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.

Mundus Totus Domus Est – All the World is a Home

“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.

References

  • 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.

Disorientation in the Face of Catastrophic Human Tragedy – A Reading of Günter Grass

Günther Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum, explores the schizophrenic nature of the human existence, particularly under conditions of war and horror. Grass’s takes his reader on a tour de force journey of wartime Germany, where a cast of characters are employed via multiplicity to demonstrate the range of human behaviors as well as to demonstrate its absurdity at the height of human deprivation. Stacey Olster also attempts to showcase this dissonance in her article, Inconstant Harmony in the Tin Drum. In it, Olster makes the case that Grass’s use of an unreliable narrator provides a successful vehicle to comment on the unity of the human condition: a chaotic one. While Olster’s article is filled with a number of insights, I would disagree that neither Grass achieves a sense of unity—by proxy of chaos or otherwise—nor harmony in the Tin Drum, but rather leaves the reader in a state of disorientation in the face of such catastrophic human tragedy.

Olster’s argument turns mainly on the axiom of music or sound. To be more precise, Olster draws parallels between Oskar’s life and that of musical scales. Oskar’s obsession with returning to the womb is made allegorical with that of a tonic note in a musical scale. Similarly, all action or friction in the novel is equated with the dominant note (the seventh note) of the chord, vis-a-vie Oskar’s great grandfather, Joseph Koljaiczek, the arsonist. Where Olster sees notes in a scale, I see multiplicity: the inability of Grass to foster a coherent vision of the world nor of his characters. Even the primary narrator is more akin to single notes than to that of a scale (which is comprised of multiple notes played at the same time): “I gathered that they were fighting in the corridor … Hesitantly at first, then with more confidence, Oskar entered the dead-letter room” (Grass 210). Here, Grass has Oskar shift from first to third person narrative within the very same passage. This not only demonstrates the schizophrenia that Grass ascribes to the separate voices of Oskar, but is untrue to the very definition of harmony: that it is the sounding of more than one note or tone, “in which the two [or more] tones are sounded together” (Piston 4). Grass’s technique then is much more akin to the dissonance of multiple keys struck individually at separate times, not arranged in to a cohesive vision; a scale.

Olster’s contention of harmony is also challengeable from another aspect of musical analogy: musical key. Olster claims that Oskar, “structure[s] the melody of his piece around the dominant chordal tone, thus imparting to his composition a musical quality far different from the completed sound of the tonic” (Olster 67). This concept would only stand ground if Grass’s novel had a cohesive vision, a single point from which the narrative departs from. Grass however falls in line with the majority of modern authors in which their writing depicts a world in which there is no central theme, no central vision. This trend has been in play in the European context for the last several centuries as William Chittick describes in his book, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul:

“The history of European thought is characterized by the opposite trend. Although there was a great deal of Unitarian thinking in the medieval period, from that time onward dispersion and multiplicity have constantly increased. “Renaissance men” could know a great deal about all the sciences and at the same time have a unifying vision … The result is mutual incomprehension and universal disharmony (emphasis mine). It is impossible to establish any unity of understanding … Since people have no unifying principles, the result is an ever-increasing multiplicity of goals and gods, an ever-intensifying chaos.” (Chittick 13).

I am invoking Chittick’s passage here to demonstrate the lack of vision that Grass has. I mean this not as a condemnation but as an observable fact and indeed, a characteristic that Grass put into The Tin Drum deliberately. A short example of this is the siege on the Polish post office, during which several characters die, is described as a “colossal joke” (Grass 216). Grass treats this entire scene with a great deal of humor and absurdity. To say that amidst the chaos of the assault Olster claims some mode of harmony is had hard to justify; a musical piece that is set in a certain key must follow and obey that key as a general outline. I can find no such consistent examples in The Tin Drum that corroborate harmony, inconstant or otherwise.

Olster’s comments on Grass’s use of the Catholic Church and Catholic theology are also a point of contention. Where Olster see’s the Church as an attempt to “recapture the triadic fullness of harmony through inclusion rather than exclusion” (Olster 69), I see Grass’s use of Catholicism as a means of indicting the Church on their silent and tacit approval of the atrocities that were committed under their nose. Oskar implores Jesus to beat his drum—a sign of an active God—only to be disappointed: “Time passed, I say, but Jesus did not beat the drum” (Grass 130). Olster sees the Catholic Trinity as the three notes in a chord: “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” as “three separate notes into one chord” (Olster 69). I do not see any proof from the text that symbolizes these three tones being acted on at once (again, referring to Piston’s definition of harmony) and in fact, shore up support of Grass’s un-unified world; as Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote: “Gass ist kein Moralist/Grass is no moralist” (Enzensberger 224). To infer that Grass was making a gesture to the Holy Trinity would be to placate Grass as a romanticist, something he is known for being the opposite (Mews 84).

