Friday, May 25, 2012

Islam and Politics (large and small, near and far)

This is a draft of my khutba for today, after the semi-liturgical opening with a Qur'anic verse and a Hadith.

As Mahatma Gandhi stated correctly:
  • "In democracy no fact of life is untouched by politics."
  • "Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means."
I gave a khutba last month about the futility of our children's approaches to Islam, and its dire ramifications for our future as a community. A reporter recently asked me if this was only a problem for our community or for Islamic societies more generally. It took me a while to see it, but this is a much more general problem, and that is what I hope to discuss today.

In preparation for the khutba, I went back and reread a book that I had read 30 years ago in my undergraduate student years, the late Professor Fazlur-Rahman's Islam and Modernity. I did not appreciate his emphasis on education when I read this book as a 20-year old, but now I have found his analysis very illuminating. I have also found it very disheartening to combine his analysis up to the early 1980s with what has happened in the past 30 years. In what follows, I paraphrase Fazlur Rahman's analysis with some interpretations and elaborations of my own.

The early Muslims shortly after the death of the Prophet (p) had internalized fully the social and spiritual message of the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet (p), whose character was the Qur'an. It was only a generation or two later that "tradition" of the Prophet as well as the application of Qur'an to daily life acquired what Fazlur Rahman called an "atomistic" character, using separate verses and traditions as legal proofs for various rulings. The best scholars only used such proofs when there was preponderance of evidence not only of their authenticity, but also of their understanding and applicability of the entire canon to specific situations. However, they became the exception rather than the rule in Islamic "scholarship."

Gradual decline produced a large medieval literature (which we use as our primary sources of Islamic "learning" to this day) that consists of two strands. The first is a clever but sterile literature of commentary upon summary upon commentary, etc., which took the atomism of the proto-jurists to absurd extremes (some legal and some linguistic) and produced no useful knowledge. The second is an escapist mystical tradition that went absurdly beyond the basic functions of self purification and character development to focus on esoteric formulas of various types. Both traditions shunned logic and industry, contributing in significant part to the decline of Islamic civilization. They constituted what the Prophet (p) derided as sterile or useless knowledge.

At the turn of the previous century, seeking to catch up with civilization, revival movements to combine Islamic authenticity with modernity arose in various parts of the world. Prominent examples included Muhammad `Abduh in Egypt, Muhammad Iqbal in India, and Said Nursi in Turkey, all of whom were anti colonial but not antagonistic to the West. They aimed to combine modern sciences, philosophy, and other areas of knowledge toward a better understanding of what Islam means for the modern era, in the process to facilitate socioeconomic as well as spiritual development. These enlightened thinkers coexisted with another class of modernists who sought to discard all social Islamic teachings as outdated and irrelevant, and at best to let religion be a private affair for rituals that are ends in themselves (or for the hereafter), rather than means to individual and social human improvement.

Unfortunately, the enlightened movements spearheaded by these thinkers were soon replaced by populist movements with significantly less scholarly leaders who nonetheless emerged into legendary figures for their followers. Respectively, these would be Hassan El-Banna in Egypt, Abul-'A`la Al-Mawdudi in India/Pakistan, and Fethullah Gulen in Turkey. These populists were men of action who attracted other men of action. They were themselves not truly scholarly, but most of their followers were even less scholarly, so the Banna, Mawdudi, and Gulen pseudo-scholarly teachings remained sacrosanct and did not help to develop a new Islamic mindset. Their followers were professionals, politicians, etc. who professed that the message of Islam (including for the modern era) is very simple, and therefore sought only to enlarge their network and build institutions. Their focus can be surmised in various forms of identity politics that they encouraged, including today's manifestations in dress codes, "Islamic finance," and the like.

Our Islamic societies in the U.S. were mainly built by young men from these traditions, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-i-Islami, who formed the core of Muslim Student Associations, and later ISNA, ICNA, ISGH and the like. These institutions rarely were led by intellectual visions other than identity politics with all its positive and negative aspects.

