Originally published in Jadaliyya
In this discussion, Talal Asad identifies the problematic ways in which the presence of Muslim communities in Western contexts has been characterized in response to outbreaks of violence such as the recent events in Paris. Asad argues that many of the critiques to which Muslims are subjected, namely their dependence on transcendent forces, also inhabit the intellectual assumptions of secular and atheist commentators. He further expresses the need to examine Islam as a "tradition" in order to avoid precisely the types of sweeping generalizations and focus instead on the complexities and particularities of the various ways in which Islam is lived. The inability to historicize Islam as a tradition has played into the calls for a "reform" of the religion and resulted in the inability to confront the underlying causes of the recent eruptions of violence. This interview was conducted in New York on 17 January 2015. It was later transcribed for publication.
Hasan Azad (HA): Do Muslims belong in the West? This is a question that has been asked for many years, but perhaps with no more force than today. You wrote in your essay “Muslims as a ‘Religious Minority’ in Europe” (2003), over a decade ago, that “Muslims as Muslims cannot be represented in Europe.” Is there something almost inevitable in the way “the clash of civilizations” is being set up by certain sectors in the West?
Talal Asad (TA): No, I do not think there is such a thing as a “clash of civilizations.” When I said that Muslims as Muslims cannot be represented in the West, I was being ironic, and also referring to the fact that ninety percent of the time when people talk about “the problem of Muslims” in the West, it is to complain about the fact that Muslims have not “integrated.” There is very little serious discussion about what it means to be “European,” what it means to be French, or British, or whatever, and what exactly “secularism” in Europe means for religion in general and Islam in particular. The problem is always seen as, either: We must try harder to integrate them, or: It is their fault they do not integrate, and it is because they are attached to an illiberal religion, and so to values that conflict profoundly with our secular, egalitarian society.
In other words, the problem is seen as a matter of why “they” do not fit in to what is thought of as “our” society, rather than: What or who are “we,” as Europe or as France or Britain, and what must we do to change aspects of ourselves in order to make it possible for Muslims (who will also need to change) to be represented in Europe as Muslims? The problem is always seen as one of assimilating Muslims into Europe (whose structure and identity are fixed) if we are well intentioned towards them, and if you are not well intentioned, then making it quite clear that they do not belong with us–that they ought to “go back to where they came from.” Europe in the sixteenth century was not what it is like today–indeed, it was not even “Europe” but “Christendom.” Even after the forces of secularization things did not remain the same–politically, economically, or culturally. This is one of my voices, by the way. I am now speaking as someone who has lived most of his life in the West.
Incidentally, I think the term “West” does have some uses: It is not always to be dismissed as nonsensical (“there’s no such thing as the West”), but nor is it to be used in the slaphappy way many people use it when they say “the West has done this, the West has done that.” But I think the term has legitimate uses. Think of it this way: if there are governments, if there are generals and politicians and bankers and even ordinary people like us, who talk about “the West”–on the European and North American continent–then there is a West. Because that is what our own activities presuppose. And in presupposing it, they partly create it, for good or for ill.
Recordings and article courtesy of Palmer Keen
Something extraordinary is happening amongst the tea plantations of Ciater in West Java’s Subang regency. Hundreds of people are coming together in village courtyards and streets to get down and dance, grannies, kiddies, and hijabis converging one and all to the sounds of bangpret. “It’s like at a rock concert” one local told me, and when I finally went to a show, I found he wasn’t far off. Speaker stacks blasted into a crowd hundreds strong, but the sound washing over the audience wasn’t that of electric guitars: it was old Islamic songs, Arabic language mantras over a gong and drum-filled beat.
