“Things sure ain’t what they used to be.” I’m sure Islam was not the topic Duke Ellington had in mind when sitting at the piano when he decided to play that tune – but it’s the song that’s on my mind. To be frank for a moment, I will vent some very real pessimism about the state of Muslims today. That pessimism has been an accretion, building slowly but steady over the almost fifteen years I’ve been Muslim. No, this isn’t an apologist’s essay. Nor is it some sort of apostate’s epistle. Rather this are just a few confused ramblings so stay with me if you can. And as usual, leave feedback if you feel so moved.
Like rising gas prices or Brittany Spears, Islam just can’t seem to stay out of the headlines to save its skin. Shock would not quite describe my reaction to this latest round of MGW (that’s Muslims Gone Wild, for those who wanna buy the DVD set). As if the Danish cartoons weren’t enough to keep us busy and entertained the Pope had to go and make some “raucus” comments, that for the most part under my brief examination, I can’t find all that insulting. Please. I get worse on an almost daily basis on campus or at work.
Once again, I am simultaneously baffled and not baffled at the reaction of Muslims to the few words of the Pope. I am not going to address, in depth, whether or not the Pope’s words were inflammatory or not. What I would like to address are two things: Muslims, our traditions and how we remember/imagine our Prophet and the role of the media in all of this.
It never ceases to amaze me how many times the head of post-Colonialism can rear its ugly head. Some of you may disagree and say this has nothing to due with Colonialism – that Colonialism is dead and over with. Well, yes and no. When for the most part Colonialism is dead (though it’s half-brother, American Colonialism seems to be getting along just fine) it has none the less informed the histories of many peoples living in certain parts of the world, namely for this post, the Middle East. One need only reflect on such authors as Frantz Fanon in his work, The Wretched of the Earth, to see how oppressed people continually lash out as well as continually seek the validation of their oppressors. In a conversation today with a friend I said that I felt that if perhaps Muslims had a better sense of self-esteem, and didn’t value or seek the approval of traditions which reside outside of their own, then the few words that the Pope said would have carried very little weight at all. They certainly should not have warranted the violent physical responses that we’ve seen. Muslims fire-bombing a church in Palestine. Such acts would have likely resulted in capital punishments in the First Community’s time. I for one could not understand the link between what the Pope said and Christians residing in the West Bank or a nun in Mogadishu (i.e., the violence visited upon them). And while I feel appalled, and exhausted as well, by the actions of these Muslims in these parts, I can only hope that “this too shall pass.”
As I said above, I believe part of the rectifying process is for Muslims to develop a better sense of esteem. After all, from a theological/dogmatic standpoint, we believe that we have The Truth. That there is no god but God and that Muhammad was His messenger. And if we really believed that, took solace in the belief that we had the truth, we would feel no need to feel threatened. No need to feel molested or angered. But Muslims have forgotten their traditions – and I do mean plural. Aside from the Prophet returning and saying X is right Y is wrong, there can be no one saying that there is “one true Islam”. There are differences of opinion. There are multiple and even contradicting interpretations. And that’s okay. I’d even go out on a limb to say it’s healthy. For as God has showed us, “For you in the Messenger of God is a fine example to follow” (Al-Ahzab 33:21). In one narrative of the Prophet, a man publicly accused the Prophet’s wife of adultery. If you think such a charge or accusation would mean something today, imagine, if you will, what it would mean in 7th Century Arabia. Such a remark, in the Time of Ignorance, would have extracted the ultimate response from the victim’s mate. Upon the death of the accuser, the man’s son came and asked the Messenger of God, “Oh Messenger of God, may I have your shirt to wrap my father in for his funeral shroud?” The Prophet replied with a simple yes. The young man continued and said, “Oh Messenger of God, will you pray for my father at his funeral service?” The Prophet replied, YES!! Imagine, even in these “civilized times”, how many of us would muster up such a response? And yet, the Prophet always faced his issues, tackled his problems with the deepest sense of humility; the most profound sense of justice. “For you in the Messenger of God is a fine example to follow.” How have we forgotten this?
I have spent a lot of time thinking about the previous question. And while I may not have a complete and final answer I do have some ideas a opinions. First and foremost is that Muslims have so far removed the Prophet from their lives that his sunnah (his normative actions, sayings, and tacit approvals) is no longer accessible or utilitarian for many Muslims. To help illustrate my point, I have drawn the following comparison: in pre-Islamic Arabia, the Arabs knew of Allah. Allah was a sort of sky god, a creator god. And while Allah was perceived by these early Arabs as a powerful and mighty deity, He was too far removed from their daily practices. When one needed something in this context one would seek in intermediary – a god that was some what “closer”; one that would listen and respond. Ironically, it would seem that the reverse has happened in our modern times. The Prophet has been honored and revered to such a point that he’s been stuck up on a shelf that is too high to have access to. As if one needs to either stand on his tippy-toes to have access to him, as it were, or going further, the Prophet is put up on a shelf and is left there strictly for ornamentation purposes – not to really be used. And such, in my opinion, has become the fate of the Prophet Muhammad’s sunnah. Honored, revered and even admired – but never examined. A close cultural comparison I can draw is that between most Americans and the Declaration of Independence. We’re taught that it is the document that gives us our freedom; that Thomas Jefferson was a great man. But how many of us have ever read it? And how many few of us have examined it closely and pondered over it? My guess, as with Muslim and the Prophet’s sunnah, not many.
The theme of a recent lecture I attended was, “if I say it enough, I might just get it.” So, again I say, “For you in the Messenger of God is a fine example to follow.” If we would but take the time to examine his life, learn to see him as a man who, in some ways, was just like us. And of course, in many, many extraordinary way, was not! He laughed. He loved. He wept. He experienced deep sorrow and crushing losses. And amidst this, he had no choice in the matter! It took Divine reaffirmation to convince him he was not mad: “By the Glorious morning Light, And by the Night when it is still, Thy Guardian-Lord hath not forsaken thee, nor is He displeased” [ad-Dhuha v1-3]. So I pray that we find a way to return to our tradition and do the Prophet a real honor by taking to heart what he, through incredible self-sacrifice, brought us. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll take his sunnah down off the shelf and give it a thorough dusting off and examination.
The second part I would like to address is the role the media plays in hyping up stereotypes. It is curious that a country, like Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world, is seldom consulted when the media is looking for the “reaction of the Muslim world”. No, they do not look in South East Asia very often. Instead, they go to certain parts of the Middle East – to parts where they know they can “get what they’re after.” This is not to say that the Muslims in the Middle East should not be consulted – or that their Islam is invalid simply because I don’t like things they do or interpretations they take. They have a whole history that has informed their culture that I could never just brush aside. But, as the famous Prophetic narration goes, “you get what you make your hijrah for.” If you are after a certain segment that fits your agenda then that is what you shall have (and I’d prefer it if you didn’t call it journalism in the process).
So amidst the anger and frustration that I have towards the two categories mentioned above, I do have hope. I have a hope for the future that Muslims will arise from their slumber and start to return to all of their various traditions and in doing so, rediscover the reason why God said that He sent Muhammad as a “mercy to all the worlds”. And God knows best.