Monday, August 07, 2017

Neo-Wahhabism, Neo-Sufism, and the Predicament of American Muslim Youth

In a series of emails last Friday, a former student took me to task, albeit quite gently, for criticizing virtually all the resources that typical American Muslim youth think they have available to them. He agreed with my criticism of the slew of newly-minted Madinah University preaches in our mosques -- who seem to have sought an easy way to earn income and reputation through a quick religious license of sorts. However, he seemed to hold in high esteem many of the older generation neo-Wahhabi and neo-Sufi preacher-teachers (of my generation), some of whom have created "universities" that are getting accredited in the U.S., etc.

I begged this student not to force me to discuss too specifically any particular individuals or even institutions, explaining that I singled out Madinah University by name because of my alarm at the relatively recent outbreak of its alumni preachers. He pressed me further, saying that he and his generation hold in high esteem those teachers of different strains, whom I had lumped, admittedly disparagingly, into the two camps of neo-Wahhabis (mostly Saudi or Gulf trained) and neo-Sufis (mostly Yemeni and West-African trained). Without offering other alternatives, this former student (now in his late 20s, and recently married), my act in disparaging those most highly respected preacher-teachers seemed nihilistic.

He complained that many of his friends profess non-belief in God, at least privately. I suggested that this is not a bad thing. After all, the negative theology of Islam is professed in the Shahada first by negation (la ilaha) before affirming (illa Allah), and the latter is only an abstract affirmation, because God is described in the Qur'an as "there is noting like unto him," which means that He is beyond human comprehension. In their 20s, those youth should be rejecting the bad depictions that they have been offered.

I reminded him of what many philosophers have said: that most people who profess atheism are not saying that they don't believe in the abstract God of Abraham, or any of the other reasonable conceptions of the Divine, but are rather saying that they don't believe in a man with long white beard and flowing robes sitting in the sky and intervening in our every day activities the way the Greek gods were supposed to have looked and done (at least in today's cartoons). It is not at all a bad thing for his friends to have rejected this stupid depiction (which was only symbolic for the ancient Greeks, in any event, just like ancient Egyptian gods represented forces of nature through human-animal-hybrid abstractions about which they could tell stories -- which is the way humans best understand and remember things). It would be extremely intellectually lazy for them to conclude that now they know there is no God, and, indeed, when pressed further, most will not affirm that.

What the generation of this student (which is also the generation of my children) have rejected are the teachings that their parents propagated at mosques (which were based on the failed ideologies of JI in the subcontinent and MB in the Arab world), as well as the puritanical Wahhabi teaching that was exported directly and indirectly into the U.S. This is all good. The problem is that when they looked around for alternatives, they found mostly what their parents tolerated as second-bests: the neo-Wahhabi and neo-Sufi alternatives about which I have written earlier blog posts. Indeed, those seemed like slightly Westernized variations on their JI and MB mix of puritanical Wahhabism and social-discipline-emphasizing Sufism, i.e. they are simply more marketable variations on what came before.

The former student asked me how I would feel if someone denounced people that I admired like Muhammad Abduh (of course, perhaps unbeknownst to him, the latter was the subject of extremely vitriolic attacks during his life and after his death). I told him that Abduh was inspirational because he broke the mould and sought knowledge where he could find it (mostly in Paris, as many Egyptians in the 19th Century had), and was not looking specifically for Muslim teachers. Indeed, he broke with Jamal al-Din "Al-Afghani" when he discovered that the latter told everyone what they wanted to hear (humanism for the humanists like Abduh, but also militarism for the militant in Turkey, Iran, and India). Even then, I told him that Abduh was a creature of the late 19th and very early 20th century. He was progressive by the standards of his time, but would be extremely reactionary in our day.

Likewise, my broader teaching, which angered people at mosques in Houston and caused me to stop giving sermons a year ago, is that it is a grave mistake to place our locus of morality in the 7th--14th centuries (earlier period for the Wahhabis and their neo reincarnations and later for the neo-Sufis). Moral examples, including the Prophet (p), were exemplary people by the standards of their time; but they were showing us a direction, not a place to stop. Examples from slavery to polygyny illustrate this point best: these were constrained but not completely eliminated, and any decent Muslim should extrapolate the trajectory and conclude that no slavery or polygamy should be allowed today. But milder examples also exist, because women were generally treated like quasi-property in many instances; for example, most classical jurisprudence considered the marriage contract essentially to be the sale of a woman's reproductive system (bay`u al-bu.d`)! It was an improvement on what existed in Byzantine and Sassanid periods, but you need to extrapolate... Stopping there is immoral commitment to being a medieval or pre-medieval person.

Decisions on how to shape today's Muslims' ethics/morality, phenomenology, theology, and so on, must be informed more by Enlightenment and Postmodern advances in humanities, natural sciences and social sciences, which, in turn, should help us to understand our scripture, history, etc. In the process, the goal should not be to go back to some mythical ideal society, or to discover the ostensibly unique beauty of the Muslim tradition. In belonging to a particular community that shares a tradition and history -- as everyone must,  by birth or adoption, whether they like it or not -- we have a language that is nonetheless shared by many other communities that predated and postdated Muslim social developments, and we can only be authentic to those who came before us by being authentic to their quest to improve on what they had found around them, more often than not modifying all traditions in the process.


Post a Comment

<< Home