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

Islamic Reformation – Why It Continues To Fail

“The only universally accepted dogma in the modern world is the rejection of tradition.” — William Chittick1

Until the call (and the callers) for a so-called Islamic reformation moves beyond its craven commitment to a totalizing and unprincipled commitment to the rejection of all tradition it will neither be taken seriously by the bulk of the Muslim community nor will it bring any benefit to Muslims, which is where it reveals its lack of authenticity: Muslim scholastic endeavors (fiqh, Shari’ah, spiritual rumination, etc.) have always primarily focused on bringing benefit to the Children of Adam by centering God’s pleasure as the aim of its objective. And while we can argue, debate, and interrogate these endeavors and ask whether they’ve achieved their goals, the sincerity of these men and women trying to follow and please their Lord and Master ﷺ is not.

What’s telling about the so-called Islamic reformist movement is that they are more akin to those desert Arabs who opposed the Prophet, but not necessarily God: They could accept that there was a god, even The God (Allah), but that He would have a Messenger would could have earthly authority? That they fought against. So in the same vein, while the so-called Islamic reformers reject the authority of the Prophet, they still in some manner attempt to affirm the Qur’an as a valid and (somewhat) authoritative document, by means of appealing to its transmission: “The Qur’an is mutawatir” many will say, the definition of which is meant that the Book’s transmission and dispersement — with such range and authenticity — that its truthfulness, at least as pertains to its contents, is beyond question from a Muslim perspective. What’s ironic is that the same transmission and dispersement is reliant upon the very same men and women who have transmitted the hadith, or the Prophetic traditions, which would (inconveniently?) challenge many of their so-called reforms.

If the Muslim reformists wish to be taken seriously by the majority of Muslims then they should prioritize benefit and authenticity if they hope to come across as genuinely concerned for the well-being of the Muslim community, versus looking for ways to blackmail the religion to achieve (perceived) social gains.

ما جَعَلَ اللَّهُ لِرَجُلٍ مِن قَلبَينِ في جَوفِهِ

“God hasn’t placed two hearts in any man’s chest.” Qur’an 33: 4

Resources

1. Chittick, William C. Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World. Oxford: One World. Pg. 19.

Muslims in America – What Comes After Resistance?

The American Muslim community is currently embroiled in a struggle against the injustices being perpetrated by the Trump administration. As to whether these actions are truly injust or simply a matter of selective outrage, fueled by a model minority narrative, remains to be seen. But one question which hovers over American Muslims is what is their fate, post-resistance?

In reading Daniel L. Fountain’s Slavery, Civil War and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity 1830-1870, one is inspired to, drawing upon the religious history of black folks in America, ask the question: will American Muslims adopt the world-views, mores, and religion[s] of their “masters”? By this I mean to compare the history of African Americans and their conversion to Christianity to American Muslims and their future conversion to liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism. In order to make this inquiry clear we must look at why and how Africans and their progeny converted to Christianity.

Anecdotal historical accounts of African religious life in antebellum America feeds us a narrative in which African slaves and their progeny converted to Christianity during their tenure as slaves. From this perspective we are left with the assumption that Christianity played a major role in the lives of slaves. However, recent scholarship gives a more convincing insight into the reality that Christianity did not come to play a significant role in the majority of African American lives until after emancipation. According to Fountain (amongst others),

“more than 60 percent of the slaves surveyed indicated that they were not Christians while enslaved (emphasis mine)1.”

My point being here is to challenge the notion that Christianity was a form of slave resistance. Instead, I argue that, since Christianity did not gain significant ground amongst African Americans until post-emancipation, it was more a means of assimilation than resistance. Fountain quotes nineteenth century physician and all around social agitator, Thomas Low Nichol, as saying,

“[t]he Southern people are eminently religious, and their negroes follow their example (emphasis mine)2.”

Whereas in the nineteenth century, the religion of America — and those who stood in position to impart “freedom” to slaves — was Christianity, the religions of America today are increasingly liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism, and thus, my concern is, will American Muslims embrace the religions of those who stand ready yet again to impart “freedom” to American Muslims? While some have balked at the heavy-handed tone in a recent article penned to American Muslim activists, I am equally concerned about the temptation for American Muslims to go down the same road as their previous American brethren did. In fact, as Fountain argues, it was,

“the expectation and delivery of freedom [being] the leading factor for African American conversion to Christianity3.”

The question remains: have the descendants of African slaves gained freedom and have their expectations been met? Many would argue that true freedom, the ability for self-determination, has not arrived yet. And likewise, in light of liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism (what I will term here as scientism), can these philosophies fulfill their promises to American Muslims4? For it is precisely the same gambit, the same offer, and the same temptation, I see American Muslims engaged in both in terms of embracing liberalism and the like, but also in an articulation of Islam that is pitched as resistance, and nothing more. If, quoting Fountain again, “under slavery, Christianity … did not meet most slaves’ needs … most did not convert”5 then what of an Islam that does not meet Muslims needs, particularly as Americans? It is here I believe most of the hard work needs to be done and thus should be the primary focus of scholars, for it is also the reason why so many Muslims, particularly the youth, look for truth-claims (even false ones) elsewhere6.

Resources 

1. Fountain, Daniel L. Slavery, Civil War and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity 1830-1870. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Pg. ix.

2. Ibid., 7.

3. Ibid., 5.

4. Jay Tolson, in the Fall 2016 edition of The Hedgehog Review, writes, “scientists began to wonder uneasily about whether scientific progress was compatible with scientific truth”. Tolson, Jay. “From the Editor”. The Hedgehog Review. http://iasc-culture.org/THR/index.php.

5. Fountain, 5.

6. Manley, Marc. “Between Political Theories and Truth-Claims: American Muslims and Liberalism”. Marc Manley – Imam At Large. www.marcmanley.com, 21 Jan. 2017.