I finished the first chapter of Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam, where he lays out the need for a rethinking what should be considered Islam (for the academy and as a theoretical-object), introduces his Balkans-to-Bengal complex, and presents six questions that he expands on in the book before concluding with a chapter synthesizing all of the work into his reconceptualization.
There are so many things that interest me about it. For starters, it’s practically an encyclopedia for modern scholarship on Islam, Sufism, and the sharī’ah.
It’s also a confirmation from someone outside myself (with my internal biases of my race, class, and experiences) that accepts questioning our modern conceptualization of Islam, which almost totally emphasizes the juridical aspects while relegating the mystical or simply the less orthodox aspects and histories, as valid and worthwhile. Here’s one quote from page 125:
Given that modern man is, to a historically unprecedented degree, homo juridicus, it is hardly surprising that the leitmotif of Muslim modernism of every stripe is the assertion of the unilateral normative supremacy of something called sharī’ah identified with law—whether that sharī’ah/law be in some pristine or reformed condition. It is striking that so much of the discourse of modern reformist Muslims—who have, for the most part, received the norms of modernity second-hand and by the forces of arms and coercive administration of European colonialism—about (what is) Islam has been about rethinking the Islamic state by rethinking Islamic law, and not about rethinking theology, philosophy, ethics, poetics, and Sufism as a hermeneutical means to modern Islamic norms. The relative lack of concern on the part of even the most self-consciously critical modern Muslims to re-think or re-form normative Islam in terms of theology, philosophy, and ethics—let alone Sufism and poetics—is one of the most peculiar, but also symptomatic, elements of Muslim modernity as modernity.
But in regards to this post, it just makes me ache for Istanbul, Bursa, and Konya; the mosques, the narrow streets filled with cafes, the tram running through İstiklal Caddesi, Rūmī‘s mausoleum, the bookstores. It was the first vacation that Patricia and I took together during one Christmas break from school. Here’s a few of the many photos I took from December 2014.
I took this photo of Masjid Sultanahmet’s entrance with an iPhone 5S and it blew my mind.
When I went to pray, I was dazzled by the stained glass and inscriptions all over and the illumination from the lights overhead. In Mauritania and Sierra Leone, mosques are a nondescript affair with hardly any decoration to them.
I can’t remember the name of this neighborhood but it was close to the Bosphorus bridge.
So many museums. In the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, I learned much more about the major and minor dynasties; the Rāshidūn, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Almoravids, and the Almohads.
On Christmas Day, we were in Konya, the adopted hometown of the Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī. I felt we were the only western tourists there at the time. The museum and mawlana’s mausoleum were free that day. After, I went to the noon prayer at the adjacent mosque. It was under construction and covered in a blue tarpaulin but the rugs and chandelier were still very nice.
After taking the train back to Istanbul, we visited the Grand Bazaar. Walking anywhere in Istanbul was so pleasant, though cold. Coming from the climate of the Saharan edge of Nouakchott, it was a bit of a shock.
I can’t remember the street but this one with bookstores everywhere was pretty special. Most of it in Turkish and Arabic, I actually purchased two books in a different bookstore in Fatih. Both were histories:
John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium which I never finished. Most of it was court intrigue and what dynastic family plotted to kill the emperor at the time. Meh.
Jason Goodwin’s Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire was incredible, however. Short, concise, but almost un-put-down-able. That’s when reading history clicked for me.
It’s hard to know if and when I’ll return to Istanbul. While a few bombings occurred later in the next year, at the peak of the so-called Islamic State, now traveling seems so far away in our new age of pandemic. But I remember it fondly and that will have to do for now.
I started listening to them this year, during Spain’s lockdown, when I’d take Alqo into the woods for a momentary escape. Hosted by Tanya, Tom, and Tarence from Appalachia, Kentucky (Tarence is a transplant from New Mexico), their perspectives as three marxists from a rural and conservative area are illuminating. Every so often, they reference the e-crisis, or epistemological crisis, that haunts the United States.
