28 December 2010

The Covenant of Allah / Times of Confusion

Two days ago I inadvertently chanced upon a discussion concerning one of the most popular Muslim bloggers who had apostatised. Of course, I was not a reader of the site (was directed to it once by someone).

The discussion on how this byword of Muslim blogging turned atheist, as some claim, is very interesting though not in the positive sense. Eventually I did locate the person's new blog, for I thought it was important to have a sense of her arguments and not what people were claiming about her. There were good points and bad points. It made me realise the great problems facing many Muslim converts, especially women, who are rushed off into marrying strangers as soon as they make the declaration of faith.

One of the experiences shared by the person rings true from my own observation. For example, I have never agreed to distribute dawah pamphlets on Islam Open Day at university. This Marxist-inspired tactic, with use of apologetics in its contents is appalling, in my view. We cannot state that women have rights in Islam while being silent on domestic violence and other tragedies in the community. We cannot call for justice for Aafia Siddiqui incarcerated in the United States while saying nothing about the thousands of nameless Indonesian maids abused by their employers in Saudi Arabia. Muslims must critique these facts. In fact, this story appeared in Crescent Times, an Australian Muslim paper, so there are definitely right-minded Muslims, and those anti-Muslim commentators who speak of a nefarious "Muslim mind" are clearly wrong.

It was so disturbing to read that the Indonesian women who go to work in Saudi Arabia feel the trust and are happy that they are working for fellow Muslims. But covenant is never shared between humans. And this is where I politely disagree with the lady who left Islam from what it appears are experiential realities, gauging from a handful of entries on her blog.

Islam teaches us that covenant is made solely between Allah and man. Not between human beings.

I do not think we own the right to judge a person who writes that she married a virtual stranger and was then swallowed up by a conservative establishment that looked straight through her when it came to her needs as a human being, whether it was getting served after all the men had eaten at a food stall or the inability to get a contract that stipulated that the marriage be monogamous. But here I am not speaking so much of this lady who at least has a voice, but for perhaps other women who are not fortunate either. Allah is the Best Judge, and He will take each atom into account, whether good or bad.

But that Muslims may treat each very badly is not news. Aren't we Muslims because our covenant is with Allah? Life drags many people through hot degrees, and some, even innocent ones can end up scared of "Islam" (Divine Revelation) because of what they "experience" (man-made discursive practice of ethics). And Allah is the Best Judge.

I have often asked myself if our personal experiences define our realities. In Tao Te Ching the first verse goes that the Way lies beyond what we experience. In The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad presses a shell to his ear, curious to behold a new sound. From my own life I can safely say that Islam was a choice, not a need. It became the Way the moment I understood the Qur'an, and though it made me pledge my allegiance during the first reading of the chapter 'The Prophets', it is only since early last year that I have gotten a fuller, richer understanding after some extensive research on how to internalise and converse with its ethics. I mention this because experience itself is never enough. To learn about Islam, to accept it, you must first read the Qur'an, its purpose, to make a covenant with Allah after you recognise His Voice. Even if you become a Muslim, you are not a believer until you consciously submit yourself after reading and learning, unto Allah alone. When you enter Allah's covenant, you must also be kind, gracious, for these are not merely qualities that are "good" but signify "surrender" and appreciation of His sermons. You will make mistakes, may be get a little political (though I have never understood those who support the Taliban, and there's something wrong to begin with) or make everything into right and wrong, but eventually you will come around to the realisation that it is all inconsequential before the simple and deep teachings of the Ultimate Reality, the Teacher, the One God.

Once I imagined I was on the Isle of Man, this fantastic place, and there were no believers, and I was sinking on my knees in hopelessness. Only Allah knows what I would have become or done. But if I truly believe, I would never disbelieve. And Allah knows what is true and untrue in our head, heart and hands.

It is recognising that Ultimate Reality, "His signs" as the Qur'an puts it that explain faith, not a symbolic identity of it.

There's no doubt that Muslims are in a terrible state. But along with the darkness, there's light. There are pious Muslims, wholly dedicated to the Message, who work diligently for goodness, who wish to bring Muslim life up-to-date with socio-economic conditions of the nation state. This Muslim ethical project (note: I didn't use the word "Islam"; this distinction is often not understood by Muslims who would rather deal with symbols and banners than actual meanings) is a necessity, because three or four centuries after the Prophet's death, peace be upon him, reliable theological discourse had been abandoned. It was only in the nineteenth century that a great scholar by the name of Muhammad Abduh diagnosed this amnesia. Wikipedia incorrectly calls Abduh a "liberal", a "Mutazili" and a "modernist". [A separate post is required for an exposition of these terms, and I will only say that an analysis of Abduh by a particular writer was flawed to the very centre in its assumption that "Islam" is a time-bound commodity which Abduh tried to mask with a "synthetic" reform - this perhaps has been the general loop-holing of religion by post-Darwinian, secular writers. Many modern anthropologists dispute this formulation which has its roots in the Enlightenment schematisation of progressive time and is frankly an 18th century Victorian evolutionary idea]. True to the spirit of Islam, Abduh was a, to use the diction of the secular tradition, a "liberal" on some matters and a "conservative" on others. Mark Sedgewick, his biographer explains:
None of these! I think he must have had some sympathy for the Mutazili, but he knew that they were different people from a very different age. The problems of his age were not theirs. Intellectually, he was certainly interested in some ideas of the Shia and the Sufis, but I don't think he ever identified with them, at least not after his youth, when he certainly considered himself a Sufi for a while. After that, I can't imagine him wanting to go to Tanta for the mawlid, or to Karbala! That thing was not his style at all. In the end, he was more of a regular Egyptian Sunni than anything else. Though he was never just a regular anything.
Muhammad Asad and his magnificent translation of the Qur'an were directly influenced by Abduh's scholarship. Abduh honoured all people, he did not consider the West as alien as Maududi did (whose ideas permeate contemporary Muslim polemics). Abduh respected women (for their social wellbeing and he also drew upon the Qur'an and scholarship to argue that polygamy was only permissible in certain circumstances), he outlawed slavery with the ideas of the Qur'an (a great achievement for contemporary Muslim life), he was a staunch opponent of colonialism (but did so through legitimate means, and parted ways with Al-Afghani on his "pan-Islamism" which has proved disastrous) among many other little and great things. Until his dying days he was working on the commentary of the Qur'an, with his prodigal expertise in theology and the Arabic language. He is quoted as stating that the Qur'an is "its own best commentary".

