if no one has been concretely harmed by it, can mean only one thing. God is present among men. It is the presence…of God that leads Muslim social life being steeped in the sacred” (p. 152).


Chapter six continues with the theme of sacred and profane time, and introduces the author’s final nuance on his argument. For nearly its entire history, Islam has been the dominant partner in its relationships with its neighbors. There were minor set backs – the Crusades, the Reconquista, the Norman states in Italy and Sicily (and a very brief one in North Africa) – but they never impinged on Islam’s core belief in its superiority. That belief has been shaken and Islam is still trying to deal with the question “What is the place of Islam in the context of a world where Muslims live in non-Muslim societies?”

I don’t think Diner’s solution to Islam’s woes adequately addresses the problems. It’s becoming evident that the amoral, short-term exploitative practices of Western modernity are bankrupt. There’s no question that they’ve made life better for a relatively small segment of the human race but at the price of destroying the long-term capacity of the planet. (Make no mistake, I’m very happy taking advantage of in-door plumbing, penicillin and the Internet, and I’d like to believe that we can find some way to retain all the advantages of the modern world but not at the expense of the planet and a majority of humans who aren’t benefiting from it. It’s not going to happen, however, by adopting the ethos of our English mercantilist ancestors.)

* This sentence is an example of one of the stylistic flaws that crops up while reading this book. Diner has an unfortunate tendency to drop into the jargon of sociology. The sentence above is one of the milder offenses to grammatical aesthetics. The worst, probably, is the following: “Unless we reflect on the asymmetries of simultaneous nonsimultaneity in the periodization of history, and so agree to relativize the impact of European-cum-Western periodizations on historical thought, the construction of world history as a universal timeline accommodating different cultures and civilizations and their multiple reciprocities will be difficult to achieve” (p. 157).

** I realize, having written this sentence, that in the eyes of a Taliban or al-Qaida member they are working (and fighting) for a more just society – one that goes back to that mythical first community under the Prophet when Muslims lived only one remove from the divine Word of God. But that society never existed. I may be suffering to some extent from Western arrogance in believing that individualism and self-direction are moral goods but I’m also speaking from the point of view expressed in a recent book I read by the Dalai Lama, Becoming Enlightened – teachings that do not lead to greater peace and happiness are wrong. Afghanistan under the Taliban (1996-2001) was not a better place (Afghanistan under our puppets is no better but that’s a whole ‘nuther shelf of books). Iran under the clerics is not more peaceful or happier.

*** I’m reminded here of the (probably) apocryphal tale of the Arab general who conquered Alexandria. He wrote back to the Caliph about what to do with the great Library. The Caliph wrote back to destroy it since any writings that concurred with the Quran were superfluous and any that did not were anathema. I’m also reminded of the episode Qanta Ahmed recounts in In the Land of Invisible Women A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, where she meets a young woman who had attained a special status because she had memorized the Quran (note, not that she necessarily understood it or had commented on it but only that she could parrot it back without error).