Beyond Orthodoxy, Identity and ReformNon-Muslims curious to learn about our faith generally begin by asking us, ‘What is Islam?’ A typical answer prefaces Suzanne Haneef’s What Everyone Should Know About Islam and Muslims (Kazi, 1979): “The meaning of the word Islam is “submission” and “peace” (p.vii). The answer is frequently unexpected, probably because it is not quite what the student had in mind. He/she already knows what Islam ‘means’ and it’s nothing to do with etymology - it refers to a religious nation of people calling themselves Muslims. An alternative line of inquiry for both Muslim and non-Muslim would be to consider how the latter conceptualization of Islam has arisen.
It is unlikely that a Muslim standing in Baghdad in the 9th century CE conceptualised ‘Islam’ as a religious nation in the way many Muslims do today. For him/her, the geopolitical landscape was most likely conceived in terms of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb, with the former defined as the place where Islamic law prevailed. ‘Religion’ ‘identity’ and ‘nation’ are largely modern ideas and the use of ‘Islam’ or indeed ‘ummah’ was not originally formulated beneath their conceptual umbrellas. To take nationalism as one example, for most of the period when India was a British colony, the subcontinent ulema opposed nationalism as contrary to Muslim universalism.
The rise of modern Muslim identity politics almost certainly dates from the first resistance to European colonialism, but has since been fuelled by pan-Islamic movements, the rise of post-independence States and the failure of Arab socialism. In this reactionary politique, one of the crucial emotions informing contemporary collective Muslim identities has been nationalism. The potency of this sentiment is best described by Orwell, whose analysis of nationalistic obsession, instability and a hypocritical indifference to reality remains incisive. Ironically, this did not stop Orwell himself from adopting a nationalist stance during World War II, when he famously describing left-wing pacifists who refused to take up arms against Hitler as “boiled rabbits”.
One way of understanding how nationalistic passions have skewed the contemporary Muslim revival (1798- ) is to compare this Muslim era with the rise of Islam following the death of the Prophet (aws) in 632 CE. Whilst tidbits of this era are often paraded by Muslims as examples of our faith’s former glories, the Islam of this time was not golden age carrying great figures and discoveries on its shoulders. In reality, it was familial rather than national, doctrinally pluralistic rather than monolithic, and intellectually sophisticated. The term ‘ilm, now often employed to refer solely to ‘religious knowledge’, had around 50 contested definitions during this period.
Contemporary Muslims frequently define their identities against a Western protagonist and in fear of Westoxification. Yet ironically, it was the slough from Islam’s intellectual explorations, adopted and revivified in the West thanks in large part to Latin translations of Ibn Rushd, that led to the rise of Europe as a modern political and economic force, driven by an anti-clerical rationalistic bourgeoisie. Such historical cross-wires between Islam and Europe remind us that the social imaginaries of ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ have the potential to mutually deconstruct one another. On the one hand, Islam has the potential to remind Europe of its monotheistic spiritual-ethical roots, and on the other, Europe can remind Muslims of the possibilities of a new age of exploring spirituality beyond scholastic populism with a now much honed intellectual toolkit.
In order for this project to be tenable, however, there is a need to confront the historical and contemporary processes that continue to poison the social imaginaries dividing Muslim and European. One is the continued political, economic and cultural exploitation and denigration of Muslim peoples by the Western military-industrial complex. This in itself is pushed forward by a globalizing neo-liberal rationalism which is pragmatic and technical, rather than one seeking to interrogate and liberate the human and humanity. And in the wake of these forces are their vile effluents, notable racism and the academic misrepresentation of Islam known as Orientalism.
Having actively confronted these forces, and adopted a radical political stance in accordance with them, the critically thinking Muslim must then transcend the identity politics which seeks to define Islam against an assumed antithetical Western other. How can this be done? One thesis that I have attempted to put forward is that of post-orthodoxy. This concept is derived from an analysis of observed religious activity by the ecological anthropologist Roy A. Rappaport, and detailed in his final work, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. What is important here is than post-orthodoxy does not attempt to re-define Islam, but to re-imagine it and see it in a new way.
