Why focus on praxis, rather than on thought?

In the study of religion, is ‘thought’  more important than the everyday reality of those who practice religion? By ‘thought’ I include all the teachings, conceptions of ‘ideal society’ and life that every religion teaches.  This is a hard question to answer, as ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are two sides of the same coin, but in some cases, the practice assumes greater significance, as ‘ideal conditions’ for practice of the religion do not exist and those who believe in a certain religion tend to improvise and adapt their practices to the situation they find themselves in.

In the case of American Muslims, I suggest that the study of praxis is more important than that of ‘thought’ or ideal conceptions of society. The latter is not insignificant, but marginal, since the strategies that American Muslims have used to survive, build their communities and thrive have been based on pragmatic decisions, improvisational practices and a more ahistorical understanding of Islamic practice. Much of scholarship on Islam in the Academy normally occurs with the lens of ‘Islamic thought’ and in analyzing how classical scholarship by Imam Ghazali, Imam Hanafi or others has continued to influence day to day life of Muslims. On the other hand, there a strong focus on analyzing political movements and radical movements in the Middle East – in terms of trying to understand how these could

One instance of such practice is offered by Kambiz Ghaneabassiri, who argues that Muslims in Portland, Oregon are offering such examples, as praying in the car, when it is time for prayer, instead of missing it – while doing away with the prostrations – as it is not possible, while driving. He suggests that such instances are not uncommon in the U.S. Another example he offers, writing, as part of the Portland Pluralism project is that of not washing one’s feet during the ablution (wudu), before the prayers. This practice, while allowed in the fiqh, or Islamic legal tradition is not often practiced by Muslims in other parts of the world, but is done, quite regularly by those in the U.S., as many Muslims are uncomfortable washing their feet in public bathrooms.

Even in the case of practicing philanthropy, I have seen this improvisation taking place. The very notion of international humanitarian giving can be seen as an improvisation, based in the pragmatic needs of the community. While original conceptualization of zakat and sadaqa encourage believers to give to their immediate relatives, or neighbors, this form of trans-national giving can be seen as a recent innovation.

Another area of improvisation in philanthropy is interfaith work. It is regarded with some suspicion, among the more conservative members of American Muslim society. By philanthropy, I mean all forms of ‘voluntary action for the common good’. While organizations such as Islamic Relief, Helping Hands for Humanity and the like are focused on international work, with some significant work being carried out locally, as well; there are hundreds of local community organizations, operating independently or through mosques – in some cases – that are working to not only build networks of support, but also

One of the most interesting cases I have seen, during my time living in Washington D.C., was the practice of using a church for Jum’ah (Friday) prayers. This is a regular practice and has been ongoing for a while now. The ADAMS Center in Washington D.C. uses the Church of Epiphany for the congregations. This has been an ongoing activity, much earlier than the recently publicized event of Muslims praying in the National Cathedral in D.C. While the symbolism of Muslims praying in the largest Cathedral in the city is not to be dismissed, some see it as a PR stunt. Note that this occurred during the troubles in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. A rather cynical friend in Blacksburg connected these two events and suggested that it is a conspiracy of the ‘zionists’ to tell Muslims that they should offer their sites to Christians and Jews to pray. While his logic is indicative of some of the suspicions that some Muslims harbor, it doesn’t take into account the improvisational nature of Muslim practices in the U.s., where Muslims have taken Christian names, married their women and have had a fluid and accommodating relationship with other religions, races.

            Another example that I can offer from my own experience is that of the definition of a ‘Muslim’. In the U.S. unlike in many other parts of the world, the definition of who is a Muslim is very fluid. For instance, does the Ahmadiyaa community, which is considered ‘heretical’ in the Indo-Pak region is a full member of the broader Muslim community, at least in theory. While there are not as many interactions between the community and its non-Ahmadiyaa Muslim communities, the situation is at least better than in the Sub-continent, where members of the community have been actively persecuted for their beliefs and Pakistan has labelled them non-Muslim, as they believe in the prophethood of their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmed.

All of this is not to suggest that somehow orthodox beliefs or systems of thought are irrelevant in the U.S., but only to indicate that the way we study traditional practices among American Muslims must be re-looked at, in the context of the growing felt need of American Muslims to find common ground and find space for their way of life, among others, who do not always share their beliefs. Does this answer all our questions about how Islam is evolving in America? Not really, but at least, it offers a honest and true perspective of things as they are, not as they should be.

