Saturday, February 25, 2006

Litmus Test

Say: the things that my Lord hath indeed forbidden are: shameful deeds, whether open or secret; sins and trespasses against truth or reason; assigning of partners to Allah, for which He hath given no authority; and saying things about Allah of which ye have no knowledge.
Al-Qur'an: 07:33

One of the things that makes me proud to be a Muslim is that, whenever I visit a local mosque or pop into one of the Muslim bookshops which pepper the Yorkshire landscape, or indeed when I pick up a Muslim book, journal or newspaper, I am overwhelmed by the vigour and quality and openness surrounding debates over the relationship between God and humanity, the interpretation of the Qur’an, the nature of prophecy, the contemporary relevance of the Shari'ah, the validity of hadith literature, the value and purpose of salah, and even intrafaith and interfaith dialogue.

Okay, you can stop laughing now. The question is – why is this not true? There are various arguments as to why the above is a joke – the death of Ibn Rushd and with him the intellectual debate between Semitic and Hellenistic worldviews; an authoritarian ulama, who blocked the introduction of the printing press, thus stymieing debate within the Muslim world; and colonialism, and the subsequent upsurge of reactionary Muslim movements.

Of course, it aint just Islam which is having problems with its religious thinking. Mimetic, dogmatic and reactionary religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy are prevelant in Christianity and Judaism, too, but arguably intellectual dissidence is easier if you belong to these faiths. The postmodern Christian theologian who argued that the Crucifixion was the actual killing of God was not arrested for his views, which is more than can be said for the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz(?), who in one book had God invite someone to Paradise in order to kill Him (and then arranged for an angel to say thanks afterwards!)

Fortunately, there are Muslims who appear to be challenging the intellectual torpor that has dominated Muslim thinking for too long. Visionaries like Mohammed Arkoun, who is quoted in the header of my alter eblog, aNaRcHo AkBaR – despite his Franco-intellectual arrogance; thinkers like Ziauddin Sardar, steeped passionately in Muslim culture yet seasoned with a truth-seeker's scepticism, who inspires me and makes me laugh, and who seems to have attracted a host of admirers over the years; like Farid Esack, Amina Wadud, Sa’diyya Shaikh, Marcia Hermansen, Scott Kugle and Ebrahim Moosa. Some are closer to the mainstream Ahl as-Sunnah wa-Jama’at scholarship such as Khaled Abou El Fadl; others, such as those linked to Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern world (ISIM), work for knowledge within secular academic disciplines.

Yet I look down at the editorial of the latest edition of the UK Muslim Weekly, and see a leading US Scientific collective described as "witch-finders" for defending the theory of evolution. I have to confess, I am approaching an equally dogmatic position in my litmus test for ‘Muslims who are worth talking to’. It’s very simple – if you hate gays, and if you think Harun Yahya is a great thinker rather than a cheap polemicist, you fail the test!

13 comment(s):

  • Salaams - Yakoub, the problem with several of those "progressive types" you mentioned, is that they are in one way or the other, associated with the empire. The issue is not that they are working in "secular domains" - but rather that these domains exist within an imperial and colonial context.

    And, as such they end up existing in a reality that does not at all reflect the experiences of the vast majority of Muslims. Sure, they may appeal to some Muslims in the "west" - because they use university/academic language and experience in their literature. But that is not the language of, again, vast majorities of Muslims - not even in the "west."

    Note that I use both language and expeirence - it is not only about writing an easy to read book - but also about being able to relate. If one is no longer able to relate to a variety of Muslim communities - the "scholarship" is bound to be abstract, and not have much to offer other than abstract academic arguments (the flip side of the other stuff you mentioned).

    I too have a litmus test: and that is the location of the "progressive/critical" scholar. I may disagree with some of the (more recent) writings of, say, Imam Zaid Shakir - but I will certainly respect and will read what he says because of his location and service within a Muslim community.

    By Blogger redwood, at 2/26/2006 12:08:00 AM  

  • a book i have been reading asked me if people could possibly take to heart a fully developed metaphor without coming to believe the story as more true, more valid, and more important than creation itself. the book presents the case radically - lives are organized completely by meanings and events of the philosophy but it has no immaterial elements.

    there is evidence that people prefer control and winning over waiting and change. i asked the book what it thought of that. it suggested that communities are rarely stable and the presence of darkness drives many to harden their loves into weapons. also that, because perfect knowledge is impossible for people, people remain convinced that it is possible and seek perfection and finality where harmony would work better.

    i suspect the book is better informed than i am.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/26/2006 12:55:00 AM  

  • post-modernism is meaningless... and is only a way for the status quo (i.e. white supremicist notions) to perpetuate itself into infinity - since all experience is reduced to just a matter of perception, and there is no reality. Fun things to do in-between office hours and class times --- but offers nothing.

    And then people come up with all kinds analyses trying to explain why Islamic groups keep winning elections, and why the United States/England keeps on trying to destroy these movements that challenge its hegemony. Those good for nothin' A-Rabs just don't understand metaphors. Americans and Westoxified Academics of-course are so brilliant - may they live long and prosper (not).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/26/2006 01:15:00 AM  

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    By Blogger Julaybib, at 2/26/2006 02:25:00 AM  

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    By Blogger Julaybib, at 2/26/2006 02:28:00 AM  

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    By Blogger Julaybib, at 2/26/2006 02:41:00 AM  

  • Salaams Altaf: I think the idea that some 'Western' academic language is irrelevant to Muslim discourse because it is not what most Muslims tune into, or that is ipso facto located in Empire, is a platitude, easily said as long as we don't look too hard at the kind of reformist Muslims we support actually say.