Bangpret is a relatively new term used only in the tea plantation-rich area of Ciater, right at the foot of the famous volcano, Tangkuban Perahu. It’s an acronym: Bang coming from terbang, a large frame drum, and pret from tarompet, the popular Sundanese double reed wind instrument. At it's core though, this music is simply a new take on gembyung, a kind of Sundanese Islamic devotional music which featured in one of the first Aural Archipelago posts years back. Gembyung is in the same general musical family as styles as widespread as slawatan Jawa in Central Java and kuntulan in East Java’s Banyuwangi regency. All of these styles are said to have roots in the use of frame drum for dakwah, the spread of Islam across Java through proselytizing, especially by the venerated Wali Sanga saints. What’s interesting is how this imagined common source eventually diverged into wildly different traditions, from the shreddy, Osing style of kuntulan to the wild beluk singing-tinged terbang gebes style of Tasikmalaya.
The gembyung style at the roots of bangpret is found all over West Java, from Subang to Sumedang and even as far east as Cirebon, an area on the border of West and Central Java full of royal palace rivalries and unique intersections of Sundanese and Javanese arts. These gembyung styles mix interlocking rhythms played on large frame drums with devotional texts sung in Arabic, Sundanese, or a mix of the two, usually in a Sundanese musical idiom. In Subang, where I've also recorded the old school gembyungstyle sometimes called gembyung buhun or “ancient gembyung”, the music is a syncretic fusion of Islamic, Arabic language syair or poetry, and elements of Sunda Wiwitan, the animist Sundanese belief system. Some songs are devoted to Nyi Pohaci, the rice goddess, and the music sets the scene for trance dance wherein dancers are possessed by the spirits of ancestors.
Bangpret still maintains this core repertoire (lagu pokok) of old school gembyung tunes or “lagu buhun”, “ancient songs” in Sundanese. Each group may have a slightly different repertoire, but for the group in Nagrak that I recorded, it was a setlist of seven songs, always played in the same order: “Hu Ya Allah/Hu Ya Mole”, “Pinang Kalu”, “Ula Ela”, “Benjang", “Engko”, “Gobyog”, and “Ayun Puntang.” While the titles are a mix of distorted Arabic and esoteric Sundanese, the songs all feature mantra-like refrains sung in Arabic, or at least what is meant to be Arabic. The truth is that, like most Indonesian Muslims, these musicians don’t actually speak Arabic, and so the texts end up having the obscure, unknowable feeling of a magic spell. Sometimes, however, the meaning can be surmised: the text of the song “Ula Ela,” for example, sounds eerily like the shahada, an Islamic creed beginning with “lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh’” or “There is no god but god.”
Bangpret diverges wildly from classic gembyung, though, in its presentation. While the core repertoire, melodies, even the gembyung drums themselves are still there, the whole thing is sheathed in the music called bajidoran. Bajidoran is a style of jaipong popular on the north coast of Java, from Bekasi in Jakarta's urban sprawl all the way to Subang. Named after the solo male dancers or bajidor who flock to these shows, bajidoran takes the frenetic, dynamic rhythm of classic jaipong and smooths it out into a driving, funky beat. In bajidoran, even more so than jaipong, rhythm is king: there’s often two kendangplayers, one on each side of the stage, sometimes playing in unison, other times playing interlocking patterns; in addition to these two kendang maestros, there’s often a set-up of three upturned kendang of slightly different sizes playing 80’s rock-like drum fills on the side. To round it out, two or three musicians accentuate the beat with the clang and crash of kecrek, an instrument which in the old days was two cymbal-like metal plates. These days, though, it often consists of some motorcycle brake discs and flywheels thrown in a broken, upturned gong!
What that all amounts to is a sound which takes much of the complex rhythmic subtlety of jaipong and throws it away in favor of pure groove. Some musicians have said that bajidoran has roots in the electronic house music folks heard in the suburban discotheques of Bekasi and Karawang. In Henry Spiller’s fascinating book “Erotic Triangles: Sundanese Dance and Masculinity in West Java,” Spiller writes that some bajidoran musicians call this new, continuous groove “triping,” “a term derived from the English slang term ‘tripping.’” As Spiller succinctly puts it, “in effect tepak triping is gamelan with a house beat.”
