Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Stasis of the Muslim Mind


Maryam Sakeenah

“Lost in the loneliness, we turn inwards- with a knife in our hands and a lump in our throats”, writes Muhammad Fadel describing the deep crisis in contemporary Muslim consciousness. The loss of the Khilafah has imbued Muslim sensibility with a deep and haunting nostalgia for a bygone glory. The direction of foreign policy taken by Western nations vis a vis the Muslim world has not helped assuage the raw sentiment, leaving Muslims to harbour the supposition that the ascendant West is locked in a crusade against the Muslim world in the throes of despondency imposed by a malevolent external enemy. The frustration this engenders often makes itself felt in spasmodic bouts of violence like the gasps of an etherized patient laid across on the table.

The experience of long-drawn colonial rule across Muslim lands intensified the nostalgic longing for a lost glory as well as the need to hold on ever more strongly and exclusively to religious fundamentals as a means of self-preservation and protection of religio-cultural identity. This exacerbated the disconnect between ‘deen’ and ‘dunya’ in Muslim consciousness in general and education in particular. Aurangzeb Haneef notes in his article, ‘Learning from the Past’, that one of the most important effects of European imperialism in Muslim society was that the pursuit of rational sciences (maqulat) was abandoned in favour of transmitted sciences (manqulat)in the spirit of preservation in an attempt to re-center and standardize the traditions of religious knowledge. Madrassas ceased to be the training grounds for the intellectual and cultural elite and increasingly came to be identified with religious education only, which was an aberration from the tradition.

The rising popularity of Salafism is a reactionary response out of a prevailing sense of defeatism, victimhood, vulnerability and insecurity over what is seen as the encroachment upon Muslim identity and culture by an ascendant Western civilization. The call for a puritanical ‘return to the sources’ down to the letter shunning the accretions of theology and jurisprudence over centuries is distressingly ahistorical, uncreative and mimetic. It refuses to recognize the need to creatively and rationally respond to the exigencies of the times. Ironically while it claims fidelity to authentic Muslim tradition, it actually betrays the essential dynamism of the same. This dynamism is the defining trait of Islamic jurisprudence which traditionally accorded space to diversity. Muslim jurists were remarkably tolerant of ‘ikhtilaf’(difference of opinion), and were adept at the ‘adab’ (etiquettes) of ikhtilaf. Towering jurists of the sunni school like Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik discouraged blind following (taqleed) of their opinions, encouraging critical thinking and research.

These Muslim groups demonstrate all or most of the traits of fundamentalism, that is: ‘a sense of chosenness tied to the demonizing or damnation of all others who refuse to get behind the truth subscribed to by the subject himself.’ (Farid Esack) By refusing to defer to historical understandings of Islam in theology and law, these Muslim groups place themselves at the fringes of Islamic tradition they claim to be guardians and restorers of.

Due to a radical subjectivism that confers quasi-divine authority to a certain set of literalist opinions these innovation-resistant groups refuse to subject their opinions to rational inquiry. In so doing, they implicitly refuse to recognize intrinsic human diversity as well as the status of individuals as rational subjects imbued with the Divinely-bestowed gift of intellect and free will. “Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.” (5:48)
At a subconscious level, the deep realization of the untenability of opinions that refuse to defer to critical examination has resulted in an inward-looking stasis characterized by an uncompromising exclusivism and exceptionalism.

Muslim exceptionalism betrays the Quran’s universal embrace of humanity with its consistent appeal to mankind as the creation of God, a single family. O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all knowing, all aware.” (49:13) The Quran attaches sanctity to all humankind when it narrates how God blew of His own spirit into the first created person. Muslim exclusivism refuses to recognize the fact that our well-being as a species on a finite planet is tied to the well-being of all others we share it with, and that in the face of this reality, all labels and artificial boundaries are secondary. It is only the extremely narrow-minded and short-sighted who would refuse to recognize the fact that our well being is inextricably tied to the well being of all others.

A further corollary of such exclusivism is the tendency to view ideas as mutually exclusive, with an either/or approach. The middle ground, the many grey areas of overlap are lost sight of. This generates a characteristic intellectual extremism that infects Muslims en masse. It is not understood that neither of the extremes is an acceptable alternative to the other, hence the world appears all black and white, like an arena for a clash of ideas. The ‘Us versus Them’ psyche translates into ‘Islam versus The West.’ This is dangerous as it understands both Islam and the West as monoliths and glosses over the many instances both historical and contemporary, of coexistence, intercultural exchange, common grounds and shared values. It denies the universality of commonly held values, viewing them as ‘Western’ or ‘Islamic.’ The actual confrontation as recognized by Islam, is between Haqq and Baatil (Truth versus Falsehood), and before deciding if anything that passes for Islam is the whole truth, we need to ask ‘whose Islam?’, given the fact that the Quran and sunnah are open to diverse readings and interpretations and the self-appointed spokespeople of Islam are as many as the possible interpretations. Nor is Falsehood equivalent to all that the West is about, given the fact that the military-industrial complex and the clique of influential policy-making elites are responsible for the highhandedness of foreign policy decisions and the injustices that have wreaked havoc and provoked backlash among Muslim populations.

Muslims often invoke the ideal of Islam comparing it to the reality of Western society which often betrays its own values such as freedom and liberty, to show the degeneracy of the latter as compared to the Divine system they have been denied- unmindful of the many ways Muslim societies consistently betray the values of Islam.  