    For example, Farid Esack's quasi-scientific Diltheyesque hermeneutics is arguably far more a part of Empire thinking than, say, Gadamer's hermeneutics. As for you appeal to populism, are you suggesting the widespread technophilia evident amongst Arabs/Salafis is not Empire's greatest vanity ingested? No, truth isn't about whether what you say suits the masses, in my view, it whether you feel comfortable facing God and saying it.

    Anon: I would not describe myself as a postmodernist, although your definition of it is original if nothing else. None of the ppl I admire do either. Indeed, I would agree with many aspects of Sardar's critique of postmodernism as a cultural entity. I do, however, draw on thinkers often described as post-structurist. Gadamer is a phenomenologist. European thought has its roots deep in Islamic thought - see M Saeed Sheikh's 'Islamic Philosophy'.

    And anyway, the point is not whether I supporter some thinkers who are dodgy - perhaps I do, and I welcome debate on that. My point concerns the "quality and openness" of intellectual debate within Muslim communities, or more pointedly, the lack of it. I don't think for one moment this is because most Muslims want it that way - I think that is a result of clerical authoritarianism and political violence within many Muslim nations. There are ppl who are members of Free Minds, for example, who consider hadith to be irrelevant but fear - and I mean FEAR - telling anyone in their local community. And they live in the UK, not Saudi Arabia.


    The Muslim Anarchist

    By Blogger Julaybib, at 2/26/2006 02:45:00 AM  

  • Salaams Yakoub:

    Along the lines of what Altaf was saying, I think we need to be cognizant of the way peoples struggles in the Muslim and Two-Third world tend to be packaged to nicely fit western intellectual categories, a liberal framework, etc. Much of your writing seems to address this, and I think if you stay true to your post-structuralist critiques, you will learn to appreciate the post-development critiques of folks like Ashis Nandy, critiques of our fetish with notions of nation-state, secularism, etc. As you know well, our location as "social critics" and social actors is also very important. The types of responses by the Westernized, "culturally uprooted" Muslims is different from Muslims living in the Saraiki belt in Pakistan, or in the refugee camps in Palestine. I have perceived the obsession with the backwardness of our ulama, etc, more as a diversion of our focus from the larger political economy of oppression in which such "ideology-makers" operate.

    By Blogger Abu Dharr, at 2/26/2006 11:08:00 PM  

  • Salaams Abu Dharr

    I have to admit that I wasn't aware of invoking the 'backward ulama' trope, but invoke it I did, even if that was not my intent. My shelf has some beautiful and rigorously researched writings by Muslims, on such topics as Qasasul Qur'an - I only wish the breadth of Muslim scholarship was wider, and perhaps that is a better way to frame my impatience!

    Ashis Nandy was cited in the intro to the Zia Sardur collection I have just started reading, and as he has written on identity (a core concern of mine) he is on the reading list for sure now.



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 2/27/2006 07:46:00 AM  

  • Yakoub,

    A lot of the people that you mentioned as "visionaries", fall, IMHO, into the "Apologetic Muslims" category. In today's world were Muslims need to rejig their priorities and rethink some of the "common wisdom" laid down by their ancestors (i.e. Ulama of the past) it is very hard to walk the fine line of moderation. In that struggle some of the Muslims you mention have diluted Islam until there was no more Islam left in it. They feel cornered, attacked, and scrutinized all the time and to fend all this off they unintentionally aim to appease as a reaction in hope of reducing some of the pressure.

    Another quick thing, the turning point in Islamic Intellectual development is not the death of Ibn Rushed as you mention (although he was an Icon for sure, and btw, if you read his monumental "Bedayet Al Mojtahid, wa Nihayat ElMoqtased" you will realize that he himself would not have shared your opinion about the "visionaries"). The turning point in Islamic Intellectual development was the defeat of the Mu'tazilah school of thought during AlMutawakkel's Caliph of the Abbasid era. This defeat led to the flourishing of the "Ahl AlHadeeth" methodologies and understanding of Islam which has much more restrictions on the role of the "brain" in the intellectual study of Islam and tends to cast in stone the research and findings of the predecessors. In my opinion, this was the single most important milestone that led to the complete stagnation of Islamic studies.

    Here's a nice factoid that a lot of modern day scholars fail to bring to the light (intentionally?): Salah AuDdin (Saladin) was from the Mu'tazilah school of thought. (Reflect on that).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2/28/2006 12:37:00 PM  

  • Salaams AhmedT - I wish you (and others) would say who you think the diluters are! Arkoun - I don't think so, although the Ibn Rushd thesis is his (not suprisingly). He asks difficult questions, and I like that. Sardar - I don't think so. Some of the Omid Safi gang? Perhaps - many are too light on their global politics. But as I said, I am aware of where most locate themselves vis-a-vis tradition etc. And I know where I locate myself, although I forget from time to time!

    The Mutazila thesis is interesting, worth investigating. I like these debates, but my reading list is getting unwieldy!



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 3/01/2006 06:12:00 AM  

  • Yakoub,
    An exmaple of a diluter would be Irshad Manji for example (although an extereme one I admint).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/10/2006 10:51:00 PM  

  • I think calling Irshad Manji a 'diluter' is an act of extraordinary courtesy! I would call her something else, not repeatable here!!

    One of the ways I accomodate thinkers of various concentrations (so to speak) is defined in the Tasneem Project [TGP]:




    By Blogger Julaybib, at 3/15/2006 11:15:00 AM  

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