The tangled web Muslims weave

There are so many things I keep wanting to blog about when I get a spare moment, but the absurd workload at my current gig–at the moment I’m trapped in the belly of a surreal disorganized,  understaffed, and high-pressure government technology project in downtown DC; it’s no fun to be a requirements analyst in an organization that has zero internal communication other than criticism for when you fail to read people’s minds–combined with the domestic chaos of having a newborn has clipped my wings in the Blogosphere.

So I’ve been mostly reduced to adding my occasional "Ditto" or "Hear hear!" to Shabana’s inspired musings (which I assume she’s somehow composing with one hand, given how demanding little Raihana is most of the time).

Speaking of which, my Better Two Thirds has followed up her recent post on the phenomenon of "Salafistic Sufism" with some profound observations on the importance of speaking truth to power and respecting ikhtilaf within the Muslim community (see "Speak uncomfortable truths").

She makes many excellent points that that I wouldn’t do justice if I summarized them, so take a look for yourself.

A few comments:

As I never tire of quipping, "Enjoining good and forbidding evil" is not just about telling women how to dress or banning things that other people do.  It’s also about speaking out, in an appropriate and humble manner, when you feel Islam is being misrepresented.  And not only by non-Muslims.   And not only from the top-down (i.e., from scholars to the masses), as a woman of Medina reminded Hazrat Umar (ra) famously.

Does a traditional Muslim go around telling people he’s traditional?  I’m not asking whether he conceals his convictions and adherence to Islamic tradition–obviously not–but rather whether he asserts that he *is* traditional.

Seriously, think about it:  If one assumes, as I do, that the "Sufi" sensibility of humility and awareness of how paltry man’s wisdom is before Allah’s infinite Hikmat are integral parts of the "Tradition" and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), I wonder whether a truly "traditional" Muslim would even dare to assert without a shadow of any doubt , "I’m a Traditionalist.  I follow Traditional Islam.  All you guys who disagree with me about [Insert a debatable doctrinal issue of your choice]  don’t follow Traditional Islam.  You follow [Insert a profane motivation--modernism, your nafs, hawwa, etc.]  Period."  If Hazrat Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra) sometimes worried that he, a man whose piety and steadfastness Holy Prophet himself had praised effusively, might be a hypocrite, I find it hard to see how contemporary Muslims 14 centuries whence (whether scholars or lay people) can know with such unassailable certainty that they are following the Prophet’s Sunnah.   

Christians at least ask, "What would Jesus do?"  Many Muslims declare confidently, "I know what Muhammad would do, and I’m going to impose my understanding on you."  Maybe I just lack understanding but I find the idea of making such an assertion, with all its unspoken assumptions of truly understanding Allah’s Will and the Prophet’s Sunnah, terrifying and disrespectful.  I would expect a truly "traditional" Muslim–namely one who aspires to conform not only to the form but also the spirit of the Sunnah–to be a little more cautious about such declarations, about themselves as well as of others.

Finally, I really think some of us need to just admit that we enthusiastically embrace priesthood and pre-modern norms of hierarchy, as those are the inescapable implications of the ideas we promote.

If it walks, talks and makes categorical decrees like a priest, it’s a priest.  And if the vast majority of people are by definition unqualified to participate in any way in public discussions of vital matters of  faith, morality and the purpose of life, that’s hierarchy, folks.  Big time.  That’s hierarchy worthy of Feudalism.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with believing in hierarchy or a priesthood, so long as that conviction is based on principle and sound evidence rather than those urges we all struggle with, the desire for power and prestige.   But we do need to be up front about  our beliefs and priorities.   We shouldn’t have it both ways, invoking contemporary notions of freedom, equality and open debate when it suits our purposes but advocating radically different values when other Muslims come to conclusions that we don’t agree with about debatable issues.

I note in complete sincerity that these observations are not directed any particular person or group, and that no offense or disrespect is intended whatsoever.   They no doubt apply to us all to one extent or another.

But we have to be honest about our disagreements.

Allahu alim.


  • sheilaX

    I think that in many instances, many people from both sides of the divide presume that traditional Muslims are a sect unto themselves, when in reality, it is the normative Islam that is practiced by the vast majority.
    The appellation “traditional” only becomes necessary when the normative form brushes up against the ideological form, which by default, scorns or selectively chooses parts of “tradition” that sits comfortably with said ideology.
    The arbitary nature of such a exercises is revealed in the sheer variety of ideologies that purport to address the so-called “Muslim Condition”. What is interesting is that each ideological form- really a kind of reductionist Islam- also claims to be the only true representation of Islam.
    The concept of Ahle-Sunna-Waal-Jemaah is thus transformed from being an all-encompassing majority to an exclusivist minority. Note how the hadith about the 73 sects is today utilized to justify the alleged “righteousness” of certain groups.
    The “traditional” appellation, in my humble opinion, is quite unecessary if there wasn’t a movement dedicated to not only erasing history but also belittling classical scholarship. As it stands, Muslims of a “reformist” bent use the term “traditionalist” in a highly-degratory manner.

  • Haroon

    Nice Post.
    Ever thought about writing for this site

  • svend

    Thanks for the stimulating comments, Sheila. Much to ponder there.
    As for your comment, Haroon, I’m not sure what to make of it. Am not sure whether it was a sincere but confused compliment or a sly put-down.
    Those who know me know that I detest secularism–which isn’t the same thing as freedom of religion and religious pluralism, btw; one can be religious and believe wholeheartedly in those things–and frankly wouldn’t be caught dead in the company of that crowd. I’d say that website makes me ill, but the truth is that I don’t take it seriously enough for it to affect me that much. It’s sounds to me me like a marginal bunch elitist, secularized intellectuals imposing their shallow thinking on Islam and Muslims. They’re beyond irrelevant in my book.
    If the comment was meant sincerely, then thank, but I think you’ve misunderstood my post pretty drastically, as I’m not invoking secular or irreligious values here. Quite the contrary.