A crisis or knowledge. We cannot agree on basic, foundational knowledge or facts in the political, social, or religious realms. With heightened stakes for progress (societal and perhaps planetary survival) from pandemics, rising acceptance of authoritarianism, climate inaction, and many of us being ‘more online’ than ever, we’ve entered a new phase on how we relate to each other and the wider world. Obviously, disagreement spans centuries and geography, but the last decade’s technological and algorithmic advancements have given us our own finely-tuned informational vacuum that is not shared with even our closest neighbors.
We, the United States, with all our social and economic contradictions might be at the stage of the Weimar or late Roman republics. I say this knowing full well my own family does not see it like that. Granted, I tend to speak in extremes. Am I seeing something differently, (or missing something) because I live abroad?
But I also see the e-crisis in myself. I’m more annoyed and sarcastic when I scroll through Twitter in my morning. Why? Because all the outrage and governmental ineptitude is on full display right when I wake up. There’s no joy filter I can turn on. I just have to muster the willpower to log off.
Before I though of this crisis as collectivized, generalized. I had not considered to think deeply about my own internal epistemological crisis.
In this particular episode, one of the hosts, Terence, started dissecting the 21st century Marxist motto “A better world is possible”. He questioned this:
We’re constantly in this space where we think we can change the world, philosophically, … but we know deep down, empirically, that we can’t. That’s the e-crisis. It’s the space between those two things.
He continued by saying that some days he wakes up feeling inspired and optimistic about the future. If we keep on working towards something positive and democratic and for the benefit of all, good things will start happening. But other days, he wakes up with the grim thought that there’s not much those of us who hold no power or sway over large institutions can do.
The contradictions are stacking up, but for all we see with what’s happening (specifically in the United States), it is not producing the mass discontent, radicalization, and organizational action of people needed to overthrow the capitalist system. So Tarence ended his monologue with:
It would probably behoove you to get into religion, some sort of spiritual practice, or something.
As with any book or podcast that’s meaningful to me, I started reflecting on my own trajectory over the last few years. In Mauritania and Mexico I had turned away from the (neo)-traditionalist form of Islam that seemed solid to me. In the end, I could square the legalist, non-mystical, and non-materialist framing that the celebrity imams and my Mauritanian friends seemed convinced of with my reading of the Qur’an and Islamic history. Even though I was relatively late to the party, I chafed at the sectarianism online and offline. But really, I was only rebelling against my own shaky conceptions of what it meant to be Muslim.
I had read a good deal about Sufism but did not consider myself one. My first encounter with Islam was through Rumi at university. I had never felt the ineffable mystical experience that the spiritual masters and poets described until my night with the chakruna in Peru.
That night healed my broken heart for the dīn, that way of life given to us by The One That is Closer to Us Than Our Jugular Veins and elucidated by the prophets since the first Homo sapiens, willingly adopted as my own. It also gave me the drive to start opening up about things that I consider incredibly complex and important. I don’t have all the answers obviously, and perhaps I’m wrong about many things. But I have enjoyed the path.
But if I’m being honest, I have become distracted from the ineffable. I externalized my peace of mind and happiness into the material with the Bernie campaign, wishing for improvements that might never come. I’m probably not alone. But with getting older, reading closely the arc of history and progressive movements. Sometimes the shoe never drops. I could live out the rest of my days with the anticipation of the sudden collapse of the global financial capitalist system that never comes. Tarence wasn’t suggesting religion to move away from fighting those necessary battles; racial injustice, the climate emergency, the neo-fascists. He was giving us a bigger anchor to hold on to.
I look to the Qur’an and Islam as one might look to Jesus and Christianity to steady myself and see the long game. To read the allegories of the prophets and the pronouncements for me is to gain a larger, more cosmic perspective of things. In the end, Justice will be served. It is up to us and in the same way, not up to us.
