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.