I only made it up to Chinguetti once or twice a year. This one of the old town’s mosque is from January 2016 when my mother-in-law came to visit. Our friend, a popular Mauritanian tour guide, organized a camping trip. It was also the first and only time we saw Ouadane. Unfortunately time never allowed us to go as far as Oualata.
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.
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.