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Islamic Thought and the Problem of -isms

بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم

There are three reasons that have compelled me to write this short article.

The first is that of Muslim researchers and academics in social science disciplines in which their thoughts on Islam and Islamic issues are influenced by the -isms primarily forming the governing principles of their usually Western academic faculties, departments and institutions. Some of these folks may even claim to be part of the ‘Islamic decolonial project’ which seeks to free Islamic thought from a colonized/post-colonial mindset and return to a pristinely Islamic way of thinking, although their weakness in the Arabic language, traditional Islamic disciplines and primary sources of Islamic thought – or simply their a priori acceptance and approval of their local Western cultures – ironically render them highly vulnerable to adopting a Eurocentric/Western critique of traditional Islamic thought.

The second is that of amateur Muslim commentators, critics and debaters who have taken it upon themselves to liberate Muslim minds from foreign theological, spiritual and ideological influencers. Many of these individuals however, have demonstrated themselves to be polemicists rather than nuanced observers, often blanket-condemning many -isms as being inherently unIslamic. For many of these people, the issue is not ‘The Problem of -isms’ rather it is ‘the Problem with -Isms’. The reasons for this lie usually in their shallow or amateur reading of classical Islamic sources, or a simple lack of foundational yet rigorous traditional Islamic education via primary texts. If they had a greater familiarity with the Islamic traditions they would have a more nuanced perspective of how and to what extent Islamic thought is: 1) amenable to new ideas 2) immutable and immovable. For some of these individuals, the problem is even deeper, as they possess not just overly simplistic platitudes of what Islam is, but also of what the -isms are and the ideas they represent.

The third is the issue of political Islamism. After the Arab Spring and the role of many Islamist movements, it has become apparent to many observers that there is a nuanced difference between prepackaged and assuming variations of political Islamism and the nuanced and fluid possibilities of application of Islamic thought in the public sphere that traditional Islamic political thought is able to provide. In short, Islamism (with a capital I) is not equal to Islam in politics and governance. Often the suggestions provided by many Islamist ideas and movements descend into harmful caricatures of Islamic political thought.

So how is Islam and Islamic thought supposed to interact with -isms? In brief, there is no quick answer. The interaction of Islam with different -isms can often become a complex discussion that revolves around a detailed interplay between the room for growth and development that the Islamic traditions provide on their own terms (via the diversity and discussions of traditional usul – the resulting intersections and relationships between the Arabic language, sacred text, community and reality) and the often highly loose and varied range of diverse and complex ideas that each -ism represents. At present, the discussions on this interaction are at a very immature stage. Islamic thought is only beginning to intersect and interact with the modern/Western social sciences and the required discussions need to occur at a much higher resolution than the simplistic platitudes that many activists and polemicists are putting forward. What is required for these discussions are experts who are fluent in both fields – traditional Islamic Studies (i.e. experts in the variance of Islamic thought who are thus intimately familiar with the traditions of Arabic language, law, theology and spirituality) and the social sciences/contemporary Western philosophy, yet are ideologically and spiritually sympathetic to the ‘Islamic cause’.

Let me demonstrate with a few examples, both intra-Islamic and extra-Islamic (I initially meant to isolate this discussion on extra-Islamic -isms, but realized it was an opportune moment to discuss the others as well) . Much of what I mention here is subject to a lot of debate and discussion, but the intent is to explore the nuances present in discussing these -isms with respect to Islam and how absolutes and polemics can be harmful.

Intra-Islamic -isms

In these examples the emphasis is usually on identifying and separating between the proper -ism and the common -ism, and highlighting the problematic usage of language in these discussions. I.e. for example if we were to discuss traditionalism, we should differentiate between Traditionalism (proper: the official and popularly known ideology that comes to mind when Traditionalism is mentioned: those who continue to strictly adhere to one of the four schools of Islamic Law) and traditionalism (common: the recognition, emphasis on and utilization of the epistemological authority of Islamic traditions in law, spirituality, exegesis, theology and spirituality etc when discussing Islam).

2) Sufism – Sufism with a capital ‘s’ is different from sufism or tasawwuf. Whereas ‘Sufism’ or ‘Sufis’ may present themselves as an ideological or social manifestation of understanding Islam, using the terms sufism or tasawwuf is representative of the collective Islamic intellectual and practical spiritual traditions, and is not necessarily tied to a particular outward social manifestation of Sufis today, such as political quietism, wearing a turban or shawl in religious gatherings or religious verbiage emphasizing concepts of ‘light’, ‘seeking’ etc, and not limited to a particular understanding of Islamic spirituality, such as tariqah-based Sufism.

3) Salafism – Here again the emphasis is on the difference between ‘Salafism’ and salafism. Salafism and Salafis have a particular interpretation of what the salaf believed and practiced – most usually either a modified version of Hanbalism or Atharism overriden with the theological understandings of Muhammad ibn Abdil Wahhab and Ahlul-Hadith fiqh. Whereas the common version, i.e. the act of prioritizing the understanding of Islam with the salaf, is something emphasized by the vast majority of Muslims, although their interpretation of the what the Salaf believed, understood and practiced may differ wildly, as well as how that interpretation is to be applied today.

4) Islamism – Islamism demonstrated itself in multiple forms over the past Arab Spring. Many of these forms showed themselves to be ultimately useless in achieving true political, social and religious change. A political application of Islam is not as simple as Imam, Khilafah, Shariah, Shura or Hurriya. There are serious considerations involved in determining what the civil liberties, public morals, enforcement techniques, minority interactions, foreign affairs and extent of application of Islamic rulings in the public sphere should and would look like in a modern ‘Islamic’ state. Would such a state be an outright theocracy? Would it be a nationalistic, ethnocentric and authoritarian state? Would it be a libertarian, liberal and relatively-to-the-first-centuries-of-Islam secular one? Would it be a mix of the two? In either case would such a state be able to survive? These are all complex questions, and Muslims are currently experimenting with these ideas. But one thing is certain: ‘Islamism’ with a capital ‘I’ is not necessarily always Islamic – and it is probably going to take a lot of trial and error in practical application to find out, unless Allah wills otherwise from His grace.

‘Extra-Islamic’ -isms

These are the examples that are the ultimately intended ones in this article. For each example, I want to demonstrate how the relationship of Islam to these -isms is not a black and white discussion of how an -ism is Islamic or unIslamic, how overly liberal or conservative viewpoints can unsettle the delicate uniqueness of Islamic thought, and how the issue overall is one that requires a deeper, more complex and more informed theological and philosophical input.

1) Modernism

Modernism is the philosophical movement in the Western world that dominated the late 1800s and early 1900s. As with any field of thought, the term ‘modernism’ entails a wide variety and range of ideas. While some of the popular notions of modernism in its Western format – positivism, naturalism and the rejection of religious belief and metaphysics as outdated, unscientific and unnecessary – is one of the groups of ideas outwardly most antithetical to Islam, the roots and reasons for the rise of modernism are worthy of consideration. One of the main reasons for modernism’s popularity was the rise of industrialization, and while it may be convenient to dismiss modernism as the worship of the West or maqasid movements out of control, there are not many educated (whether in Islam or otherwise) Muslims who would deny that Islamic legal, theological, spiritual and hermeneutical traditions are in need of update and reform to deal with the many new challenges and ideas of our time. Also Muslims cannot wholly deny the importance of the scientific method and advances in the natural sciences – they consume, study and produce technology and engineering like any other modern society. Muslims in the social sciences also realize how academic discussion in these subjects has progressed far beyond what many of our traditions and primary sources were contextualized with, and that without a recontextualization of tradition, it is liable to abandon and self-destruction.

2) Post-Modernism

This is an interesting one, and many Muslim males are falling in line with popular figures like Jordan Peterson in wholesale condemnation of the post-modernist movement, not realizing that although post-modernism is a Western and very modernist philosophical movement, it is also what enabled Muslims and researchers in Islamic Studies to be taken seriously in the Western academic world. Post-modernism may have some problematic ideas like the assessment of religion as just another meta-narrative, over-skepticism, and the loss of objective truth, but it is also the movement that pulled apart the hegemony of positivism and naturalism, allowing metaphysics to breathe again. As such, post-modernism is what perhaps allows Muslims to take Islam and their own religion seriously in the modern world on an academic level and free it from the influences of colonial, Eurocentric and modernist influences, while simultaneously via skepticism leading them to nihilism, apostasy and a rejection of tradition. Other ideas like critical theory or intersectionality, despite us disagreeing with their application in some types of feminism and the LGBTQ+ movement, have allowed us to seriously reassess how we view racism in our communities, ontologies and theologies. Many right-wingers in the West hate post-modernism for killing off their cultural supremacy, but Muslims should not be so keen to follow them in condemning the intellectual movement that granted them intellectual, political and social relevancy.

