Yesterday I made a post on Twitter which sparked some difficult but worthwhile conversation about the topics of colonialism and decolonization. The following are some additional thoughts I had on the topic:One reason why the Muslim world was so ripe for conquering is because they were overly invested in symbols and not The Truth. In other words identity politics and I sort of crass conservatism mixed with a simple minded symbolism is what contributed to the ease of them being conquered. This is why large tracts of the Muslim world will flip when one white dude draws a cartoon but will either turn a blind eye to, or participate in, corruption. Instead of the Qur’anic
(رب إني ظلمت نفسي)
“O God I have wronged myself” — Qur’an, 28: 16
it’s “the West is bad”. And the ulama’ have in large part enabled this line of thinking particularly from the vanquished lands of the Muslims.
If identity is not subservient to The Truth then you’ll have a people who espouse The Truth while contradicting it in their every day lives. Additionally, symbols and identity are easily hijacked, whereas The Truth remains aloof, an independent arbiter.
So … some of y’all asked what I thought about the film, “Detroit”. Well, to bounce the ball back to my homie Dr. Muhammad Khalifa, I said: “For someone who ain’t never probably been to Detroit or knew anything about it before writing/directing it, I give ’em an ‘A’ for effort, but a D+ on substance”.
For starters, there’s the director, Kathryn Bigelow: Cali born, Columbia educated. And the writer, Mark Boal: a New Yorker. Now, it’s not that a Californian or a New Yorker couldn’t know anything about Detroit … but these two make no sense exceptions to the rule. This was formulaic Hollywood at its best, or in my opinion, worst. Or even better, to paraphrase John Sims: “Detroit is a film by white people, about ‘the Blacks’, for white people”.
So what does Detroit get wrong? Well, for one, Detroit is a city of neighborhoods, not individuals. And this movie is a classic example of postmodern storytelling: focus on the individual narrative; peoples and their histories? Nah … who cares about that, right? And it’s history that Bigelow and Boal (and Hollywood as a whole) just doesn’t get. I was also quite upset that at the end of the film, where you’d normally get that sequence of “real life photos” of the people actually impacted by the events hinted at in the movie, instead you get, “su-prise! su-prise!” The film you just saw is not only a dramatization but the events that we just portrayed in front of your eyes ain’t exactly the truth. To me, given the gravity of the events (white police offers, in collusion with one another, murder black civilians, and are then acquitted!), those people deserve more dignity than to be used as Hollywood canon fodder.
Lastly, since the film is titled “Detroit”, it didn’t even come close to scratching the complicated reality that is Detroit (let alone the riots of ’67!): race, economics, class, etc. So yeah … it falls very, very far from the mark.
The Qur'an's use of imagery is important to grasp, not only grammatically, but in order to be adequately inspired by it. Like its use of nahr and anhār (نهر، أنهار، نهار) "river(s) and day": like time passing us by like the gushing of a river. In one sense, time eludes us, rushing past us (pun intended). In another sense is a river's gushing stream and its tranquilizing power, as how God describes The Garden (Jannah). For me, with the ever increasing insanity of the world I need a fantasy world to retreat to. But a fantasy still rooted in reality.
The most dangerous knife in the kitchen is the dull knife. It's unreliable and when you least expect it, it cuts you. When you most need it, it slips.
I have noticed a growing tendency amongst our communtiy that we are no longer people of extended thought — knowledge you might say — but instead have become people of narrative. I do not say this as a snide remark but I say this with also indicting myself. Narrative is important but without foundational knowledge, we'll have nothing other than shifting sand to plant the flag of our narrative in.
Everyone's busy. That's what I hear. That's the excuse I'm given. But I also hear, "Shaykh, I want to learn Arabic!" (without showing up to the Arabic class) ; "Imam, how did you learn your Arabic?" (I spent many many long hours sacrificing play time to do thousands upon thousands of drills, etc.). The list goes on and on. And instead of providing opportunities for learning, I believe the last generation of institutions and their scholars/imams/etc., have largely indulged the phenomenon I call Islamotainment. Our gatherings, if we have them at all, tend to range from "chop-it-up" sessions to superficial demonstrations of knowledge that are more about their "wow" factor versus anything transformative. So what can we do?
First, we must ask ourselves if we're satisfied with how things are. Little is going to change if we feel there's no need for it in the first place. Second, we must be willing to sacrifice, even if it's just a little bit. This is reminiscent as to what the wife of the Prophet ﷺ — A'ishah — relates when he said,
أنَّ أحبَّ الأعمالِ أدوَمُها إلى اللهِ وإن قلَّ
"The most beloved deeds to God are those done regularly even if small." — Sahih al-Bukhari, #6464
And third, we must have a sense of urgency about the time we have in this life, how we spend it, and seeing knowledge as something fundamental, elemental even, to knowing and worshiping God. To this I am reminded of the statement of Abu Qilabah's (a Successor of the Companions of the Prophet) in which he said,
ما أمات العلم إلا القصص – يجالس الرجل الرجلَ القاص سنة فلا يتعلق منه شيء – ويجلس إلى العالم فلا يقوم حتى يتعلق منه شيء
"Nothing kills knowledge quite like storytelling. A person can sit with storyteller for a year and nothing will come of it. But one can sit with a scholar and they won't stand back up without having gained something." – al-Asfahani's Hilyah al-Awliya' wa Tabaqat al-Asfiya'
I see Abu Qilabah's use of "qasas" similar to our use of "narrative". And I do believe that narrative is important: its ability to oversimplify powerful myths, as Joseph Campbell says, is extremely useful and can be very inspiring. But narrative built on sand is soon to shift. Where once one's narrative was to be rooted in fitrah, now one finds oneself actively supporting homosexuality, not because the Qur'an changed its tune, or God went back on his word, but because the narrative changed on homosexuality. To this very topic, God says in the Qur'an,
ما يُبَدَّلُ القَولُ لَدَيَّ وَما أَنا بِظَلّامٍ لِلعَبيدِ
"My decree does not chnage with Me nor am I ever unjust to My servants." — Qur'an, 50: 29
So I pray we can return to being a community that pursues knowledge, in big and short strides, so we can know who we truly are and live for the reason we were truly made: To worship The Almighty as He commands.