The Relevance In Muslim Thought In Modern Times — An Exposition

Traditional Muslim Thought

What is it and why is it important to think like a Muslim? The ability to be “aware” of things and to articulate that awareness in concepts, language, and even behavior that reinforces and appeases TMT, and ultimately, Islam/God [tawhīd, Prophecy and the Return to God].

This endeavor will always involve attempts to appease certain incontrovertible truths and transcendent values found in Islam. However, Islam itself will never look the same in two difference places or two different times. And this process of Muslim thought will always demand intelligence, creativity, and courage from Muslims in their efforts to realize this goal, both individually and collectively.

When speaking about TMT, this in no way implies that:

  1. Muslims never had to do this in times past. That it is just something particular and peculiar to this term “modernity” that is causing all this hubbub.
  2. In fact, if we were to look at the past [i.e., Muslim history] and see no such examples [and we are sure to see many!] it would have more to do with the dereliction of duty on the part of those scholars of the past than the absence of the necessity in TMT in every time and space.

So – is TMT just a historical curiosity? Is it relevant in any way to the issues that Muslims face today? If so, then part of this relevance must include a tahqīqī approach. This is especially crucial in light of the recent rebranding of the word “tradition” into such catch phrases as “Traditional Muslim knowledge”.

What Does Muslim Thought Address?

TMT addresses four major things:

  1. God.
  2. The cosmos.
  3. The human soul.
  4. Interpersonal relationships.

The first three form the basis of how reality is conceived in Islam. The fourth is from perceptions obtained through studying the first three in a human interaction paradigm.

Goals of Muslim Thought

To know the reality of lā ilāha illa Allah [there is no god but God] for oneself.

The defining of roles: taqlīd and tahqīq.

Taqlīd: if one wishes to be a member of a group, then one must learn from those who are already a part of that group. Prophetic narrative. No one can better perfect a method of making ablution than that of the Prophet.

Tahqīq: the process of coming to know and own the knowing of tawhīd/la ilaha illa Allah [there is no god but God].

Tawhīd: is outside of taqlīd as “there is no compulsion in faith” لا إآراه في الدين [Q: 2: 256]. Instead, taqlīd is trying to inculcate tawhīd through free-willed, internal/intellectual means.

Muslims need to realize that TMT’s raison d’être is the transformation of the human soul, not simply a collection of textual and historical facts.

TMT allowed for a multidisciplined approach but those branches were tied to a root [tawhīd].

Establish the primacy of The Sacred. Therefore, one needs to come to know and understand what is sacred to Muslims/Islam and what is sacred [if anything at all] to modernity.

Preservation of the human being. Modernity/secularism makes vain attempts at this through language such as freedom, democracy, human rights, efficiency, etc.

Ijtihād – What’s In A Name?

The word is used so much by modernist Muslim reformers that it’s lost any context and meaning.

  • To qualify as a mujtahid, one had to master the disciplines [fiqh, etc.]. In other words, master transmitted knowledge [Qur’ān, Sunnah, etc.].
  • This bar has been set very high in traditional Sunni schools of thought.
  • If one does not attain the level of mujtahid, then one must then follow a school of ijtihād [Sunni: mostly dead masters – Shi’ism: living masters].
  • Sharī’ah, for example, can only be learned from someone who already knows it. This is problematic for orthodox, Sunni Muslims if we’re only able to learn from dead people!

Challenges Facing Muslims/TMT Today

Modern Muslim scholarship has been dominated by a non-Muslim spirit of academia in which, only to be partly humorous, one can know everything there is to know about a text except what it’s saying.

Is it possible to think as an engineer or sociologist and still think in a tawhīd-ic mind frame?

How can Muslims/Islam come to really [and in mean real as from The Real] mean anything significant if religion, in the eyes of modernity, is scarcely tolerated so long as it is restricted to ritual and morality. In modernity, religion can have nothing definitive to say about the nature of reality.

When looking at the thought processes behind certain modes of thought or ‘isms, are they/can they be infused or synthesized /re-contextualized by TMT or no? Why/not?

Modern environments are not conducive to inculcating/reinforcing an outlook on the world based on tawhīd. Modern theories of knowledge seek to compartmentalize versus bring varying knowledge disciplines into a unifying vision. This compartmentalization applies to the self as well as knowledge. This leads to a kind of cultural/social schizophrenia [see Daryoush Shayegan]

Science/Scientism: science is often said to be a sign of God but the Qur’ān asks man to think/reflect. But think/reflect on what? The Qur’an emphasizes natural phenomena. Science, however, requires one to first have scientific training as well as accept the supremacy/hegemony that scientific/tistic thought often demands of us.

Modern Muslim thought/scholarship does not challenge the status quo of modern/takthīr thought but rather sees how it can best serve, adopted and co-opt it.

Takthīr – Modernity’s New Gods

Takthīr is, if not the theological opposite of tawhīd, is its antonym in a modern context. The function of tawhīd is to see the many as relating to The One. Takthīr is wanton proliferation.

