To say that Muslims have been just as equally affected by modernity, the modernity that many Muslims claim to abhor, would be a feat in understatement. In fact, the sooner that Muslims come to grips with this reality the better chance Muslims will have at confronting modernity. Muslims could proactively (vs. reactively) decide on what aspects of modernity they can negotiate, and what aspects are indeed a real threat to their Muslim identity. One such aspect of modernity is the individual. There are a number of new theories floating around in the minds of Muslims regarding the individual and individualism. Many Muslims decry religious authority and seek to be “free agents”, navigating their Islam and modernity with the tools of reason and intuition. The Qur’an and Sunnah are seen as a threat to individuality; both are interpreted via a nouveau ijtihad. Before delving into a possible critique of this choice, we should perhaps look at the formation of individualism and its effects on Muslims today in their relationship with Islam’s sacred sources.
To be concise, I thought I might provide a reading of the situation through examining Walter Benjamin’s article, The Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov. Benjamin provides some insightful criticism of the modern age: “The art of story-telling is dying out. With it also dies the human capacity that is the essence of story-telling: trading experiences. The explanation for this is that experience itself is falling away”. Indeed, storytelling (as well as art, though that is another subject entirely) is dying out and with it goes the traditional method by which Muslims and most pre-modern cultures related wisdom, not just solely information. In tradition-based cultures, experience functioned as the repository of wisdom. With the advent of the information age, experience, as Benjamin says, “has fallen in value” (Benjamin 1). A critical difference between information [خبر] and wisdom [حكمة] in the Muslim tradition is the component of transience, the movement of wisdom from the teacher to the student. Even on a communal level this translated as the wisdom of the Prophet [s] and his understanding—what elicited God’s pleasure and displeasure—on such subjects such as God’s nature and edicts. This, in many ways, is what the spirit of the following hadith is getting at: “Surely, my Ummah will not agree upon an error” [إن أمتي لا تجتمع على ضلاة] – related by Anas Bin Malik.
A major challenge facing Muslims today is the challenge of distance. By distance here I mean the distance that is felt between them and the sacred sources of the religion. Most attempts to close or bridge this gap have resulted in pan-nationalism in the historical Muslim world or as an identity crisis in American Muslims. For many Blackamerican Muslims, for example, great efforts have been spent to try and adopt the dress and mores of immigrant Muslims as a means of closing the gap of authenticity. For the most part, neither group has been very successful in making the Muslim tradition and its sacred sources speak to them with meaning and agency in the American context. Some of this has to do with the pressures that have been exerted on Muslims from the dominant culture. Secular America, often as hegemonic as so-called fundamentalism, looks upon religion as something archaic and outdated. For a religion whose tradition is linked with storytelling, this is especially problematic:
“More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences” (Benjamin 1).
“Embarrassment” here sums up to a great degree how many Muslims are feeling about their religious sensibilities. Scientism (an extension of secularism) has fought to secure its place as the only means and method moderns can come to “know anything”. Traditions of knowledge which do not solely rely upon empiricism are deemed retrograde and backwards. Despite the fact that science has not come to be the panacea it claims to be — the world’s problems seem to only mount in the face of the salvation science is supposedly capable of bringing — many Muslims still feel a tremendous pressure to capitulate to its dictum.
To summarize, the Muslim tradition places great importance on experience. This is reflected in the ijazah system of certification. In essence, one gets one’s ijazah from one’s teacher, who presumably has not only the requisite knowledge but also experience, so that one will go on to teach others that same topic; one will continue the tradition of storytelling. Such teachers know the story and the narrative which such knowledge both comes from and speaks to. Benjamin’s insight here speaks to the modern predicament, where Muslims feel as if they have arrived at this quandary out of the blue:
“Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low, that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone changes which were never thought possible.” (Benjamin 1).
Benjamin’s remarks speak to the disconnection and loss that many Muslims feel as the world has become less and less moral. It certainly has left us with the feeling we have arrived at this crossroads “overnight”, though in fact, it has been the slow erosion of values and morals over many years and decades. Indeed, I have heard many Muslims comment in dismay over the lows “never thought possible”, both inside and outside the Muslim community.
What I am trying to get at here is more than simply deconstructing Benjamin’s essay for deconstruction sake. The purpose is to look at the current state of Muslims in America and ask some hard questions. What does our Islam mean to us and are the means and methods of making Islam real, relevant, and meaningful to us, successful. Prophetic tradition, starting as an oral one, has placed a high value on person to person exchanges of story, knowledge, and experience. This is similar to what Benjamin has to say here:
“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn” (Benjamin 1).
It would seem to be this type of mouth to mouth exchange that many Muslims are beleaguering nowadays. This helps explain the rise of “traditional knowledge” or “traditional Islamic knowledge” as a buzzword. However, most of these institutions still rely upon a method of teaching that does not quite bridge that gap.
To return to the theme of reading, it is my theory that modern Muslims have turned to reading the Qur’an in the manner and method in which they read novels. I use the word novel here, not as a stand-in for “book”, but literally, as “novel”. Benjamin purports,
“The novelist has isolated himself” (Benjamin 3).