Top ten books I read this year

I read a lot of books this year. Like a LOT. Part of the reason is that I am preparing for my prelim exams (part of the PhD process) where you prove to your committee that you know your stuff. Additionally, I presented a few papers at a few conferences, many of them outside my ‘field’ of research. This meant reading new scholars, people that I didn’t know much about. Also, I went back to some books that I had read in the past, to revisit them and have a ‘conversation’ with them, so to say. Here is a short list of about ten books I read – all of them related to religion and philanthropy – two areas of intersection, that come together in my own work. In no particular order of importance, I list them here, with a short blurb. Good books are like a good conversation with a person you wouldn’t (normally) meet. Also, the fact that some of these books have endured the test of time are a

testament to the wisdom they contain.beyond the veil

  1. Beyond the Veil – This is one of the most provocative, mind-bending books I read this year. I was also fortunate to meet Dr. Fatima Mernissi in Morocco, during my visit this summer. She is considered the pioneer of Islamic Feminism and she makes some ground-breaking arguments in this book. The key argument is that Islam is an egalitarian religion, with respect to women’s rights and it gives them equal opportunities to partake in public life. The problem of women’s rights seem to have arisen with the manipulation of hadith and sacred texts by later day scholars, who sought to keep the patriarchic societal framework ongoing. She argues that Islam views gender segregation as a key component of maintaining social harmony, as female sexuality is viewed as an active ingredient, rather than as a passive one.
  2. Zealot – This is a fascinating book that offers a perspective that is not well known to most people, except scholars of religion – that Jesus the man was a political figure, who was made apolitical by Christians, after his death, to make his message more acceptable. This is an interesting book by Reza Aslan that also generated quite a bit of controversy, after an interview on Fox news. In case you missed it, you can watch it here. My connection with Reza is also that I did some research for him last year, and also got to meet him in person.
  3. The Conservative Soul – If you are looking for a book that explains the current debates in American conservatism, pick up this book. Andrew Sullivan is one of the most prominent bloggers in the U.S., who initially supported George W Bush and his war on Iraq, but later became critical of it. The book is a conversation with the reader on where conservatism stands today, and what its future looks like. While the book is a bit polemical, it could have done with a bit wider reporting of the conservative movement and more nuanced scholarship. He could have looked at Red State Religion, a fascinating book by Robert Wuthnow, for instance. Overall, this is a popular book that brings a lot of discussions to the fore, but there are flaws in it, as the NYT review point out. Would I still recommend it? Absolutely yet.
  4. The Sociological Imagination – This book, written by C Wright Mills, a motorbike riding Sociologist from the 1960s is sure to make you pause and re-think the way much Social science analysis is carried out. Mills’ key argument in the book is that we need more ‘Sociological imagination’ in analyzing our society. A purely ‘rational’ model of analyzing situations won’t work, he suggests.

The key argument of the book is that Social Sciences must evolve a new lens or a vision for analyzing the world and this must include History, biography (of the individual) as well as social conditions. A merely one-dimensional analysis or study of the individual does not yield the right picture or a complete understanding of what is going on in the world.

He argues that for a complete and true picture of social reality, one must try to connect the personal struggles of the individual with that of the broader society. While not many people do this, he believes that this is the right way to study social sciences. Pointing towards the need for this he says: “What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and what may be happening within themselves. It is this quality, I am going to contend that journalists and scholars, artists and scientists and editors are coming to expect of what may be called the Sociological Imagination”. Inter-disciplinary research, which is a mantra on college campuses nowadays, was what Mills called for.

  1. Habits of the Heart – This book is considered a classic in American Sociology by Robert Bellah et al. Habits of the heart tells us the story of four Americans – Brian Palmer: the corporate exec. Joe Gorman: The communitarian in MA, Margaret Oldham, a therapist and Wayne Bauer: Community organizer in CA- a hippie of the 60s’.

He says “Brian, Joe, Margaret, Wayne each represent American voices familiar to all of us. One of the reasons for the arguments they would have is that they draw from different traditions. Yet beneath the sharp disagreements, there is more than a little consensus about the relationship between the individual and society, between private and public good. This is because, in spite of their differences, they all to some degree share a common vocabulary, which we propose to call the “first language” of American individualism in contrast to alternative “second languages” which most of us also have.( P.20). Based on over 200 interviews, they offer a typology, based on four types of character among Americans: the independent citizen, the entrepreneur, the manager, and the therapist.

