The Trouble With Muslim Pundits Today

Today was an odd turn of events that had the building which houses my office on UPenn’s campus, play host to a talk on Islam by one of today’s most darling Muslim pundits, Irshad Manji. A self-proclaimed Muslim reformist, activist, human rights lobbiest and lesbian, Irshad gave a talk to an attentive audience which was comprised of both Muslim and non-Muslim, old and young alike. Dr. Leonard Swidler, from Temple University, was also on hand to add to the discussion. But, unfortunately, like her book, The Trouble With Islam Today, the talk was filled with nothing more than drivel. And that’s just the good part.

So much of the dialog today regarding Islam is in how it can fit into the master narrative of Western discourse. This encompasses everything from morals, ethics, to aesthetics, such as standards and concepts of beauty. When Islam fails to authenticate a narrative that falls within the margins of the dominant culture, it and vis-a-vie, the Muslims, are condemned as being backwards, barbaric, and even morally, ethically, and intellectually bankrupt. And when a people are deemed barbaric or morally bankrupt, the slippery slope to subjugation, whether it be figuratively, psychologically or physically can never trail far behind. This process of brutalization bears striking resemblance to the types of psychological terror that have been visited upon various minority groups in the West, especially in America, when they failed to meet the criterion of a dominant force that often have a pattern of “moving the goal post” when it suited itself opportune.

A major portion of my critique on Manji’s arguments and positions as well as comments that Dr. Swidler gave, were that neither Manji nor Swidler are scholastically equipped to answer any such questions regarding the intellectual tradition of Islam. Manji is a journalist of questionable objectivity and Swidler’s expertise lies outside the fold of Islam. Manji often relies on crude reductionism coupled with a woefully absent basic familiarity with the Islamic Tradition. Buzz words like ijtihad, fatwah and of course, the crowd-pleaser, jihad, are tossed out to lend to her some Islamic academic credibility. In fact, Swidler’s presence is somewhat questionable as Temple University could have certainly offered up someone who would have been far better suited to the task at hand. In light of access to scholars like Khalid Blankinship, it remained a curiosity as to why Manji chose a non-Muslim religious professor to engage in talks about Muslim reform.

But to take things a step further, Manji’s book, The Trouble With Islam Today, is guilty of the same crime that many of its contemporaries are: making the personal experience an ontological narrative. To help further explain my point, let me offer this explanation: because of the trials and tribulations that Manji faced as a child, because of the personal experiences that Manji had and the choices she’s made, she has taken the sum of those experiences and built the foundation of her argument around them such that they take on a scope that is completely inappropriate. That because they were or are issues for Manji they must be equally important issues for all Muslims in all times and in all places. A great deal of Manji’s contemporaries, such as Ayan Hirsi Ali to name one, frame their arguments in the same manner. But to reiterate, these criticisms of Islam do not simply stop at personal narrative, they apex again at how Islam falls short on a laundry list of items such as equality, human rights, tolerance and progression. In where Islam fails to be equal, tolerant or progressive in the “Western” paradigm that Manji offers up, Islam is deemed to have a problem. So this left me asking some simple but pertinent questions: are any of these issues true? And if so, how, and in what way? And again, if so, what would be the best way of looking for resolutions.

Before tackling any of the issues that Manji tries to speak on the, I have a few questions of my own. Namely, is she, or Professor Swidler capable of addressing these issues from both within and without the Muslim intellectual tradition. What are Manji’s credentials that would allow her to speak authoritatively on issues that Muslims today are facing. Indeed, it seems to be Manji’s modus operandi to completely leap frog the whole of Muslim intellectual thought and just, as she put it to me, bypass dogma.

Much of the holes in Manji’s arguments, and for pundits like her, is that because they are not conversant with that tradition and thus the judgments and rulings that it produces, they marginalize it under the assumption that because it is from the Tradition it is old, outdated, antiquated and has nothing to offer to modern Muslims in modern times. This could not be further from the truth. And aside from this stiff arming they also neglect why it is important and still speaks to Muslims today. This inadequacy is more than simple ignorance of the intellectual tradition of Muslim thought but also woeful negligence in being versed in simple creedal formulations in Muslim theology such as the rightful place of God as an authority, the rightful place of authority of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad and how these authorities are negotiated.

During the talk, Manji made several quips about God being a “he or she” – the idea that God is neither masculine nor feminine is one of the primary principles in fundamental Islamic creed, yet Manji insists on using a language that is far from the spirit of what Muslim theology is all about. A similar stance is taken towards the sunnah, in that it is something that should be questioned, not in its application (as is how the Tradition does) but yet to question its validity as a whole. The result of which the Sunnah is seen as also a derelict of a by-gone era and thus should be tossed aside in favor of pure, so-called rational thinking.

For many Muslim/anti-Muslim pundits today, authority lies at the crux of their objections. In their arguments, Islam has suffered from an authoritative crisis, namely that the ulama’ — or religious scholars — have put a choke hold on religious interpretation and expression and therefore to avoid the risk of any further entrapment of religious authority, the baby is tossed out with the bath water. But no body or organization can survive much less thrive without an authoritative voice. And the sham to this is that in fact, most of these pundits, and Manji in specific here, seek to simply usurp the currently perceived authority for their own hegemonic voice. It is through this tension that Manji, and pundits like her, have with authority that the agenda of such said pundits becomes clear.

During the talk, the example of the fatwah that was issued against Salman Rushdie was used as a means of demonstrating the backwards, barbaric and even violent tendencies that this authoritative voice could foster. And yet, not once, either of negligence, ignorance or purpose, the fatwah that was issued by the Mufti of Egypt from al-Azhar University denying the validity of any such fatwah was conveniently left out. In light of its absence it would indeed seem that the Muslim world is not only monolithic but monolithic in its barbarity, an image that is often offered up from the hands of Orientalist scholars of Islam. In fact, when Manji’s research is examined a bit more closely, it is laced with Orientalist tendencies of understanding Islam and Muslims. This is far from the “fair and balanced” reporting that Manji would leave us to believe.

Manji’s axe to grind with authority extends even to basic tenants of Islam such as prayer. When asked about prayer she responded that she does not need anyone to tell her how to pray – that she can devise such a way on her own. Such thinking could not be further from the pale of Islamic theology 101. But the main issue with this line of thought is not that Manji wants to “find her own way” but in that she wishes to seek accommodation in the orthodoxy of the religion. Wanting to be homosexual and pray in your own way is completely a matter of personal choice but there is simply no way to justify it with the texts, traditions and methodologies in Islam. Expecting to do so shows not only a lack of intelligence but also immaturity on Manji’s part. This only further demonstrates Manji’s desire to influence and assert her own authority for if her way was sufficient and as she put it to me, “between me and my God”, then gaining an ascendant voice would not be necessary. No, it is indeed this ambition to flip the current and Traditional modules of authority on their respective heads that lies at much of Manji’s argument.

To continue to examine Manji’s theological constructs, one comment she made struck me dead in my tracks. When she spoke to her mother about praying to God in her own way she made a rebuttal that she offered up sincere words of gratitude and that she offered them willingly to God. It is not my focus to deconstruct Manji’s arguments solely on dogmatic grounds but she has completely missed the forest ‘fore the trees. One of the basic underlying principles dictating the relationship between God and Man is that God needs nothing from us. And that anything we offer up in the way of worship, orthodox or heretical, adds nothing to the dominion of God. Manji’s argument is typical of persons who have bones to pick with religion (legitimate or otherwise) and assume a posture of arrogance that is not befitting them. Hence in Islam, only God has the right to Arrogance (al-Mutakabbir) as God needs nothing and only One free from want can be truly arrogant.

A favorite target of these hybrid-Orientalists, as I will call them, is the use of the Middle-East as a criterion for the very possibilities of what Islam can and cannot be and specifically, where it fails to achieve the hurdles set up by the very same judges who also craft the questions, Islam and by proxy, all Muslims, are deemed to be inferior. In her documentary, Manji does extensive filming in Yemen, a country in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, and as Manji put it, the birthplace of Islam (though I’d say her geography is off just a bit but who’s counting). As Manji takes in the sights of Yemen the camera displays for us the manifold women who walk the streets, head scarves covering their heads and veils on many of the faces. The critique is centered around the “sameness” of everything and that there is a stifled individuality. In its essence the whole film is a work of cinematic Orientalism. Two examples are offered to the viewer: an American woman who married a Yemeni man and now wears the hijab and veil and a Yemeni woman who has taken to adopting Western styles of dress. There was no interview done of Yemeni women who do wear hijab and veil and do so out of their own choice and not out of a 7th Century tribal (another argument of Manji’s that I will address in a moment) affiliation. Instead, we are encouraged to see how backwards the society is in how it hasn’t caught up with Modernity – Modernity in how the West has interpreted it. And it’s a steep and slippery slope from being backwards to being brutalized; both physically and psychologically.

Tribalism seems to be one of the central arguing points of Manji. That the entire Muslim world is in reality, a humongous body of worshipers who have been indoctrinated into a 7th Century modality of living. Anything that a Muslim does is not out of his or her understanding but rather in obedience to Arabian tribalism. This myopic vision is again, indicative of Orientalism, which willingly lacked the ability to look at Islam as an idiosyncrasy in the way in which white European Christians were an idiosyncrasy. Muslims were not a body of believers that had tremendous diversity in custom and in interpretation but a monolith – no variation. No individual thought. And more importantly, anything that any Muslim did or thought was inextricably linked and informed by their religion and was therefore part and parcel for Islam itself. This philosophy is still alive and well today and continues to inform a great deal of the scholarship on Islam in the West. Orientalism is not the only misgiving that Manji’s work is guilty of. Reductionist thinking is another characteristic that her work is ripe with. From the way in which she interviews small minorities of Muslims and yet offers what they have to say, think and feel, as capturing the majority spirit. Her critique that Muslim women who wear hijab are simply using fundamentalism as a moral compass is so woefully guilty of reductionist thinking that it is only because Manji offers an articulation of Islam that is appeasing to the dominant culture that it has not been cast out as completely devoid of any substance.

In the end, Manji’s work reveals bare, the bones she has to pick with authority within orthodox Islam. But instead of approaching Islam in a methodical way, she simply side steps the intellectual traditions, branding them as dogmatic, devoid of any life or creativity. And it is here that Manji’s assumptions are the same as the Orientalists: that the endeavor of Muslim history and its Tradition have nothing pertinent to say in the modern context. And it is through this adoption of Western normals and values, without a single shred of scrutiny, reveals Manji’s bias. Indeed, Manji’s critique of Islam is not in how it succeeds or impedes the pleasing of God and attaining a successful life in the Hereafter but in how it does not measure up to Westerness; a goal post that is wholly unachievable and nor should it be proffered as a desired achievement. The opinions and the histories that informed those Muslims and how they reached them are never acknowledged let alone tackled. Simply put, in each and every way that Islam and Muslims do not meet the articulation that Irshad Manji and pundits like her concoct then Islam and the Muslims are open game to be humiliated and brutalized, whether that be psychological or otherwise. And that’s not “tough journalism” – it’s sensationalism and deceit.

Perhaps in the future Manji might be willing to sit and discuss her work with a Muslim scholar or at the very least, a scholar of Islam. I found an intriguing curiosity that with a scholar like Dr. Khalid Blankinship at Temple University was passed over in favor of Dr. Swidler, who, while a professor of religion, is not a scholar of Islam. Until then I think that Manji will continue to loose face in the majority Muslim body, which is precisely where she wants to plant her flag. I for one am available for comment or discussion.

And God knows best.

Why Polemics Are A Waste Of Time

A Muslim recently brought to my attention a disturbing video (the link has since disappeared off of the person’s web site) of a Muslim openly bashing and berating a group of Nation of Islam men standing on a street corner in the UK. I watched the video with a sense of shock and disgust. The antagonist obviously had only one thing in mind – to act or perform for his audience and to denounce the “kafirs“, as he termed them, for all to see. Chalk up another victory for Islam.

My frustration and anger do not stop at the video. On the site that’s posting the video, the brother describes the NOI brothers as, “nuts”. I am curious to examine the potential reasons behind this NOI bashing in an attempt to find some validation for it.

Let me start my vent with a short statement: polemics is a waste of time. I have yet to ever see any good come of it. Nor should healthy dialog and debate be mistaken for polemics and especially visa versa. Is is because they claim Islam that they deserve such a scathing public display? For me, it is a real shame that Muslims today [with special emphasis placed on Blackamerican Muslims] cannot find the room to find a dialog with the Nation. They are simply stripped of any value and tossed aside. How utterly ignorant and shortsighted this is [not to mention thankless – we would not have had a Malcolm X without the Nation!].

