The tangled web Muslims weave

The tangled web Muslims weave May 4, 2006

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.


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