Lost in the Sacred Book Review

Why does the Muslim world lag behind so dramatically? Is Western dominance to blame? Or is the problem with Islam itself?

These are the questions that Dan Diner poses in this book and, ultimately, his response to whether Islam is to blame for lack of progress is a resounding YES.

Diner’s thesis is based on the assumption that the Muslim/Arab World’s desperate need for modernisation- achieved through secularisation- has been hindered by the prevalence of Islam in the region. In Islam every aspect of society such as language, history, politics, trade and law is imbued with the notion of the sacred. Nothing is able to escape its grip and in the process an entire world is separated from reality and the possibility for any kind of progress.

One interesting example Diner uses to illustrate his thesis is the complexity and rigidity of classical Arabic (Fus-ha) which he states stands in the way of social expression and technological change. He explains that real progress could be made if the language were altered but is quick to point out that that this could never happen as Arabic is the language of the Qu’ran and subsequently too sacred. Another case in point is the work of the 14th century Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun, who highlighted the cyclical rise and fall of dynasties. Applying these historical theories, Diner remarks that the Muslim world is constantly looking back to a perceived golden age; attempting to recreate the past rather than following the path of secular progress as demonstrated by the West.

Whilst it makes for interesting reading, it is hard to miss the deep flaw in Diner’s work. For instance, he chooses to totally by-pass the issue of what defines progress, how it’s measured, compared, and whether progress could ever be possible without secularisation. Does he see no aspects of Islamic civilisation as progressive? What about the influential role of Christianity in the US, the world’s symbol of progress and development?

Rather than acknowledge the complexities of religion and the subjective nature of progress, Diner chooses to deduce the Arab/Muslim world’s lack of development entirely from the UN’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report. There is also the subtle but inescapable assumption in Lost in the Sacred that the Arab world is not under-developed but backward. Now, I realise that this is contentious especially since the Muslim world is hardly at its peak, but the statement by Diner that “the idea of freedom is a specific outcome of the Western experience” is typical of his false, mixed-up thinking, not to mention the patronizing implications for the Arab (and wider) world.

Furthermore, whilst Diner is highly suspicious of the Muslim world for looking back into its history, it is ironic that his entire thesis is based on events and theories before the nineteenth century. As fascinating as it may be, how influential are the trading laws under the Ottoman empire for the oil-obsessed world market under which the Muslim world now operates? In fact, Lost in the Sacred entirely discounts the profound events of the 20th and 21st centuries such as decolonisation, two World Wars as well as the impact of 9/11 on shaping the Muslim World. It also refuses to acknowledge that the West – the peak of modernisation and progress- had any influence on the Arab world.

Whilst Diner acknowledges the existence of a body of post-colonial studies which ascribe “the unfortunate condition of Muslims mostly to external causes”, he infers the ‘arrested development’ of the Muslim world entirely to a deficit of secularization. This unwillingness to even engage with the issue of Western dominance and colonisation – which continued well into the 20th century and affected numerous Muslim countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Palestine under the British Mandate – is a deep and final blow to the quality of this book.

Overall, Lost in the Sacred is an interesting if one-sided look at the history of the Muslim world. Punctuated with insightful chapters on the history of Muslim countries such as Pakistan as well as the Ottoman Empire, it did however lose its direction. The flow and logic of the book couldn’t have been helped by the messy translation, littered with commas and non-statements such as this: “This statement cannot be otherwise than true.” (p179). Ultimately, however, its biggest downfall is its inability or unwillingness to recognise the true complexity of the issue and of the Muslim world. ‘Lost in the Sacred’ subsequently is nothing more than a one-sided rant which fails to blossom into a meaningful debate about the reasons behind the decline of the Muslim world.

Arwa Aburawa

Lost in the Sacred by Dan Diner is published by Princeton University Press

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