While other Muslims seem to enjoy the ability to foster care, concern and dialog about their own people, regardless of religious affiliation [the Palestinians come to mind], the same room is not afforded to Blackamerican Muslims who wish to address the Nation. In fact, Blackamerican orthodox/Sunni Muslims in my opinion, tend to be the biggest offenders. Why? Have we forgotten the contribution that the Nation of Islam has made to Islam being a viable and tangible mode of Americana for blacks in this country? I would hope no one out there would be absurd enough to forget that blacks in America [for the time being] have the capacity to move from Christianity to Islam without sacrificing neither their Americanness nor their blackness. This shift has been greatly made by the efforts of the Nation. This simply cannot be emphasized enough. The sooner we all come to openly recognize this and appreciate the reality of this, the sooner I believe we can repair a rift between the Nation and other orthodox/Sunni Blackamerican Muslims.

The gentleman in the video seemed to frame his arguments against the Nation around three central points: that they’re kafirs. That they murdered Malcolm X. And that their theology isn’t “true” Islam. I shall attempt to look at each of these critical points.

Before analyzing the brother’s takfir [calling them kafirs], we must examine this word kafir and see what type of value is placed on this word now and if so, how does that value compare to previous historical values that have been used by Muslims in the past.

Undoubtedly, in the Modern context, kafir is a dirty word, akin to calling somebody a son-of-a-bitch [or in reality, much worse – so use your imagination]. But beyond ethical values, the word is also used to strip someone or a whole group of people, of their humanity. If one is a kafir, in this sense, then one isn’t even fully human. And historically, we have seen the darker side of humanity when one group of people imagines the other without human value. But in pre-Modern times, kafir was used to simply denote a person who fell outside the religious fold of Islam. Not whether or not they had value as a person or a human being. And while it’s not within the scope of this post to do so, there are numerous sources that will support my opinion here including Prophetic ones. For further reading, research some of Dr. Sherman Jackson’s work on this term, kafir.

As for the murder of Malcolm X, this is not in repute nor dispute. Rather, what is important, in the immediate case, is that were any of the brother’s in the park personally responsible for brother Malcolm’s murder. Communal guilt is not a practice that can be legitimized in the religion of Muhammad of Arabia and I find no reason to instigate that bid’ah. Conversely, Usama bin Laden and his cohorts were responsible for the mass murder of some 2, 998 people. And yet we as Muslims, worldwide, have been clamoring against precisely the same thing – communal guilt. That we are guilty by religious association, for the deaths of those 2, 998 people [God rest their souls]. I have no doubt, that if put to the question, Mr. Abdur-Raheem Green, would agree that he in no was is responsible for the actions of the nineteen hijackers despite his religious affiliation with them. So why then are the NOI brothers held in duplicitous guilt? I can find no facts that support this presupposition and move to have the case dismissed.

Mr. Green’s final point, that their Islam isn’t “real” Islam, again, is a dog barking up a wrong tree. I don’t think any moderately educated orthodox/Sunni Muslim [in his/her religious tradition] could condone the Nation of Islam’s theology as valid according the strictures of the religion that Muhammad of Arabia brought. The fact is besides the point and ties back to the misplaced value and making takfir on them. Nation of Islam or not, kafir or not, does not give one the reason to chide these people. But let me further my case with some Sunnah.

Any orthodox/Sunni Muslim worth his or her salt knows that the Prophet loved his people. Religious affiliations aside, he loved his people. It is apparent in his actions and most evident in the love of his uncle, who is recorded in more than one authentic narration, died in a state of kufr [disbelieve]. If one were to give the life of the Prophet a thorough, detailed study, you will find a man who was deeply troubled about and for his people. That throughout his Prophethood, he dearly wanted to make concessions to make Islam more attractive for Makkans/Arabians. Which is why Allah shows to us in the Qur’an that He had to strengthen the Prophet’s resolve or he was have conceded more to them than was proper. That is the real Muhammad, Mr. Green. That is your real Prophet, of which your actions show you are woefully ignorant of. And to toss gasoline on a fire, Mr. Green actually proceed to yell out verses of the Qur’an, in Arabic, of which his target audience was most likely ignorant of. In my opinion, this is akin to shouting fire in a burning house full of deaf people. It does no one any good and saves no lives. What would you do, Mr. Green? Keep shouting at those poor, miserable deaf bastards until the house falls down on them or learn to communicate with them and try to save some lives?

Nuts? Only nuts I’ve seen lately were in the snack isle. But I have seen some crazy stuff on the Internet lately.

And God knows best.