I recently showed Mona Haydar's music video, Hijabi, to my Islam in the Modern World class. Although we had read through some of Saba Mahmood's work as well as several other articles that challenge preconceived notions of gender and the ethical stakes of imposing essentialized Western notions of the self onto any actual reality in everyday life, Mona Haydar's work was provocative and stimulated conversation. In thinking about the performance of identity or rather simply trying to encourage undergrads to think differently, I found Haydar's work helpful. Below is another one of her challenges to authoritative structures.
The fallout of the Muslim Reformation of the 19th century left many of us Muslims (and Sunnis in particular) under the impression that the only “authentic” version of Islam is the Islam of 7th century Arabic. In an attempt to “return to first principles” (ruju‘ li-l-usul), the forefathers of modern day Salafism, including Rashid Rida and Muhammad ‘Abdu, insisted that everything a Muslim needs to live an exemplary life of social and moral rectitude can be found in the words of the Qur’an and the traditions attributed to Muhammad. All else was to be rejected as innovation (bid‘a), and would undoubtedly bring the Muslims trouble. Rashid Rida famously wrote, “We wore out our pens and our voices through writing and repeating that the misfortunes of Muslims cannot be blamed on their religion, but rather on the innovations that they have introduced into it.” For most Salafis, there is no room in Islam for anything but the strictest literalism and adherence to historical precedence. At the same time, this taqlidi (traditionalist) approach excludes long-standing pillars of dynamic culture syncretism in Muslim societes across the globe.
Because many Salafis cannot accept the problematization of the prophetic canon of hadiths and outright reject studies revealing the proliferation of forgeries in the hadith canon, they cannot engage in critical discussions of how Muslims could develop better gender practices, interfaith relationships or address many important issues that uniquely affects Muslims today. By rejecting the rich cultural diversity of Islamic traditions across the globe, Salafis reject the pluralistic character of Muslim communities that has existed since the mass migration of Muslims to Abyssinia and to Medina in Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. In fearing innovation to their conceptions of Islamic spirituality and expression, some Salafis continue to shun the religious and cultural syncretism characteristic of Islam up until the 19th century, despite the fact that this cultural syncretism, religious pluralism and diversity is what allowed the growth of the Islamic empire in the centuries leading up to the fall of the Ottoman dynasty.
For the above stated reasons—anti-syncretism, xenophobia and puritanical literalism—a text like the Hawd al-haya (The Pond of Life), a Sufi Yoga manual based on a Sankrit Hindu text, would unsurprisingly provoke a range of negative reactions from modern day Salafi Muslims, a) for its Hindu origins, and therefore polytheistic underpinnings, b) for retaining principles antithetical to modern Salafi Islamic theology and practice—including prayers for devi (Hindu goddess) intercession, the use of magic, and divining the future, and c) for introducing innovative practices into orthodox Muslim circles (Sufi in this case). Unsurprisingly, these very factors were largely unproblematic for the Muslims of the day. In fact, in areas of Northern India and Turkey, it is still commonplace to encounter such a syncretic text in the libraries of spiritual masters. The transmission history of the Hawd al-haya speaks for itself. It began as an Arabic translation and redaction of a no longer extant Sanskrit text by the name of the Amrtakunda (The Pond of Nectar) in 13th century India (also influenced by a Persian translation of a different text), and can now be found in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and even Judeo-Arabic manuscripts from Turkey to Yemen.
The Content of the Text
The text of the Hawd al-Haya begins with the following introduction, “Now, there is in the land of the Indians a book well known amongst its wisest and its scholars. This book is called Hawd al-Haya (The Pond of Life).” The author goes on to detail how the book fell into Muslims hands by way of a Hindu scholar who sought a debate with Muslims and ended up becoming a Muslim himself. The author then says that the Hindu scholar brought the text to the Muslims, using it as a means by which to attain the spiritual ends that the author claims the Muslims had already achieved. The author extols the virtues of the book by attributing to it the power of converting others who are receptive to it to the way of God and demarcating the knowledge housed within as something that cannot be understood simply through the mind, but through the heart.
