I am mostly writing this because I don’t want to invest valuable time in writing rebuttals to specific articles addressing issues outside of my field, although a recent one irked me because it included a very poor attempt to construct an ‘Islamic’ definition of a social concept while simultaneously attempting to de-legitimize the work of Muslim social theorists attempting to do the same thing. It also said something incorrect about the natural sciences and naturalism but I don’t want to get into it here.
But what is more important – and more of a time saver for me – is addressing this style of polemics and apologetic, and what I will call here for lack of a better word ‘Brute-Force’ polemics. It is where you present the intellectual field you are arguing against as a monolith, and then attempt to dismantle it as much as possible without demonstrating a charitable knowledge or understanding of it’s multiple facets and how it can be reconstructed to serve a purpose in correspondence to Islamic principles. Why we are not having open (yet moderated), informed and neutral discussions on these issues is a real mystery. If anything, our religion prioritizes bridge-building and mutual understanding over divisive debate and angry rhetoric.
Firstly, one thing in common with many of these polemicists is their understanding of Islam as ‘monolithic’ on particular issues. And this is due to a low resolution understanding of Islam in the first place, or a lack of understanding of Islamic fiqh in how it manifests itself in different sociological environments. This is highly evident in statements such as X is against ‘Islam’, or X is not from ‘Islam’.
Specifically what aspect of Islam do you mean? Epistemology, Theology, Law, Ethics etc? And once you identify which aspect of Islam it is conflicting with, how problematic is that conflict? We all know that differences in ibadat are not the same as difference in mu’amalat. So an even starker contrast would be how an apparent conflict in theology is not the same as an apparent conflict in how to approach social issues. We have plenty of tradition discussing the former, but barring the rare figure such as Ibn Khaldun, we don’t have much of the latter, which is well-known to be much more flexible in Islamic Law via the notion of maslahah and maqasid.
And is it possible that it is a conflict only in the apparent but not in substance? How do you differentiate between the two? When these issues are not addressed, the argument against something and claiming that it is ‘unIslamic’ is weak and philosophically inadequate. See my article on -isms for a better look on how difficult it is to make the assertion that an entire stream of ideas is ‘unIslamic’.
The problem with this sort of black and white “us vs. them” polemic is that it reduces what might be a complex theoretical discussion that traditionally trained Muslims NEED to be a part of into a simplistic polemical debate. And it doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. It’s not surprising that many of these individuals come from Islamic ideological backgrounds that are founded on a similar diametrical opposition to a particular inter-Muslim thought process.
Secondly, is the method of istidlāl (deduction) used in many of these arguments. Using sacred text to construct a social theory requires intellectual tools that are able to construct a practical and theoretically useful theory to address sociological concerns. Where else are those tools going to come from except the social sciences? This is especially the case when the texts you are using do not contain explicit linguistic forms condemning the idea you are arguing against, or support of the idea you are saying is the correct alternative. Instead you are inferring from these texts (i.e. your understanding is based on a mafhūm of these texts, not the mantūq), so you need to clearly delineate how your sociological mafhūm of these texts is better than your opponents’ mafhūm of the same texts. And there is no way to do that without referring to both the traditional AND the social sciences.
Others will use fiqh texts instead, not realizing that the manifestation of fiqh texts in society is NOT a straight line. Anyone who tries to take a fiqh text and apply it directly to society without sociological considerations will inevitably fail because human beings and human societies operate on rules and principles vastly different from the theoretical construction of a fiqh manual or fatwa.
The other end of this problem is of course those who will not appreciate the process of fatwa and traditional methodology at all, as well as its importance in the overall epistemology of Islamic discourse. Or they will ignore the usuli considerations of understanding the text and implement only the sociological concerns that they have.
If from the Qur’an and hadith we can construct a theoretical process by which a fatwa is developed in usul ul-fiqh (see picture below), what is the process by which a Fatwa is transformed into a theoretical and practically useful social practice, political theory or government policy? Have these polemicists identified this process before criticizing the social scientists (or science) attempting to construct this process? For example if a social scientist identifies that racism is a function of not just economic inequality but also a power conflict, why can that NOT be a part of the process of implementing the Fatwa of ‘racism is haram‘ into practical social application? Often what ends up happening is that those who end up doing this don’t have experience with this range of discourse end up with a sociological argument rather than a fiqhi one (for example saying that the idea they are attacking is not only unIslamic but practically useless and/or sociologically harmful) not realizing that this may have already been addressed deeper in the discourse.
Thirdly, we need to differentiate between ideas and different sub-forms and practitioners of these ideas. And this is where the ideas being addressed are themselves treated as monolithic. Yes the core ontological premises of some ideas may conflict directly with fundamentals of our theology or fiqh and be instantly discarded, but other aspects of these ideas may not, and entire sub-theoretical structures may be established on these aspects that don’t conflict with Islamic principles. Just because the parent philosophy is morbidly unIslamic doesn’t mean the offspring is also. The scholars of kalam are some of the most famous for acknowledging this. Often these ideas have a highly diverse range of sub-theoretical structures constructed by different practitioners of these ideas. And yes it may be that many practitioners of these ideas are deeply flawed in either their beliefs or methods, but that does not and should not be equal to a total de-legitimization of the umbrella philosophy as a whole. As Allah says in the Qur’an,
“O believers! Stand firm for Allah and bear true testimony. Do not let the hatred of a people lead you to injustice. Be just! That is closer to righteousness. And be mindful of Allah. Surely Allah is All-Aware of what you do.” [5:8]
Also the academic proponents of these ideas are not always on the same page as the social justice movements attributed to these ideas. It is not uncommon to find very religious practitioners of these academic fields (who may also have expertise in the Islamic sciences) also opposed to this ‘Brute-Force’ intrusion into their academic field. Are we to discount their defense of their fields as stemming from ‘liberal’ or ‘neo-Marxist’ influence on their theology as well?
Note how I do not deny that there are academics in these fields or social activists who have indeed fallen into unIslamic patterns of belief or practice. And I will never deny this. I have corresponded with such individuals directly on numerous occasions, and openly denounce this train of thought. In fact it is my concern of the ‘liberal’ influence into Islamic understanding that prompts my criticism of many of those who are opposing it, in that their rhetoric is not centering Muslim understanding in as much as it is throwing it into the opposite direction.
Fourthly, this type of polemics is all too often accompanied by ‘brute-force’ means of communication, whether it be rude and inappropriate language, scoffing at the other side, coordinating with corrupt government apparatus against the other side, or all the way into takfirism and vigilante or organized violence. I intend to write a separate article in the near future showing how this was not the character of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم when dealing with inter-Muslim issues.
And this is why this type of polemics caused more divisions and problems among Muslims than it heals. The natural outcome of angry and spiteful discourse is that it arouses the ego, inspires emotive outbursts, and instigates suspicion and distrust of ‘the other side’. Whether it have been Hanafi-Shafii fiqh polemic, Mutakallim-Hanbali disagreements, or Sufi-Salafi rants, all of these have had some level of vicious polemic, vigilantism or violence that rendered intelligent analysis and discourse in these topics lost or forgotten, and instead partisanship, ego and emotional argumentation became the mainstay.
Fifthly, I want to address the popularity of such polemics. No one can deny that such type of polemics are deceptively popular. But this is similar to much of Muslim polemics. We look for simplistic breakdowns of what is wrong with Muslims or Muslim society and attempt to project our discourse accordingly. Whether it be Sufis, Salafis, Barelwis, Wahhabis or yes Liberal Muslims, most Muslims look for the easily identifiable ideological scapegoat to blame for the ummah‘s problems.
And it’s an ancient problem for this ummah. Whether our ideological opponents are the Jahmiyyah, the Mu’tazilah, the Philosophers, the mutakallimin, the Sufis, the Hanafis etc, an ‘us vs. them’ polemics results in valuable truth and nuance being lost in between. Why should we learn our lesson over centuries when we can learn it now?
The truth is often more complicated than a binary set of choices. Even in the time of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم many customs were kept from the Arabs, such as the veneration of the Ka’bah, concern for lineage, outer forms of the pilgrimage (to the point that some Companions actually pointed this out to the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم), and many cultural and and social practices. This is because revelation from Allah established that just because the Mushrikīn emphasized these practices in their polytheistic religion or pre-Islamic ignorance, it didn’t mean that they were wrong, rather the truth in fiqh and social practice was more complex than just Islam vs. Shirk on the theological level, i.e. it boiled down to the nass (text) rather than what people ‘felt’ should be true.
