It’s been more than a week, and I still want to write something about Libya, but at least from everything I can see online, it looks like there is still a lot of contradictory information coming out of Libya. And for that matter, the rest of North Africa.
So far, though, the results look promising, if not conclusive. Considering the history of the North African countries throughout the last century, although there have been revolutions in the past – what seemed, at the time, to be promising changes in the nature of the country – these countries have never managed to veer too far from tyranny.
For me, personally, as an Islamic scholar, much of what I find the most interesting about the Arab spring and the subsequent six months has been the questions it has raised within Islam itself, about the nature of Islam and its modern practice.
Again, these conversations haven’t produced anything conclusive yet – and many of these conversations are bound to create controversy. A quick comparison of the concerns of a community of women in Benghazi to the comments of the newly-appointed Minister of Religious Affairs makes these controversies pretty clear. Without a doubt, the role of women will figure centrally in discussions of Islamic practice and thought, as it has throughout the Muslim world in recent years, and it’s definitely too early to know how these conversations will turn out. But again, as someone who studies Islamic thought, I find it comforting to hear a Libyan Minister of Religious Affairs declare that “Gaddafi said he supported sharia law as set out in the Koran but he was a liar. He did things that were not part of sharia.”
The history of Islam has always been the history of two parallel, related, but distinct traditions – one, the development of the religion of Islam and the other, the development of the Islamic state, first the caliphate, then the Islamic principalities, and finally the history of the modern Middle East. Much of the history of the twentieth century has focused on the Muslim states, and all too often the bastard tyrants who run them. I have no idea what will happen to the state of Libya in the coming months and years, and I’m anxious to find out, but I’m also fascinated to see how the Arab spring affects the religion of Islam.