Religion In A Technical Age – Between What Is And What Ought To Be

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.”

Ellul continues,

“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”.

Sources

1. Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. New York: Vintage Books, 1964.
2. Nichols, Tom. “How America Lost Faith in Expertise” Foreign Affairs. 13 February 2017.
3. Jackson, Sherman. “The Impact of Liberalism, Secularism and Atheism On The American Mosque” American Learning Institute For Muslims. 4 February 2016.
4. Nichols
5. Nichols

#MiddleGroundPodcast – An Islam Without Boundaries – Is It Still Islam?


[Direct download]

In this episode, I clarifyy some points in my article, The Unrecognizable Islam of Reza Aslan, about the boundaries of belief and asks some important questions for our community to consider.

Sources

1. The Unrecognizable Islam of Reza Aslan.

2. Mu’min and Kafir – Negotiating Shared Space.

3. The Trouble With Muslim Pundits TodayPart 1 and Part 2.

The Credibility Gap Widens

In 2016, I wrote several articles about what Dr. Sherman Jackson calls, “the credibility gap”. One of them was entitled Interpretation In Free Fall. In it I discussed an embarrassing exchange between Kayleigh McEnany and Reza Aslan, in which the two battled over authoritative claims about Islam. Here we are again with yet another example of Muslims being academically and publicly dishonest about Islam. Samina Ali’s Tedx talk, delivered at the University of Nevada, attempts to reduce hijab to essentially class and culture (Ali also fails to situate the topic of hijab, or headscarf, within the broader topic of ‘awrah, or nakedness, which is where the Qur’an and the Prophet situate it). According to Ali, if a women came from a noble enough station in society, she would not be publicly molested and thus is the raison d’être for hijab. What we have here is another 5-minute (well, 17-minute) gloss-over of a topic that requires far more finesse and skill than perhaps Ali is capable of bringing to it. At the risk of sounding elitist, I must say I found Ali’s assumptions to be full of holes, presumptions, and just downright sloppy.

What is most striking about pundits of Ali’s ilk is their complete ignoring of the Prophetic tradition with hadith like,

المرأةُ عورةٌ وإنَّها إذا خرَجتْ استشرَفها الشَّيطانُ

The woman’s body is ‘awrah (i.e., nakedness), so when she goes out, Shaytan attempts to take a peek.”1

These sources are typically dismissed in favor of what is exclusively mentioned in the Qur’an. This is done so, not for academic or hermeneutical purity, but for ideological reasons. It also allows such pundits to obfuscate their lacking credentials so as to mask their inability to discuss their chosen topics in-depth.  Ironically, what is equally striking is how Ali’s 17-minute video is almost completely comprised of nothing other than non-Qur’anic sources! How is it that such sources are disqualified from the conversation, let alone from having any authority, while they are invoked with impunity to support attacks against those very same authority claims? Sadly, this is another example of zero-credibility authority. What really begs answering from the likes of Ali is how do you: pray, pay zakah, make Hajj or ‘Umrah, etc.? None of these are explained in any detail in the text of the Qur’an. Should we then abandon qiyam, jalsah, ruku’,  and sajdah (standing, sitting, bowing, and prostration) as actions to perform in Muslim prayer given that their validity and method is solely and explicitly found in the hadith literature?

What ultimately baffles me is why do such Muslims even bother with Shari’ah, in that Shari’ah is essentially a post-revelatory enterprise to understand and codify what God intended through the demonstration of His Prophet in audience of the his Companions. Why not declare oneself a non-Shar’i Muslim (for the record, I am not advocating this!)? Instead, what we have — again — is an attempt to warp and bend Shari’ah to fit various agendas, such as liberalism (which rejects all authority external to the self, including God, His prophets, etc.), individualism (the embodiment of liberalism), or in this case, what appears to be some botched Marxist critique of Muslim/Qur’anic sexual ethics.