The etiology of the Amrtakunda and its conveyance into Sufism represents the outermost “layer” of the Hawd al-Haya. The second, middle layer of the text consists of an allegory representing the journey of the soul from its divine origin, into the world of forms and forgetfulness, to its eventual end in its self-recognition of God. The trope of the descent and re-ascent of the soul is very widespread amongst mystical teachings around the world, as in Farid al-Din ‘Attar’s Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds). In this particular version, the story is about an individual who is exiled from her* homeland by its ruler, told to travel to find a vizier who will serve as a guide, and made to swear an oath to return.
Through her travels, the wayfarer encounters many hardships, forgets her origins, and through the guidance of the vizier comes face to face with a spiritual master who is nothing more than a reflection of herself. She is roused out of her forgetfulness and, having attained knowledge of her true self (as divine), she is presented with the Water of Life to dive into. Her immersion in the water represents her initiation and her attainment of a spiritual immortality. Having communed with God, she is sent back to her homeland (MS 34-39). The third, innermost layer of the Hawd al-Haya begins at the end of this tale—and due to the Sufi narrative frame, is given the distinct coloring of a practical guide through the journey outlined in the allegory.
Thus, the bulk of the Hawd al-Haya is a ten-chapter manual aimed at helping its user attain the “Water of Life” (i.e. everlasting divine felicity) by means of cosmological theory (Chapter 1), breathing techniques/pranayama (Chapter 2), knowledge of the heart and soul (Chapter 3 and 5), yogic postures or asanas (Chapter 4), fluid retention and embryology (Chapter 6), the use of mantras, yantras and the science of chakras (Chapter 7), understanding death (Chapter 8), invoking the devis (Chapter 9), and finally, a return to the end of the Sufi allegorical narrative incorporating aspects of all the previous chapters (Chapter 10).
Problems in Hindu-Muslim Syncretism
Because the Hindu chakra system is so inherently translatable into Sufi terms given the commonalities between Hindu and Sufi understandings of a macrocosmic beings reflected in a microcosmic being and vice versa, it seems that kundalini yogic practices can easily find expression in Sufism. However, not everything is so easy to convey to a Sufi audience. For instance, how do you translate polytheistic beliefs and practices into an unforgiving monotheistic tradition? How can you suggest a manual of magical incantations and spells, animal possession and divination to a group who believe magic to be a source of corruption for humankind and divination to be a science that God has unquestionably forbidden?Despite current Muslim creeds, Ernst argues that these beliefs and concepts were not really alien to the Muslims at the time. He writes, “[These practices are] hardly distinguishable from the standard occult and mystical practices found in Islamicate society.”
Despite my initial shock at the inclusion of such foreign elements into a Sufi text, particularly after such an extensive period of “Islamization” according to Ernst’s manuscript analysis, I am inclined to agree that everything that survives into our manuscript of the Hawd al-Haya uses Islamic and Islamicate sciences and traditions, albeit sometimes occult traditions that a minority of Muslims engaged in. Nevertheless, the language and discourse existed in some form or another prior to the composition of the Hawd al-Haya.
We can see this clearly when we consider the epistles of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa) as a source for the Hawd al-haya. In my analysis, I have found seven key terms used in conjunction here (magic/sihr, incantantions/’aza’im, intuition/imaginal vision/wahm, spells/ruqa, talismans/talismat, modalities/particulars/kayfiya, spiritual beings/ruhaniyyat) most of which, to my knowledge, are not used in other Sufi texts, but are used extensively in the same manner in the Hawd al-Haya. Most of these terms give language to the Hindu concepts I initially found strangely foreign to Islamic and Sufi theology. The most significant for our purposes is the use of the term ruhaniyyat, or spiritual beings, as a way to sanitize the Hindu goddesses into angelic forms and reject their divine attributes. The spiritual beings (ruhaniyyat) are angelic forms Islamic cosmological traditions hold exist in the planetary spheres and stars. They tend to be female, if they are gendered at all, and so this gives the author of the Hawd al-Haya a very easy way to rework the incantations to summon the devis as incantations to call for the help and intercession of various angelic beings in the cosmos.