For politics large and small, near and far, the programs developed by MB, JI, and their offshoots have failed miserably. For near politics on a large scale witness the oscillation between Republican support in 2000 and Democratic support today, without any intelligent explanation of why we prefer one platform over another (e.g. does Islam support healthcare reform, progressive taxes, financial regulation, etc.? When have Islamic leaders opined on these?). For near politics on a small scale witness the dysfunctionality of our local organizations like ISGH which are run like small tribal/family clubs, again failing to meet the full religious, and therefore by necessity social and political needs of the community. For far away politics on a large scale, witness the dismal failures of Pakistan, Sudan, Iran, and soon other countries that think that identity politics and good intentions can suffice.

What Fazlur-Rahman never witnessed in his lifetime were the children of the communities led by MB and JI offshoots; our children. They could see that these identity politics programs were not built on solid Islamic world views, and have not been particularly successful. Some of them became like the modernists of the early twentieth century, and at best just pray, fast, etc. and try to be good people, but their Islamic identity is not integral to who they are in any substantive way. Others sought to find authentic Islamic learning, but they went full circle to the sterile medieval scholarship (like Maghreb Institute), recycled Sufi doctrines (numerous tariqas), or combinations thereof (like Zaytuna). It is as if we have come back full circle and hadn't learned that the aborted enlightenment movement of the early 20th century had revolted precisely against these useless forms of pseudo scholarship and pseudo spirituality that contributed to Muslim retardation.

Even Fazlur Rahman's own suggested research program, which was to fully comprehend the Qur'an in its totality and interpret what it means for the modern era -- part of the program popularized by Omar Al-Faruqi and others as "Islamization of knowledge" -- was itself simply a return to what `Abduh, Iqbal, and Nursi had tried to accomplish and to have failed.

I know that you would prefer that the khateeb would not only diagnose a problem, but also offer a solution. Alas, I do not know what is the solution, and no individual should pretend to offer a simple and ready solution. Finding a solution is itself a political process, in which one cannot be merely a spectator. The one thing that I can say with some level of certainty is that we have been going around on the inside rim of a vicious circle, unable to break free and integrate our modern lives with our Islamic teaching and identity. Even those of us who have reconciled the two in semi-separate domains have not really integrated them, and our Islam as well as our modernity will not be complete unless we do so.


Blogger Ibrahim of Carthage said...

I agree with you, doctor, that the problem of Muslims in this modern age is "intellectual"; i.e., the production of useful knowledge.
I have one questions:
1- How you define a "Muslim identity" in our age?

1:26 PM  
Blogger Waseem Naser said...

Kudos on providing a concise appreciation of the dilemmas of our "umma". But the following needs to be stated- Iqbal, Abdu and Nursi were and are considered as intellectuals. Banna and Mawdudi, on the other hand, are classified as revolutionaries and political theorists.Only their followers consider them to be intellectuals and scholars in their own right. Further the fact that they were mostly self educated and had little exposure to other cultural traditions hindered their thinking. But the fact remains that they were head and shoulders above others in their organizational foresight and abilities.
I totally agree with your article, but there is the danger that in our reform process we might completely ignore them at our cost.

5:53 AM  
Blogger Alan Hiley said...

There is much talk about the emergence of Islamic finance as an alternative model to the classical neo-liberal market system. But are the Muslim markets where Islamic finance is available up to meeting this challenge?
One Islamic banker, Badlishah Abdul Ghani, CEO of CIMB Islamic Bank, believes that Islamic banking may be in danger of sleepwalking into a major crisis, not because of the credit crunch or the global financial crisis, but because of its internal contradictions and the anomalies between the various jurisdictions. And he suggests that the Asia-Pacific could lead the revolution in Islamic finance over the next decade because of its more developed regulatory and legal infrastructure.

What's yr comment on above?

1:35 AM  

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