Muslims in flux: the problem of tradition

Usman Sheikh
12 May 2003

It is a familiar human experience for a sense of loss to accompany the hope of betterment. For my parents’ generation, part of the wave of arrivals in Britain from India and Pakistan in the 1960s, the encounter with this harsh island offered work and social improvement as well as (often) hostility and suspicion from its natives. There was, in any event, little time to look back.

We, the children of these first migrants, continue to explore the condition of arrival in this country, often in far more fortunate material circumstances. But we are haunted as they were not by the sense of a loss of collective memory. For those of us who are Muslims especially, we long to know – not so much on a national, communal or even familial as on a spiritual level – where we have come from, in order to understand who we are and where we are going.

Between digging into and suppressing this past, we are suspended between nostalgia and oblivion. Sometimes we attempt to disregard what went before, yet no matter how much we try to ‘start afresh’ we find that the past continues to leave its traces. These traces can seem so embedded within us that even in the midst of ‘forgetting’ they can re-surface quite unexpectedly and involuntarily. Others among us shut their eyes to the present, clinging to a past that never existed.

From the picture I have just painted, there would seem to be little prospect of progress. Could it be, however, that our salvation as second-generation Muslims lies in charting a path between these tendencies of nostalgia and oblivion? More specifically, in order to build a tradition that will serve as a solid basis from which to proceed, we must engage with the past in a creative manner; indeed, our position is such that this may even be our only option.

The upheaval of migration tore from us our organic links with the past, ordinarily passed from parent to child and imbibed from the social milieu at large. As a result, our historical memory has been clouded; yet as we grope around in the dark searching for a tradition we find ourselves in a rare and privileged position: that of being able to choose a tradition.

For those whose families have followed more settled, stable patterns of development, it can often seem difficult to question the authority of the past. It can be a burden that weighs heavily upon the individual, limiting her choices, making her passive. Though we recent migrants are still as yet only groping around in the dark, it is important that we notice the active nature of this process.

Moreover, it is precisely in activity that we find ourselves confronted by choices, and in which we become aware of our freedom – albeit an enforced freedom. As a Muslim migrant, what principles can I and other Muslims like me use to guide us as we attempt to make these choices in our present darkness? The most natural starting point would surely be the oneness that lies at the heart of our monotheism, and therefore of our identity as Muslims.

The problem of idolatry

The question of the relationship between Islam and secularism broached at the Goethe Institute and on openDemocracy by Heiner Bielefeldt and Mohammed Saeed Bahmanpour is certainly one of the most contentious for Muslims today. It also highlights the dichotomy mentioned above between those attached to a rather simplistic idea of our past (the traditionalists) and those who try to ignore our past altogether (the modernists). For the former, secularism is almost akin to blasphemy, while for the latter it is the object that they most covet.

For me, the most glaring gap in the discussion of these two scholars was any recognition of the link between secularism as a western ideology and the common Christian division between religious and temporal affairs. Having grown up unconsciously accepting this framework, I was struck when I first came seriously to read about Islam as a teenager at its more holistic, unified approach. Mohammed was always both a politician and a spiritual leader, and for him the mosque was always a place both for prayer and for discussion of social issues. Islam seems to have no equivalent to Jesus’ exhortation to “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.

It is for this reason that the common notion of secularism in the west in which religion is restricted to the personal sphere will always be alien to Islam; it is telling that it is largely championed by western-educated elites in many Muslim countries, rather than by the majority of the populace educated in local traditions.

However, this Islamic approach is predicated on the notion that we consider both the transcendental and the material aspects of our existence together in a holistic manner. The traditionalists, by contrast, seem guilty of an excessively worldly idea of Islam, providing only a partial and therefore distorted view of life.

In order to make their religion more controllable and easier to encompass, they give it physical shape, defining its contours by reducing it to a set of rules. The religion-turned-object has the last laugh, however, for our minds are forced to conform to our religion’s new found rigidity, and we are left with the stagnation of orthodoxy.

Thus, the traditionalist discourse about Islam has become obsessed with legal injunctions: men should grow beards, women must wear headscarves, and one should always enter the household with the right foot first. Given the existence of these rules in relation to such trivial minutiae of everyday life, the difficulty of reconciling this traditionalist view of Islam with any historical change is unsurprising.

The pattern of our present-day idolatry seems clear: in exchange for the ‘ease’ of a path to God purged of mystery and unpredictability, we pay our dues to our idol by sacrificing the human spirit’s desire for change.

Idolising the word

Unsurprisingly, at the root of all this, for good or ill, is our relationship with the Koran. As the incarnation of God in the form of language, we have not been able to resist the temptation to try to touch God – to control Him – by adopting a literalistic approach. This simplistic attitude towards language with its consequent ‘legalistic’ focus goes largely unchallenged amongst Muslims. Within Muslim countries perhaps this can be explained by the quite justifiable fear of risking one’s personal safety. The weight of tradition is also an important factor. Whatever the reason, a deferential attitude towards the Koran has been passed from parent to child for so long that questioning it has become almost unthinkable. Like the inhabitants of Mecca in Mohammed’s lifetime, we worship the idols that we found our parents worshipping.

But while this might be forgiven within the Muslim world, it certainly ought not to be the case amongst Muslim migrants. Free to engage with the past as we see fit, perhaps we can use our fresh eyes to look again at our traditions, particularly our relationship with the Koran.

Building a tradition without idols

Setting out on the path of (re)construction, the first temptation that we might encounter is that of idolising ourselves as a collective group.

