Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Friends, Allies, and Hypocrisy: Rejecting Islamist Identity Politics

This is a draft of the sermon that I am scheduled to deliver this Friday, May 31, 2013. I am writing it up early because by the time I am scheduled to deliver the khutba, I am also scheduled to have just returned from an interfaith (specifically, Muslim-Jewish) retreat to cap a year-long series of group meetings and discussions. This is the primary motivation for the topic of my khutba this week. I have not (yet) made any new friends in this group, but I also see no reason why I shouldn't.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ وَكُونُوا مَعَ الصَّادِقِينَ 
(O, people of faith, be God-conscious, and be among the truthful. [Tawba/Repentance: 119])

Throughout my life, at least half of my friends have been non-Muslims, including Christians, Jews, and Hindus, some observant and some non-observant of their respective traditions.

It would be hypocritical to lead this life and profess something different, and such hypocrisy would be most abhorrent to God:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لِمَ تَقُولُونَ مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ كَبُرَ مَقْتًا عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَنْ تَقُولُوا مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ 
(O, people of faith, why do you profess one thing and do another? It is most abhorrent for Allah that you profess one thing and do another. [Al-Saff/MilitaryFormation:2])

There is an extensive medieval Islamic literature, picked up by modern Islamists, on what is called الولاء و البراء (literally: proximity and distance, or alliance and animosity), which most of those who are known today as Salafis consider part of the creed (a particularly glaring example of this surprisingly-common view is summarized here by the highly-respected cleric Saleh bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan).

The ultimate of hypocrisy, of course, is that the monarchies that have adopted this worldview formally, and enforced it socially, have done the exact opposite politically and militarily: repeatedly seeking the assistance of [Western, first British and then American] non-Muslim forces against internal and external threats to their rule. Indeed, it is in large part the cognitive dissonance resulting from this inconsistency between credal profession and social implementation, on the one hand, and political and military action, on the other hand, that motivated Al-Qaida and other organizations to adopt violent strategies against these monarchies and their Western, non-Muslim, friends and allies (أولياؤهم الغربيون من غير المسلمين), because by the very creed that they have been promoting, such action would constitute apostasy.

In this khutba, I will explain why I reject the applicability of the Qur'anic verses and Prophetic traditions commonly used to support the separatist and triumphalist Islamist identity politics officially promoted by these monarchies (despite their political and military conduct to the contrary). This would seem like preaching to the proverbial choir, because adherents of this separatist and triumphalist ideology also believe that living in non-Muslim lands is religiously unlawful (see second item in Bin Fawzan's list of "proximity/alliance with infidels", whereby he deemed it unlawful to travel to or live in non-Muslim land, except for necessity or need, or if one is engaged in proselytization!). However, sadly, elements of this separatist and triumphalist Islamist thought has seeped into the discourses of otherwise enlightened Muslims -- a few years ago, two Houston-born college students came to my office to ask me (with regards to an earlier khutba), wondering how there can be an Islamic worldview that is not separatist and triumphalist.

Diatribes on this topic rely heavily on the writings of Ibn Taymiya, especially his book "اقتضاء الصراط المستقيم مخالفة أصحاب الجحيم" (following the straight path by behaving differently from those destined for the hellfire). What the adherents to this view forget is the context (of crusades and Mongol invasions) during which Ibn Taymiya was writing and the political and military objectives of his preaching and writing. Indeed, even his closest student Ibn Qayim pointed out, for example, that the example of the Prophet (p) was to dress what was easily accessible and affordable, rather than any specific and distinctive uniform. Likewise, Rashid Rida, a most prominent contemporary admirer of Ibn Taymiya, pointed out that all the Prophetic and companion traditions on differentiation from the people of the Book and adherents of other religions pertained to what was intrinsically part of their religion (such as priestly costumes or rituals particular to their religion). Therefore, I will not dwell on the numerous texts that pertain to modes of dress, rituals, and the like, because they are very clearly within their intended context.

Ibn Fawzan and other adherents of this view reject the counterargument -- say from Al-Qaradawi and others -- that most of the verses condemning associating with non-Muslims pertained to those who were persecuting Muslims, and that this is clarified by the verse:
لا يَنْهَاكُمُ اللَّهُ عَنِ الَّذِينَ لَمْ يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ وَلَمْ يُخْرِجُوكُم مِّن دِيَارِكُمْ أَن تَبَرُّوهُمْ وَتُقْسِطُوا إِلَيْهِمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُقْسِطِينَ
(God does not forbid you to deal justly and kindly and righteously with those who did not fight you in religion or expel you from your homes; verily God loves those who are just [Al-Mujadala /theDisputation: 22].)
Thus, Ibn Fawzan argues that this allows just dealings in commerce and the like, but does not allow friendship and love, even if these non-Muslims were next of kin. For dissenters, this rigid interpretation is contrary to the meaning of the word birr (بر), which denotes the highest forms of kindness and tenderness, e.g. birr-ul-walidayn (بر الوالدين=kindness to one's parents, which is second only to love and worship of God.)

Some canonical texts remain, however, that deal with the issue of dealing with non-Muslims, and these merit [repeating the authentic] explanation differently from the way separatists explain them.