1. Recorded in Ibn Hibban’s Sahih (5598#), narrated by ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud: المرأةُ عورةٌ وإنَّها إذا خرَجتْ استشرَفها الشَّيطانُ وإنَّها لا تكونُ إلى وجهِ اللهِ أقربَ منها في قعرِ بيتِها/”The woman’s body is ‘awrah (i.e., nakedness), so when she goes out, Shaytan attempts to take a peek. She will not be closer to the Face of her Lord than when she’s in the middle of her home.”

Between Political Theories and Truth-Claims: American Muslims and Liberalism

On Saturday mornings at Middle Ground I teach a class entitled, The Dr. Sherman Jackson Reader, in which we explore his various articles, books, and essays. Currently we are reading his piece, The Impact of Liberalism, Secularism & Atheism On The American Mosque. In it, Dr. Jackson reminds us of a point that is not only worth considering but also provides some strategy in how Muslims might address the challenge of liberalism as well as to how we might address our own community members who have been enchanted with its claims.

Undoubtedly liberalism (in distinction to liberal thought) is one of the biggest challenges facing (American) Muslims today. Many Muslim leaders, thinkers, and intellectuals have taken to deconstructing its theories, some better than others. And while this is all fine to do I find one overarching aspect missing to these critiques, namely the setting up of liberalism and Islam as equals or peers. I do not mean equals or peers in a hierarchical sense: That Islam is better than liberalism or vice versa. No, what I mean here is the false-equating that essentially we’re talking about two things in a manner which implies they are of the same species. As Dr. Jackson points out, liberalism,

“…aspires to [be] a political theory, not an overall philosophy of life. In other words, its primary aim is to regulate relations between individuals and the state and between individuals and each other in the political sphere. In theory, therefore, liberal commitments need not govern life outside the political realm.”

This point is very important as we contrast it, liberalism, to Islam (and to any religious tradition for that matter) which, at its core, is a truth-claim. These two things are very different animals and their differences must be accentuated, not dulled, if there is to be not only any meaningful critique of liberalism by American Muslims, but also any reconciliation between Islam and liberal thought.

Liberalism, by process of dissemination, often takes on the psuedo-form of a truth-claim, undoubtedly the source of what mucks up the waters of our understanding. As Dr. Jackson says again,

“…even if political liberalism does not set out to be an overall philosophy of life, it turns out to be virtually indistinguishable from such in terms of its actual effect, not only in the political sphere but everywhere.”

It is this masquerading of political philosophy as a truth-claim that is one half of the issue. We receive notions of a “liberal life” through various American institutions such as schools, universities, and even government agencies, as well as popular culture. But if liberalism is guilty of masquerading as a truth-claim, many Muslims are equally guilty of masquerading Islam as only a political ideology, the other half of our issue. As we shall see, it’s not that Islam cannot have political assertions, as it were, but that any such assertions are secondary to its truth-claims. Simply put, Islam may have something to say about political/secular/mundane things, and it may not.  The result of this conflation leaves American Muslims, more often than not, talking past liberalism as much as they are attempting to speak to it. In doing so, American Muslims unwittingly give a misplaced credibility to the notion of liberalism as a truth-claim by treating it as such, versus addressing it for what it is: a means of negotiating the individual with either other individuals, or the State.

The reason for this conflation, in my opinion, is likely due to the fact that many American Muslims themselves (leaders included) have been coopted by, or, bought into, liberalism, as manifested by younger Muslims who “see little value in anything beyond the ability to pursue personal interest”, according to Dr. Jackson. In many ways this is a re-articulation of the “unmosqued” generation-X Muslims who often feel estranged in Muslim spaces that do not cater to their every whim.

What is muddling up the contention between these two (political philosophy versus truth-claim) is as much the fault of liberals as it is Muslims (these two camps are not mutually exclusive). To address the Muslim perspective, all too often modern Muslims, influenced by liberalism and secularism, attempt to take Islam into arenas it is not meant to go. For example, let us have liberalism ask the questions, “What is a good life?”, “Where do we come from?” as well as, “What’s for dinner?” As a political philosophy, whose main goal and objective is to negotiate the individual against other individuals/the State, liberalism would have nothing to say to any of these three questions in as much as it remains truthful to being a political philosophy.

