Thursday, November 17, 2005

Mis-reading (and not reading) Islamic literature

Mohammad_Fadel said...

Must we blame past generations for our own failures? I think modern Muslim religiosity is far removed from classical and medieval teachings. How many people read (or even have the capability if they so desired) medieval works of theology and akhlaq? In short, we cannot blame the **content** of medieval theology for our modern condition.

On the other hand, the medieval tradition should be criticized for its elitism and its assumption that the masses of Muslims are incapable of reflective thought, and accordingly, should be instructed by appealing exclusively to their imaginiations (khayal) instead of to demonstration (burhan). With the spread of literacy, the dichotomy between the learned and the masses is no longer viable, and into the gap charged a superficial textualism, a/k/a "Salafism" or "Wahhabism" that dispensed with the entire critical tradition of the Islamic sciences, as well as poisoning Muslims against Sufism. Leaving aside this movement's simple-minded literalism in jurisprudence and theology, its critical flaw is its lack of any empathy with Muslims with differing views (much less non-Muslims), a feature that characterized the pre-Modern tradition as manifested itself in works of khilaf, not only in furu', but also in usul and dogma (see, e.g., the genre of al-Milal wa-l-nihal, in which Muslim authors discussed not only the beliefs of other Muslim sects, but also the religions of non-Muslims).

As I have said before, there is a lot modern Muslims can learn from the medieval tradition, if they get over their bias against it. We also, however, have to overcome the elitist bias in the medieval tradition that essentially viewed the Muslim masses as lacking in critical faculties and needing detailed guidance from the literate classes. Contemporary Muslim education needs to focus on "fundamentals", not only fundamental Islamic values (ma yu'lam min al-din bi-l-darura), since these are the keys to salvation, but also the fundamentals of Islamic knowledge, so that people are not terrorized by isolated hadiths or opinions of jurists.

Wa-allahu a'lam.

I agree with all that Mohammad said, but I'd like to elaborate on his characterization of the so-called "salafist" (the Salaf were actually quite sophisticated, and it is a shame that those who use that term aren't) "simple-minded literalism in jurisprudence and theology". The most freightening thing for me is that the Muslim masses do exhibit this desire to be told what to do and what to believe, despite their higher rates of literacy and education. In the last few weeks, I had the opportunity to listen to two khutbas by a father and son, who both derided those who wish to interpret Islamic teachings for our time. Both father and son used a classical scare-tactic: "Do you feel sufficiently confident to argue before Allah that you didn't do as He ordered you because times were different?", they asked, and the people nodded... Has it never occurred to those Muslims that understanding the will of God is a highly consuming activity (the true lifetime quest of people of faith)? Has it occurred to them that righteous acts of the past may be insufficient, or even unacceptable today? Has it occurred to them that one can turn the tables and ask how the pseudo-Salafist preachers feel so certain that they know what is asked of them.

The biggest sign of incoherence of the new-religious or pseudo-Salafist Muslim movement is not only the naive and literalist understanding of earlier literature, but the fact that their own heroes (Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim) forbade taqlid, which is the acceptance of ealier opinions without subjecting them to rigorous analysis. Yet, both in theology and in jurisprudence, they continue to imitate those who forbade imitation. Moreover, they denounce literate forms of learning and discourse, saying that you have to acquire knowledge only from "people of knowledge" or "scholars". What is most shocking to me is that -- at least here in the Houston area -- those anti-literate pseudo-Salafists have attracted the greatest following among Muslim college students and recent college graduates. I have not yet figured out how those intelligent young people -- who are used to questioning the scientific approaches of Nobel laureates in the classroom -- can accept the anachronistic and anti-literate messages of their gurus...


Blogger Adnan Lakhani said...

To completely dispense with the Salafi ideology as "simple-minded" literalists is quite unfortunate. It is easier to resort to this sort of intellectually-lazy generalizations rather than to initiate a serious dialogue critically analyzing the content of the salafi ideology. The salafi perspective, while not ideal, has a historically rich perspective like other islamic traditions and as such demands serious reflection.

Moreover, as a college student, it would be helpful if you can elaborate on the "anachronistic and anti-literate messages" that in your opinion are promulgated in the Houston-area campuses.

7:14 PM  

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