During the 2018 Blackamerican Muslim Conference there were a few instances when modernity, liberalsim, and progressivism—amongst other ideals—were evoked and discussed. Often these philosophies are discussed in relation to the so-called immigrant Muslim community and how it affects them. But these philosophies and value systems impact the Blackamerican Muslim community as well. As I mentioned in my last post, my hope is to delve a little deeper into these topics so as to raise our literacy on the forces acting upon us. I found Steven Seidman’s phrase, “problems of meaning” aptly titled and insightful. In short, Seidman defines the “problems of meaning” as,
“a pervasive uncertainty regarding ultimate beliefs and values, confusing images of self, society and nature, and the ceaseless conflict over the ends, rules, and norms in terms of which personal and collective life is organized and legitimated.”
Al-Shatibi, the author of a two-volume book entitled al-I’tisam الاعتصام (Holding Fast), has been hailed by many as the best book ever written on the subject of bid’ah: “unsanctioned innovation in religious matters”. In this work, al-Shatibi gives the following definition for bid’ah:
البدعة طريقة مخترعة في الدين تضاهي الشرعية يقصد بالسلوك عليها ما يقصد بالطريقة الشرعية
“A concocted manner of proceeding in religion that mimics the scripturally mandated way, with the aim of achieving through this concocted way that which should only be sought through the scripturally mandated way.”
According to Dr. Sherman Jackson,
“bid’ah” is not simply committing an act that the Prophet did not commit or failing to commit an act that the Prophet actually did. Bid’a is, rather, committing or avoiding such actions as a means of making up one’s own way to God. In other words, the real issue is not whether an act is committed or not; the real issue is the religious value that one attributes to the commission or non-commission of an act“.
The reason why innovation becomes an issue is because people will leave off what was legislated for them* in favor of what is not legislated. In doing so they put themselves in the position of being a prophet or a messenger. We now have people who live recklessly and then attempt to turn religion in general, and Islam in particular, into a kind of magic or sorcery. What was magic’s use or intent? To either gain the gods’ favor, overcome them, or the natural world (which was in most mythologies created by the gods or inhabited by them).
Many of these attempts are “practical” in that they wish to supplant that which would require discipline for something else that “fits their schedule”. “Praying every day in impractical”, in this way of thinking. “I prefer to get it out the way or have it done on my time”.
“Say to them,’It’s God’s exclusive right to choose someone to be an intercessor, for the control of the heavens and the earth belongs to Him, and then you’re all going to go back to Him’.” — Qur’an, 39: 44
So a person will drink, fornicate, cheat, and even murder, and then think all of this can be mitigated on one special night.
Background on the verses 53 through 59 of Surah al-Zumar (#39)
There were some Makkans who wanted to accept Islam, but they had indulged in very wicked behavior in their lives before, having murdered people, committed adultery, theft and other crimes. They felt that their sins were too enormous for God to forgive merely by their accepting Islam. “How can we become Muslims when we did all that?” one of them even asked. Just after the Muslims migrated to Madinah, the concerns of such sympathetic but despairing Makkans were discussed by many. These verses were revealed, and ‘Umar ibn al Khattab, who knew how to write, wrote them on a paper and sent it secretly back to Makkah. The first person who read it was a man named Hisham who said in later days, “I took it and went to a place named Thitawa, and I asked God to make me understand it. When I realized it was for us, I returned to where my mount was tethered and resolved to follow the Prophet.” Many others also joined Islam and made their way to Madinah.
“[Muhammad – Tell the people that I, Myself, have said, ‘All My servants who have acted excessively against their own souls! Don’t lose hope of God’s mercy, for God can forgive all sins. He truly is the Forgiving and the Merciful!’
‘Turn towards your Lord and surrender to Him before the punishment overwhelms you, for then you’ll have no one to help you.’
‘Follow the best of what’s being revealed to you from your Lord before the punishment overwhelms you all of a sudden without your even realizing what’s happening.’
‘For then your soul will cry out, “I’m doomed! I neglected my duty to God, and I scoffed!”
‘Or it might cry out, “If only God had guided me, I would surely have been one of the mindful.”
‘Or it might cry out, the moment it sees the punishment approaching, “If only I had a second chance, I would surely be with those who are good’.
‘“But no! My signs came to you, and you denied them! You were arrogant, and you tried to cover the truth that was all around you’.” — Qur’an, 39: 53-59
*What do we mean by “legislated”? In specific, that which Allah will judge a person by, and that which may forfeit a person’s entrance to the Garden.
In this episode of the Middle Ground Podcast, we share some more insights into our Saturday class, The Sherman Jackson Reader, this time discussing such topics as belief, non-belief, and the hegemony of western constructs such as rationalism, and what are its consequences for Muslims and what our potential reactions might be.