It is an obvious trap to fall into, yet this tendency towards nationalism goes against the spirit of oneness that underpins Islam, implicitly emphasising difference rather than unity, creating discord instead of harmony. It seems far more appropriate to try to build an international composite identity, that brings disparate traditions together.

The first consequence is that when we look for solutions to our present problems, we should not limit ourselves to those parts of the world that nominally share our religious affiliations, as this would bring Islamic identity down to the level of a tribal category. On the contrary, we must embrace the diversity of approaches to our common problems as the very condition of our Islam, building up an understanding of ourselves in and through other nations’ identities.

Second, in the specific context of today’s purported ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam and the West, it is of particular urgency that we try to build a sense of ourselves through reference to western ideas and traditions – while of course always bearing in mind our Islamic principle of oneness, so that we do not forget ourselves and fall into crass attempts at imitation. Moreover, quite apart from this political impetus, Muslims have the personal motivation of attempting to bridge the gap between our own pasts and presents.

The Christian example

The European Christian tradition provides us with analogous examples of internal struggles with idolatry. In A Matter of Hope, the theologian Nicholas Lash describes the tendencies towards idolatry in both Catholicism and Protestantism. He cites the common over-emphasis on the saints in the former, and on the word in the latter as a ‘fetishising of the intermediary’. In each case religious devotees make what should be their path to God, a god in itself.

Just as with the Muslim idolatry outlined above, these Christian forms of idolatry derive perhaps from a desire for a more simple, more certain relationship with the divine. Again, the result is a subjugation to the object, be it word or religious institution. Lash’s contribution to this discussion is in his idea of the fetish. In our fetishistic relationship with the object – both Muslim and Christian – comes a possessive attitude towards religious truth.

This possessiveness has two devastating consequences. First, it breaks up the overall unity so important to monotheism, with a consequent loss of perspective – a mistaking of ‘part’ for ‘whole’. Second, ‘difference’ is perceived as threat. Different attitudes towards the object of veneration appear to undermine our monopoly on the truth, so that they must be suppressed as swiftly as possible. This can only lead to outward persecution of others and inward stagnation.

Reading lessons

So what if we apply this lesson to our own situation as Muslims?

First, it should alert us to the importance of not trying to fix the meaning of the word. We must always bear in mind that each engagement with the word will always be partial. Our own individual interpretations always exist in the wider context of a plurality of views.

Second, by shifting our focus away from the surface of the word towards what lies beyond that individual word, we may yet succeed in overcoming our idolatry. Perhaps by seeing the Koran as the start of a discourse – as the first word rather than the last – we can hope to move towards a more genuinely Islamic approach.

Above all, we ought to affirm the active nature of reading in which we play an important role as readers in creating meaning, rather than sticking to the relative ease of the literalist approach.

However, though such a change in attitude would indeed be a great step forward, it does leave the authority of the word largely in place as, in the final analysis, its ‘permission’ is always sought. This kind of emphasis on interpretation is already fairly common in Islamic discourse, yet it fails to bring much dynamism to our understanding of Islam. After all, if any opinion must be supported by some quotation from the Koran to give it any weight, we are surely limiting the range of discussion.

Acting the word

To move beyond this theological ball and chain of textualism, it is important that we look more closely at what it might mean for us for God to take human form in language, as he does in transmitting the Koran through the human vehicle of language. This leads us to an awareness that language is one of the prime indicators of the social nature of our existence. Interaction in society means language.

More particularly, however, the relationship between an individual (the reader) and society (present within the text itself and in the implied presence of its other readers) takes on a cosmic significance. It is as if it is in this relationship that we experience God most fully. For this reason, perhaps we ought to see the school of textual interpretation which ‘asks permission of the word’ in its wider context; perhaps we ought to appreciate the full socio-religious significance of the act of reading.

In this context, the emphasis on the individual’s engagement with the text parallels the importance of engaging with society. In fact the attitude towards textual interpretation seems directly related to the kind of engagement with society that is hoped for.

In reading we should bear in mind the plurality of interpretations of which ours is a part. In the same way, our individual actions should always be placed within the context of their wider social significance. This should not be considered as any kind of subjugation to society. Rather, just as textual interpretation is an active process (to engage with the text is also to ‘create’ it) each individual engagement with society also carries an equal possibility for its transformation. More broadly, it could be said that the acceptance of a plurality of approaches to the text as the condition of one’s own individual interpretation seems to enshrine a strong vision of respect for others and social equality – fundamentally Islamic values.

Religion and the state

The Islamic position that I have sketched out has at its core many values in common with the secular society that Heiner Bielefeldt envisages as a bastion of human rights. After all, a resolute respect for others surely underlies almost any human right one could care to think of. However, there is a key difference. Bielefeldt’s secular society seems to operate on the basis of a sharp split between public and private, in which personal beliefs are deprived of any social impact, and in which the onus is always on the state to provide rights; whereas the Islamic approach fulfils the individual’s desire to see his/her beliefs realised, while also making the creation of a harmonious social space an individual, moral issue. It is on the individual that the weight of responsibility is focused.

Perhaps what is sketched out above can help us heal the rupture with our past caused by the upheaval of migration. Perhaps by translating the memory of the lost object into the basis for a programme of action we can ‘remember’ it in a more fruitful manner. Perhaps it is in this way that when our children come to carry on our process of arriving in this country, they will be supported by a dynamic tradition that they can continue to build.

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