Post-orthodoxy perceives all forms of religion in terms of orders of meaning. Rappaport draws on semiotics to elucidate this concept, but I believe this is an un-necessary complication. At its pinnacle, meaning is most profound when intention, word and action are most closely integrated. In Islam, and in all religions, this integration is most clearly evident in ritual. In the performance of ritual, what people intend, say and do are one. Examples of ritual include shahadah, salah, Mahfil-e sama, zakat, sawm and hajj. It is here, and not at the level of anti-Western doctrine and ideology, that post-orthodox Muslim identity is first defined. Referring to the hadith of Jibreel, this is fully in keeping with the facet of our religion which the angel called islam.
At this juncture, I want to emphasise that post-orthodoxy is not an attempt to modify Islam “from the top-down”, a criticism I have heard directed at some so-called progressives and liberal ideologue and rightly so. Rather, it is an attempt to rescue meanings long attributed to everyday practices by ordinary Muslims, which in this era have been hideously demeaned by the dollar-driven influence of Salafabi puritanism. As the exiled Egyptian Qur'anic scientist Nasr Abu Zayd argues, the work-a-day ritual recitation of al-Qur’an by ordinary Muslims is not ideological or doctrinal, but rather “…represents a domain of communication where both God and man meet.” It is in ritual, and not though quiescence to a patriarchal, authoritarian legalism, that most God-conscious Muslims continue to make sense of their relationship with God.
Looking again to the hadith of Jibreel, iman would be defined by Rappaport as belonging to the arena of middle-order meaning. This acknowledges the interstice between sincere belief and acceptance alluded to in al-Quran (49:14), and the risk of coercion that exists herein, either through State ideologies or populist rhetorical and polemical tracts. Here, doctrine and belief are understood as belonging to the metaphorical. What, after all, is Allah? What is an angel? What is the final day? Such an understanding delivers the exploration of the meaning of these concepts from the hands of the partisan preacher to the individual Muslim, to be made his/her own.
Equally, it also delivers the exploration of Muslim concepts into the hands of the great artists of metaphor, the poets. Although poetry has the potential to be polemical and partisan, the great poets of all cultures remain relevant because they invoke multiple interpretations of themes universal to humanity across time and geography. Thus Rumi has becomes a best-selling foreign language poet of the US, whilst the late doyen of contemporary Sufism Abu Bakr Siraj ad-Din (Martin Lings) continued to promote the importance and relevance of Shakespeare to both Muslims and non-Muslims throughout his noble and long writing and speaking career.
The lower-order of meaning is purely semantic, epitomized by the word. This does not refer to the revealed word, but to the everyday language of social communication. Of course, ritual language intertwines everyday talk, but differs in its intent: social communication primarily reflects the human need for social intercourse, in contrast to the more reified intentions of ritual and metaphor. Sadly, popular Muslim ideological and doctrinal discourse has usurped this meaning domain, to Islam’s detriment, rendering too much popular Muslim discourse ugly, intellectually insipid and coercive. Righted, the Muslim art of social discourse is returned to the high etiquette of adab.
However, adab itself is open to critical thought as a religious concept. One key question is whether imitating the social customs of the Prophet (aws) is always appropriate in modern, urban, European settings. I would suggest adab need to be considered alongside contemporary studies of communication. For example, it is said the Prophet (aws) was always the first to offer his hand for shaking and the last to let it go. Yet empirical studies of social behaviour suggest that, in European cultures at least, such an act is more likely to be interpreted as an assertion of social dominance. A prospective employee using this hand shaking technique in London 2006 would almost certainly disconcert his interviewers and undermine his prospects for success!
The idea of post-orthodoxy is one possible framework for imagining and re-imagining Islam. For me, it stakes out my own sense of being a Muslim and indicates my hopes for my faith community’s future. The latter requires this or a similar concept to be inculcated by the Muslim intelligentsia and ordinary Muslims. Like others, I am trying to sow a seed. Perhaps there are other, better ideas. But I reassert than Islam does not need to be reinvented. It needs to be re-imagined. This is my passionate dream.
Allah knows better.