Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Muslim Anarchist Hermeneutic

Hermeneutics has been described as the “science of interpretation which deals with the relationship between the author… and text.” (Esack, 1997, p.xi). My aim is to construct a Muslim anarchist hermeneutic, that is, one which affirms the importance of the individual life path in interpreting the Qur'an and other Islamic texts and discourse, whilst radically rejecting any single interpretation as having primacy over any other, including my own. In seeking to construct such a hermeneutic, I am primarily motivated by a passionate affirmation that “..any person reading a text…does so through the lens of his or her experience.” (Esack, 1997, p.12).

I embrace these insights with enthusiasm because, as a middle class graduate-educated convert living in 21st century rural Britain and caring for a teenage son with profound autism, I often feel alienated from contemporary Muslim discourse about orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This sense of alienation is bound up with my experiences of talking to Muslims about my personal circumstances, where responses have veered from misunderstanding and expressions of pity, to utter perplexity in the face of my lifestyle differences and (given the likely genetic roots of autism) my cognitive differences, which are intrinsic to my life and world.

In situating myself, I thus acknowledge that my religious motivation is one of a “post-orthodox” Muslim, embracing Islam not primarily as a political or cultural identity, but as a path to spiritual enlightenment. This does not necessarily leave me apolitical, or a mushrik (used as a term of abuse), but questioning both the relationship between power and religious meaning and essentialising Muslim identities, such as ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shi’a’. Like Arkoun, I desire to engage with the whole Muslim tradition, from Ramadaan to Muharram, and its entire cultural bounty. Islam is a beautiful faith and I see no reason why all of it should not be open to me.

Giving equilibrium to this situatedness is the desire not to rupture the meaning of the Quranic text that is my ‘bond with God’(3:103). The Qur’an is a writerly text, although its authorship is complicated by the mysterious interstice between the Transcendent and the temporal-material. Allowing the text to speak for itself therefore requires an understanding of wahy (revelation) as well as a commitment to a process of intellectual and personal preparation aimed to facilitate a clarity of understanding whereby taqwa (God consciousness) allows God to guide through the Qur’an (15:02).

In Sunni tradition, this process has traditionally been integral with obedience to the Shariah. Today, inside the new cultural geographies, the Shariah path seems almost impassable. Faced with an ossified corpus of legal scholarship, epistemological problematized and increasingly irrelevant to the demands posed by postmodernity, a more fluid project based on Quranic principles would seem to be required. In exploring alternatives, I have been most impressed by the postmodern ethic developed by Emmanuelle Levinas (1906–1995), an ethic distinct from utilitarianism or the profit motive, realised through irrational moral acts transcending reason, passion and the desire for power, where the individual takes unconditional responsibility for well-being of 'the other'.

The model of hermeneutics which seems most appropriate to this task is that developed by Hans-George Gadamer (1900-2002), which proposes a problem centred methodology centred on dialogue between reader and text, with the aim of building a fusion of horizons (Horizontverschmelzung). The notion of ‘horizon’ employed here is derived from phenomenology, according to which the ‘horizon’ is the larger context of meaning in which any particular meaningful presentation is situated. Gadamer's approach permits a positive evaluation of the role of tradition as legitimate sources of knowledge.

However, this should not be viewed as simply a balancing act between personal circumstance and traditional authority - far from it. 'Tradition' here is viewed as the whole Muslim tradition in accordance with a post-orthodox stance, from popular Sufism to high philosophy. Its epistemé extends beyond traditional usul to include contemporary human sciences, acknowledging - in keeping with anthropological data - that this whole is in most respects a collection of largely self-contained 'islams'. The Quranic horizon is one woven from the common threads running through these islams, both contemporary and historical.

What are these threads? Where does 'Islam', the whole of the tradition, best define itself? What is 'the Quranic horizon'? There is no definitive answer to these questions, but in my view, the most coherent and compelling definition is the one outlined by the Hadith of Gabriel, where "Islam means that you should testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad (saw) is Allah's Messenger, that you should observe the prayer, pay the Zakat, fast during Ramadan, and make the pilgrimage...." It also includes the concepts of Imam, a belief "...in Allah (swt), His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and that you should believe in the decreeing both of good and evil.." as well as Ihsan and also the Hour.

This is my intended direction. I ask Allah to guide me throughout this endeavour.

5 comment(s):

  • Wow. Thank you. This basically reconciles a number of difficulties I've had within my faith. I can't begin to thank you enough. I'm rather speechless.

    I look forward to reading your site further, and to coming to a deeper understanding, inshallah.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/26/2005 07:50:00 PM  

  • Yakoub, our investigative paths are continuously crossing. Inshallah I will have an article up on progressiveislam.org in the next weeks talking about this very subject: anarchist hermeneutics with the springboard being agenda-motivated English translations of the Qur'an. This means this, Lut is about homosexuality etc...

    For me, the appreciation of one's own baggage (luggage, his/herstory) is integral in coming to ANY text, the least of which is not the Qur'an. A wonderful, if only bombastic, theorist/praxis-ist Steve McCaffery is a pleasure to read on this subject: uncontainable meanings, non-semantic sound poetics as linguistic liberation, etc... The book that has worked for me thus far is "North of Intention." You may be able to get it in England. Read also Bruce Andrews' concepts of "wild-reading" and reader co-creative writing. These yeild bushels when it comes to anarchist hermeneutics!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/27/2005 06:43:00 AM  

  • dudes do you guys talk english around here, or just post-mordern gibbrish... typical of Progressive Islamists infatuated with their white massa's writings.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/27/2005 09:01:00 AM  

  • >talk english
    >white massa's writings

    ::gentle chuckling::

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/27/2005 11:44:00 AM  

  • Salaams

    JA for that stuff B A Rak.

    As for my writings being 'white massa' style, well I can't help being white! ;-)

    But seriously, I take your point. Post-structuralism (not postmodernism) is not the most accessible of knowledge systems - I had to take a postgrad OU course before I really started to grasp its key ideas. And if what I am doing means anything, at some point, I have to find a way of writing about it that makes sense to non-specialists. Insha Allah, that will happen when this stage of learning is complete.



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 11/28/2005 02:47:00 AM  

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