Let us ply the same questions to Muslim scripture and tradition. If we ask, as Muslims, “What is a good life?”, or “Where do we come from”, there are numerous Qur’anic verses and Prophetic narrations (hadith) that can adequately address these inquiries, at least from a Muslim point of view. However, when it comes to “What’s for dinner?”, the same truthful commitment (liberalism above) has to be equally applied now to Islam, if Islam is to remain a truth-claim: Muslims must concede that neither the Qur’an nor the life of the Prophet can adequately tell us “What’s for dinner”.

The contrast here is important: liberalism, a philosophical commitment which privileges the self as the “ultimate decider” of authority, would be unable to render an answer as to what to put on your dinner plate. In essence, its response would simply be, “what ever you like”. Islam, as a truth-claim, while being able to tell us what we cannot eat, or what is impermissible to drink, is not the same as telling us to choose a Whooper over a Big Mac, let alone whether we ought to even eat a cheeseburger in the first place. My point being, all too often we drag things into areas that they have no means to speak authoritatively on. The result in this case is to reduce Islam to a secular or political ideology, incapable of speaking to the question at hand. In the case of liberalism, when we move it beyond the pale of negotiating our realities, we make it a false truth-claim. And as for Islam, we reduce it to a false secular/political ideology. The danger here with Islam (and religion in general), is that if I can coerce or force Islamic sources to articulate that a Whooper is “what’s for dinner”, then my eating a Big Mac is not simply me exercising my right to choose one over the other, but is in fact a move against the Will of God.

So where does this leave American Muslims in their stance towards liberalism? The first is to advocate that liberalism be treated as a thought process versus a truth-claim. In fact, many of liberalism’s claims (autonomy/self-law vs. heteronomy/external-law) can be demonstrated to not be truthful to itself! As a crude example, when one stops at an intersection, obeying tacit commands from a traffic signal displaying “red”, we stop. This is most certainly an external authority that inhibits our freedom (of movement), yet liberals express no qualm over stopping at a red light or decrying their individual rights of self-determination/movement have been infringed upon. While some liberals would claim this is nothing other than what John Rawls argued in what he called “public reason”, when it comes to something a bit more sophisticated than traffic rules, Rawlsian liberalism* often privileges the rich over the poor, the powerful over the powerless. What it does show is that (American) Muslims need not be entirely opposed to liberal thought: as yet to date I am unaware of any Muslims filing complaints about traffic lights impinging on their religious or secular freedoms. In fact, this turns on its head the common misnomer that “Muslims are not compatible with the West”, “democracy”, or other such nonsense. What American Muslims can do is demonstrate the fallacy of the ‘ism in liberalism: (American) Muslims can commit to the common good, as (truth-claiming) Muslims, while still calling into the question the scope to which liberal thought is applied, especially in instances when it does not render a common good.

In the end, this moves American Muslims to a much better social position by which they can engage their fellow Americans, even those who do not share their truth-claims to La ilaha ill’Allah, “There is no god except God”. It also preserves Islam (and religion in general in America) as a truth-claim, saving their religion from being misused, misapplied, and mishandled, and instead, used and applied towards answering the most enduring and meaningful questions.

* Rawls feared that people might not be able to find enough common ground to resolve their differences. If A is able to invoke his ideology against B, B will fear that he cannot get a fair hearing and walk away from negotiations, leaving the conflict outstanding, perhaps to the tune of violence. As a solution, Rawls proposed that all parties be made to argue their positions on the basis of what he called “public reason,” and that only arguments based on public reason be accepted. Public reason is not indebted to or based on any of the competing parties’ concrete ideological commitments; rather, it draws upon what they all share in common. For example, Muslims, Jews and atheists might disagree over the authority of the Qur’ān, but they can all agree to ban crack-cocaine, based on the mutually shared value of health-preservation. See the rest in Dr. Jackson’s article.