Olster is correct to point out that apparent unwillingness to grow is seated in a lack of “exemplars” (Olster 71). Grass depicts for us a world that is depraved, though he is cautious not to clumsily portray the Nazis as “evil” and the Jews as “good”, or how Alexander Gelley describes Grass’s technique, where he “scrupulously eschews both the demonic (in portraying the Nazis) and the pathetic (in portraying the victims), he can still arouse our horror and pity” (Gelley 117). Instead we see further examples of unharmonious behavior in a number of the adults—Oskar’s “exemplars” (Schmuh’s over indulgence of the sparrows) to Jan’s cowardice at the assault on the post office. Both of these examples further support the theory of Grass’s world being a dissonant landscape.

Another aspect of the lack of harmony in The Tin Drum is the method and manner in which the characters communicate with each other, namely Oskar. The protagonist’s two methods of communication result in either destruction, vis-a-vie his glass slaying voice, or from the “non-meaningful utterances” (Bance 148) of his drum. Indeed, Grass’s world lacks so such disharmony that the characters themselves become caricatures of the absurd, unable to communicate through normal means of speech. Further more, the drum, which is a monophonic instrument, capable of producing sounds that are scarcely tonal and almost always singular, significantly challenges Olster’s abstraction of harmonies of any stripe. Instead, the drum symbolizes Oskar’s inability to cope and communicate with the adult world around him. In fact, one may say that the drum is the method by which he does communicate with his world, which is why he is so misunderstood. An example of this is the contest between Matzerath and Oskar, in which the drum is threatened to be taken away when the drum itself presents a hazard to Oskar: “It was feared I would cut myself on the treacherously sharp edges of the tin” (Grass 54).    This obsession of Oskar over his drum reinforces the notion of it being a fetish of sorts, one by which he retains a magical and youthful attachment to the fantasy world he imagines he lives in.

A Wakeup Call

The last several weeks’ events have showcased the utter dismay, confusion, and chaos that the American Muslim community is operating under.  The recent affairs regarding Colleen Renee Rose, also known as Jihad Jane, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, and Sharif Mobley, present for us a number of disturbing and urgent dilemmas currently facing American Muslims.  It should be staggeringly clear by now that if Muslims in America do not take steps to deal with these issues, the downward slope will only become more and more slippery.

There are many topics or bullet points I can think of when it comes to the aforementioned issues that Muslims face, but I will attempt to list what I have observed to be the most critical ones, as well as hopefully, some ways we can move to address these crises.  First amongst these thoughts is the complete absence of authority in the American Muslim community.  In a recent conversation with a brother, we both lamented on the fractured structure of authority in the Muslim community here in the states.  The reason for this is varied and all the sub-points are beyond the aim of this article, but I would like to point to a couple of social factors that I feel have led to this.

The impact of literacy on the modern world has had a plethora of wide-ranging effects and consequences.  The results in the Muslim context had had no less impact than it did for modern Europe and America.  There are, however, a number of delicate points to this observation I would like to briefly illuminate upon.  Amongst them, has been the tendency to view the Muslim world as “behind” [Robinson 233] the Christian world, in terms of literacy, and in reality, technology.  The unquestioned stance of many Orientalist scholars has been to assume for the West and by proxy, Christianity, a tract or trajectory that the West was “a head of the game” if you will.  Seen from the position, Islam and by proxy Muslims, could only be seen as lagging behind.  Robinson, however, eludes to a number of important points that deserve considerable reconsideration:

“…the origin of the negative Muslim response to printing lay much more deeply than this. The problem was that printing attacked the very heart of Islamic systems for the transmission of knowledge; it attacked what was understood to make knowledge trustworthy, what gave it value, what gave it authority.”

The method of transmission of knowledge in the Muslim world has been orally, passed from teacher to student.  This system necessitates and places tremendous weight and value on the presence of learned and responsible teachers.  The first amongst this transmission of knowledge was the Qur’ān itself [Robinson 235].  From here, this transmission of knowledge of the Qur’ān set a precedent for how knowledge would be transmitted period for Muslims:

“The methods of learning and of transmitting the Qur’ān laid their impress on the transmission of all other knowledge” [Robinson 235].

Robinson continues by quoting one of the great Muslim thinkers, Ibn Khaldun, from his seminal work, al-Muqaddimah:

“The Qur’ān has become the basis of instruction, the foundation of all habits that may be acquired later on” [Khaldun 421].

