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Archive for February 2016

The Veils of Islam

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Last week, I attended a talk by Ingrid Mattson, a distinguished scholar of Islamic Studies, and I heard a story that made quite an impression on me. She had been counseling a young man recently, and felt concerned that he was over-sharing on social media – the kinds of stories or pictures from parties that a person in college might not think twice about posting. She suggested that eventually he’d be looking for a job, and he might regret some of the things that were out there on the Internet. As an experiment, she suggested that he try Googling himself, and see what he found.


Quranic Inscription, 13th Century, Iran

Now, this fellow has a common Arabic name, and she did not anticipate that the first several entire pages of search results would be news stories about violent extremists who shared part or all of his name. This, he realized, is what a prospective employer would see if they ran a quick check.

The light of his individual identity would be reflected by the distorted mirror of the media and refracted through the prism of our times, and he would be marked by association with acts of violence.

The French Algerian theorist Mohammed Arkoun speaks of how societies construct ideas of Islam in terms of imaginaires, or “imaginaries.” These imaginaires are shared systems of ideas and belief shaped by ideology, media, the exchange of social capital, and the intervention of the unconscious.

In Arkoun’s view, discourse about Islam is largely governed by two complementary imaginaires, one coming from Muslim countries, and another constituted in Europe and the US. The common Muslim imaginaire is a reductive description of Islamic society and history that is premised on the belief that its current historical forms of expression are based logically and inevitably on a well-ordered and ahistorical set of principles derived unambiguously from the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic law. That is, what we observe in current Muslim states is believed to follow a precise and unchanging template based on classical sources, and this is how it has always been. 

There are few beliefs as widespread or as dangerous as the belief that ideas do not have a history. This imaginaire that Arkoun describes is recent, and it forms the basis of so many of the tired cliches about Islam –  that it is fundamentally anti-rational; that Islamic states are eo ipso theocratic; that Islamic states perceive all other types of social organization as adversaries to be one day conquered; et cetera. It is proposed and defended by autocratic governments which use it to bolster their own legitimacy. Critical voices are marginalized or suppressed within these governments and their institutions of learning, and consequently the standard tools of social criticism that would generally look to the role of ideology or the irrational in shaping self-concepts of history are silenced. 

For a variety of bad reasons, this distorted self-construction is reflected back by scholars in Europe and the United States, who should know better. In Arkoun’s view, they accede to this narrative either out of a naive wish to let the putatively indigenous self-construction and valuation of Islamic identity speak for itself and on its own terms, or out of a cynical desire to capitalize on simplified reductions of history for their own aims, e.g., to characterize Islam in the language of alterity. All too often these scholars ignore the degree to which critical or alternative voices within the Islamic world itself are silenced, and European and American scholars accept social constructions at face value that would never be tolerated from a European source without careful criticism.

So, to pull one of countless examples, in his recent book World Order, Henry Kissinger soberly recapitulates the cliche that the first several centuries of Muslim expansion were guided by a fundamental ideological distinction between the House of Islam, or conquered Muslim lands, and the House of War, or everywhere else, and treats this as though it were an unproblematic given of historiography. And of course, Kissinger does not pause to ask where this interpretation of early Muslim history came from, or what interests it may serve.

Ironically, by acting in this way, Kissinger precisely echoes the reductive and distorted version of history advocated by Sayyid Qutb, the strident anti-American polemicist whose belligerent interpretation of jihad has been taken up by terrorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki of Al Qaeda in Yemen. As the French proverb has it, les extrêmes se touchent.

Reality is far more complicated than dramatic simplifications will allow. To speak to Kissinger’s positoin, countless forms of cross-cultural exchange and interaction took place during the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid Caliphates, involving commerce, knowledge transfer, migration, missionary activity, travel, and dialog. The world is a complex place, and from its earliest days, Islam has been a plurality.

Yet, when you look to today’s newspaper headlines, and draw from so much of our social discourse, you would hardly know that there was any diversity in Muslim views or beliefs at all. We live in an age in which a Republican presidential candidate can openly praise the arbitrary degradation and murder of Muslims in South Carolina, for no other reason than that they are Muslims, and then win the primary in the same week.


Mosaic, Khirbat al-Mafjar, c. 740

How is it that we form ideas about who we are as individuals? Who are the people we encounter, and what do we really know about them? What do we know about groups – about Christians or Jews, Buddhists or Muslims? What are the mirrors into which we all peer to make out a sense of identity, and to give shape to the complexities of our world, so we can understand and act? How do we see the truth?

The Quran gives us 99 names for Allah, and one of them is “the Truth.” In the Surah Luqman, we read:

Hast thou not considered that God makes the night pass into the day and makes the day pass into the night, and that He made the sun and the moon subservient, each running for a term appointed, and that God is Aware of whatsoever you do? That is because God, He is the Truth, and whatsoever they call upon other than Him is false, and God is the Exalted, the Great. (31:29-30)

I love this beautiful conjunction of the movement of light and dark arrayed in orderly progression, bound to the notion of Truth.

This particular Name is of special interest to the Sufis, who stride so brilliantly through the history of Islam, leaping effortlessly over so many fences. For the Sufi masters, the Truth is indeed bound to a play of light and dark, as we read in the Niche of Lights by Al-Ghazali, or the works of Ibn al-’Arabi, who speaks of the veils of the Real, by which God is revealed within the world, but which simultaneously conceal His essence.

Thus Truth and the Real in the ultimate sense, according to this tradition, are a play of light and darkness; shapes that give sense and meaning, also cloud and hide. And this is where we live, in the play of light and shadow. So how do we find our way?

This is what I take as my starting point: because of the current state of technology and social change, all of humanity must increasingly share this one world together, and learning to recognize one another as brothers and sisters is the spiritual task of our age. My own orientation to religion, history, and culture is comparative, and it is increasingly clear to me that within my own society – that of Europe and the United States – we must have a better understanding of Islam. For this world to survive, we cannot simply take up the concepts that are ready-to-hand within our social discourse, because they are awash with profound distortions.

Anyone who would encounter Islam and come to terms with it, as we must, should wander some of its many ways, for great riches lie within its corridors and chambers. It has long been and remains a powerful spiritual force that sustains and guides the lives of more than a billion people, each with their own individual lives and destinies, and I increasingly believe that it is the duty of non-Muslims to meet it, as a Thou in Martin Buber’s sense, and to encounter its people, before the maddening and distorted din of echoed rumor deafens our ears, and the bright glare of the endlessly-refracted light blinds our eyes, and we can see and hear no more.



Update: Just days after writing that the old story of the stark distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim communities during the period of expansion is a gross over-simplification, I came across this fascinating article describing the excavation of the earliest-known Muslim graves in Europe. These graves belonged to three Berbers who were probably part of the Umayyad expansion, and the evidence indicates that they lived peacefully in Nimes with Christians, as they were buried alongside Christians with no sign of partition. In the words of the authors, “[t]hese results clearly highlight the complexity of the relationship between communities during this period, far from the cliché depiction still found in some history books.”

Written by Mesocosm

February 22, 2016 at 7:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized