Sunday, March 19, 2006

Human Studies

Tasneem Project [TGP] is an attempt to define a Muslim identity with a postcolonial sensibility, through a process of learning independent of all forms of authority. The result is an approach called Human Studies. This essays defines its perimaters.

There was a time in my life, even after my children were born, where the responsibilities of family did not hold me back from doing what I wanted or going where I pleased. Summer always brought with it an irresistible passion to roam. Then in October 1995, everything changed. My then three-year-old son, Joel, was diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. To a greater or lesser extent, I have been his primary carer ever since.

It is a role that changed my life in ways I never anticipated. In becoming Joel’s advocate, I suddenly found myself having to deal with doctors, speech and language therapists, social workers, occupational therapists, educational psychologists and local government administrators and the abundance of professionals who ‘support’ families and work with children with autism. As the person closest to Joel, I wanted to be the best advocate that I could. I had an advantage in that I am a natural outsider. I thus perceived no barriers to becoming an expert on autism, at least as it pertained to my own child. I recognized that learning about the cultures and wider agendas surrounding how different agencies functioned was just as important as listening to what they claimed to be doing. Indeed, there a multitude of skills that surround information competence in a topic, communicating such information and educating as well as learning from others. These skills took years to develop.

I initially spent around 18 months intensively studying autism. By the time I’d done, I was a walking encyclopaedia – probably not unlike many doctorate students after a year or more of intense reading. It helped enormously in the early years, but it took a period of education otherwise when Joel was in middle childhood to internalize this learning into a more family friendly, intuitive working knowledge. It was during this period of teaching Joel at home that I had a religious experience which changed my life. It was not a powerful emotional experience, but rather a sudden realization, in which I looked beyond Joel as a child with autism and saw within him the transcendent, the rûh of Allah:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is, as it were that of a niche containing a lamp; the lamp is [enclosed] in glass, the glass [shining] like a radiant star: [a lamp] lit from a blessed tree - an olive-tree that is neither of the east nor of the west - the oil whereof [is so bright that it] would well-nigh give light [of itself] even though fire had not touched it: light upon light! (Al-Qur’an, 24:35)

Along with my studies of world religions and Sufi anthropology (Chittick, 2000), this experience helped me come to better understand my own experience of rûh as ‘watching the ten thousand things rise and fall’ (Feng and English, 1972). In this state of looking and listening, with the mind resting at peace, I am Allah seeing the world with human eyes, hearing the world with human ears, touching the world with human hands, tasting and smelling the world with human taste and smell, listening to the heart of a human with a human heart. This is not a vision, but a description of what I know, who I am. I acknowledged Allah as being that which experiences my human experience when I first came to the Qur’an, and so I invoke this meditation on returning to its teachings. Bismillah reminds me of this experience.

What is clear is that these experiences, in themselves, are only a starting point. I grapple with them, still, unsure how to proceed. My lack of constancy concerns me. At the same time, I have found the discernment and the exploration of the meaning of these experiences made easier by study, particularly investigations relating to what is first required to understand and fully embrace Islam. This is a work of spiritual and ethical preparation not unknown in the Abrahamic faiths (Armstrong, 1993), and in the Tasneem Project, part of this preparation has included the study of people and human activity. I use the term ‘human studies’ to describe the interdisciplinary nature of this research and the epistemological proximity of my own everyday experiences and religious intentions in defining what is valid and relevant data.

Among these intentions are the study of Islam as a living phenomenon and the global political context framing Muslim discourses. Muslims are people, live in families and communities, have collective identities (Madood, 1998), and the human processes of class and kinship are evident amongst Muslims as they are in non-Muslims. Although the global political context of Muslims has often defined the way we have been studied by European scholars (Said, 2000), an issue discussed at greater length in the chapter 7 (work in progress), an awareness of Western biases has arguably gone some way to reframing academic research of Islam and Muslims in recent years. Moreover, as a white, middle class convert, I value such data in making sense of Muslim discourses originating in different social and ethnic communities.

The study of human activity in itself is also a necessary prelude to asking religious questions such as ‘what is a Muslim?’ Otherwise, how can there be any surety that what I mean is the same as what others mean? Through self-deception, I might be asking this question for reasons which have little to do with Islam. I could allow the intense emotions invested in such a question to distort the meanings of what looks like an answer, and consequently find only the answer I expect, instead of the one I really need. I may even find myself having my question answered for me by manipulative social pressures (Winn, 1983). Indeed, anthropologists have argued that there is no one ‘Islam’, but many ‘islams’ (Varisco, 2004).