Similarly, the Brethren provide Islamic parallels to yantras, using incense and particular rituals to summon other worldly beings, the use of magic to reanimate the dead, ward off evil or to predict death, and there is even one instance where the Brethren describe a mysterious Sabaean ritual where an initiate has to performed very yoga-like poses. All these things may be foreign and unusual for us today, but it seems there are Islamic antecedents for the translation of these ideas into our Sufi Yoga text.
Thus, we have to entertain the notion that what is jarring for us may not have been jarring in the least to the Muslims of the day. For such a Sufi Yoga text to find such wide circulation, there must have been enough parallels between Hindu and Sufi ideas to warrant the inclusion of such seemingly controversial beliefs and practices. This points to a greater syncretic character in the Islam of the day, but perhaps too it can point to a shared intellectual milieu between Hindus and Muslims at the time—and thus the development of an Islam that is particular to that geographical and historical context.
In studying the text of the Hawd al-haya, I have found strong indications of a natural attitude of syncretism and hybridity in Islamicate culture that is absent from mainstream Sunni orthodox versions of Islam today. I have also found some indications of reluctance or discomfort with the inherent Hindu-ness of the text. While this may point to a conservative syncretistic attitude, Carl Ernst has argued that the only conservatism we can truly discern is in the limitation arising out of ideas that had no equivalent in Arabic. Ernst writes, “In approaching his task, the Arabic translator seems only to have felt the limitations imposed by the audience’s unfamiliarity with technical terminology; he was not limited by social and religious constraints.” This of course does not explain the author’s insistence on framing the source of the text as a Hindu convert to Islam, or the regular insistence that Sufis are the better inheritors of this wisdom than the Hindus. However, it gives us a window into how other Muslim communities framed their interactions with other religions, cultures and traditions prevalent at the time and how different our attitudes today might be.
The Hawd al-Haya went on to influence the practice of multiple Sufi orders, including Indian Sufi orders such as the Chishtis and the Naqshbandis, as well as Turkish, Persian and North African orders such as the Mevlevis (Rumi’s order), the Qadaris, the Shattaris and the Sanusis. The influence of the cultural hybridity of a few has prominent effects on Islam(s) as expressions of travelling cultures. In the preservation of fascinating cross-cultural manuscripts such as the Hawd al-haya, there is a model for religious communities that felt minimally threatened by foreign influences and could even find a place in their own theory and praxis for the wisdom they discerned in the traditions of another group.
*The protagonist of the journey narrative is ungendered in the original Arabic. Given the lack of neuter pronouns in English, I have chosen feminine pronouns here as a contrast to androcentric convention and in line with Arabic grammar, where the noun for “self/soul” (nafs) is considered feminine.
For more information regarding the Hawd al-haya, see Dr. Carl Ernst’s work and particularly, “The Islamization of Yoga in the “Amrtakunda” Translations.” This article provides a thorough and highly technical study of the fascinating history of the Hawd al-haya and its various manuscript versions, including the process of redaction the editors undertook to further harmonize the contents of the Amrtakunda with Islamic beliefs and practices.
by Hasan Azad
You’re immediately drawn to her. You believe in her. You believe she loves you. You experience the vicarious pleasure of being with another person in a way that only movies can do for you—the emotions she conveys, the looks, the smiles—only she’s not a person, Ava is a machine.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina asks: What does it means to be human? What does it mean to have intelligence? Does it mean having imagination, empathy, self-awareness? Ava appears to exhibit all of these qualities, and more.
Ava has been created by Nathan, a reclusive billionaire who is also the owner of Blue Book, a thinly disguised fictional version of Google, as we are told it is the world’s most popular internet search engine, processing an average of ninety-four per cent of all internet search requests.
Caleb has won the lottery at Blue Book, the company where he works, to participate in a Turing test to see if he believes Ava is actually human. The much-anticipated moment where a machine will finally outstrip the intelligence of humans, known as “the singularity,” is expected to be a major tipping point in human civilization.