Similar is the Iman Vs. Kufr dichotomy that is so often presented and applied in reductionist ways. Yes it is clear that ontologically and theologically, Iman and Kufr are polar opposites. But the legal and sociological manifestations of that theological truth are not always so polarized. For example ‘imitating disbelievers’ can be broken down into either Haram (e.g. actual disbelief), Makruh, Mubah, Mustahabb, or Wajib. Muslims are allowed to form amicable political relationships or alliances with non-Muslim minorities and external states, and Muslims are allowed to marry non-Muslims (all to varying and legally specified extents).
Similar trends happened in recent history with the whole Islam vs. Science debate of the late 1800 to 1900s, with many Muslim ‘modernists’ affected by the positivism of the Industrial Revolution overriding sacred text or declaring it false in light of ‘scientific truths’. It first started in the heart of the Ottoman empire then later spread to the rest of the Muslim world. Muslims of the time saw the two as diametrically opposed. And you had a resulting reaction to that trend as many traditional Muslims and scholars saw a need to withdraw completely from the natural sciences, rejecting science-based influences on Islamic thought in philosophically weak ways (as conspiracy theories for example) that have persisted until today and have only begun to mature and develop as Muslim researchers began serious readings and study into the philosophy of science.
So it’s not that simple. And it’s the same case here. The details DO matter. But for most people, especially those who do not have access to the details, the simplified narrative is highly appealing, which is why unfortunately many human beings – especially in the social media age which has obfuscated the line between expert and non-experts – interpret our realities via binary frames of reference. But these reduce complex details and realities into vague polemics that can cause us to lose valuable understanding, insight and wisdom in our own religion.
Lastly, regarding the current crop of polemicists, I want to highlight an important observation. Much of Muslim anti-SJW or anti-liberal discourse and debate seemed to emerge at the same time that it emerged among non-Muslim commentators in the West, in the same way that much of Muslim liberalism coincided with its rise in the West. Before that yes there was some discussion but it was largely disorganized and unfocused, as ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’ were not concepts that were explored in Islamic thought.
The current ;Liberal’ wave seemed to explode at the same time that gay marriage/LBTQ+ rights became a significant cultural issue, and their adversaries emerged when ‘social conservatives’ in the West like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro started to become more vocal and popular on social issues too. It becomes obvious when you notice that some of the Muslim commentators on these issues borrow the same talking points in either wholly accepting white/Western feminism and queer theory, or blanket-criticizing post-modernism or neo-Marxism for example.
So my concern here is, who or what is guiding the inter-Muslim debate on these issues? Is it really our concern for fundamental Islamic truths that is leading us into debates with Muslim ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ or are we just marching inevitably to the cultural drums of society as a whole?
Why do we need to watch videos by Shapiro, Peterson or PragerU to inform our perspectives on these issues? Why do we need to follow their analytical trail? Why should we be involving ourselves in the study of Western philosophy or social sciences without a solid grounding in the traditional Islamic disciplines (or vice versa)? A truly independent analysis of these problems would require that we isolate our thoughts as much as possible from these ‘culture wars’ and delve deep into both traditional Islamic theories and contemporary philosophy and social science theories and compare those two in that relatively (you can’t eliminate all biases entirely) neutral theoretical ‘space’.
And this is exactly why I’ve been repeating over and over again that what we really need is Muslims with expertise in the traditional sciences combining that with an expertise in the contemporary sciences and an experience with real people problems. We need to stop seeing these issues as an ‘us vs. them’ debate, and more of an issue of ‘seeking the truth’.
A synthesis and harmonization that does not conflict with Islamic principles is more advantageous and has a longer-lasting positive effect than ‘slamming’ the other side with brute force rhetoric, and then persisting in it thinking that the truth is only on your side. Our intellectual history has proven so. Barring rare exceptions, it was often that sudden and drastic attempts at reform caused more harm than good.