Tawhīd: to make God one, the recognition of divinity, pointing back to one ultimate source [God].

Takthīr: to make many gods. To refashion the recognition of divine presence as manifold.

Modernity lacks a solid core – a single center of purpose. TMT professes the purpose of life is to realize/worship/prepare for the return to God.

Modernity’s goals [?]: freedom, equality, evolution, progress, science, medicine, nationalism, socialism, democracy, Marxism. More innocuous versions: care, communication, consumption, development, education, information, standard of living, management, model, planning, production, project, resource, service, system, welfare.

TMT & Modernity – A Dialog

TMT may question modernity’s and Muslim reformers’ intentions. And while MR’s may wish to bid “good riddance” to TMT because of its perceived baggage, reform-minded
Muslims are oblivious to the fact that much of what they’re basing their thoughts off of are based on modes of thought that at their core are antithetical to the three crucial aspects of TMT/Islam:

  1. Tawhīd.
  2. Prophecy.
  3. The Return to God [Ma’ād].

If Muslims are to remain true to the core values that Islam is built upon, those very same values that underpin TMT’ing, then how can the adaption of the above be legitimized?

The Presumption of Privilege

As Islam continues to sputter along in its American context, post-9/11, various Muslim organizations and groups seek to capture the eye of the masses [who are starting to look more and more like glazed donuts by the minute] by inviting them to “return to Tradition”. I have not noted the capitalized “T” without purpose. Tradition, as it is being marketed currently, is a mono-narrative. Moreover, one might even call it a counter-narrative to the one that is equally applied by the West to Islam/Muslims, in any given time or space. But this concept of Tradition is playing out to be more than simply going back to previously forgotten sources or methods. It is also being linked to privilege. A privilege that takes the form in not only in what economic access can provide but a privilege of ideals. A Believers’ country club, if you will. But one of the main issues with this exclusivity is not solely in the gated mental communities that it fosters but the very idea that Tradition is a panacea. That so long as what is being passed along is stamped with the seal of Tradition, it requires no further investigation, contemplation or scrutinization. But is this truly [the?] tradition? And to what point or end is this tradition to accomplish? What avenues is this tradition to navigate for us? Or are we instead being taken for a ride. Islam in America and more directly, Muslims in America are in dire need for a viable, conducive, productive, creative, indigenous Muslim culture. But how do we get to there from the pre-packaged Tradition we’re currently being offered?

As some of you read before, I had been doing a bit of light reading before heading off to ‘Umrah. Upon my return I decided to put aside some of the heavier bits in favor of what’s been published in magazine format. Two articles piqued my interest: the Summer 2008 edition of The American Scholar, with an article by William Deresiewicz entitled, Exhortation: The Disadvantage of an Elite Education, and Great Neighborhoods, by Mark Hinshaw in the January 2008 edition of Planning. American Scholar deals mostly with issues through a social science perspective, while Planning is a journal in the vein of city planning [The magazine of the American Planning Association]. The two articles are not directly linked and yet, after reading both of them, their impact in tandem drew me to consider the current state of contemporary Muslim education and direction in America [again…].

There is a peculiar handshake between the parties of tradition and authority. Those who are seated are or have seated themselves as the key masters and gate keepers of tradition grant themselves a great deal of authority. An authority, that once imbibed by the target audience, is not easy to regurgitate. Its authority rises from the idea that tradition cannot be made but rather found, and more importantly, bestowed. Those that wish to belong can only do so as long as there are invited. It is precisely this type of exclusiveness that many of the traditionalists are offering American Muslims. Ensconced in the robes of this vernacular, calls towards Traditional Islam continue to rise. But we must ask ourselves: to what, for what, and by whom are we being called?

Let me state again for the record that I am not against the idea of tradition. In fact, I have talked, written and in general, worked towards the formation of a viable Muslim culture in America in my own small way. One can simply substitute tradition for culture in this case. Nor am I averse to the intellectual history of Islam. A quick perusal of this blog will vindicate any accusations. Neither am I unique in this clarion call. Notable scholars such as Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Dr. Khalid Blankinship and Dr. Sherman Jackson, just to name a few and all potent scholars in their own right, have spoken on this necessity. But one of the caveats of tradition is that it can also take on a self-sanctioning pathology, where in stead of becoming a means to an end, it becomes a means and an end. The pitfalls of this phenomenon can be clearly observed in the so-called Muslim world. But for the sake of this argument, I am not interested in how Muslims articulate their cultures in the historical lands of Muslims but rather the process of transference. In as far as the Traditionalists look at it, America and by proxy all Muslims within it are rendered helpless and incapable of manufacturing and creating a vibrant American Muslim culture – a culture that not only speaks to the histories of those Muslims in America but even more importantly to their present and their future. Taking their point of view, at the very best, culture can be imported from overseas and draped on the shoulders of modern day Muslims but in no way do they recognize American Muslims as possessing any form of agency. With the script pre-written, Muslims in America will have to settle for acting in someone else’s play – never becoming stars in their own right.

