Friday, July 28, 2017

Neo-Wahhabism and Neo-Sufism: Two Facets of the Same Modern Phenomenon

Let me begin by saying that my focus on Islam stems from being Muslim, and, therefore, partially responsible for my tradition and its evolution.

I am fully aware that all the difficulties with the evolution of modernity that I spell out here are present also in other traditions -- whether within Orthodox Judaism (not recognizing fully many American Rabbis); pseudo-Christian fundamentalism (a neighbor who grew up in Houston told me that growing up in the 1950s, the phrases "mighty-Christian of you" and "mighty-White of you" were interchangeable); or secular socio-legal constitutional originalism (which brings to mind Derrida's comment that to imitate an original is to miss the point).

It is a mistake, in my humble opinion, for Muslims to deflect responsibility by pointing to similar difficulties elsewhere. The above mentioned problems in various traditions all emerge from social evolution (for example, the racial difficulties facing traditionally White America as we make progress towards a post-racial society; two steps forward, one step back).

Wahhabism itself was born when Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab, a Central-Arabian cleric, was shocked by the cosmopolitanism of Southern Iraq. The stark contrast can be seen to this very day within Saudi Arabia, where the coastal cities of Jeddah and Dhahran remain much more cosmopolitan, at least compared to the greater orthodoxy of Riyadh. Pure Wahhabism, like Orthodox Judaism, sought to freeze time, for fear of losing their tradition. Of course, pure Wahhabism could not defeat modernity entirely, and has evolved with time.

My central focus in the last two postings on this blog was squarely on the phenomenon of neo-Wahhabi American preachers, who teach a softer form of orthodoxy, but orthodoxy nonetheless -- and it bears repeating that there is nothing authentic about orthodoxy. It is an attempt to freeze in time a mythical society that the orthodox invent to fight change. Thus Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahhab's own family of scholars were perplexed by his teachings -- they thought that they were already preserving the tradition, which required keeping up with the times!

It is not surprising that American Muslim immigrants would seek some similar form of time-defying orthodoxy (especially after they had to admit, even if silently, that the programs of MB and JI have been disastrous failures in their countries of origin and throughout the world). All immigrants are known to try to preserve tradition, much like Italian immigrants in New York did a century ago, for fear that their children would melt within society and lose their identities (in the cases of Judaism and Islam, that includes intermarriage and conversion). They sent their kids to Madinah to learn what they thought to be authentic Islam, and find comfort in the mixture of American youth slang and orthodoxy (what I have labeled neo-Wahhabism for lack of a better term).

Others have not been comfortable with this neo-Wahhabism, and found comfort in their children chasing alleged Sufi masters. Those have failed to see that organized Sufism (which is pseudo-Sufism) is just as dogmatic and potentially dangerous (hence my constant discomfort with the Gulen movement, for example; after all MB had also claimed since its inception to be a Sufi Tariqa and devised very similar chapter and family structures). Just as Wahhabism tried to turn human beings into Shari`a-following automata, Sufism tried to turn them into Tariqa-following automata; and the irony is that the two terms (Shari`a or road to watering hole and Tariqa or method) almost mean the same thing. Today's neo-Sufis play the same role as the neo-Wahhabis, even as the two groups claim that they couldn't be more different.

I am aware, as my friend hinted in his emailed response to my posting yesterday, that I tend only to offer criticism, which does not seem constructive (this is the same charge that I received for my work on Islamic finance). This charge misses the point of, say, the negative theology of Maimonides or the perpetual deconstructionism of Socrates: Some problems simply do not have positive answers (or at the very least easy positive ones), and the role of the critic is to point out that easy solutions are by definition no solutions at all. I do not mean easy in implementation (neo-Wahhabis and neo-Sufis are given many tasks to keep their bodies and minds busy); it is conceptual ease that I criticize. As the Grand Sheikh Mohyiddin ibn Arabi would say, every time you think you are worshipping God, you are merely worshipping your own created mental image of God; and since this is your own creation, you are still worshipping yourself.


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