Extras

Religion As Part of a Good Life. A khutbah delivered on January 20th, 2017.

Generation X-Box. An episode from the Middle Ground Podcast.

Another Example of Why Islamophobia Is White Supremacy

“The Good News for the soul may appear as so much Bad News for the intellect; free-thinking is the last thing to be expected in reading a religious document.”Charles Grey Shaw

I have always found those who espouse “free-thinking” as nothing other than intellectual smugness and prejudice against those of faith. Critical to that smugness has been an assumption that faith — implicating the faithful — is expressed and lived under a regime of compulsion. In as much as this animosity is directed towards religion in general — a child of the Enlightenment — it is assumed to apply doubly so towards Islam, the quintessential pre-Enlightenment religion.

In the article, Lindsay Lohan May Have Made Her Worst Life Choice Yet, dated January 18th, 20171 and published on the website The Hill, Robert Spencer, noted Muslim bigot and pseudo-intellectual, has taken to trolling those who choose (or those who appear to choose) to become Muslim. Lohan, who has led a life full of tabloid sensationalism, publicly expressed empathy towards Muslims (though her conversion is as of yet, unconfirmed) which in turn irked Spencer. In the view of Islamophobes,  why would a white western woman want to give up her freedom? Doesn’t a modern, secular, post-Christendom West have all Logan, and any white women for that matter, could need? It would seem these attributes, Lohan’s femininity and whiteness, were what exercised so much outrage in Spender and continues to enrage the Islamophobe cottage industry. And it is for these two qualities that Islamophobia reveals itself to be nothing other than a modern articulation of white supremacy.

The intersection of whiteness and femininity are nothing new. In fact, it’s as old as America herself. Many Southern defenders of slavery were not only committed to theological interpretations of Christian scripture to justify slavery but many also fought against its abolition on the grounds of preserving white womanhood. White supremacists treated any attack on white womanhood to be an equally committed attack on the South as a whole (and vice versa). As W. J. Cash wrote in his The Mind of the South,

“…the central status that Southern woman had long ago taken up in Southern emotion — her identification with the very notion of the South itself. For, with this in view, it is obvious that the assault on the South would be felt as, in some true sense, an assault on her also, and that the South would inevitably translate its whole battle into terms of her defense.”2

Indeed, if we fast forward nearly seventy-five years, we find this ideology just as enduring as it was nearly a century ago. Dylann Roof, the murderer of nine black Christian parishioners, justified his massacre in part (as related to the whole of America!) to the preservation of white women, saying,

“I have to do it,” he reportedly said as he reloaded his gun five different times. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.”3

The so-called Islamophobe industry is inseparable from white supremacy as we see above and it will only be dealt with accordingly and efficiently when it is called as such. Additionally, Spencer’s words reveal that he is not only committed to white supremacist ideology, but also to Orientalist ideology. Spencer is only able to see Muslims, those who empathize with them as well as those who might aspire to be Muslim, as irrevocably Other than him, and the West. As Walter G. Andrews comments in his review of Thierry Hentsch’s Imagining the Middle East,

“Westerners—have created our selves, our Western selves, by creating an Orient in relation to which we are the West.”4

Spencer has fallen into the all-too-familiar trap of the “clash of civilizations” trope. His objection to Lohan’s (speculated) embracing of Islam is not rooted in, for example, theological disagreements (these would be perfectly acceptable), but in a rejection that is committed to Islam being the total opposite of western civilization. In other words, if Lohan has become a Muslim, she has ceased to be a westerner. Spencer objects to her choice of finding other truths outside the truths as expressed in the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition (her words, as he quotes them, are, “to find another true meaning”). It would seem that Spencer is denying that Islam and, vis-a-vie Muslims, can neither hold nor express any truth-claims; that is the sole purview of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Would he also then deny truth-claims to the Chinese, the Japanese, or any other non-JC tradition? If his objection is rooted in so-called acts of violence perpetrated by Muslims, then not only would he be obliged to discount the Chinese and the Japanese in their truth-claims, but Spencer would also have to forfeit the Judeo-Christian tradition itself in its truth-claims as their have been uncountable acts of violence perpetrated against others (Native Americans, Asians, African-Americans, etc.). This brings us back full-circle to his support of white supremacy as a value system: whites/westerners, and only whites/westerners can commit acts of violence and still retain their humanity, worthiness and claims to truth and beauty.

