18 April 2012

Ziauddin Sardar and Originality

I hold much agreement with Ziauddin Sardar - his largely stimulating, healthy reading of Islam; and also disagreement over other issues, e.g. his promotion of Amina Wadud, poster woman of the "Progressives", whose convoluted activism is best expressed through one of her blog titles: If Music is Haram, then Allah Made a Mistake. Rather than contextually pointing out that music can be both positive and negative in straightforward language, the "Progressives" feel a need to provoke. Although I very rarely listen to music these days, mainly while driving on weekends, I had a similar experience years ago when a fellow Muslim passenger on a bus, on learning of my faith, felt the need to "educate" me while I had my headphones on. When I refused his advice, quite out of adolescent zing and a somewhat stubborn streak which has been a fault many a time, he started to chant prayers next to me. It appears to me that this provocation and coercion is the hallmark of the "Progressives" and the Puritans respectively. The "Progressives" openly ridicule "tradition". The "Progressives" and Puritans are both out of touch and have not made any serious contribution to the regeneration of traditional ethics. The self-righteousness and judgement is astounding. Compare this to Muhammad Abduh's critique of the contemporary practice of polygamy in the language of traditional ethics by arguing that polygamy had been a sound practice among early righteous believers but had degenerated into a corrupt practice of lust devoid of justice and equity toward women. He didn't write an arrogantly worded treatise, but used his critical mind which had been given to him and to all human beings as a result of God's grace. Abduh showed that as a consequence of this social change and lack of moral integrity in men, polygamy was only permissible in certain circumstances. Now compare this to how Puritans and "Progressives" have warred over polygamy, one justifying it on unreasonable grounds, the other ridiculing the former for "backwardness", all in all a failure to humbly and critically engage with the issue. Abduh's critique of the traditional establishment can be vindicated by the high level of sexual harassment against women in Egypt, which the traditional authorities have failed to address and stop. Abduh may have stood outside the traditional establishment but he was wholly traditional in the sense of the ethics of Islam as imparted by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

This brings me to my point of contention with Ziauddin Sardar. In an interview he was asked: "Among the next generation of Diaspora Muslim public intellectuals, Tariq Ramadan's ideas are perhaps closest to yours. Notwithstanding 9/11, why do you think it has taken a quarter of a century for your ideas to resurface in the public sphere?"

Sardar answered: "Well, better late than never. When The Future of Muslim Civilisation was first published, I remember my friend Jerry Ravetz saying, dont expect anyone to understand it; it will take decades for many of the ideas in it to filter down. I think it is the job of reformers to be ahead of their time. Moreover, I am asking Muslims to transcend centuries of historical baggage and overturn deeply entrenched obscurantism. I have always seen this as a multi-generational task. Sometimes you need a crisis for certain reformist ideas to come to the fore. I think the total failure of the notion of Islamic state and the Islamic movement, as well as intellectual movements such as Islamisation of knowledge, has generated a sense of crisis. 9/11 has given this crisis an urgent spin to this crisis. So the time is now ripe for many of my ideas to come to the fore. Indeed, it is gratifying to see how so many of my ideas sometime with acknowledgement, mostly without acknowledgement have now been embraced in places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and in various European Muslim circles. But I do not believe that Tariq Ramadan and others have still caught up with the true import of my ideas."

Do I sense some unhealthy competition with Ramadan? I have not read Ramadan and not extensively read Sardar either. But what is the point in claiming originality? There is very little originality in this world, particularly theology. Ramadan humbly acknowledged the influence of Muhammad Asad in 2010 whose thinking was growing on him, and Asad was inspired by the scholarship of Abduh in his best critiques and by reactionaries like Maududi in his worst (which he fortunately swiftly discarded) and Abduh by those before him. In fact, Abduh, too, walked the misleading path of "Revolution" with Al-Afghani once before turning away toward "the Straight Path". The exact call for Muslims to transcend "centuries of historical baggage and overturn deeply entrenched obscurantism" was originally made by Muhammad Abduh, not Sardar. Muhammad Abduh was himself inspired by Muslim thinkers of the past, that era of learning which came to a tragic end in the tenth century or so. Abduh made this call after surveying what had happened in between. It also was not Abduh who was brilliant in himself but all good was from God, for all scholars have imperfections and the best learned men are open to sincere inquiry of their understandings. The roots of honest understanding come not from us but rather the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that propelled Muslim men and women to seek knowledge and be fountains of good behaviour and piety and which indirectly paved way to that era of learning called the Renaissance in Europe. It was there in Europe that Abduh sat in the libraries and read great books and he realised the dearth of knowledge in Muslim lands. He saw his task to inculcate that tradition of learning and of Islam. He correctly saw that God was the Teacher and how it all connected with the world, of what Islam truly meant. It is possible Sardar had a similar experience but he was not the first. Back to Adam!

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