After I finished the dishes, I picked up my copy of Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? It was a field-changing book for Islamic Studies. I’m still in the introduction but in it, he picks apart the the conception of what is Islamic. Are wine-cups from the caliphs with Arabic inscriptions on them considered Islamic? Why do we consider the juridical perspectives of the great imams more Islamic than the philosophic-religion like Ibn Sina or Ibn ‘Arabi?
But it wasn’t necessarily the contents of the book that comforted me that night. It was the convergence of hearing someone remind us of the importance of a larger spiritual worldview to strengthen ourselves for the important materialist fight for earthly progress and an important scholar exploring what it really means to be Muslim, using examples of practices and people who are occasionally considered heterodox (outside of the fold of Islam) that lifted me.
It’s a silly example that can only make sense to me, with all the things rattling around in my head. But I’m sure there are others who have similar experiences of different stimuli that converge at the exact right moment they need them to produce a personal mini-breakthrough. I needed that this particular night.
My own e-crisis will remain, I’m sure. I can’t turn it off and dive so fully into my own surroundings and hobbies that I forget about what goes on outside my family, my tribe, my spiritual community, or country. But reframing my thinking and using a “larger anchor” that I had momentarily forgotten have gifted me more acceptance for what might come. And for that I am grateful.
An small anecdote. An eminent conservative traditionalist scholar of Islam from a certain country tweeted about their country’s mosques re: the coronavirus pandemic. In it, he stated that those coming to prayer must have gloves, a rug of their own, must not shake hands, and that it is not necessary to line up shoulder-to-shoulder. I glanced down and saw a reply:
May Allah reward you well…would you kindly provide evidence that “the worshipers do not have to line up and do not converge” in this case?
In this new era, where everyone will have to adapt in order to protect each other, someone is asking for evidence. Is there a precedent, I imagine a hadith, that is attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that confirms this change in the prayer in extraordinary circumstances?
Here is an example, one but not unique, of the line of thinking that leads to dogmatic (and perhaps fatalistic) religious worldviews that secular people rightly cannot understand. I’m sure this person was being sincere, so maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill. And I do not mean to paint with such a broad brush, but it is a sample of the conversations and experiences I’ve also experience in Muslim communities. I see this and worry a bit. Do we need evidence to keep our distance in practicing our faith without the worry or threat of contagion, endangering not just the men standing next to you but their families and anyone they come into contact with as well?
Belief doesn’t need to rely on looking back to old world thinking or an over-reliance on others. For me (because I always only speak for myself) it is an opening up to possibilities beyond the material and should aid in our progress towards an appropriate mission, caring for the material and spiritual needs of all creation. It brings confirmation that the human journey is much longer and deeper than what we experience it, not as some deviation from a more pious past.
Another anecdote. A different scholar, American, but no less traditionalist, tweeted regarding mosque closures in other countries. This is in response to someone sharing a link about why UK mosques have remained open:
In other times, it’s an amusement at best or a nuisance at worst to see ill-trained students from madrasahs try to flex their literalist muscles against critical thinking and common sense. Right now, this attitude will inevitably cause deaths and cannot be tolerated. Avoid socializing!
More rational, yet quite a few pushed back on and felt scholars and their institutions were being attacked.
This is why I have chosen to ‘self-quarantine’ myself from orthodoxy. This is why I have to look more closely and critically into the history, the power relations, the primary and spurious secondary sources of my adopted belief system much more than following personalities, also swayed by their education, yes, but by their own histories, reactions, and opinions to the times.
And this is what belief brings me. It brings me some sense of serenity (some, I say) to prepare for the oncoming of what the troika of crises (coronavirus, climate, capitalism) will bring about. It is spiritually lonely, I admit. But it squares with my reality much more than arguing about mosque closures. Talk to some Muslim women who have been boxed out of the mosque explicitly or otherwise for their entire lives and pray at home.