Consider the young Muslim who engages in a jihad against a world he considers utterly evil. He has no idea how to influence others because he is ignorant about people and himself. He seeks to invoke zealotry in others because he has concluded that zealotry is the only way he can transform himself. He declares this truth half-consciously in his performance of zealotry. Yet he has failed to grasp that there is something of the zealot in the futurity-driven lifestyles he considers inimical to his own. He thinks he has stepped outside history, beyond it, but through his ignorance he has become a victim of it.

What is required is personal knowledge, which includes knowledge of self and identity (Ornstein, 1991; Augoustinos and Walker, 1995; Crossley, 2000), knowledge of the relationship between the individual and wider social processes, such as class (Savage, 2000; Bauman, 2004) and gender (Connell, 2002), as well as the complex relationship between history, society and knowledge systems (Achebe, 1958; McClintock, 1994; Potter, 1996). However, the pursuit of both self knowledge and knowledge of Muslim communities in my spiritual and ethical preparation is not without its problems.

Chief among the difficulties is the range of disciplines which have been co-opted into what is ‘human studies’ as defined here-in, and the various ways they define the subject of their studies. Broadly speaking, the biological human sciences are assumed to conceptualise the subject in a reductionist way, whereby the basis of human life is the gene. They are said to share with the humanities assumptions about human inequality that are frequently used to justify the status quo. Social sciences, by contrast, tends to view humans as members of a Society, which can be changed to raise the collective quality of life on the Marxist principle of ‘each according to its need’. However, the demise of Marxism on the global stage along with the growing popular prominence of the humanities and Darwinian biological sciences, as well as the increasing academic interest in poststructuralism, has seen social sciences increasingly problematized in recent decades, along with the way in which the human subject is defined. (Fuller, 2006).

At this point, I want to highlight the concept developed in my essay on methodological pluralism, that of an emancipatory framework of analysis. This framework acknowledges the validity of data produced by different academic disciplines in their own terms, and consequently their definition of the human subject has a similar validity. However, both the data and the underlying assumptions of each discipline are then analysed in a way which privileges those at the very margins of society. For example, neurophysiologic conceptions of human identity can help extend the circle of what is human, by defining neurological differences as cultural difference. People with autism, who continue to be amongst the most marginalised individuals in Britain, employ precisely this argument in advocating for their rights (Dekker, 1999).

Human, as defined here-in, is thus not simply another meaning machine to add to the multitude of lifestyle beliefs peppering third-way Britain. It has a destination – praxis, and this praxis includes personal transformation under the guide of al-Qur’an. It is driven by the observation that others have been similarly transformed, at the time of the Prophet (Lings, 1983), as exemplified in the lives of the Saints, both ancient and modern, and their followers (Attar, 1979; Geaves, 2000), as well as those who have pursued a more rational exploration of Islam (Sardar, 2004). My path is as yet uncertain, but not its defining ethic (Bauman, 1993), the fate of the other, an ethic explored and articulated more fully in chapter 3 of part 2.

Human studies is therefore an analysis of various subject disciplines that seeks to propel me towards several clear paths of action. One is knowledge of Islam as a living religion. The second is self-knowledge. The destination of both is al-Qur’an and subsequently Muslim praxis. Yet there is a third path, indicated by and subsequent of the other two, which is necessary if I am to be a knowing reader of the Quranic text. That path is hermeneutics, the “science of interpretation which deals with the relationship between the author… and text.” (Esack, 1997, p.xi). However, unlike Esack, the hermeneutic of the Tasneem Project is defined largely by the writings of Hans-George Gadamer (2004).

Gadamer’s model proposes a problem centred methodology surrounding the 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 within which any particular discourse is situated. Part of the role of human studies is to articulate these horizons, by illuminating the Quranic context which is ‘Islam’ and the context of the reader (me), in this instance a white, middle class, male, heterosexual, European, graduate educated, carer of a child with autism.

In order to define ‘Islam’, my starting point is the life of a man who achieved international fame as a Muslim scholar in his youth, only to doubt everything before returning to a deeper, more complete understanding of the Muslim faith (Watt, 1997).

His name was Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali.

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