In this interplay of tradition and privilege, the Traditionalists often see themselves as an object of desire. That in fact, their own interpretation of culture is fit for all peoples, in all times, and all places. And conversely, anyone who resides outside of their cultural expression do so at their own choice. It is here that I found Hinshaw’s comments pertinent:

I imagine that many people consider their own neighborhood a pretty fine place. After all, people live where they are comfortable with the physical surroundings and the neighborhoods.

Hinshaw precludes that who ever lives in a neighborhood does so at their own discretion. The possibility that people often live where they can and not where they would like to is completely glossed over in Hinshaw’s treament of the topic. And yet, for anyone who has done even the most rudimentary examination of inner city populations will realize that the people that reside within these spaces do so not out of choice but rather from the lack of it. To assume that inner city blacks, for example, “are comfortable with the physcial surroundings and the neighborhoods” in which they live in is woefully ignorant [ironically, I found this magazine at my place of work, the University of Pennsylvania: School of Design, in their City Planning department]. This presumptuous rhetoric smacks of the same song mentality practiced by the Traditionalists. They are just as much out of touch with the times as a city planner that assumes all people are happy with where they live. And yet, one of the claims of tradition is that it is supposed to be grounded. Grounded in some sort of existential, historical narrative. So what, precisely, is the current trend of Traditional Islam grounded in?

The theme of being out of touch is central to my critique of Traditional Islam [not to be confused with the intellectual tradition of Islam]. At least in the way it is marketed and packaged. By disarming its adherents of any means of agency, a homegrown, authentic articulation of Islam, driven by a healthy, grounded American Muslim culture, can never develop. Part of this syndrome is due to the fact that many of the institutions of Traditional Islam are out of touch with the development of such a culture. In fact, it may not even be an agenda point. I was reminded of this current situation by William Deresiewicz’s article in The American Scholar, where Deresiewicz speaks on his inability to communicate with his plumber:

There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Socks cap, and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him.

Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness.

Deresiewicz argues that it was his Ivy League education that did not provide him with the social skills to speak with people “below him”?. That because the plumber is assumed to not have the same amount or level of educational [a safe assumption, no doubt, as Deresiewicz has over a decade of Ivy League education], that not only can he not come down to the plumber’s level but the plumber cannot also ascend to Deresiewicz’s. In my many dealings with students and even some teachers of Traditional Islam, there has been a heavy tendency to practice intellectual elitism. And unlike Mr. Deresiewicz’s education, which undoubtedly took many years and lots of hard work, in the Muslim context, it seldom takes having a bit of Arabic under your belt and a few classes with the right scholars. Thus, by crafting a nomenclature around Tradition, those who fail to ascend to its lofty towers will be left to serve as the plumbers of the Muslim world [the fact that the world would suffer tremendous more for a lack of plumbers than a lack of intellectuals but this fact is not explored], at least academically speaking. There has also been the similar tendency of assumption that Muslims of non-preferential backgrounds [especially Blackermican or non-college educated, hence the lack of their numbers in their circles] lack the basic fundamentals of understanding this form of Islam. Indeed, central to the approach is an almost complete absence of the gifting of intellectual ownership of one’s understanding in Islam. To put in summary, if one wishes to understand Traditional Islam, one must keep paying the subscription fees or face having oness service shut off.

One of the key ways in which a viable culture might take roots here in America is that if Muslims in America begin to take intellectual ownership of their religion and their education in the religion. This process is being hampered by the exclusiveness of Traditional Islam as well as the celebrity of Traditional Islam. It’s add-another-fork-to-the-dinner-table mentality will only seek to impede this process. We need less secret handshakes and more psychological spaces opening up, especially given the last decade or so that indigenous Blackamerican community has gone through. Issues such as man/woman relationships, civic engagement, and education, just to name a few, are in dire need of revamping and retooling.

It is one of my supreme hopes that Muslims in America will wake up and realize that they have the tools to create a healthy, vibrant American Muslim culture. For anyone who thinks that having an American Muslim culture is not a major hurdle on the way to arriving in America need only look to our foreign brothers and sisters. For better or worse, it is their culture that allows them to alleviate many of the anxieties of quotidian existence that plagues so many Muslims in America. An anxiety that is rooted from the fact that they can take no solace in not having to consult an imam, shaykh, 15-volume tome of Bukhari or the like, just to simply figure out if you can cross the street, tie their shoes or go see a movie. It is this culture that could allow many of us to simply “be” to a greater degree versus “trying to be”?. And yet, as we work towards the development of this culture, God willing, we must be shrewd of our embrace of it. For as we have seen, it is apt to have a mind of its own. Culture should serve us towards our goals and ambitions, not making us slaves to the rhythm or at the very least, lower our monthly subscription fees.