The Qur’an, the starting point and end point of Islam, is dynamic, filled with signs and admonitions to reflect upon. But it will only remain so in the hearts of dynamic, open-minded individuals who choose to prioritize it over the whims and opinions, however educated, of other humans. The times are strange and filled with uncertainty and disinformation.
Note: I’m quoting extensively from a page devoted to correctly analyzing and rightly criticizing traditionalist translations of Qur’anic verse 4:34, the so-called “wife-beating verse”. Its author is Wakas Muhammad from the United Kingdom. Here, my interest is in both his personal story and his methodology for studying the Qur’an. Both he and I are not scholars, simply seekers.
When someone else has found the words for the thoughts and feelings I share, I let them do the talking. As time passes, I become even more convinced of the necessity of interpersonal exchanges from laypeople, away from centers of power and gatekeepers of knowledge.
Have you read the Qur’an? Have you tried? It can be confusing. Believe me, I know. Especially if you are like me and didn’t grow up with any sort of religious background. Moreso if you grew up in a milieu or you actively chose to be reject the idea of religion in the first place in your youth. The very idea of some god on high commanding you to surrender could seem odious to some, especially westerners. Many seem to think an ineffable, divine reality goes against logic and science. I remember going to hardcore punk shows in Riverside county or while browsing the Bridge 9 messageboards in high school, and seeing, alongside the straight edge community, a significant atheist presence, some with tattoos such as: “I’ll die before I kneel.” Maybe they were anti-monarchists, but I doubt it.
The Qur’an is unlike the Bible or any other religious text. The parables of prophets and admonitions of the life to come, of the absolute unity of God, and of the importance of good works are scattered throughout its 114 chapters, arranged in descending order according to length.
Things can become simultaneously more inspiring and confusing when you’re wading into the waters of Islam; researching what you’ve read, watching lectures on YouTube, talking to Muslims if you have the opportunity, reading histories and theologies.
By then you’ll surely have discovered there is a vast trove of narrations recounting the supposed actions and sayings of the prophet Muhammad, compiled a few centuries after his death. This is the hadith literature. By now, while reflecting on your existence and seeing the signs in your life and in the world, you might be convinced of the existence of God, and possibly the veracity of the Prophet Muhammad.
But there might also be doubt. Your family or friends might not understand the changes that seem so clear and logical to you. You might agree with 90% of Islamic teachings according to the scholars.
I remember one Ramadan night in Nouakchott. It was after iftar and I was enjoying the warm evening desert air with two Muslim neighbors from France. The topic turned from the Islamist takeover of northern Mali to capital punishment. One of them mentioned how the people of Azawad, sick of the corruption and indifference of Bamako and lawlessness that was born because of it, some citizens welcome the takeover and the imposition of rajm, or stoning. Regardless of the Qur’anic silence on the matter (to be very clear, stoning is not mentioned in the Qur’an) and my disgust, the other neighbor, a convert himself, said, “Well, like it or not, it is part of Islam.”
We have not neglected in the Register a thing.
— Qur’an [6:38]
Despite clear admonition to not innovate upon the system that God has laid out, we have innovated.
It is beyond the scope of just one post to articulate my own journey and current views vis-a-vis hadith of almost a decade. But I guess this is what a blog is for; a continuous dialogue, in flux. I briefly touched on some of those thoughts in an earlier post.
All this to say; each of us has a journey, and I have found hope and solace in others’. The following is for two types of readers; Those interested in hearing of someone else’s experience following the straight path [6:151-153], and those looking for some guidance on what to make of the Qur’an using only itself as a reliable source.
Wakas Muhammad’s Journey
I’ve quoted a few illuminating passages from Wakas Muhammad’s about page regarding his relationship to Islam and the Qur’an. He was born into a traditionally Sunni Muslim household, while I came into the fold later in life via the shahada in Sunni Mauritania. We’ve never met. But we share an affinity for nature, are skeptical of authorities, and an inquisitive mind in common. I highly recommend reading his full story.
