Strobe Light Islam

Shaykh Walead Mosaad

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As I sat in the main hall at an Islamic conference hosted by a large national organization I had difficulty making out what the speaker was saying. Perhaps it was the alternating purple and red strobe lights, or maybe the replaying video of a mosque from Shiraz or Isfahan projected on an enormous screen situated some twenty feet behind the speaker.  It felt similar to what I felt when I toured the Dolmabache palace in Istanbul this past summer, a 19th century European style place of residence for the last Ottoman sultans, replete with lion sculptures adorning manicured gardens, and English chandeliers towering over French style ballrooms within its halls. And not so dissimilar from a mosque I sometimes attend that has placed in its foyer a collection box for mosque improvement, zakat, and one labelled “Imam fund”, presumably to go towards the salary of the yet to be hired full time imam.  

While all three experiences appear dissimilar, the common thread between all was a sense of alienation.

Offensiveness and tastelessness rather than entreaty and allure.  Dispiritedness rather than restoration.  Ugliness rather than beauty.

Beautiful, endearing, and appealing

Islam – and everything connected to it, even by the most remote of connections – should be beautiful, endearing, and appealing to both body and soul.  The Prophet Muhammad was the embodiment of such beauty, both outwardly and inwardly, from the softness of the palm of his hand, to the mercy shown to his adversaries, but it is as if the community has in some fashion detached itself from this profound and penetrating truth.  The means and mode should be as beautiful as the ends.  Or as one of my teachers remarked: the means are the ends.  Utilitarianism is anathema to the pristine Prophetic teachings.  Noble ends cannot be achieved except through noble means.   

Muslims created civilizations that projected this beauty, from the acoustic balance and perfection in the Sultan Ahmet mosque, to the melodies of the Andalusian muwashshaḥ (form of poetic litany). No aspect of human endeavour was left to a worldview alien to Prophetic inspired paradigms.  Yet, here we are.

Oversimplification of tradition

Our inability to retain and transmit the aural imperatives of the Prophetic teachings, that is, what is the purely human element of the Islamic tradition, has no doubt contributed to such a lack of refinement.  The sacred texts themselves, as well as the corpus of scholarly literature, including all of the Islamic disciplines such as tafsīr, fiqh, theology, and so forth, are widely available and are no further than a keystroke. In earlier periods, a costly commission of the warrāq (manuscript copyist) would have been necessary to obtain a manuscript of Saḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, or the Risāla of Imam al-Shāfi‘ī.  Yet, despite the unprecedented ease by which the texts can be obtained, shallow and vacuous representations of the Islamic intellectual tradition persist.   The oversimplification of this tradition, as enforced by some via their unwritten endorsement, has led to a paralyzing lack of appreciation for the sophistication of the Islamic teachings.  Many are the dilettantes who troll social media querying those with whom they disagree for the all-powerful dalīl (textual evidence) that will sanction a particular devotional practice or point of view, not knowing that the understanding of textual evidence is not so simple as citing a single Qur’ānic verse or ḥadīth, but requires trained experts to properly invoke and interpret.

Loss and humiliation

Hence, one is forced to conclude that the transmitters of these texts – the ‘ulamā’ – are the lone variable that must account for the shortcomings.  The dismantling of the institutions and systems by which scholars were trained during the colonial era no doubt played a large part in contributing to this situation, but the colonization of the Muslim mind perhaps reveals the greater story.  In the reaction to this colonization, or perhaps as a direct result of it, Islam became an ideology, where the main objective became the capturing of power, whether political, or otherwise, in order to reinstate Islam at the top of the intellectual, social, and cultural pyramid. The formation and proliferation of the “Islamic group” often in direct opposition to state power, attests to this new reality.  These groups were often at odds with one another, but they shared a common genealogy predicated on the notion of solicitation of power and influence as a means to reform a community that had lost its way, evidenced by the ease in which colonial powers had humiliated them, and the perceived ease by which they had installed puppet despots to preside over them.

Amidst this changing landscape and redefining of Islamic polity, the state of the Muslims prior to colonization was often cited as the culprit, and more specifically the state of Islamic understanding and practice in these pre-modern communities.  The community had slipped into decadence and forgotten the pristine teaching and practice of the Prophetic and early period.  Terminologies, pedagogies, and devotional practices that had developed since the early period were dismissed as reprehensible innovations that summoned God’s wrath and led us to this pitiful state.  As such, Islam had to be cleansed from these innovations and purged of all its egregious representations.  An accompanying demonization of the “other” also ensued, as their corrupting influences were also to blame.   

Yet, here we are, nearly a century removed from physical colonisations, but the Muslim mind is as colonised as ever, burdened and embossed by the quest for validation and a seat at the table of influence.  But how successful are we if the price for such a seat is if all we are is a mirror reflection of those sitting to the left or right of us? I agree with the reformists that Muslims are in need of a return to its apodictic foundations. However, this return cannot be the recreation of an epoch firmly planted in the past, but rather the resurrection of timeless foundational imperatives that have been abandoned in favour of pragmatism and expediency, retaining only a simulated outer shell.  The Muslim mind must return to the Prophetic model in the manner that it observes and interprets the book of creation, to discern its signs, and abide by its prompts and commands, to see the divine attributes manifested in all that is, was, and ever will be.  Our epistemological system must be revived: verification and criticism in dealing with the khabar, the report of another one was not witness too, rather than seamless dissemination if the right identity dynamics are invoked.  

Our theological system must be revived: acceptance of the divine decree, without despair, and the recognition of the direct correspondence between that which our hands sow and divine correction.  Our system of jurisprudence must be revived, recognizing the sophistication of the four schools, and the still relevant juristic tools that guide the qualified jurist to address the complex societal issues of contemporary life.  And perhaps most importantly, our ethical system must be revived, as it is our principal contribution to the world.  Ethics, morals, and just interactions with all our relationships are that which distinguishes us from our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity.  The Islamic tradition has a vibrant and time tested system for human development, i.e. for each human being to reach his or her full human potential, as this is manifested in their understanding of reality, their ability to follow the divine commands and avoid the divine prohibitions, and their morals and ethical behaviours.  A revivification of the foundational principles and their application and contextualization for our tumultuous times is what is desperately needed, but such a project cannot be carried out by self-proclaimed “mujtahids” and “reformists” who advocate simple realignment of Islam with tempestuous and ever-changing Western norms, or advocate literalist and vacuous interpretations of the sacred texts to justify sectarian agendas.  It can only be carried out by true Muhammadan heirs, who resoluteness is tempered by their mercy and desire for well-being for all of God’s creatures.  Perhaps many Muslims are not ready to hear their message just yet, but that does not change the pertinence and urgency of its significance.