3) Feminism – I have spoken about feminism briefly elsewhere on this website. Yes the current wave of feminism has caused some legitimate concern among Muslims as the ideas and adherents threaten not just small issues here and there but some core epistemological, ontological and even theological issues in Islam, such as the greater emphasis on gender equality to the point that biology is undermined, whereas Islam seems to focus more on equity in domestic and personal affairs and leave equality for theology, worship and other public issues, and the difference in biology between the genders plays a significant role. Other serious problems that have resulted are a general ignorance wilful or accidental of problems that men and boys suffer that are unique to their gender, or the problems that have resulted in domestic affairs because of feminist ideas of family. But some of the social advancements brought about by feminism can be justified very easily from an Islamic perspective, and its not easy to ignore the feminist undertones in the Shariah that the Prophet (saw) and the early Muslims implemented, especially when compared with other faiths and civilizations in the early days of Islam. A highlighting of domestic violence, the plight of single or working women, sexual crimes inferior to outward assault, and male lewdness in general have been incredible positives. Anyone who has lived in a Muslim country knows first hand how Muslim men are not living up to the example of their Prophet (saw) in their dealings with the opposite gender, whether in their families or in public. A renewed attention towards female figures in Islam, an emphasis on women’s fiqh and Islamic education are all examples of positive effects that have occurred in the Muslim word because of feminism.

4) Liberalism – Liberalism is often equated with outright kufr in some circles, as it’s often equated to the idea that human beings can make their own rules free of God’s commands and prohibitions. However, reality of things is more subtle. While yes liberalism has demonstrated itself (together with the post-modernist) movement to be an easy vehicle for intellectual, social and political chaos as in the case with the current Western revolt against multiculturalism, Islam and immigration, it is also worthy of noting the libertarian trends in Islamic legal, political, intellectual and social thought. Just via the sermon that opened the rule of the first Muslim caliph Abu Bakr (rad), one can notice ‘liberal’ political ideas, such as the allowing of the public to correct the leader, or the responsibility of the leader towards the people, and the freedom that the public has from oppression. Others, such as the Islamic system of intellectualism – and the diversity of thought and emphasis on community that exists in Islamic Law are other examples of ‘liberal’ ideas taken for granted that already exist within what is called ‘Islam’ or ‘Islamic thought’. Conservatism is another stream of thought that should be discussed here. Islam is not inherently conservative either, although some of its tenets may be held to be socially conservative.

In summary, Islam is not feminist, liberal, modernist or post-modernist, but neither is it inherently anti-feminist, anti-liberal, anti-modernist or anti-post-modernist. It is not for any -ism, but neither is it against any -ism in totality. Both Islam and -isms are too complex to allow for such simplistic reductionism.

Islam is its own entity that governs its own thought and perspectives. It doesn’t mean that we cannot use extra-Islamic ideas to help us improve our understanding and application of our own texts, in the same way that our scholars applied Greek metaphysics and logic, Persian administrative ideas and Western emphasis on technology and economics to Islamic discussions and application. Yes Islam has its own core absolutes unique to itself, and those will sometimes be in stark contrast to the ideas of many -isms, and we need to be well-grounded in our traditions and respect them to maintain ourselves as authentically ‘Islamic’, however there is a lot of room for adding to Islamic thought in the same way that our traditions have adjusted to time, place and idea. But this should not be an invitation to bottleneck Islam and Islamic thought into the -ism of your choice.

The truth is often a spectra of ideas up in the air, not an easy black and white argument that can easily be demonstrated in a Facebook post or an YouTube video. We have to be wary of easy Yes/No or Good/Bad solutions to our problems, while at the same time not sacrificing our core principles. But we must refer to dual experts in Islamic Studies in modern thought, otherwise we run a real risk of making our ideas of gender misogynstic to an obviously un-Islamic degree, ideas of modernism a defeat for Islamic thought rendering it unusable, or ideas of politics dictatorial and single-minded – leading to many Muslims turning away from Islam. We need to accept that an authentic yet functionally effective Islamic interpretation that is fit for the 21st century is not going to look like an authentic Islamic interpretation operating in the 6th, 7th or 8th century of Arabia. And we have to commit to this while still maintaining that qat’i issues of consensus and what is known by necessity in the religion are not going to be sacrificed. It sounds simple, but it is a project that requires many minds, a lot of expertise, and a lot of time, so don’t fall for the reductionism and easy way out of social media aficionados.

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