“If you don’t serve Him, then you’re serving nothing more than names that you and your ancestors made up, and God gave no one permission to do that. The right to command is for none save God, and He has commanded that you serve nothing besides Him. That’s the straight way of life, but most people don’t understand.” — Qur’an, 12: 40
I teach a class entitled The Sherman Jackson Reader at Middle Ground. It’s a class where we use Dr. Jackson’s articles, books, and scholarship, to spark meaningful dialogues, conversations, and ask pertinent questions. The following are two short excepts followed by the full length clip. Enjoy, and perhaps join us some Saturday after Fajr!
It has become something of a tired cliché to pit religion and science against one another. But what often gets left out is an analysis of religion and the technological, and by technological I mean technique. Technique, as defined by Jacques Ellul in his groundbreaking work La Technique, is:
“…any complex of standardized means for attaining a predetermined result … convert[ing] spontaneous and unreflective behavior into behavior that is deliberate and rationalized.”
“The Technical Man is fascinated by results, by the immediate consequences of setting standardized devices into motion. He cannot help admiring the spectacular effectiveness of nuclear weapons of war. Above all, he is committed to the never-ending search for “the one best way” to achieve any designated objective.”1
The question that has come to my mind is, has religion today in general, and for Muslims in specific to my concerns, become ‘technicized’? I do not mean religion as a robotic set of rituals; I’m not even addressing rituals per se but more over to what Ellul says about the technical society and more importantly, its technicians: “they are concerned only with what is, as distinct from what ought to be.” Applied to the Muslim community, this has made me ponder as to what extend have we been “technicized”. Another way of saying it is has religious leadership in the Muslim community been reduced to simply “technicians of religion”? We are increasingly asked to take complex things and standardize them for “predetermined results”: “Shaykh, I’m having a, b, or c issue in my life: What’s the litany or dhikr for the solution?” Or: “Shaykh, Donald Trump said x, y, and z, what should we do?” And while these are all fine questions to ask, I feel we that scholars, clergy, and activists, have become obsessed with “what is”, and blinded to the importance of “what ought to be”.
The role of religious leadership, as we as the religious mindset for our community overall, is to always remind ourselves and never forget that while we have to deal with what is, we never lose sight of what ought to be, even if we don’t have the ability to materially manifest it. A religious mindset that focuses on the here and now to the exclusion of the life to come will inevitabley miss its inteded mark: Entering the Garden by the pleasure of God.
So what is a remedy for this possible technicalization of religion? One would be a return to expertise. Muslims should be able to feel comfortable taking advice from those wtih proven credentials and experience without feeling intimidated or encroached upon. Tom Nichols makes a fascinating observation in his article, How America Lost Faith in Expertise And Why That’s a Giant Problem:
“To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.”2
That liberalism (philosophical versus politcal) is one of the most dominant forces informing Muslims today as to the nature of reality and religion would be an understatement. Liberalism, as Sherman Jackson states, is:
“The theoretical rejection of all authority outside the individual (or collective) self casts a cloud of suspicion over … [religious] institution[s] intimately connected to the heteronomous authority of religion.”3
It is this rejection of expertise (external authority) which disadvantages our community in that we’re not able to make use of any potential genius of religious leadership if it is to be reduced to, in the words of a good friend, “a flotation device in case of emergency”. This is akin to Nichols who says of those who, when visiting a medical professional, say:
“Stitch this cut in my leg, but don’t lecture me about my diet.” “Help me beat this tax problem, but don’t remind me that I should have a will.”4
What I’m getting at here is that increasingly the Muslim laity increasingly look to their leaders to simply be the technicians of their religious and spiritual lives, all the while keeping silent about any of the root causes for the maladies they seek counsel for. The irony of this is what Nichols points out to in reference of those Americans who go the doctor to have their leg treated: “More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight” (“what is!”). In other words, “just patch me up, I don’t want to be lectured”; just be a medical technician, not a medical expert. Likewise, in the Muslim context, “don’t lecture me on belief or disbelief, morality or immorality, just (religiously or spiritually) patch me up”. This goes beyond merely not wanted to have outsiders meddle in your personal affairs (the irony that such people bring their private affairs to counselors is not lost on me) and extends to an increasingly virulent form of anti-intellectualism in which, quoting Nichols again, non-experts,
“want to weigh in and have their opinions treated with deep respect and their preferences honored not on the strength of their arguments or on the evidence they present but based on their feelings, emotions, and whatever stray information they may have picked up here or there along the way.”5
Under these conditions, Muslim religious leadership will be reduced to simply being the technicians of religion, reducing all of the concerns for a religious life to an ever more pervasive pragmatism, focusing evermore on a granular “what is”, never even considering “what ought to be”. And it has always been the genius of religion in general, and Islam in specific, that as it negotionates with “what is”, it is always keeping “what ought to be” in its perepheral vision as well as a negotiating partner in regards to “what is”.
#Ellul says “the technological society is a civilization committed to the quest for continually improved means to carelessly examined ends.”