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Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still

Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still by Dan Diner, trans. by Steven Randall. Princeton University Press, 2009, 226 pp.

Bottom line upfront: this book is not an easy or casual reading experience. The author’s hypothesis is complex, as is the evidence presented, and his conclusions are certainly debatable. Additionally, while the translation from the original German is first rate, any translation suffers from subtle influences of syntax, sentence construction, and cultural differences in written organization. The reader must be determined to understand the author’s perspective on the subject matter and the arguments presented to support the hypothesis.

Key to understanding the perspective that frames the author’s arguments is an unfamiliar definition of the word sacred. Diner’s fundamental thesis is that what is “sacred” in the Islamic world is not confined to theology or even the practice of theological dogma—that what is considered “sacred” infuses and permeates all aspects and considerations of life with “burning omnipresence and transcendence.” His hypothesis is that this infusion of the sacred into all aspects of life is responsible for the arrested development of the Islamic world; his conclusion is that the solution for this arrested development—and the ability of Islam to participate fully and effectively in a modern global environment—depends on “secularization.”

Again, understanding context and the author’s specific definitions is essential. Diner’s definition of secularization is anything but simple. He is clear enough, but his definition is nonetheless complex. In Diner’s context, secularization is not merely the absence of a theocratic government; it is “a lengthy process of disenchanting the world.” This phrase provides an excellent example of the challenge of truly understanding what Diner is trying to express. In an attempt to clarify that rather nebulous phrase, he expands: “the divine sovereign is transformed into worldly procedures; multiple separate powers replace the absolute integrity of the sacred in meaning as well as function.” Profane is another word used with an unusual definition and one not specifically clarified. In Diner’s context, profane is used to refer to anything that is not considered sacred. It is a perfectly valid use of the word but one that may be unfamiliar to many readers whose personal experience would incline them to read “profane” as something considerably harsher than Diner or his translator intended. Other less glaring oddities in word choice and use may seem unfamiliar or even unusual. Get your head around those relative oddities, and the rest is fairly easy.

Passive voice appears surprisingly often, at least for one used to military-style writing. In most cases, this seems to result from translation challenges. In a few cases, however, passive voice genuinely obscures the source of information (as in “It is said . . .”), particularly when the accompanying footnote identifies the source document in the original untranslated German. In other cases, the use of passive voice without footnotes to establish attribution leaves the reader wondering “Who said that?”

A careful analytical reading of Diner’s introduction is absolutely necessary to understanding the book as a whole. The introduction is organized much like the opening chapter of a dissertation, which is certainly helpful. He lays out his sequence and introduces his logic quite clearly, giving readers a well-illuminated path and a reasonable understanding of what to expect: an examination of the present, then the recent past, the early modern era, and the Renaissance. Diner’s analysis then changes course slightly, shifting to an analysis of central government regulation of society and finally an examination of how time and history are represented in the Arab-Muslim world. The chapter titles indicate a divergence from this outline which proves to be real rather than imagined. The presentation and analysis of information in each chapter is more closely aligned with the chapter heading than with the chronology identified in the introduction. Such divergence is not necessarily negative, as Diner casts a net for supporting evidence that is both deep and wide. Most chapters in fact consider a slice of history from the ancient to the modern. He weaves history and its meaning together masterfully, but this organization of evidence may cause readers to find their own ability to critically consider and analyze what Diner has presented to be challenging. This is a text that must be genuinely studied to be understood.

The author’s complexities in presenting evidence tend to obscure the conclusions supported by that evidence, and in some cases obscure or even mask debatable assumptions presented as fact unsupported by evidence. For example, in his discussion of the relative values of the written and spoken words, Diner refers to “the written word’s notorious unreliability.” Perhaps this perspective on the written word is a cultural bias; it certainly is counter to the Western view that written communication is far preferable to oral communication for its ability to be reread, reviewed, and analyzed in depth over time. In the same paragraph, however, the author touts the advantage of being able to interpret oral language broadly and flexibly, with the subsequent advantage that such flexible interpretation of spoken language helps to prevent schisms. To a reader, this may feel like Mobius strip logic: you come all the way around the circle but end up facing the opposite direction and cannot quite understand why.

These criticisms are minor. Overall, Diner’s book is an excellent examination of the Arab-Muslim world (not Islam as a whole) and its history, especially Ottoman history. Any study of the modern Middle East that did not examine its Ottoman underpinnings would be truly deficient. His examination of the impacts of secularization of Turkey’s government after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is superb. While the immediate impact on Turkey as a nation is almost intuitive, the enormous ripple effect in the Muslim (particularly the Arab-Muslim) world may not be nearly as obvious to most: the abolition of both the caliphate and the office of the Sheik ul-Islam, who had the authority to appoint the supreme judge in all Muslim countries. These were huge shifts in foundational paradigms that underpinned not only the former Ottoman Empire, but much of the world beyond its borders.

The reader, however, will have to judge whether or not Diner’s hypothesis as conclusion—that secularization is the solution to the Arab-Muslim world’s developmental stasis in comparison to the West—is valid. In Diner’s context, secularization means entirely decoupling all that is even remotely related to religion from everyday life: from government, from business ethics, from societal morals, in essence from everything except individual behavior and belief. Taken to the extreme, such secularization would amount to atheism as public policy. It is hard to argue against his suggestion that the Middle East would be intellectually unshackled by decoupling Muslim religious dogma from official government policy. Whether his description of secularization in the Western world is accurate or its extreme implementation in the Muslim world is desirable is a judgment for the reader to make.

Thomas E. Ward II, PhD

Fort Leavenworth, KS

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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