By mehraj Din Bhat
Is it imperative that modern Muslims understand that Islam is not a monolithic utopia
In his book What is Islam: The Importance of Being Islamic, Shahab Ahmad engages with the question of what it means being a Muslim in the modern world and tries to deconstruct the myth of looking at Islam as a linear monolithic interpretative tradition. The damage this discourse has done is already visible: it has engendered takfiri approach, parochial understanding of Salafis, ultraconservative approach to Islam as a monolithic interpretative utopia, and open-ended liberal humanist maqasidi paradigm. This is the post-colonial condition of the Muslim world, where they find themselves in a vacuum that Salman Sayyid in his Recalling the Caliphate calls “homeless diaspora”. This idea of diaspora may be used to refer to an empirical situation in which settler communities are relocated from their ordinary homes. Experiences of Jewish and African diasporas have become templates for understanding what constitutes a diaspora. Both involve forced mass removal of people from a homeland to a place of “exile” and the construction of cultural formations premised on territorial dispersal and political fragmentation. The logic of diaspora is paradoxical. On one hand it emphasises the possibility of a nation in even the most difficult circumstances. On the other, it suggests the impossibility of a nation by preventing it from being fully formed, by deferring the moment of closure and absolutism.
Today, Muslims globally are facing an internal schism: whether they should engage with modernity and its underlying institutions, taking due cognizance of its implications on Muslim identity. In this context, Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State: Islam, Politics and Modernity’s Moral Predicament argues that Islam’s totalising ethical system finds ultimate expression in the ideal of religion as political praxis; Islam’s implementation is incomplete so long as spiritual and temporal authority are not united in a single state and authority is given to Allah alone. Not ignoring the fact that “Islamic paradigmatic governance” is antagonistic to the epistemological underpinnings of “modern nation state” and the Muslim intelligentsia’s immediate concern to liberate themselves from the Eurocentric theoretical framework and present a coherent Islamic political theory of governance. Modern Muslims are faced with the challenge of reconciling two facts: first, the ontological fact of the state and its undeniably powerful presence; second, the deontological fact of the necessity to bring about a theory for sharia governance. As Hallaq argues, “We must remember that Muslims today comprise nearly one-fifth of the world’s population and that inasmuch as they live in modernity, they also live in modern project. They are as much a part of this project as anyone else. The inherent self-contradictions entailed by a modern Islamic state are primarily grounded in modernity’s moral dilemma. The political and the economic, however integral to this self-contradiction, remain derivative of this moral predicament, which is to say that resolving these contradictions as moral issues would by definition resolve the political and economic problems. The inherent contradictions of any conception of a modern Muslim state – by virtue of the formidable vertical effect and horizontal power of the modern state – capture not only the entire spectrum of what has been described as ‘crisis of modern Islam’ but also implicate the moral dimensions of the modern project in our world from beginning to end.”
Islam as meta-religion
Islam, intentionally universal and universalising, is conceived as a spiritual globalisation project. Its self-image as meta-religion partly explains the Muslim decision to confront rather than accommodate secularism. Islam and secularism compete to be considered the culmination of history and both entertain a similar self-image: each assesses itself as the last rung on the historical ladder. In this illusory idealism, Islam has been obfuscated between the legalistic prison of parochial Islamists and postmodern “experts”. Islam is the victim for which everyone is fighting their utopian battles. The Quran conceives of Islam not as merely another religion but as meta-religion, al-din, a self-image bound to encourage universal expansion. The word “al-din” occurs only in the singular and with the definite article in the Quran since there is only one true religion.
Modern secularism, conceived as humanitarian liberalism, sees itself, not without reason, as the moral climax and end of history. Equally, from its own perspective, Islam as meta-religion represents authentic religion. Arguably, thus, the secular tendency to single out Islam for attacks that betray prejudicial rigour, while shielding other, usually eastern, religions under a patronising lenience, is motivated by the unconscious hostility between two competitive totalitarian visions of history’s trajectory. This meta-religious self-image of Islam has profound but unexplored political implications. For example, Marxists often condemn what they perceive as Islam’s antipathy to secular history, interpreted as an inescapable force that conditions and tethers all cultures and religions. They abjure its ideologically motivated anti-historicism. Read correctly, however, the Islamic position is a commitment to the transcendence of history within history: Islam has already consummated all history, sacred and profane, through the success of its political utopia in Medina in the 7th century. Unlike Marxists, Muslims are not waiting for the historical process to patronise their cause. Any Quranic philosophy of history, inevitably providential, linear and universal, is also apocalyptic and climactic. Muslim activists taunt Marxist secularists that Islam has already succeeded in creating its utopia in the past while Marxists merely dream of one in the distant future.
Islam is a reality, a feeling, an experience, something your soul can easily relate to. The quintessence of Islam was ingrained in our fitrah, the spiritio-psychological essence of human existence. Muhammad, the last of the Prophets, was a man of compassion, and people who believed in him and his message were influenced more by his character than his claim to Prophethood, and love was the central component of his character. He said, “I came to complete the code of character.” Love and compassion are most appropriate manifestations of his personality.
Diversity, not singularity
Any theological school or branch of sharia knowledge is largely understood as a monolith and given preference over the essence of Islam – which is the existent diversity within the ambit of Ahlu Sunnah wa Al Jammah – by its followers. Cemil Aydin deconstructs this condition in his book The Idea of the Muslim World. Not only is such a linear interpretation of Islam erroneous, Aydin argues, even a “Muslim world” as ordinarily understood does not exist. Today, the very people who claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims target other Muslims as enemies; Muslim societies are more divided than ever, riven by civil wars and protracted conflicts. Even so, the illusion of Muslim unity persists. Illusions are dangerous and considering ourselves to be the only torchbearers of “real Islam” is the real cause of our decline, spiritual and intellectual.
Starting a sincere conversation with Islam is the first step to finding a cure to this increasingly self-destructive notion of monolithic utopian Islam. This illusion, and the legalistic engagement with this beautiful faith, is as dangerous as the open-ended un-methodological approach to Islam. Muslims across territorial boundaries need to understand the diversity of human race, understandings, cultural connotations and approaches – as long as they are sincere – is what beautifies this faith. As the Creator explained, “We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).
To be a Muslim today does not require an Islamic reformation, as Hamid Dabashi argues in his book Being a Muslim in the World. It instead requires the restoration of Islam to its worldly disposition, remembering its conditions of pre-coloniality to deliver itself from the conditions of post-coloniality. The restoration of Islam to its worldly disposition means entrusting Muslims with the emerging and pressing task of being-in-the-world. Islam has always been the dialogical outcome of Muslim collective consciousness conversing with the dominant moral and intellectual forces in the world – from a position of power. Having been for over two centuries at the receiving end of European and American imperialism, and having turned their faith into a singular site of ideological resistance to those empires, Muslims will now have to retrieve that habitual dialogue, though not from a position of power but from a position of care – care of the other, of the world – which will in turn redefine who and what they are.