The myth of ‘Islam versus the West’ also denies the collective heritage of Islamic and European civilizations and the instrumental role Islam had in making the Enlightenment possible. “Arab science altered medieval Christendom beyond recognition. For the first time in centuries, Europe’s eyes opened to the world around it- Arab science and philosophy helped rescue the Christian world from ignorance and made possible the very idea of the ‘West.’” (Jonathan Lyons, ‘House of Wisdom’) Aime Cesaire beautifully and powerfully reminds us of this collective human heritage and that attempts to claim a monopoly over the achievements of human civilization are a form of intellectual dishonesty, whether done by scholars in the West or the Muslim world. "But the work of man is only just beginning, and it remains to conquer all the violence entrenched in the recesses of our passion, for no race possesses the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force. And there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory." - Aimé Césaire 

In the same vein, there are other binaries like ‘Islam versus Democracy.’ In the recent Pakistan elections numerous religious groups propagated that casting a vote was an act of ‘kufr,’ because democracy is based on the sovereignty of the masses over the sovereignty of God. While the system of electoral politics in Western societies has elements that are incompatible with Islam, the values of democracy are universal and are part and parcel of Islamic governance. Following the majority opinion a standardized practice in Muslim tradition (‘Ijma’ has many forms, the last of which sanctions general voting by the public to settle questions that bear upon the interests of the general masses and can be put to a public vote). Moreover, respecting popular sentiment and being accountable to the public are fundamental Islamic political values. The procedural rules of electoral politics can and should be reformed to conform to Islamic standards and shari’ rulings made exclusively the job of a panel of qualified ulema, beyond the purview of general voting- and it no more is ‘an affront to God’s sovereignty.’ Numberless Islamic scholars have talked of the compatibility between democratic principles and Islamic politics. Sameen Sadaf notes the irony in ‘The Dynamism of Islam”: The alternative, they say, is ‘Khilafat’ (which in many ways is democratic in its ethos). However, since there is no comprehensive system and candidature for khilafat at the time, one can suppose that all we can do is wait for a savior while the forces of actual ‘Kufr’ take over and ruin us.” Pro-Sharia activists seem to assume that mainstreaming the Islamic way of life through dialogue and dawah can be discounted without any loss and they can march straight to an Islamic Khilafah state that will somehow miraculously tame the Muslim masses into believing slaves of God. 

The binary thinking pattern and exclusivism has made Muslim consciousness be preoccupied with narrow, parochial concerns considered ‘Islamic.’ It is forgotten that being slaves of Allah means being good human beings first and that as Muslims everything in the universe is our business. Zaid Hassan writes of the need to ‘reclaim our relationship to the whole’ in his wonderful article, ‘Notes towards an Incomplete Manifesto for Liberating the Muslim Mind.’ The growing distance between ‘deen’ and ‘dunya’ in Muslim consciousness has made Muslims unconcerned about aspects that belong to the secular domain as profane and unworthy. Hence there is an intellectual degeneracy, and a clear absence of contemporary Muslim discourse in science, philosophy and the humanities, a near-absence of Muslim contribution to research.  In the recent elections, Islamic parties in Pakistan exclusively talked of the need for a return to rule by Islam, invoking Shariah, the Islamic identity and ethos of Pakistan. Talking of issues that resonate with the masses like poverty or the energy crisis was considered redundant given their ‘Islamic’ credentials. The growing unpopularity of these parties and their less-than-expected performance comes as no surprise.  
This ghettoization of Muslim thought threatens to make us dwindle into a cult at the margins of civilization. Religious discourse that fails to take account of the modern mind and appeal to the youth with their voracity for rational argument cannot be shoved down people’s throats. It is condemned to survive as no more than a fringe-cult.  

Still more lamentable is the fact that Muslims are failing to realize the need to introspect in these critical times. Any manifestation of the deep crisis in Muslim consciousness is dismissed as ‘unrepresentative of Islam’ at best, and ‘propaganda against Islam’ at worst. Self-criticism is noble, highly needful and the essential trait of the faithful. Muslims have abandoned it altogether, and any voice helping us to examine ourselves critically or calling for a reform is disdainfully rejected with suspicion and sneering self-righteousness. The belief that terrorists or criminals or misogynists ‘use’ the name of Islam to justify their deeds is comforting but unhelpful because it does not recognize the fact that many interpretations of the Quran and sunnah actually give some grounds to sanction such acts and that therefore there is great responsibility on Muslim thinkers to expose and oppose the textual basis of such arguments.

The stasis of the Muslim mind is a daunting project before us. Muslim society is terribly fragmented and polarized between the extremes of the secular and the religious. So much of Muslim scholarship today is pitiably out of touch with the vicissitudes of contemporary society, rationally indefensible, in a language far removed from and inaccessible to the mass man and incognizant of the psychology of modernity and post-modernity. ‘Maqulat’ must be brought at par with the ‘Manqulat’ as central to a holistic Muslim education, precisely because that is how it had always been and was supposed to be before things went awry. The need today is for Muslim scholars to negotiate between entrenched extreme positions, address issues of the here and now in a language that appeals to the common man, and to appeal to modern sensibility in a manner that is faithful to the ethos of Islamic tradition. Such voices need to collate, organize and rise to a crescendo that can drown out the clamour of extremisms. It is a grand project and an urgent one, but cannot be begun until we first realize the need for such effort today and cease to live in denial of the terrible crisis that threatens to rob our faith of its very soul and reduce it to perpetual irrelevance.