The novel is also, as Benjamin says, “devoid of council”, something many Muslims are sorely in need of today. “The novelist isolates himself and does not come from oral tradition nor goes to it”. Some may see Benjamin’s commentary as a Romantic rant, longing for “simpler times”. I do not see it as thus; for me, “oral tradition” is synonymous with “lived-in” and “pro-human”, and thus, I see it as an alternative method of articulating what the Sunnah of the Prophet was about: council:
أكان للناس عجبا أن أوحينا إلى رجل منهم أن أنذر الناس وبشر الذين ءامنوا أنلهم قدم صدق عند ربهم قال الكافرون إن هذا لسحر مبين
“Is it astonishing to men that We sent Our inspiration to a man from amongst them? That he would warn mankind as well as give glad tidings to the believers that they are considered by their Lord truthful, sincere? Those who reject faith say, ‘This is clear sorcery’.” [Qur’an 10: 2].
The tandem of Prophet and Revelation provides that direct, oral relation, the transference of knowledge and wisdom to, not a readership, but a living community. In this light, the Qur’an, a book whose name can also be said to be “The Recitation”, indicates that it is not simply any book, and most certainly not a novel. One of the primary characteristics of the Qur’an is that it is a revelation that came down to a human community amidst their history, not in isolation. My goal in saying this is not to provide the definitive way of reading and interpreting the Qur’an, but to introduce and remind that in order to come to know the Qur’an (and the Prophet, and God), one must not be tempted to read it as a novel amongst other novels.
There are a couple of characteristics of the novel that are worth mentioning here that Benjamin draws our attention to. First, is the notion that the novel is almost always about, “a particular character, event, or situation”. This helps to affirm the notion of the novel as isolated. The Qur’an reveals itself not as a singular event, not about a singular character, and its situation varies from chapter to chapter (sometimes even within it). This has led many to criticize the Qur’an for being inconsistent; some Muslims even find it difficult to follow. I believe this is partly in due to the influence of modern literary standards which are largely based off of reading and interpreting novels. Second, is the sense of closure. Benjamin says, “The novel terminates itself from our memory through the complete closure of the book”. Not to be confused with “making our minds up for us (something modern and post-modern literature abhor from doing), there is still a closure when the last words are read. The Qur’an has been and is, continuously rehearsed and recited. It lives where Muslims live (or ought to, I would argue). It challenges and compels its adherents to “reflect” and “ponder” its “ayāt”, or signs. Muslims, if they hope to extract meaningful and relevant interpretations from the Qur’an, they may need to reconsider just how it is they are approaching Islam’s sacred sources.
Experience is king, someone once wrote. It certainly seems to be for Benjamin as well. This finds easy correlation in reading the life of the Prophet. As was mentioned above, the Prophet and the stories of the Prophets and other stories in the Qur’an are in fact translated into experience for us. This is best understood through the famous narration: “His character was the Qur’an” [كان خلقه القرآن]. By this, Muslims are “counseled” (also known as “nasīhah”/نصيحة) by the Prophet’s life, his understanding and relating of God’s Message. In the absence of this, historically detached Muslims devolve into lonely individuals who are no longer capable of “speaking exemplarily”, as Benjamin says, to their most important concerns, chief amongst them a dignified existence that will allow them to negotiate what modernity needs and what God wants. The lonely individual’s existence gives them no counsel, leaving them anxious as well as impotent.
It is obvious from Benjamin’s article that he is not only lamenting the loss of stories, he is also subtlety calling for the return or rebirth of storytellers. In the Muslim context this is the shaykh, the ālim, the imām, the griot. It is through the tradition of the Muslim storyteller that the characteristics of the religion are retained. Without Muslim storytellers, those who have dedicated their lives to the continuity of these stories, how else will Muslims preserve that critical aspect of their identity? The tendency has been in modern times to prop up a few rock star imāms who draw crowds of individuals who often return home feeling just as isolated and lost before attending said event. I believe if Muslims are truly invested in their futures here, it will necessitate them developing scholars, leaders, storytellers—“master craftsmen” in Benjamin’s words—who will live in and amongst their communities, keeping the story alive and meaningful to Muslim communities.
The hope for developing Muslim storytellers is to help restore the connectivity amongst Muslims. It will also allow the healing and holistic aspects of the message of Islam to be delivered to Muslims with greater efficacy. As Benjamin states,
“Quite apart from the fact that a man is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak” (Benjamin 3).
For me, Benjamin touches on one of the great challenges facing Muslims in America: The disconnect between generations. It is not authenticity that challenges generational understanding but rather the ability for the older, “more knowledgeable” generation, to be receptive to the realities facing young American Muslims today. There is a dire need for a Muslim leadership—religious or otherwise—to be emotionally connected and concerned with younger Muslims today. Benjamin says, about counsel,
“[it] is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding” (Benjamin 3).
I see this as another means of “Surely, my Ummah will not agree upon an error”. Benjamin is also astute in pointing out one of the natures of counsel:
“Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom”,
as well as,
“To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story” (Benjamin 3).
Against the allegations that religious knowledge equates religious tyranny in the Muslim world, this system allows those who have dedicated their lives to the story, the Message of Islam, to walk hand in hand with those who profess Islam as their religion, facing the trials and tribulations of life as one community, as one Ummah. After all, when the Prophet [s] was questioned as to what religion (“deen”) was, he replied, “sound advice, sound advice, sound advice” [إن الدين نصيحة, إن الدين نصيحة, إن الدين نصيحة].
- Benjamin, Walter. “The Story Teller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Narrative Theory: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Mieke Bal. New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Thanks to the link from brother Omar. See his comments below. It fits well into the discussion.