Between Loathing and Applause

I came across an engaging exchange between Dr. Sherman Jackson and one Dr. Syed Mustafa ‘Ali, in which Dr. ‘Ali responded to Dr. Jackson’s latest work, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering [2009]. Here are Dr. ‘Ali’s comments followed by Dr. Jackson’s response. The exchange took place via email on 6 April 2010.

Here are Dr Ali’s opening remarks:

Salaamun aleikum, Professor Sherman Abdul-Hakim Jackson.

I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your recent work, “Islam and The Problem of Black Suffering” which I read a few months ago and which I consider to be an exemplary work in comparative (Sunni) Islamic theology/theodicy that is balanced in tone and perspective. (I would particularly like to commend you for including Mu’tazili thought among the Sunni theological canon. IMHO, the Mu’tazilah have received an overly ‘bad press’ in the past and continue to do so in the contemporary period; your work goes some way toward redressing this situation, at least for a general audience.)

However, while I appreciate the theological remit of the book and learned much from it, I hold that the burning issue is not theological, but rather praxical; insofar as I take your book to be a contribution to usool-ad-din (foundational theology) and/or kalam-at-tahreer (liberation theology), I think it is successful in its attempt at responding to [William) Jones’ arguments in “Is God a White Racist?” Nonetheless, I believe that, in the same way that usool-ad-din is preparatory for usool-al-fiqh, there is a need for another work developing a fiqh-at-tahreer, i.e. liberation jurisprudence. Here I am paraphrasing here an argument that I came across on the Bandung2 blog:

COMMENT: Islam and The Problem of Black Suffering I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter.

Jackson’s response:

Dear Dr Ali:

Thank you again for your kind missive. I’m a bit rushed at the moment, but allow me to say the following. I agree that in order for any change to come of anyone’s work (mine, yours, the Prophet Muhammad’s) it will have to be given a multiplier effect via widespread praxis that translates ideas into lived reality. I am painfully aware of this. But I am also aware (and here I have a mild disagreement with the ‘praxis fundamentalists’) that ideas (i.e., in the way of conveying values) are extremely important in that they are often all that stand between principled action, on the one hand, and naked pragmatism in the form of opportunistic, self-serving, results-oriented action, on the other. It is one thing, e.g., to know that we are uncomfortable with the quotidian reality of white supremacy or the cultural hegemony of the West; it is quite another to know that white supremacy my be a violation of tawhid, inasmuch as the sense of validation that one draws from comporting with the norms of the dominant West can override one’s commitment to seeking the pleasure of God and even substitute for it. Without widespread recognition of this, we may continue to get wild and frustrated outburst against the dominant order but nothing that signals a genuinely principled commitment to the religion of Muhammad. Moreover, as long as this remains the case, commitment to the real religion of Muhammad can always be bargained away either through perceived triumphs against the West (“We worship Allah by loathing the West) or by simply being bought off by the money or applause of the West (Turkey is the model of Muslim democracy). The point in writing this book was actually not so much to proffer the definitive answer to the question of black suffering but to instigate the type of conversation that will force Muslims in the West to recognize and confront the REAL theological issues that face them instead of imagining that we can do theology by simply repeating the words and concerns of our great ancestors. In my view, only when a critical mass of Muslims comes to recognize what is truly wrong with the contemporary theological (and overall religious) scene will we be able to translate our truths into forms that the masses can assimilate and from there translate into cultural and political forms that result in the desired change. I am an academic. And though I try to do my part in the way of activism, as an academic I recognize the power of ideas. (Look at what such ideas as “reason”, “human rights,” “democracy,” etc. tend to do to Muslims.) My aim, therefore, at least primarily, in my academic work is to engage ideas as the sine qua non of real change, real understanding and principled action [emphases added].

I am happy that Dr. Jackson had a chance to expound, however briefly, on two crucial points here for the benefit of, one, people understanding his book better, and two, by understanding his book better, come to terms with what the books is really trying to get at:

as long as this remains the case, commitment to the real religion of Muhammad can always be bargained away either through perceived triumphs against the West (“We worship Allah by loathing the West“) or by simply being bought off by the money or applause of the West (“Turkey is the model of Muslim democracy“).

and

The point in writing this book was actually not so much to proffer the definitive answer to the question of black suffering but to instigate the type of conversation that will force Muslims in the West to recognize and confront the REAL theological issues that face them instead of imagining that we can do theology by simply repeating the words and concerns of our great ancestors.

That latter part is a lightning strike!…

I believe, and this partly due to the very dense nature of the book and of Dr. Jackson’s writing style, that most readers missed these two very important sign posts. May Allah bless us to have this conversation and push it forward.

Hat tip to Ustadh ‘Abdullah Bin Hamid ‘Ali of Lamppost Productions for the hit.

  • Extra Readings: Socially Irrelevant [?] American Muslims & Race
  • Incidentally, Dr. Jackson will be coming to the DC area for a book signing. More info here.

1 Comment Between Loathing and Applause

  1. omar.fosis@gmail.com'Omar

    As-salāmū ‘alaykum Marc. I hope all is well. I’m not sure if you have seen this already, but in Dr. Jackson’s conversation with Dr. West here he says the same thing with regards to the purpose of his aforementioned book. However, if I remember correctly, he emphasizes the important point of indigenizing Islamic theology. Which I thought was really interesting because, now I think about it, I never thought kalām could be used to answer issues happening in the here and now. Then again, my only exposure to kalām was a class on Sunnipath years ago in addition to some personal readings.

    Also, did you check out Dr. Jackson’s posts at Huffington post? They are really amazing! I wished I saved his posts he wrote at the Washington Post, because it seems they have deleted them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *