A short video clip following up on the events surrounding the Today Show’s hosting of a panel of all non-black Muslims talking about Islam in America.
It has been many months since I have posted anything on my site besides an occasional khutbah. The reason mainly being that so much of what I am inclined to speak about would have a negative bent (this years khutbah at the Eid al-‘Adha prayer is an example; I may still address it). Having been pushed somewhat reluctantly into a leadership position, I feel it’s important to stay positive even when so much of what you see wants to make you sigh and weep. So to combat that I have decided to offer up some reflections from my Qur’an reading circle, a khatm, where each of us reads a juz’/30th of the Qur’an every month. These reflections, I hope, are intended to be somewhere between anecdotal and aphoristic. They are not intended to be scholarly. I hope you will enjoy reading them as much as I (will) enjoy writing them, God willing.
بِسْمِ الله الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
“Who could do greater wrong than those who lie about God and deny the truth when it comes to them? Do the Rejectors not have a dwelling place in Hell?”
فَمَنْ أَظْلَمُ مِمَّن كَذَبَ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ وَكَذَّبَ بِٱلصِّدْقِ إِذْ جَآءَهُۥٓ ۚ أَلَيْسَ فِى جَهَنَّمَ مَثْوًۭى لِّلْكَٰفِرِينَ
“He who brings the truth and those who confirm it – those are the people who have taqwa.”
وَٱلَّذِى جَآءَ بِٱلصِّدْقِ وَصَدَّقَ بِهِۦٓ ۙ أُو۟لَٰٓئِكَ هُمُ ٱلْمُتَّقُونَ
Qur’an, 39: 32-33.
This reminds me here of the modern use of the word “kafir” by Muslims (and non-Muslims as well). It seems to have lost its lexical and contextual meaning (i.e., that of “rejecting” or “covering”, in this case revelation sent by God, and contextually it was sent to the same basic population: Arabs). Instead of referring to those who reject God’s Truth, kafir has now come to be a proxy word for western, white, Christian, non-Muslim. I wrote a piece on this last year entitled Mu’min and Kafir – Negotiating Shared Space, in which I quote Dr. Sherman Jackson saying:
“[The] dehumanized Post-Colonial Muslim, on the other hand, tends to objectify his target and view him as a thing to be conquered, dismantled, and controlled. In contradistinction to his premodern predecessors, he transforms the category “kafir” [i.e., “non-Muslim] into a reference to an almost subhuman species who is inherently and utterly different from Muslims, not only religiously but culturally, ethnically, and civilizationally as well” [Islam and the Blackamerican 94—see footnote #72 below]
I say all this because while kafir is misused, it has also created an opposite reaction: there aren’t any kafirs at all; no rejectors of God’s message. I have seen this expressed in a number of young and liberal—minded Muslims who, not faulting them necessarily, feel uncomfortable with the divisive use of the word: it’s too all-encompassing—have flocked to the other extreme to nullify any possible existence of a kafir existing at all (this reminds me of Günter Grass when he spoke of how many Germans feel uncomfortable speaking about their families’ involvement in Nazi-era Germany and hence the extermination of the Jews: everybody’s parents or grandparents were in the resistance). Clearly, from God’s own words, there are indeed people who do reject Revelation and that some of them will reside in hell. Like Sgt. Joe Friday says: “just the facts, ma’am.”
What I want to highlight here, or at least what stood out for me was the message in the second verse: “He who brings the truth and those who confirm it – those are the people who have taqwa (for a more in-depth definition of taqwa see the Glossary as well as this khutbah). (39: 33)”. I ask myself: “Self: did you bring the truth with you today when you went to work?” “Self: did you confirm the truth at home with your wife and daughter?” Facetiousness aside, my take away here is not so much what others reject, but what I confirm. I see this quandary manifested in the Muslim community (yes, particularly here in Philadelphia) where Muslims stand at-the-ready to protest society but they themselves do not bring the truth nor can it be seen to be confirmed in their families and communities (by the way, I include myself in “they”). It is typical for Muslims to squabble over theology (‘aqidah) while doing very little to actually bring about divine wisdom. Amjad Tarsin, the new chaplain at Toronto University (may God make him successful in his charge) said it best recently:
For a Muslim, basic understanding and belief in God’s Oneness (tawhid) should be a given, not a topic of endless discussion and contention.
In the end, it seems to be more about affirming ones own values, morals, ideals than having to have the materialize in the public and political domains.
“They will have anything they wish for with their Lord. That is the recompense of the good-doers. So that God may refuse to accept (incidentally, this is the same root as “kafir“) from them the worst of what they did and pay them their wages for the best of what they did. Is God not enough for His slave? Yet they try to scare you with others apart from Him. If God misguides someone, he has no guide, and if God guides someone, he cannot be misguided. Is God not Almighty, Exactor of Revenge?” Qur’an, 39: 34-37.
لَهُم مَّا يَشَآءُونَ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ جَزَآءُ ٱلْمُحْسِنِينَ
لِيُكَفِّرَ ٱللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ أَسْوَأَ ٱلَّذِى عَمِلُوا۟ وَيَجْزِيَهُمْ أَجْرَهُم بِأَحْسَنِ ٱلَّذِى كَانُوا۟ يَعْمَلُونَ
أَلَيْسَ ٱللَّهُ بِكَافٍ عَبْدَهُۥ ۖ وَيُخَوِّفُونَكَ بِٱلَّذِينَ مِن دُونِهِۦ ۚ وَمَن يُضْلِلِ ٱللَّهُ فَمَا لَهُۥ مِنْ هَادٍۢ
وَمَن يَهْدِ ٱللَّهُ فَمَا لَهُۥ مِن مُّضِلٍّ ۗ أَلَيْسَ ٱللَّهُ بِعَزِيزٍۢ ذِى ٱنتِقَامٍۢ
I am left to wonder just how much of it is genuine desire for God and The Messenger, and how much of it is cowardice that we bicker so much amongst ourselves and why we seem to offer such little to public discourses on major and important topics. Perhaps “they have scared us with others apart from Him.” But in case anyone feels this is some liberal, suit-and-tie wearing philosophy, God commands us directly in the Qur’an to focus on production instead of protest:
“Say: ‘My people, do as you think best; that is what I am doing. You will soon know.” Qur’an 39: 39.
قُلْ يَٰقَوْمِ ٱعْمَلُوا۟ عَلَىٰ مَكَانَتِكُمْ إِنِّى عَٰمِلٌۭ ۖ فَسَوْفَ تَعْلَمُونَ
And God knows best.
“The only universally accepted dogma in the modern world is the rejection of tradition”—William Chittick.
Robert T. Tally Jr.’s article, “Mundus Totus Exilium Est.”, brings to the forefront a highly problematic issue facing the modern world: the dilemma of the false universal. His essay attempts to convince the reader that the exile is not simply a vantage point amongst a great many vantage points, but is instead a “perfect” point of departure by which the exile can offer up privileged criticisms—literary, social, cultural, etc.—which “at home” observers simply cannot due. Tally’s findings are couched not in empirical findings but are instead founded on the primacy of, borrowing from Edward Said, “originality of vision” (Tally). It is this great assumption of Tally’s, backed by the likes of Said as well as other notable scholars of the literary tradition (Auerbach, Adorno, and Lukács to name three) that I wish to shed further light on regarding the problematic of defining exiles as superior to non-exiles, and how such false universalisms detract from the merits of their works.
To proceed, it will be necessary to draw out Tally’s arguments in order to reveal many of the unpacked suppositions his essay espouses. This will allow me to illuminate on many of the articles points I find highly questionable. That being said, it is not my goal to simply argue or refute Tally’s assertions for the sake of argumentation, but to show that by unpacking Tally’s arguments (as well as his sources)—many of them are hidden in the cultural assumptions of Western thought—we can make better use of his intellectual findings.
The major theme that underpins Tally’s work is the concept of exile as critic. Tally asserts that the exile is best equipped to map out and comprehend social spaces—a process Tally refers to as cartography—due to the exile’s alienation. According to Tally, familiarization is a process that disadvantages the local from insights into his reality due to a lack of originality, something which the exile is claimed to possess. This alienation, also referred to as “transcendent homelessness” (4), a term borrowed from Lukács, serves as a lynch pin for Tally’s arguments for the exile as that “perfect individual” who “is better equipped to make sense of the world” (2).
Much of what I found erroneous about Tally’s hypothesis regarding “making sense of the world” has not been due to his methodological approach per se as it is with his scope. Like so many Western writers, Tally projects his theories not as a set of particulars grounded in history, but as universals. In Tally’s evoking of the great philologist, Eric Auerbach, he asserts commonly accepted Eurocentric rhetoric:
“The phrase [mundus totus exilim est] is quoted to make the point that the modern critic of literature and language must not be tied to any national ground, but must accept that that his or her ‘philological home is the earth; the nation it can no longer be’.” (1)
Tally’s quotation of Auerbach is representational of the kind of unpacked hubris many European thinkers have exhibited over the last two centuries (if not longer). First amongst my objections here is the unwillingness for Tally (and perhaps even Auerbach) to examine the scope of his claims. While Tally does make some small acknowledgement of World War II in its capacity to inform European decision-making, it is for the most part reduced to a backdrop. Tally undervalues the contribution World War II (and by proxy, history) made to the anti-national sentiments we find in Auerbach (as well as Adorno and Lukács). In doing so, the relationship between Tally’s theory of the exile as a collective motif remains shrouded in false universals.
Second is the issue of defining the very possibilities of modern criticism. According to Auerbach, in order to be considered a modern critic, one must abandon all national ties in favor of a global (if not pseudo-transcendent) identity. This act of laying claim to the earth itself further justifies my claims of a false universalist mentality so common amongst the rhetoric we find in European intellectuals, who often see themselves as “just human”, while other groups who fall outside this classification are doomed to their respective ethnic enclaves.
In contrast, upon examining Milan Kundera’s Ignorance, we find not a false universalist approach, but one that is grounded in a specific memory, a specific nostalgia and a particular experience (from the perspective of the implied author) as a Czech exile living in France. In this light, Kundera is able to provide for the reader a realistic window into the life of an exile without having to abandon the very specificities of what it means to be Czech, both as exile in France as well as an exile “at home”.
When the character Josef returns to his native Czech Republic, he find that he is not simply an exile who has been living in Denmark, but that in fact, he is an exile in his own native Prague. Despite his best efforts to reconnect with those where left behind, Josef fails to do so. When he visits his friend “N”, their conversation “never managed to get going” (Kundera 153). Kundera is able to facilitate an alienation that is based on concrete realities, not on amorphous abstractions. Josef migrated to Denmark where he established a new life. At the novel’s end, he is more at home in Denmark than he is in Prague. Kundera’s use of specifics makes the melancholy and alienation that Josef experiences all the more permeable by not drifting off into abstract universals.
Another area in which Kundera departs from Tally’s suggestion is the way in which Kundera resolves Ignorance. By the novel’s end, neither Josef nor the implied author move towards a post-nation identity. Being that Tally’s argument was poised on the position that the exile, for which “the nation it can no longer be” (1), must jettison his national identity in favor of a self-imposed defamiliarization, simply does not bear fruit. In fact, Josef returns to Denmark, his home for some decades. From this perspective, it would seem the Kundera is arguing for a different form of expatriation: instead of exilium est, Kundera proposes domus. All the world is a potential home.
Another aspect of Tally’s argument is the theory of transcendent homelessness. In essence, Tally suggests, by invoking Edward Said as well as Georg Lukács, that the experience of the exile is one in which the exile lives in a world abandoned by God. How curious it is that Tally would invoke the name of Said, a Palestinian, whose people to this very day have neither abandoned the pursuit for statehood (a national identity) nor their very solid belief in God. In fact, many Palestinians see it as a God-given duty to fight and oppose their own oppression in a manner that evokes the God-centered, holy protest of the Civil Rights era (Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican 3). Again, Tally’s Eurocentirc thinking reveals his inability to fathom, let alone understand, how a people living in modern times could still very much be attached to a religious as well as national identity. And while Said claims that the exile “makes possible originality of vision” (2), I am left to wonder, originality or otherwise, just how out of step Said was (and his intellectual legacy is today) with the struggles for the average Palestinian.
To revisit the quote at the beginning of this essay, I find William Chittick’s observation quite salient. Jurgen Habermas rightly stated that “Postmodernity (of whom I would label Tally an adherent) definitely presents itself as Antimodernity” (Habermas and Ben-Habib 3); antimodernity in the sense that postmodernity is vehemntly oppossed to any system which proposes “to know anything.” As per Chittick’s observation, I find postmodernity to be oppossed to tradition, be they beliefs, customs, or any form of information that results in a meaningful practice. In Ignornace, Irena returns to Prague hoping to reunite with some of her old acquaintences. She commits “an act of poor taste” (36) by offering her friends French wine instead of beer. Having been away for so long, Irena has come to see herself as French and thus, has come to possess French proclivities:
“Her long absence from the country, her foreigner’s ways, her wealth … that was exactly her gamble: that they’d accept her as the person she is now, coming back.” (Kundera 36-37, emphasis mine)
Irena left to France as a young Czech girl, but she has returned something much more akin to a French woman. She has not only adopted French tastes but she sees herself as having adopted French traditions (wine instead of beer) by asking herself the question, “can she live here, feel at home, have friends” (36).
Turning to Tally’s conception of the exile, I would like to focus for a moment on the privilege Tally foists upon the exile. In summary, Tally claims the exile is best prepared to offer criticism through his originality of vision as well as his alienation. No doubt that the exile offers a unique and original vision on social or cultural scenarios, however I also believe that local opinions can be just as germane to the topic of critical analysis. Again, I am reminded of the Civil Rights era struggles in which African-Americans fought and struggled to have their side of the story heard. One could label African-Americans exiles at home, yet their struggles were to grounded in a very local struggle to be accepted as bone fide American citizens, not an embracing of the earth as their home. As James Baldwin once wrote, “Negores … do not exist anywhere else but America” (Baldwin 40).
To return to the subject of philology, it is here that the false universal manifests itself greatest. Tally continues to evoke Auerbach, who has an unwillingness to reconcile transcendent lofty goals with the reality that all such goals are carried out in real time and real space. Quoting Auerbach, “to the extent that one’s mind does remain fettered to its native land, the critic cannot ‘become truly effective’ as nationality may blunt one’s critical acumen” (3). Circular reasoning aside, I find Auerbach’s assumptions unfounded when read through Ignorance. In fact, it is just the opposite, for neither Josef nor Irena have given up their native tongues. It is through them that the implied author is able to effectively demonstrate just how alien they are in their own homelands (195). In relation to this point, I must also cite an underemphasized component of the Civil Rights struggle: it was not simply American blacks who railed against a system of tyranny and oppression, but it was also American whites who engaged in deeply profound soul searching and soul changing. In this manner, it was the local voices of American whites (essentially “natives”) who had a devastating effect on bringing down the legacy of Jim Crow and anti-black racism, not the transcendent homeless.
I also found, in reading Tally’s article, a tendency towards reductionism, particularly in relation to the cause of war. Tally far too easily lays the blame for war at the doorstep of national identity. No doubt that national identity played some role in how war was carried out, but it is simply too insufficient to explain in totality, why Europe went to war with itself. Likewise, Kundera, while implicitly indicting Communism, is careful not to simply exonerate the Czech people (or the Germans or Russians for that matter) in why they adopted communism. I am again left to wonder about the Palestinians (or other ethnic groups who struggle in this century for citizenship), if they would consider themselves to be “tender beginners” (3) or if they would be willing to consider “every soil” is their native soil. Current political struggles on the ground would indicate otherwise.
Tally’s reductionist viewpoints also take the form of myopia. Quoting Tally, “The critic must work through personal and cultural attachments to the native soil, detaching him-or herself from local prejudices and comforts” (4). Tally fails to convince me of a methodology which is insistent on an ambiguous reality. Tally’s transcendent homelessness has no form, quality or characteristic for one to grasp. It is a formless concept, devoid of substance and having no platform to work on. In Ignorance, it would not have served the implied author to tell the story through impersonal or acultural characters. Their qualities as Czech, as Dannish or French were not incidental but quintessential to the story’s weight. One could not simply swap out Czech for Bolivian or Dannish for Senegalese and retain the same effect. In contrast, despite Tally’s claims of myopic distortions by “undue familiarity” (4), there is nothing more myopic than to reduce the particulars of culture and personality to a one-dimensional playing field. If all the world is “strange”, as Tally proposes, then how can we come to know texture, scope or scale? Without these, the world loses its three-dimensionality on a local and global level, where such qualities as tension and polarity, near or far, become flattened and lost.
Tally also reduces the complexities of pre-modern thought to simple short forms. Citing Lukács, Tally suggests that because pre-modern epistemologies saw value innately in the world, then any adherents to such epistemologies were also irrevocably “grounded in fate and utterly changeless” (5). Again, Tally’s argument is pregnant with postmodern philosophical presumptions. Simply because one affirms value in the world in no way chains one to a fatalistic worldview. In contradistinction, many pre-modern theological schools of thought were able to separate what God creates from what God wants (Jackson, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering 210).
What Tally and company fail to do is unpack the methodologies which inform their concept of public reason. Their unmitigated aversion to any system of thought which would value tradition and thus gave value and meaning to the world is looked at with heavy skepticism. Sherman Jackson sums this stance up adequately,
“The modern mindset is deeply informed by two regimes of ‘public reason’ (science and philosophy) that have little regard for the role of authority and tradition in conveying, discovering, or preserving truth” (Jackson, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering 7).
It is this notion, of conveying, discovering or preserving truth, that seems to unnerve Tally and his constituents. And while I do not wish to label Kundera a Romantic, it is clear from his account in Ignorance that he wished to convey and preserve the truth regarding the devastating effects of communism, on himself (through his implied author) and on Czech society as a whole.
In conclusion, Tally’s arguments fall short of the mark of a secular transcendence. His tendency towards reductionism and circular argumentation detract from the merits of this theory: that exiles have something valuable to offer. However, unless Tally’s zeal for postmodern philosophy and dedication to a rampant individualism which sees itself as representing all of humanity, he will continue to overshoot his mark by projecting a scope that is untenable. Perhaps by rooting his theories in local and historical realities, Tally can better convince us the role the exile cum poet can play in helping us make sense and discern meaning in the world.
- Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Dell, 1963.
- Chittick, William. Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007.
- Habermas, Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Ben-Habib. “Modernity versus Postmodernity.” New German Critique (1981): 3-14.
- Jackson, Sherman. Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- —. Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- —. September 11 In History: A Watershed Moment? Ed. Mary L. Dudziak. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
- Kundera, Milan. Ignorance. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.
- Tally, Robert T. “Mundus Totus Exilium Est.” 2011. Transnational Literature. 12 November 2011 .
- Wagner-Martin, Linda. A Historical Guide to Ernest Hemingway. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Ziolkowski, Jan. “”What Is Philology”: Introduction.” Comparative Literature Studies (1990): 1-12.
Amidst the din of the post-Osama assassinations it is easy to lose sight of what is still transforming before our eyes in America. At first blush, there appears to be a resurgence of the religious Right [I prefer racial Right], who have presented themselves as the last best hope of stemming the brown/Islamic tide that threatens to overrun America. But much of this I feel is window dressing in comparison to the deep crisis that is unfolding when the cameras aren’t rolling. Namely, that is the crisis of secularization in the American/European world. This crisis, unlike the so-called Islamization of America, is far more real, as it uses such culturally sensitive nomenclature as democracy, Constitutional, and the like. The insidious part of this is that in the face of growing pressure from White America, many immigrant Muslims, in an attempt to appease the dominant culture, have co-opted this argument and are now wielding it against their fellow Muslims.
To fully grasp this slippery slope and the effects it has had on assimilation-focused Muslims, it will be necessary to recognize the pressures that are being exerted on the Muslim-American psyche and the reaction that stem from these pressures. For the rank and file practicing Muslim, the comments of Zuhdi Jasser, chairman of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, without a doubt resonate as nails on a chalk board. But if one wishes to critique Jasser’s commentary [as this writer certainly does], then we must look at the broader assault on belongingness in post-Osama America.
In a previous article, Required Reading: Muslims, the Constitution and Negotiating Political Reality, I showed how Muslims are under attack and under assault from a variety of vantage points including the media and academia. In the article, Dr. Sherman Jackson wrote a response and rebuttal to Dr. Vincent Cornell’s, Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam, in which Cornell accused Jackson of being a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist” for no other reason than Dr. Jackson’s refusal to see the United States Constitution as a document of inherent transcendent truth. In essence, Cornell’s argument reinforces the myopic dogma of “either you’re with us, or you’re against us”, providing little to no agency for Muslim-Americans on just how they will decide and negotiate this tentative pact. Without repeating the article in its entirety, it is fair to say that much of vernacular of Cornell’s argument can be found in the manifesto and outlook from individuals and groups such as Zuhdi Jasser and the AIFD respectively. Instead of a principled engagement of the United States, culturally, legally and socially, I believe Jasser’s [and Cornell’s] approach leaves Muslim-Americans exposed and vulnerable, where the only actions capable of being carried out are solely to express gratitude to the dominant [read “white”] culture for allowing them to exist within their borders.
Whether the intentions of people like Jasser or Cornell are well intended are none of my concern. The results of their conclusions are alarming. They represent two prongs of a very dangerous thrust that if fulfilled, will bring about the almost complete opposite of their intentions, at least as far as Jasser is concerned. So long as Muslim-Americans remain in a state of deference to the establishment for allowing them to exist in America—conditions of that existence aside—they will remain hapless victims of bigotry, prejudice and will have no power over whether or not they are used as political hockey pucks to further the agendas of America political interests. This stance has yet to [and I believe, will not] bring about sweeping changes for Muslim-Americans as it relates to harassment.
The language of these arguments [especially Jasser’s] are ripe with hyper-secularization. Both parties go to great extents to prove the dignity of Islam and Muslims, not on the grounds that Islam and Muslims might present from their own sources, but by couching Islam’s most sacred sources within the framework of modernity, such as the United States Constitution in Cornell’s case, and western liberal democracy in Jasser’s. The Qur’anic injunctions, in this light, is incapable of being seen or felt as a sacred document unless they can be proven to coincide with secular values. There has even been an attempt to say that, to paraphrase Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam has a long-standing secular tradition that can be tied all the way back to the Qur’an and the original sources1. In light of the pressures mentioned above, Muslim-Americans are coerced from both sides to accept these ideals as “congenial to [Islam’s] true nature and purpose—as the only tenable ideals to embrace or risk being cast as violent, barbaric, and seditious.
Ironically, by abandoning their U.S.-granted, God-given rights via the Constitution in favor of assimilation, Muslims will be doubly vulnerable, as they will have no means of defending themselves against such assaults. This is one aspect that Dr. Vincent Cornell did not understand about Dr. Jackson’s argument: Simply because a Muslim does not hold the Constitution to be a Divinely Inspired Document, does not mean that Muslims cannot uphold such legal principles, so long as they do not directly contract core tenets of Islam. Let me quote Dr. Jackson again here to make the point clearer:
To my mind, a more profitable approach would be not only to accept the provisions of the Constitution but to commit to preserving these by supporting and defending the Constitution itself. According to the Constitution, the U.S. government cannot force a Muslim to renounce his or her faith… The U.S. government cannot even force a Muslim (qua) Muslim to pledge allegiance to the United States! Surely it must be worth asking if Muslims in America should conduct themselves as “nouveau free” who squander these and countless other rights and freedoms in the name of dogmatic minutiae, activist rhetoric, and uncritical readings of Islamic law and history, rather than turning these to the practical benefit of Islam and Muslim-Americans. (Islam and the Blackamerica, 148)
Essentially, by embracing the Constitution as a document of legal fact, and not legal truth, Muslims can fully participate in that “negotiated, political arrangement” that Jackson quotes from Robert Dahl; a negotiation that ensure both parties get something out of the contract instead of one living for the appeasement of the other. This is an important nuance that neither Jasser, Cornell nor their constituents seem to understand.
- Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future, 3.
As the world sits and celebrates the death of Osama Bin Laden, Muslims eagerly await the outcome of this event to see if there is any means of exorcising the association of extremism and terrorism from themselves and their religion. This is of particular concern to Muslims in America, who are ripe for political exploitation with the upcoming election. To be sure, Muslim-Americans bear a great part of the responsibility to ensure that whatever opportunities exist are capitalized upon. However, in order to do so, it will require a new level of commitment and literacy, both political and religious, on the part of the rank-and-file Muslim.
To dive in, this call for a greater political literacy is inextricably tied to a greater religious literacy, as will be demonstrated below. The article I have to offer is a rebuttal of Dr. Sherman Jackson, professor of Islamic studies at large, to Dr. Vincent Cornell’s “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” The reason why I consider Dr. Jackson’s refutation required reading is not for the sport of his dismissal, but because of the threads he lays bare of some very insidious and intimidating arguments facing Muslim-Americans, particularly in light of growing Islamophobia in general and Osama Bin Laden’s death in particular. While some liberal leaning Muslims may have hoped that by expressing joy and elation over Bin Laden’s death—the man who supposedly “tarnished” Islam’s image—it is clear that to those political parties that wish to marginalize and demonize Muslims are in no hurry to exonerate Muslims upon his demise. In fact, pre-OBL’s death, there has been a steady and growing anti-Muslim sentiment centered around Muslim belonging, Shari’ah, and commitment on the part of Muslims to the American project, vis-a-vie the Constitution. What is needed now, is not simply pandering out of fear oppression or hope of acceptance from the dominant culture, but a more pragmatic approach to the future of Islam in America by engaging, as Dr. Jackson puts it, the American political reality “as believing, practicing Muslims!”. Muslim-Americans, despite the voices that argue to the contrary, “do not have to substitute the Constitution for God or the Prophet or Sharî‘a”, but rather, Muslim-Americans can still “firmly embrace this Constitution” without sacrificing their commitment to Divine law and its superiority over any man-made document. It is not, as many radical elements claim, an us-or-them argument. We do not need Peter King or any other political office to put us to the Ordeal, to The Question, to know where our political allegiances lay and how they operate. And just as importantly, to the nay-sayers from the Muslim side of the isle, being politically engaged in a political reality which is based on a flawed, man-made document, is not sufficient grounds to disengage from the political process altogether. For like the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم at the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, we engage the American political reality not based on its [non-present] transcendent truths, but on its facts and political dividends.
It is my hope that both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences will read Dr. Jackson’s article and reflect on the lessons to be learned from it. Now’s the time, Charlie Parker once said, and time certainly is of the essence. Hat tip to brother Stephen for the article.
“Soft Sharî’a Fundamentalism” and the Totalitarian Epistemology of Vincent Cornell
Sherman A. Jackson: The University of Michigan
I have been invited to respond to Vincent J. Cornell’s critical assessment of some of my views in his recent essay, “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari’a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” Cornell weaves an elaborate web of questionable characterizations, name-calling and outright personal attack. This is joined by a tendency to impose his constructions on the statements of others, employ a double-standard in using the term “fundamentalist,” de-historicize the articulations of modern Muslim thinkers, and apotheosize the American nation-state. This is all ostensibly vindicated by appeal to a would-be panacean liberalism, the poverty of whose freedom, equality and tolerance is painfully demonstrated and repeatedly confirmed. For the moment, however, most of this will have to pass without comment. Instead, given the limited space I have been allotted, I shall focus on a single issue—my depiction of the normative relationship between American Muslims and the U.S. Constitution—in hopes of steering serious readers away from what Cornell presents as the clear and only logical conclusions to be drawn from the ideas of mine he cites.
Cornell is deeply perturbed by my assertion that the Constitution is a political fact, not a transcendent ‘truth’ to which we must all give assent as truth, as I put it, “no more binding on the Muslim-American moral/religious conscience than was, say, tribalism or agrarianism on that of the early Muslim-Arabian community.” For Cornell, this is “a tepid endorsement,” certain to reinforce charges of Muslim disloyalty. This is especially problematic given that I imply (and let me state here clearly, I actually believe) that Sharî’a, i.e., in its broadest, ideal sense, is binding on the Muslim moral/religious conscience. For Cornell, the logic here is simple: “If Sharî’a is in fact the only legitimate legal and moral order in the eyes of God, then participating in a self-governing liberal democracy is at best a cynical exercise in political accommodationism.” This is what makes me a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist,” incapable of embracing the U.S. Constitution, except as a modus vivendi, ultimately a duplicitous act of stealth dissolution (taqîya). In this regard, I differ only in degree, not kind, from such hard “Sharî’a fundamentalists” as OBL and Sayyid Qutb.
Now, there is much to unpack here. For one, Cornell’s conflation of my position with that of OBL or Qutb is simply a poor excuse for not engaging in a more serious and fairer analysis of my view, which my writings—including, as we shall see, Islam and the Blackamerican—make abundantly clear. But, again, given the limited space I have been allotted, let me cut to the heart of the matter.
Cornell has an emphatically romantic view of the Constitution. How much of this is indebted to 9-11 and its aftermath I cannot tell. But in this essay he makes it clear that he sees the Constitution as a statement of truth, indeed, perhaps transcendent truth. On this understanding, one can only accept the Constitution if one accepts its truth. And, one cannot really accept the Constitution’s truth if one has another source of truth, in my case, Sharî’a. Now, this view of the Constitution is Cornell’s business. But he ought not be so, well, “fundamentalist,” that he cannot accept that others might legitimately entertain another perspective. I for one do not see the Constitution as a statement of truth; nor did the actual Framers; nor has the Supreme Court or the American scholarly tradition. Rather, the Constitution, as Robert Dahl notes, was and is basically a negotiated, political arrangement. Few delegates to the convention got exactly what they wanted (or what they held to be the ‘truth’ of the matter); in fact, so stern was their initial opposition that Rhode Island refused to send any delegates and New Hampshire’s didn’t arrive for several weeks. The Constitution contains, thus, not transcendent, ultimate truth but a negotiated, compromise-agreement over how political rights and protections are to be distributed and adjudicated.
It is thus not the substance of the Constitution that is operative but the fact that it was agreed to. Agreements, of course, e.g., when disputing parties agree to split the difference, rarely express what either party believes to be true or even right. They merely express the basis upon which the parties agree to act, based on their inability or refusal to impose their will unilaterally. If Cornell wants to make the substance of the Constitution (i.e., qua substance, not qua agreement) binding on my moral/religious conscience as an expression of some sort of ultimate truth, I should like to ask when the Constitution acquired this proud preeminence: When it declared me three-fifths of a human? When it was constitutionally legal for him to enslave me? When women were not recognized as enjoying the right to vote? Of course, all of this ultimately changed. And this is precisely my point: what changed was the substance, which everybody recognized as not transcendent but changeable, not the fact that whatever was agreed to remained a binding agreement.
Now, the other side of Cornell’s misunderstanding is the distinction he overlooks between moral/religious and political conscience in Islam. On this distinction, I as a Muslim can honestly and fully embrace the fact of our Constitutional agreement without having to believe its substance per se to be binding on my moral/religious conscience, as an expression of ultimate truth. This distinction is clearly reflected in numerous actions of the Prophet, God’s peace and salutations be upon him. Take, for example, the Treaty of Hudaybîyah. When the Prophet set out to draw up this agreement, he began with the dedication, “In the name of God, The All-Merciful, The Mercy-Giving.” The negotiator from Quraysh stopped him and refused to recognize this. The Prophet agreed to have it removed. When the Prophet proceeded to state, “This is what Muhammad, the Messenger of God agrees to with…” the Meccan negotiator stopped him and said, “If I thought you were the Messenger of God, I would not have fought you. Change this to, ‘Muhammad, the son of ‘Abd Allâh’.” The Prophet agreed. The treaty itself went on to stipulate, inter alia, that the Muslims could not make pilgrimage that year but must return to Medina and come all the way back the next year. Now, my point in all of this is that, as a matter of moral/religious conscience, the Muslims believed much of the substance of this treaty to be wrong; they certainly did not believe it right to omit the dedication or the prophethood of Muhammad; nor did they think it right that they could not make the pilgrimage to the pan-Arabian sanctuary. Yet, as a political arrangement, this is what they agreed to. And it was the fact of this agreement, not the ‘truth’ of its substance, that rendered this treaty binding on the Muslim political conscience.
Part of what I find so sad and myopic in Cornell’s critique is that in his hasty zeal to ram the Constitution down Muslims’ throats he actually does more to alienate them—especially practicing, second-generation youth—by demanding that they see in the Constitution a truth that they believe to be the preserve of God alone. On this alienation, these youth are rendered more rather than less susceptible to attempts by the likes of Anwar al-Awlaki or others to radicalize them. I, on the other hand, am telling these youth that they do not have to substitute the Constitution for God or the Prophet or Sharî’a and they can still recognize and firmly embrace this Constitution—as believing, practicing Muslims!—as a fact, an agreement that is binding on the political conscience and has the authority to regulate the political life of all Americans. And just to be clear here and to show the extent to which Cornell misrepresents me on this issue, let me quote what I actually wrote in Islam and the Blackamerican, from the same section, incidentally, from which Cornell purports to reconstruct my view:
To my mind, a more profitable approach would be not only to accept the provisions of the Constitution but to commit to preserving these by supporting and defending the Constitution itself. According to the Constitution, the U.S. government cannot force a Muslim to renounce his or her faith… The U.S. government cannot even force a Muslim (qua) Muslim to pledge allegiance to the United States! Surely it must be worth asking if Muslims in America should conduct themselves as “nouveau free” who squander these and countless other rights and freedoms in the name of dogmatic minutiae, activist rhetoric, and uncritical readings of Islamic law and history, rather than turning these to the practical benefit of Islam and Muslim-Americans. (IBA, 148)
Try as I may, I see nothing duplicitous or remotely suggestive of OBL or Sayyid Qutb here. True, OBL, Qutb and I all recognize the ultimate moral/religious authority of Sharî’a. But so did Abû al-Hasan al-Shâdhilî, Ibn ‘Atâ’ Allâh al-Sakandarî, ‘Abd al-Qâdir al-Jilânî, al-Junayd and countless other Sufis. Would Cornell count these men “Sharî’a fundamentalists”? Clearly, then, one can recognize the primacy of Sharî’a without being a “Sharî’a fundamentalist.” But Cornell might protest that I am skirting the issue here, as these men, unlike OBL, Qutb and allegedly me, did not embrace Sharî’a as the repository of a “totalitarian epistemology,” according to which, if I understand him correctly, it was looked to for the answers to all questions, as an all-inclusive, self-contained, self-sufficient leviathan that stands over and against any and all man-made propositions. Now, I cannot speak for OBL or Qutb (though I would invite honest, serious inquirers to recognize the role of rhetoric in their articulations). But I have long recognized the limits of Sharî’a‘s concrete rule-making capacity and noted the ease with which it appropriates ideas and institutions from other civilizations, unceremoniously distinguishing “non-Muslim” from “un-Islamic.” All of this I have expressed explicitly in my writings.
Now, if we couple this perspective on Sharî’a with what I said earlier about the distinction between moral/religious versus political conscience, we can easily see our way to the conclusion that, while Sharî’a clearly entails political values, principles, concerns and sensibilities, it neither provides nor dictates the concrete, detailed substance of what kind of political arrangement Muslims in America must or can come to with the American state. Sharî’a empowers Muslims to engage and agree; then it compels them to uphold their agreements: O you who believe, fulfill your agreements! [5: 1] From here, what Muslims agree to, assuming due diligence, enjoys the full sanction and force of Sharî’a! Cornell attacks me as a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist,” because, according to him, I, like OBL and Sayyid Qutb, see Sharî’a as dictating a divinely ordained, concrete, specific political arrangement that stands in stark contradiction with the Constitution. On this understanding, I can be committed either to Sharî’a or to our man-made Constitution, but not both. Whereas OBL and Qutb accept this contradiction openly, I, and my likes, hide behind the slick and specious rhetoric of would-be ‘moderates’.
Ultimately, however, this accusation is purely—and sadly—a reflection of Cornell’s attempt to impose his understanding of Sharî’a on me. Long before his essay, I stated explicitly that, going all the way back to classical times, Sharî’a always recognized the validity of a broad range of man-made laws that the entire tradition, including such arch-“Sharî’a fundamentalists” as Ibn
Taymîya, openly recognized and endorsed. Now, I take great umbrage at Cornell’s insistence that converts to Islam and immigrant Muslims have no right to challenge the substance of the Constitution. But that that substance itself, simply because it did not originate in Cairo or Baghdad or Muslim America, must be understood as standing in categorical opposition to Sharî’a is simply the invention of Vincent J. Cornell and his totalitarian epistemology grafted onto Sharî’a. It is not the position of Sherman Jackson or, necessarily, those who believe, as he does, in the supremacy of Sharî’a as the presumptive repository of divinely ordained truth. And God knows best.
- You can read the articles here:
- Vincent Cornell’s article, “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism, and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” [PDF].
- Dr. Sherman Jackson’s response, ” ‘Soft Shari‘a Fundamentalism’ and the Totalitarian Epistemology of Vincent Cornell” in [PDF].
- A display of “true patriotism”.