What is also worthy of note is the difference between how the Islamophobe community has treated Lohan’s (speculated) conversion with that of pop-star, Janet Jackson’s. Pamela Geller, a fellow peer of Spencer’s in anti-Muslim circles, berates the new Muslim as a “has-been rock star” who has been “bought” by the Islamic world5. Geller’s words are ripe with many white supremacist and racist overtones. While Spencer berates Lohan for being duped, Geller’s racist assumptions, rather, assert that Jackson, who is African-American, is owned, not simply by her husband, but by the entire Muslim world. Why is Jackson understood here to have been “bought” where Lohan is not? The allusion to blacks as slaves cannot be missed in Geller’s rant, whereas Lohan is simply described as having lost “her moral compass … long ago”. Jackson, according to Geller, is simply fulfilling her slave-heritage whereas Lohan is guilelessly misinformed.

Spencer also commits one of the most common offenses of his ilk, which is that of intellectual sloppiness peddled as academic authority. Spencer has chosen to ignore the scholarship which challenges his claims on Qur’anic interpretation; Muslim as well as non-Muslim scholarship. Spencer reveals his ignorance of traditional Muslim scholarship as well as his arrogance in disregarding it when speaking to a number of verses in the Qur’an. One example, is his claim to the Qur’an sanctioning “wife-beating”6 as found in Chapter 4, verse 34. The command in question is, in the Arabic transliteration, “wa darabahunna”. Spencer chooses to ignore centuries of scholarship that adamantly declares that the verse is not a sanction for a man to beat his wife. And most strikingly of all, there cannot be found any evidence to support the Prophet beating any of his own wives, even though several were known to have spirited and defiant attitudes. Not only can such an account not be found in the defenders of the Prophet but also none can be found in the statements of his enemies, who spared no quarter or opportunity to badger or delegitimize the Prophet. What is more at work here again, is the same white supremacist and Orientalist ideologies at work which impugn non-whites and Muslims as inherently violent and sexually rapacious.

That Lindsay Logan finds value where Spencer finds devaluation only speaks to the reality that Islam itself confirms: not everyone is going to find truth in the Qur’an. That some white western women may come to see value in Islam undoubtedly rings the bells of alarm in white supremacist and Islamophobic camps. Claiming that, “Lindsay Lohan likely doesn’t know that any of this is in Islamic teaching” is nothing other than prejudice and absurdity masquerading in academic robes. It will take more than cherry picking a few Prophetic narrations out of context — out of historical understandings, to pass muster as legitimate scholarship. But Spencer’s words should rally Muslims to the call of addressing yet another incident of “credibility gap”, as coined by Dr. Sherman Jackson. For in the absence of our community striving to push for academic standards (which is not the same as everyone liking Islam or agreeing with Muslim truth-claims) we will continue to be impotent in the struggle for making our voices, and most importantly our intentions, not only heard, but understood.

References

  1. Spencer’s op-ed for The Hill, “Lindsay Lohan May Have Made Her Worst Life Choice Yet” has been taken down supposedly due to protests over its contents. You may look at the text of the original article here.
  2. Cash, W. J. The Mind of the South. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1941.
  3. ‘You Rape Our Women and Are Taking Over Our Country.’ The Telegraph, June 18th, 2015.
  4. Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, Vol. 27, No. 2 (December 1993), pp. 272-273.
  5. Janet Jackson: From Bare Breasted to Burka. By Pamela Geller. October 24th, 2016
  6. Spencer. Original article here.