On accepting the core and questioning the presumed authorities:
“So whilst I questioned Islam, I never really questioned its core belief.”
“…there was simply no way of knowing if my Sunni Islam was the right version. I often thought if I was brought up as a Shia Muslim for example I’m sure I’d think Shia was the right version and Sunni was wrong.”
“I had no idea then, that this simple and subtle shift in direction was to lead me somewhere I never imagined: to a book and system that was beyond Sunni or Shia, in fact, to a book and system that was beyond religion.“
On often overlooked hadith criticism of early Islam:
“Namely, the traditional Hadith are a mix of truth and falsehood, littered with traditions/culture/politics/conflict/views of the time and nothing to do with the universal message of The Quran. Hearsay pawning itself of as the direct words of prophet Muhammad when in fact it was compiled generations after (like The Bible!) through arbitrary means and ultimately unverifiable chains of narration. An important point I realised was the authenticity of Traditional Hadith was in question right from the start, bans were in place, hadith scripts were systematically collected and burned by Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar, people jailed for spreading them, opposition to them having an obligatory status was significant, no early school of thought used them as an obligatory source of law, conflicts arose etc. Eventually however, this new Hadith-centric position triumphed. Unfortunately, this is the history Muslims are not taught, as the saying goes: “it is the victor’s history that goes to school”. Just like in the past, history had repeated itself:
Moses delivered God’s message, afterwards, most of his followers became misguided.
Jesus delivered God’s message, afterwards, most of his followers became misguided.
Muhammad delivered God’s message, afterwards, most of his followers became ?
Muslims seem to think we are immune to this pattern in history. Like me they have no idea it has happened to us as well [6:112-116], [25:30].”
On the long process of smashing idols and rebuilding faith:
“Even though I had effectively accepted The Quran as the only source for Islam, I hadn’t realised to what extent tradition/culture had been incorporated into everyday practice/beliefs. This point in the journey is not for the faint-hearted! Many Traditional Muslims will accept that not all traditional Hadith can be trusted (hence weak/strong classification, etc.) and most will state The Qur’an is the primary source, but like many I had no idea that the Islam taught by the Qur’an was almost unrecognizable to the Islam practiced today.”
“This is where many end the journey. This part requires someone to actively study/seek/research/question their own beliefs as well as their family/friends, etc. It requires the breaking down of myths, embracing uncertainty, periods of confusion mixed with joy and clarity, rebuilding of ideas… who would want to put themselves through that? Not many. The more I researched, the more disillusioned, confused, lost I became. It is important to point out it was not because it didn’t make sense, it was because it was shaking my beliefs down to the ground. It was just so different and unexpected to what I had been taught. Slowly but surely I began to connect the dots and see the big picture. I now realize it was necessary to break down my beliefs and rebuild on a solid foundation [9:109]. Like most, I started with a core starting point (belief in God) but had built upon it a mixture of Islam + tradition + culture + myths + hearsay + bias. This was not a solid structure, so I began to dismantle it using the ultimate falsehood smasher; the Qur’an. Akin to how a sculptor does not keep adding clay to his subject, actually, he strips away the inessentials until its true form is revealed, and the truth is beautiful.”
On monotheism and faith as an ongoing exercise:
“To end, I consider myself a monotheist who inclines towards the Qur’an because it resonates with who I am and how I see the world, and I try to live by its principles. My working hypothesis is that it is the Word of God and I am in an ongoing verification process, and I am still learning. I am not religious, nor do I wish to be, for the Qur’an is a book beyond religion. I do not know if I chose this path, or the path chose me, but I will continue to walk it, because I choose to.
As the saying goes: “there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path”. I believe most Traditional Muslims know the path but are unwilling to walk it, or if they do walk it, they prefer to be led down the path by their religious leaders. When one has the guiding light of the Quran, there is no need for another shepherd.”
