How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

A New Year Wish – Charity and Justice for all

It is that time of the year when everyone is reaching out to everyone else, to seek support for their causes. Financial support, in-kind support, volunteer time, all of it is kosher. If you work in the nonprofit sector, you’d know. There are many things that are wrong with our world and activists, religious leaders, politicians are all working, in solving these- in their own way. That is not to say thIMG_0071 IMG_0205 IMG_0206at there aren’t others who are creating or adding to these problems. Surely, there are. But there is a growing awareness among people who are aware that one must align with people or organizations to seek justice for victims of violence and oppression.

On the other hand, there is a perspective that seeks to forgive, look at the grand scheme of things and realize that (as in some world religions) that this world is ephemeral or Maya – an illusion, that will soon pass. So, one’s role is to do one’s best karma and hope for the rewards in an afterlife or next life, depending on one’s belief system. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam advocate one of these perspectives.

While these two approaches could be seen as two opposing views, with the first one being the radical activist one, and the latter a more pacifist, non-confrontational approach; the truth is that both are very active, engaged and conscious ways of living. The other extreme is to just not bother. To switch off what is going on around oneself, insulate oneself with one’s own pursuit of happiness, comfort for one’s family and live a life pursuing pleasure. This suits some of us, and more power to them. But to live the ‘good life’ as Aristotle taught and other great teachers demonstrated through their lives requires living an ‘examined life,’ one in which one’s actions, thoughts and ambitions are put under the microscope and examined for their impact.

I have been reading a lot about charity this year, since my research concerns looking at discourses of charity and how dominant discourses in America accommodate it or not. Also, I am interested in the religious dimensions of giving and how religious traditions shape our understanding of giving and if at all, it is changing. This seems like an innocuous question, but given the current debate in the American system about welfare reform, immigration and healthcare; they have proved to be an explosive mix. And there is the risk of losing track of what is significant, amidst all the noise one hears from pundits and news anchors. One of the most striking facts I realized is that ultimately, all of us (irrespective of party ideology) are seeking solutions to human problems – and this is based on the assumption that people are not entirely self-interested, in a zero-sum game way. Libertarianism is an entirely different story. I will deal with ‘enlightened self-interest’ in another blog. The way we may seek to arrive at the solution may be different – either government intervention or market mechanisms, but the higher goal is always to solve a problem and arrive at a solution to better others’ lives. And that is an admirable thing. The only caveat is that we must be guided by facts, not ideologies. As former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said “You may be entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” We must be watchful about this, as we formulate opinions on issues that we care about.

Reading the newspaper is a depressing act these days. Civil war in Syria, economic depression in Europe, sexual violence in India, Gangs going crazy in Central and South America and political instability in Africa; not to mention the crazy antics of Republicans and Tea Partiers in the U.S. This is the staple of our diet. On a daily basis. The daily dose of images coming our way has perhaps sensitized us. The other day I just read a headline about a certain number of people dying in the Middle East and I caught myself rushing to another story, as it just did not surprise me anymore. Ghastly images, news of dozens dying is so normal that we don’t even pause to think.

As the year is winding down and I am planning for the upcoming year, I wanted to jot down some ideas and ask myself and those who read this: Can our collective resolution in the New Year be to be more sensitive, aware and more charitable? Can we aspire for a more just world, where one person’s will does not decimate thousands and thousands of lives and the forces of greed, evil and hatred don’t work their way into people’s hearts- using words, labels and ideas that sound lofty? Can we all be more alert and vigilant against the use of words and ideas such as terrorism, welfare and realize that there is always more than one side to a story and how people deploy their narratives? Can we be more charitable and yet more firm in our resolve to not let politicians, our leaders and others bully or manipulate us?

I promise to at least try, this year. The year 2013 was very good for me. I traveled a lot, met wonderful people, read great books, had great conversations, and received much kindness from people I knew and from strangers. I hope this continues in the New Year and I hope that all of you have a great year and also make the effort to be kind to strangers, nice to people you like and don’t like, dignified in your anger and sensitive when dealing with those who are weaker than you are. And learn more. Read. Travel. Converse.

Here’s my wish list for the world, in no particular order of importance:

 

  1. End to violence in Syria – Yes, this tops my list. The sheer magnitude of violence and inhumanity that we are witnessing in Syria is unbelievable. What is even more unbelievable is how indifferent all of us are to it. I hope this violence ends, irrespective of whether Mr. Assad stays in power or not.
  2. Global economy picks up – Despite not being a huge fan of GDP driven model of growth, I do feel that the slump in global economic growth doesn’t portend well for billions of poor, around the world.
  3. Republicans in America realize the value of bi-partisanship – I am told that Republicans in the past were bi-partisan and could actually reason with their fellow Democrats. Apparently, those days are long gone. This should return and I hope 2014 is the year when there are more senators like Daniel Patrick Moynihan (though he was a democrat) he was a bi-partisan and perhaps the rare intellectual-politician that all countries so desperately need.
  4. Indian politicians (and bureaucrats) stop acting like little kids – And that our media grows up. This is in context of the recent incident involving the Deputy Consul General and the alleged ‘insults’ to India, when investigations into her misconduct were brought to fore. I also hope that Indian media learns that India is not the center of the world and is NOT a “super-power” as much as they would like it to be. It actually reminded me of this talk by Ramachandra Guha, on why India should not be a super-power.

5.  And above all, I wish that all of us rise above the walls that each one of us has built around us, consciously or unconsciously – walls of gender, race, religion, class consciousness, nationality or political affiliation. And this is possible, as some wise man said: “All prejudice begins in the head and that is where it should end.”