No scholar since Ghazali has been as influential as Abduh (for the right reasons). (For the wrong reasons) the demeaning of Islam by political ideologues like Maududi and medieval ravages by Muslim empires to consolidate worldly power in place of humility and faith have also defined thoughts and attitudes. A number of logical criticisms of Abduh can be made, if one chooses to, but casting aspersions on his belief are entirely without evidence.

As a number of intellectuals have argued, God-elected men like Muhammad and Abraham and Moses, peace be upon them, cannot make us feel as they felt. It could be elaborated that what can bind us to their ageless faith and humanity is the visibility of good ethics as taught by Allah in His Book, in allegorical and literal forms. And the example of the Prophet Muhammad, the Last Prophet, peace be upon him. But for us ethics would also mean the modernisation of social institutions in Muslim nation states, research, and dialogue. After all knowledge is the bedrock of spirituality. The pastoral, good, ethical mode of living of the prophets is absent in our age's organisation. The Qur'an (Chapter 56, Verses 10-14):
But the foremost shall be [they who in life were] the foremost [in faith and good works]: they who were [always] drawn close unto God! In gardens of bliss [will they dwell] - a good many of those of olden times, but [only] a few of later times.
Contrary to the theory of moral relativism, the Qur'an is clear that there is regression in man's faith and actions through history. Yet a little later in the same chapter, the Qur'an (Verses 27-40) provides further hope for us.
Now as for those who have attained to righteousness - what of those who have attained to righteousness? [They, too, will find themselves] amidst fruit-laden lote-trees, and acacias flower-clad, and shade extended, and waters gushing, and fruit abounding, never-failing and never out of reach.

And [with them will be their] spouses, raised high: for, behold, We shall have brought them into being in a life renewed, having resurrected them as virgins, full of love, well-matched with those who have attained to righteousness: a good many of olden times, and a good many of later times.
In the context of those who initially stumble and sin but eventually attain righteousness, there will be "many". This is a definite reality of our times. It is in contrast to the "foremost" of the first quotation, those "always drawn to God", of whom there are a "few" in times that follow the Last Revelation (Commentary by Asad, The Message of the Qur'an).

In today's environment, communication is either impersonal or absent. How do we get there? How do we bring knowledge to people that is articulate, intelligent and authentic? The well-travelled journalist Chris Hedges argues:
The debasement of language, which Shakespeare understood was a prelude to violence, is the curse of modernity. We have stopped communicating, even with ourselves. And the consequences will be as extreme as in the Shakespearean tragedy....The Arabic of the Qur'an is as poetic as the intricate theology of Islam. It is nuanced and difficult to master. But the language of the Qur'an has been debased in the slums and poor villages across the Middle East by the words and phrases of "political Islam". This process is no different from what has taken place with Christianity in the United States. Our mainstream churches have been as complacent in fighting heretics as have the mainstream mosques and religious scholars in the Middle East.
Hurdles line our path. For example, during his reign the Pakistani dictator General Zia instituted a law, in the name of Islam, according to which a woman who was raped could be charged with adultery. Imagine! On the subject of improvements, can't we introduce discursive practices that condemn racism, discriminatory attitudes, sexism, and intellectual laziness in religious scholarship? We do that in the spirit of Islam. For through history and by many Muslim power-brokers, it was never about Islam.

Our covenant is with Allah only, that's why we are Muslims. We must criticise such blatant disregard for human welfare, which is one of the very founding stones of Divine and prophetic discourse. We know that many bad things have been committed in the name of Islam and will continue to be done. Sometimes we may feel like the Companions of the Cave, afraid that we will be stoned by our own brothers. But this world was never ours forever.

May we stand against injustice, against evil words spoken by those in our midst, and strive to be good. For to Allah we belong and unto Him we will return. Believers will be tested, and each time they fall they will pick themselves up again. This is faith. It's all around us, and even its fragments in other prophetic lines in lands lost as far as the tribes we have never encountered or empathised with, albeit not as clear as the Qur'an, can be found in the good ethics practised by their members. Because there is something bigger than all of us, though we all will know it - the obvious conclusion of a rational, conscious specie (man) appointed as a deputy on earth and obligated to express the virtue of righteousness toward all that lives on earth - the Ultimate Reality we call Allah, though man has sought to haplessly define the Undefinable (Chapter 21, Verses 18-22).


Photo of Muhammad Abduh

1 comment:

Nim'o said...

Salams Aiman, interesting article.

Happy New Year!