Toward A Rational, Nonsectarian Qur’anic Study Framework
I became aware of this list years ago and saved a copy in my notes on my phone. I didn’t know who had written it then. It might have been on tumblr, or another social network where works are passed around often without any original accreditation accompanying them. Only when I wanted to share this did I find the author and his page. The links direct to quran.com, an easy-to-use online Qur’an with multiple translations.
Look to its internal examples, stories within it give us lessons, it is a clarification for all things [7:176], [12:3], [12:111], [17:89], [18:54]
Any interpretation must always be understood in a way that is focused on benefiting mankind and our development [13:17]
Any understanding should reflect its attributes, such as: wisdom, mercy, healing, noble, glad tidings, blessing, clear etc. [2:97], [10:57], [15:1], [17:82], [36:2], [45:20], [56:77], [85:21]
Seek God’s spiritual aid, away from the forces of satan/opposition (e.g. emotional instability, personal desire, self-delusion, arrogance, prejudice, deviation) [16:98]
Seek knowledge, verify, use your God-given senses [17:36], [39:9]
To not believe in the Hereafter can act as a barrier to its understanding [17:45-46]
Guides to what is straight/upright/establishing [17:9]
It increases guidance for the guided, i.e. those who continuously turn towards it, seek it, and follow it [19:76]
It has not been sent to make us suffer unnecessarily, thus any interpretation should bear this in mind [20:2]
Its information and teachings should map to our reality (within our psyche, experience and to the furthest horizons). All signs, internal and external can point to the truth of it and act as a verification mechanism [21:10], [30:30], [41:53], [51:20-21]
Anything from God will not have contradiction/inconsistency/variance. This also applies to our understanding as well. If we formulate a correct interpretation of the Qur’an, we will find that everything falls into place (This is one of the most crucial criteria) [4:82]
Stick with a solid/proven source, not a baseless narration/hadith. The Qur’an is the best, most truthful and only obligatory hadith [4:87], [31:6], [39:23], [77:50]
Purity of mind/heart will grasp it. Work on this aspect of oneself as you seek guidance [56:79]
Do not rush our learning, read what is easy of it, gradually build knowledge and acceptance to strengthen one’s heart, and ask God to increase our knowledge [5:101], [20:114], [25:32], [73:20], [75:17]
With the Qur’an as a measuring stick, one finds a universal, timeless reminder, inclining toward peace, security, for all, regardless of faith-based identity. When hadith are introduced as a supplement, the picture becomes murkier, more 7th century, and more dislocated, at least for me.
Far from the book of an exclusivist religious group preoccupied by rituals and dogma (as some portray it), the Qur’an is meant for all people, for all time. It would serve us Muslims well to examine deeper into our history and traditions to become better stewards of the Message. It is 2019 and the world will not become less complicated. But we can, using the same intersectional critiques we use for other religious communities, un-complicate the Qur’an and open the door to other seekers, especially those not born into the faith.
Many thanks to Wakas Muhammad for his story and his Qur’anic study methodology. Thanks for reading this far.
The desire to be a part of a movement or a community of the likeminded is a deceptive diversion from reality: it obscures what we are really called to, replacing personal ethical responsibility with group-think. In contrast to what is commonly taught amongst Muslims, the Qur’an cautions against following herd instinct: “If you obey most people on earth, they will take you away from the easy path of God.” [6:116] Belonging, really, is not what it is all about.
Sometimes I am surprised how little these friends of mine know me, as they bombard me with the ramblings of men linked to me only by a very generic profession of faith. We are not called upon to embrace what others say out of a sense of pious solidarity. The truth is just truth; it is founded on the argument, not on belonging to a particular group or ethnicity. None of this is new.
I’ve tried writing my own thoughts, but it all comes out as gibberish. Soon, God willing.