In this light, it is clear to see that traditional Muslim learning placed an equal if not heavier weight on the necessity of a teacher to transmit knowledge, not merely information.  Without the authority of a teacher, the pupil could very well run the risk of reading the work, but not understanding the what the book said.  While the discussion on this part of the topic deserves much greater attention, I am forsaking it for the time being to simply highlight and underscore the role and distinction that Muslim authority, scholarship and thinking played in the development of Muslim thought and behavior.

You may ask how the relates to the initial point above: the complete absence of authority in the American Muslim community.  I would venture to say it has been precisely the uncritical adoption of methodologies and modes of thought, both from the Western secular perspective, which desacrilizes knowledge, reducing it to “information”, as well as from the modern Muslim world, which despite its claims to classical scholarship, simply does not deliver on this.

As to the desacralization of knowledge, this to a great extent is what has happened when Muslims have rejected the role of the teacher-student transmission, and have assumed that they would be capable if not better off, to understand Islam by themselves.  This has been facilitated by the rapid growth of literacy, especially in the modern Western context where Muslims are much more likely to be literate in their own respective vernaculars.  With no criterion to hold themselves to, Muslims have abandoned traditional methodologies for modern secular ones.  The result has been the nearly complete dismantling of religious guidance and authority in the Muslim community.  In my opinion, this has been doubly so in America, where Muslims have been living fractured lives, at times best held up through socio-ethnic bonds.  As Muslims have dispersed and assimilated into American society, so has the tradition of attachment to real human teachers as guides.  The result has been a buffet of sorts: pick and choose without any consequence or consideration as to whether what you’re putting on your plate is good for you.  After all, at a buffet, it’s all food, isn’t it?

The recent obsession with American Muslims with “traditional” or “classical” Muslim knowledge can been as both positive and negative.  I cite positive in that some Muslims have come to realize that modernity is not the be-all and end-all solution to their woes.  And while not all systems of knowledge in modernity are fully bankrupt, as some Muslim scholars have contended, it certainly cannot be imbibed without some measure of scrutiny.  The negative aspects have been similar to those cited above, namely, the uncritical acceptance of packaged goods.  If it looks like and sounds like it’s traditional, then it is.  While the contents of the package may indeed included elements of traditional knowledge, the system of delivery is most obviously modern.  I do not use modern here as an epithet, but rather as a critical observation: modernity is not equipped to deliver on the moral, ethical, religious, or spiritual needs of Muslims [for more on this topic, please see Dr. William Chittick’s, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul].  In order to be “traditional”, Muslims in America would have to establish communities in which there are dedicated teachers who can pass on and take responsibility for the knowledge that pass on.  It is this latter part that may have saved our brother Sharif Mobley from his current fate.  Brother Mobley, as do so many other young Muslims feel, out of a lack of fulfillment, that they must travel abroad to learn sacred knowledge.  Not only is it problematic that the assumption that these destinations do in fact contain sacred knowledge simply by proxy of their location in the historic Muslim world, but that such endeavors are not fraught with danger and peril.

In a recent Friday sermon, Mufti Imam Anwar Muhaimin commented on very concerning condition that many young Muslims labor under: a linguistic or cultural inferiority complex.  The American Muslim community, to paraphrase the Imam, has provided woeful substance to our young brothers and sisters; substance to feel that they are and can be legitimately Muslim here in America.  That we have the infrastructure to provide to them the sacred knowledge they wish to learn.  The results from this quietude on the part of the Muslim community in America for the past ten to twenty years, as my wife has put it, has been the development of a linguistic and cultural inferiority complex.  Perhaps if there could be the establishment of more real living and breathing scholars and teachers in America, then perhaps our youth would not have to trek off to the unknown places of the Muslim world, where we cannot assure that what they will be learning will be a of a benefit to them, either in this life or The Next.

It is my belief, that if we do not work to develop a crop of active and legitimate American Muslim scholars, not just rock star imams, but live-in teachers, then what we have witnessed will only be the beginning of a very long and unattractive nightmare.  To my Muslim brothers and sisters: please help to develop authentic Muslim scholarship, leaders and teachers in your own communities.  We are in desperate need of this, not simply doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  We are in need of teachers who will, in exchange for the support and cooperation of their respective communities, teach and lead a new generation of Muslims who are so very desperate for the knowledge of Islam, for their lives here and now, as well as for their lives in the Hereafter.  Living teachers, living examples, who will take the appropriate and responsible track in how they teach and propagate Islam and the next generation of Muslims.

Citation

Francis Robinson, . (1993). Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print. Modern Asian Studies, 27(1), 229-251.

The above photograph was taken by my father, Pierre Manley. It is the Amtrak train station in downtown Detroit, Michigan. © 2010.