  • UmmZaid

    Salaam ‘Alaikum
    // I find it hard to see how contemporary Muslims 14 centuries whence (whether scholars or lay people) can know with such unassailable certainty that they are following the Prophet’s Sunnah. ///
    In that case, why bother? Golly gee, I can’t wait until some other group of people are up for the chopping block, b/c there is such a disconnect and lack of understanding about the label going on in all of these handslapping blogosphere posts.

  • svend

    Couldn’t it just be that we disagree on some things?
    I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.
    In all honesty, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Traditionalists are on the chopping block in any meaningful sense (someone quipped to me recently that some traditionalists act like America does post-9/11, which though the undisputed power frets about being under siege). If anything, they’re increasingly the ones who are in the position to do the proverbial chopping, as they’re taking over.
    I think the increasing influence of what you’d call Traditionalists is a good thing in a lot of ways, but that also means they need to be subjected to the same scrutiny as the rest of us.
    Also, I have to note that “hand-slapping posts” are found in plentiful supply on ALL sides of this debate.
    Sometimes, it also gets pretty nasty, too, as we’ve seen recently.
    Who’s really under siege here? Who holds the power in the community, on major websites, etc.? It sure isn’t my camp (though I look forward to one day finding out what camp I’m in).
    It seems to me that part of the problem here is that one side of this discussion isn’t used to (or inclined to) explaining themselves.

  • Irving karchmar

    When something as deeply personal as faith is spoken about, words reduces it to stereotypes. As to the nasty accusations and name calling, an old Sufi tradition advises us to speak only after our words have managed to pass through four gates. At the first gate, we ask ourselves, “Are these words true?” If so, we let them pass on; if not, back they go. At the second gate we ask; “Are they necessary?” At the third gate we ask; “Are they beneficial?” and at the fourth gate, we ask, “Are they kind?” If the answer to any of these is no, then what you are about to say should be left unsaid.
    Ya Haqq!

  • AlexLahoz

    -Many Muslims declare confidently, “I know what Muhammad would do, and I’m going to impose my understanding on you.”
    Do they really? Every scholar of the traditional* sort that I’ve come across is quite open about not being sure about debatable issues, but rather giving their best approximation of what ALlah and the Prophet, alaihi salatu wasalam, intended.
    On issues of ijma’, yes they are unequivocal, as they should be.
    I also doubt that any of those self-identifying traditionalists would have a problem admitting that they hold Sunni scholars in extremely high regard. They openly state that they believe in scholarship meaning something more than that which a degree confers. For them, the true scholar is very much a living heir of our Prophet and hence someone fo great stature, the company of whom they are honored to keep.
    And that is absolutely why for them, this Law is Sacred and not just a code to be revised according to the times.
    And even if it were, such revision would be the province of the brightest lights.
    *Traditional simply meaning Ahl al-Sunnah. People read way too much into that term.

  • svend

    Words to live by, Irving.
    I’m often struck, almost to the point of despair, by how futile words are on these question. Especially when they occur in the context of debates, which are environments that cloud minds.
    Thanks for the comment, AlexLahoz.
    I don’t disagree with the principles you’re invoking, but I think I disagree on whether they’re being as uniformly adhered to today by scholars.
    I believe in and accept authority, both spiritual and scholarly, but all authority has limits. When scholars stop being spiritual guides and become authoritarian priests who deny believers moral and intellectual agency, I have grave concerns.

  • svend

    “*Traditional simply meaning Ahl al-Sunnah. People read way too much into that term.”
    BTW, who is it that’s doing all this extra reading? I for one certainly don’t say that those who disagree with me are not Ahl al-Sunnah. Because I don’t believe that. For me, that term includes all Muslims who strive to honestly and rigorously follow the Sunnah. I don’t even exclude those I think are seriously misguided, for example Wahhabis. If anything, my reading of it is broader than yours, I suspect.
    When you say Ahl al-Sunnah, don’t you really mean “Those who submit to the Sunnah CORRECTLY”, ie those with wisdom and who are rightly guided?
    That is a much smaller group, and I’m not sure its membership is self-evident or limited to those who accept the specific teachings or assumptions we’re talking about here.

  • Alex Lahoz

    Salaam ‘alaikum,
    Well every term has to have parameters, even PMU’ers limit Muslim to those who call themselves such.
    My statement about people reading too much into the use of the term trad’l is reinforced by what you said: ,i>When you say Ahl al-Sunnah, don’t you really mean “Those who submit to the Sunnah CORRECTLY”, ie those with wisdom and who are rightly guided?
    No, I don’t. I just mean non-modernist Sunnis, whether those modernists be salafi’s, ahl hadith, the PMU, al-Qaeda or those enamored with the enlightment.
    Beingthat modernism is not traditionalism, I think my distinction makes sense.
    Also, I don’t deny that salafis and the like are Sunnis, in fact I attend their masajid and sit in their durus. But their approach is new and I doubt better than what came before it, depsite our western notions of linear progress. The same goes for the opposite end of the spectrum.
    At the end of the day, to paraphrase Shaykh Nuh, people follow something because they find that it yeilds results. As for me, I find that when trying to improve my condition, adjusting to the Islamic ideal as it used to be has worked better than adjusting Islam to how I am.