The book complicates the notion of individualism and suggests that is it not all bad. The individualism of a Cowboy or that of a firefighter may be seen as being purely selfish, but it is selfishness at the service of others, argue Bellah et al. “One accepts the necessity of remaining alone in order to serve the values of the group. And this obligation to aloneness is an important key to the American moral imagination.” The growing sense of individualism and lack of collective identity among Americans is a problem, the authors suggest. In response to this, a number of scholars such as Amitai Etzioni and others have come up with models for working out ‘communitarian’ ideals that would ultimately bind people, together

6. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam – This book is a new interpretation of the role of Ulema, or religious scholars in Islam. Mohammed Zaman offers us an insight into the ways and means that the Ulema in India used, to resist colonial occupation in pre-Independence India. He makes the case by looking at archives, historical work as well as commentaries of the Qur’an, written by various scholars, belonging to different strands of Islamic thought – the Ahl I Hadith, the Tablighi Jamat etc.. each one of which approached the Qur’an and Sunnah in a particular way.

7.A History of Islam in America – This is a scholarly examination of a topic that has been written about, from many perspectives. Ghaneabassiri offers an in-depth look at the origins and growth of the American Muslim community and places their history in relation to that of America. As a scholar of religion, his perspective is quite nuanced and he offers a penetrating analysis, which is hard to dispute. He argues that there are three million Muslims in the U.S, per Pew and Gallup poll results (pg.2). Given the enormous diversity found within the Muslim population in the U.S, no one narrative can capture the varying experiences of American Muslims, as there is no single American Muslim experience. “Muslims who found themselves in this country whether as slaves, immigrants, or converts have had to define themselves and to interpret their varying religious undertakings and practices in relation to the dominant laws, conceptions of religion, and political and cultural structures that have shaped American society through the years.” ( pg.3

8. Islam and the Blackamerican – Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican is a tour de force for understanding the question of Black Americans in America. He offers a compelling narrative, grounded in American History, Qur’an, Hadith and other Islamic texts that offer us the story of what he calls the ‘ideological encounter between Islam and Blackamericans, from the proto-Islamic black-nationalistic spin-off movements of the early twentieth century through the rise and preponderance of orthodox Sunni Islam by the century’s end.’ Jackson offers us insights into how issues of racial inequality in early period of development of Blackamerican consciousness were replaced with concerns of problems of the Muslim world – Palestine, Kashmir and Egypt. He does a nice job of tracing the relations between ‘immigrant’ Muslims and the Blackamerican Muslims, while placing it in the context of theological debates and the power relations that emerged out of ‘orthodoxy’ in Islamic tradition.

9.Making Social science Matter – This book by Bent Flyvbjerg offers a compelling reason to reject completely ‘rational’ explanations in favor of those that are intuitive. He calls this methodology as ‘phronesis’, based upon the methods of intuitive and arational analysis developed by Aristotle. This style of reasoning is needed in today’s world, as it is becoming increasingly complex, multi-layered. Further, this method of analysis is important, as the main strength of social science is its reflexivity and ability to offer a critical perspective. This does not necessarily include prediction, which is what pure science is supposed to do, he suggests.

10.Strategic Giving – This is a great book if you want to understand the transformation of philanthropy in America, both from a donor and recipient’s perspective. I was privileged to attend a summer fellowship with Dr. Peter Frumkin, who teaches at Upenn, so also know the backstory to how this book was written. This is a great study of the growth and transformation of American philanthropy and in the book, Frumkin offers an in-depth investigation of how foundations changed, over a period of time, and how this can be seen as a part of the change of American landscape of giving. His argument is that one should look at philanthropy as a value driven enterprise, rather than just purely instrumental. Hence the use of the word ‘strategic’. His framework in suggesting this is a prism of giving, a five point mantra, if you will of giving. These five elements of giving include: deciding which vehicle to use for giving away the donor’s money; clarifying the purpose of the gift; setting a time frame for giving; choosing the level of donor engagement with grant recipients; and assessing the impact the contributions will have.