The first is the verse: 
يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا تَتَّخِذُوا الْيَهُودَ وَالنَّصَارَى أَوْلِيَاءَ بَعْضُهُمْ أَوْلِيَاءُ بَعْضٍ وَمَنْ يَتَوَلَّهُمْ مِنْكُمْ فَإِنَّهُ مِنْهم إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الظَّالِمِينَ 
(O people of faith, do not take Jews and Christians [Yusuf Ali: for your friends and protectors] [Mohammad Asad: for allies]; they are but allies of one another, and whoever of you allies himself with them becomes one of them; God does not guide evildoers. [Al-Ma'ida/TheBanquetTable: 51])

I have included here both the preponderant but inaccurate translation of Yusuf Ali and the more accurate translation of Mohammad Asad. The latter translation is clearly the correct one in this context, as the verse was revealed on the occasion of the battle of Uhud, and the meaning of "take them for allies" is agreed by exegetes to mean supporting the polytheists of Makkah against the Muslim of Madinah and then seeking refuge with the Jews and Christians of Madinah. Expanding the meaning in the manner that separatists do to cover all friendships in all circumstances is grossly misplaced.

The second is the prophetic tradition:
قَالَ إبن عمر : قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ - صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : " مَنْ تَشَبَّهَ بِقَوْمٍ فَهُوَ مِنْهُمْ رَوَاهُ أَحْمَدُ ، وَأَبُو دَاوُدَ 
[Ahmad and Abu Dawud narrated that Ibn Umar said that the Prophet said: "Whoever imitates a people thus becomes one of them".]
As mentioned above, Ibn Qayim, Rashid Rida, and other highly respected students and admirers of Ibn Taymiya pointed out that this refers to explicit imitation with the intention to mimic the creed, rituals, or exclusive appearances of people of other religions. In other words, a person who is willfully giving up his identity and seeking that of others would clearly become one of the people whose identity he is seeking to adopt through emulation. That is a very valuable warning in some contexts, but not in others. For example, if I imitate my teachers in a given profession to be certified in that profession, then I become one of them, which does not in any way negate being a good Muslim (say, by simply imitating doctors, regardless of their religion, to become one of them in terms of being a doctor, not in terms of being of their same religion). The same applies to passing citizenship exams, etc. As long as the identity that we seek to acquire is not exclusive to non-Muslims for religious reasons (e.g. becoming a monk in a particular tradition), then becoming "one of them" in terms of other professional, national, or other community identity variables should not be problematic.

Finally, we have the warnings in the following two Hadiths, which are often invoked to warn against innovations or bida`:
عَنْ أَبِي سَعِيدٍ الْخُدْرِيِّ عَنْ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ لَتَتْبَعُنَّ سَنَنَ مَنْ كَانَ قَبْلَكُمْ شِبْرًا شِبْرًا وَذِرَاعًا بِذِرَاعٍ حَتَّى لَوْ دَخَلُوا جُحْرَ ضَبٍّ تَبِعْتُمُوهُمْ قُلْنَا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ الْيَهُودُ وَالنَّصَارَى قَالَ فَمَنْ
[Bukhari and Muslim narrated on the authority of Ibu Said Al-Khudriy that the Prophet (p) said: "You will follow the historical examples of those who preceded you, step by step, so that even if they went into a lizard's lair, you would do the same", they asked: "O, Messenger of Allah, you mean the Jews and Christians?" and he (p) said: "Who Else?"]

A companion Hadith that refers to political rather than religious entities:
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ ، عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ : " لا تَقُومُ السَّاعَةُ حَتَّى تَأْخُذَ أُمَّتِي مَأْخَذَ الأُمَمِ وَالْقُرُونِ قَبْلَهَا ، شِبْرًا بِشِبْرٍ ، وَذِرَاعًا بِذِرَاعٍ " ، فَقَالَ رَجُلٌ : يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ كَمَا فَعَلَتْ فَارِسُ وَالرُّومُ ، قَالَ : رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : " وَهَلِ النَّاسُ إِلا أُولَئِكَ ؟ ! " .
[Bukhari narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra that the Prophet (p) said: "The [final] hour will not come until my community/nation/umma has followed the example of previous nations and empires, step by step". A man asked: "O, Messenger of Allah, you mean the example of [Sassanid] Persia and [Byzantine] Rome?" and he (p) said: "Who else?"]

I will point out why using these last two traditions as proof that Muslims should follow a particular puritanical and separatist approach is incoherent:

1. These are prophesies, one says that religious traditions of Muslims will evolve similarly to Jewish and Christian traditions, and the other says that social and political  Muslim communities and nations will evolve similarly to earlier communities and nations. As prophesies, we should celebrate, rather than lament their coming true in our lifetime or earlier.

2. Part of these historical trajectories of earlier religions, communities and nations is that some followed separatist and puritanical paths while others were more open to other communities and cultures. Which of the two is the more authentic tradition of the Prophet and his companions and immediate successors is open to debate. 

3. From an historical and empirical standpoint, Islamic societies have prospered when they were openly interacting with other traditions, for example copiously adopting the institutions and legal frameworks of Persia in the early decades of Islam, translating and building on Greek philosophy in the centuries that followed, and so on. In contrast, Islamic societies have stagnated when they closed themselves off and rejected anything new or foreign as a forbidden bid`a. 

So, at least for me, it appears to be clear that the example of the Prophet, his companions and their successors was precisely to reject the insular separatist and triumphalist approach advocated by today's reactionaries, and to befriend, teach, learn from, and collaborate with others from all faiths, races, and nationalities. This for me is the example of the Islam as submission to the one God who created all of mankind and revealed their intrinsic equality and ties of kinship, not the arrogant separatist and triumphalist heresy based on misreading the political content of historical religious texts.


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