Have We Traded Our Bedrock Convictions For The Shifting Sands Of Values?

“The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy making, or money can change that reality.” — James Davison Hunter from The Death of Character

While Hunter makes an interesting observation, I do believe the one thing that he left off his list which can restore character is religion, specifically Islam. I mean this in no cheap or reductionist way. I mean a religious and spiritual practice that returns us to silence. The silence we so desperately need as individuals but also the communal silence by which we, by standing together in ranks for prayer, tune out the world and tune in to the Oneness of The Creator. This, I still believe, can achieve that elusive goal of restoring character.

I do concur with Hunter’s conclusion that “character is formed in relation to conviction and is manifest in the capacity to abide by those convictions even in, especially in, the face of temptation.” This speaks to heart of many of the struggles I witness in Muslim youth. They have hearts but have not been spiritually trained to have conviction. And by barring them from sharing in the vision of our community they have been given little opportunity to develop religious and spiritual conviction. It’s as if they know what Islam is gesturing but they do not know what it’s saying. Out of a misplaced sense of love and lack of trust — that it is God who makes a believer — we have stifled this all important aspect of Muslim development. This is akin to my statement of sucking all of the oxygen out of a room:

Another way to think about the challenges we face is how we’ve supplanted creeds with values. This has been concurrent with the secularization of the Muslim mind. As Hunter puts it, “Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character. Many of us, not only youth, have been inculcated into internalizing Islam, not as a fundamental truth claim, one which places demands on us, but merely as a set of “values” which can be altered, rearranged, or even deleted, depending on what our social circumstances demand of us or what we desire (demand!) from society. Or as Bo Burlingham quoted in his book Small Giants, “mediocrity is our greatest competition”.

To better understand the dilemma of values, I quote Hunter again: “the very word ‘value’ signifies the reduction of truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable”. And therefore we must also ask ourselves: “what is conviction”? It is, as Hunter explains: “the commitment to truths made sacred”. Likewise, what is its absence. Again, Hunter: “There is nothing there (values) that one need believe, commanding and demanding its due, for ‘truth’ is but a matter of taste and temperament”. This elegantly echoes the Qur’anic verse,

كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِتَالُ وَهُوَ كُرْهٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَّكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

“Fighting (in the cause of God) is a duty laid down upon you, even though it might be unpleasant for you. However, you may hate something that’s good for you and love something that’s bad for you. God knows, and you don’t know.”Qur’an 2: 217

Takfir Is Not A Call For The Headsman’s Ax

In a recent tweet by Qasim Rashid, representative of the Ahmadi heretical community, Rashid claims that by one proclaiming an individual or group as outside of Islam — particularly on creedal grounds — is synonymous with a call for the headsman’s ax. This process — known as takfīr, while being a sensitive one, is also not unknown throughout Muslim history up to the present day.

Mr. Rashid has taken the bait of one of modernity’s most enduring myths: that religion is inherently violent because religion is inherently divisive. According to Rashid’s logic, which is also seconded by virtually every representative from the Ahmadi heretical group, Ahmadis have been persecuted because they are different. In other words, because of difference. But this theory does not hold water if we examine it in light of the Nation of Islam, another heretical group, and orthodox American Muslims. Indeed, many American orthodox Muslims, while holding those in the NOI to be heretics, maintain friendly even familial relationships with them. There has been no call to violence from orthodox American Muslims against Minister Farrakhan or followers of the NOI’s teachings. Clearly Mr. Rashid’s logic is bankrupt and reveals itself bare for what it is: political jockeying.

I have participated in a number of interviews and interfaith events with Ahmadis and in every single instance they use the stage to try and score political points. They employ post-Enlightenment and liberal philosophies, to which they impugn difference as they source of all violence, to force or coerce orthodox Muslims into accepting their heresies as legitimate by employing the state: Ahmadis attempt to position themselves as “the good Muslims” while all other orthodox Muslims as either terrorists or misguided by their “corrupt” clerics who supposedly use religion to stir up hate against them.

Dr. Jonathan Brown, of Georgetown University, makes a claim for us to reconsider Ahmadi beliefs as they are articulated today, versus what was said by its founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Brown stated,

“…the Ahmadi tradition needs to be taken for what its representatives say TODAY, not what Mirza Ghulam Ahmad wrote or said a century ago. Every tradition has the right to redefine itself, so scriptural gotcha games are not useful. To clarify, what I mean is: for example, if Mirza Ghulam Ahmad said ‘Anyone who denies my prophecy is not a Muslim,’ but Ahmadis today say this is not what we believe, then their words should be definitive.”

I agreed with Dr. Brown to the extent that those beliefs are made definitive, to which they have not been. Akin to the NOI, many of its leaders, such as Minister Farrakhan and Dr. Wesley Muhammad, continue to play a game of cat and mouse, seeming at times to articulate the orthodox creed, and others times the same old kufr (disbelief). So my counter argument to Mr. Rashid and Dr Brown is thus:

Takfir = terrorism? This is political jockeying. They can’t ever grieve with the victims of tragedies without trying to take center stage. As an Imam I can say that as by the words of M. G. Ahmad, I don’t consider Ahmadis Muslim (takfir) and I’m not calling for violence. Drawing theological boundaries is not a call for the headsman. They have to stop playing these stupid little reindeer games. If Ahmadis want to be considered Muslim then Ahmadi clerical leaders need to unconditionally articulate the orthodox creed but refuse to, often being purposely unclear as to where they stand. Want to be considered Muslim? Step one in that direction would be to stop calling yourselves/identifying yourselves with the man (M. G. Ahmad) who was clearly a kafir!

There is no arguing that Ahmadis have faced reprehensible oppression and violence in certain Muslim countries but the sources of that violence lies with those cultures as well as in the modern state itself, which the latter has an incredibly bloody track record of violence based on difference. Mr. Rashid and his community have a lot of work to do if they wish to gain legitimacy in the orthodox Muslim community versus attempting to use the state as a bludgeoning tool to gain admittance.