As Caleb says to Nathan: “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. It’s the history of gods.” In other words, if the history of the gods has been that of creating wo/man in their image, and if wo/man subsequently creates an intelligent machine in her/his own image, then surely s/he has rewritten the story of the gods? Perhaps.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Caleb is convinced that Ava has intelligence—human-like intelligence, and consciousness—and so are we as the viewer. This is the mark of any great science fiction movie, of any great movie really: the lines between reality and unreality are so significantly blurred that we are participators in the story ourselves.
We believe in Ava because we relate to her as we do to other human beings. When Caleb reveals that he is testing her she asks what will happen if she fails the test. When she realizes that she might be switched-off, she asks: “Why is it up to anyone? Do you have people who test you, and might switch you off?"
Philosopher Nick Bostrom has made the important observation that at no point in the discussion about creating artificial intelligence has the question been asked whether it should be pursued in the first place. When Caleb asks the question “Why,” Nathan responds somewhat incredulously that it is “inevitable.” He sees it as part-and-parcel of the notion of progress that has been with us since the Enlightenment. The idea is that progress is an indispensible aspect of humanity, and it must be realized in order to create endlessly expanding waves of human betterment. Either that, or irrelevance, or, worse yet, extinction.
Ex Machina doesn’t provide neat answers. But, like all great movies, it poses some deeply probing questions. What does it mean to live in a society where companies such as Blue Book have access to all our profiles, and not only can they use that information to target-market to us (as if that were not insidious enough), they can also use it to surveil us (as investigative journalist Glen Greenwald has revealed, companies such as Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, and Apple work hand-in-glove with the NSA)?
What does it mean for a company such as Blue Book to have unfettered access to private human interactions in designing technologies whose benefits and harms are completely unknown?: “Almost every cell phone has a microphone, a camera, and a means to transmit data. So I switched on all the mikes and cameras, across the entire fucking planet, and redirected the data through Blue Book. Boom. A limitless resource of facial and vocal interaction."
And of course the central question: What does it mean to be human?
The discussion revolves around the idea of consciousness. If Ava can be shown to be conscious, then she has human-level intelligence. What does this mean from an Islamic viewpoint? From the historic-Islamic perspective the intellect is where the light of the Divine shines. According to the language of the Quran, light is the very metaphor of God: “light upon light.” And knowledge and intelligence are seen as inseparable from the knowledge of God.
This understanding of the inseparability of consciousness and the knowledge of God has historically been central to all the world’s major religious traditions. One of the 20th century’s greatest minds, Albert Einstein, believed in a God behind worldly phenomena. In other words, there is a vertical dimension to our otherwise horizontal, terrestrial existence.
Can Ava experience such a vertical dimension? Can she experience and/or know God? Does it matter whether or not she can experience and/or know God in our largely a-theistic (and anti-theistic) society? Many would argue “No.” If we take Darwinian evolution seriously, it would be said—and many do say—that all that matters is our “horizontal” march through time. All that matters—all that can possibly matter—is for the fittest to survive, as they inevitably will and must.
In a poignant moment in Ex Machina (and the movie is chockfull of poignant moments), when Nathan reveals to Caleb that he will most probably have to dismantle Ava and try again, as he has already done many times with many other versions, Nathan tries to console Caleb with a seemingly off-hand: “Feel bad for yourself. One day, the AIs will look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons from the plains of Africa. An upright ape, living in dust, with crude language and tools.”
Within this horizontal view of our history, of all of history, there is no real space given to ethical considerations that hinder our advancement. The assumption being that material and technological advancements are clear markers of progress. This fails to recognize that technology and progress are never morally neutral. All technologies, from the hammer to the atomic bomb, from the bicycle to depleted-uranium-tipped missiles, assume a certain view of the world, a certain relationship between human beings (or certain classes of human beings), the world, the technology in question, and God (or no-God).
Philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) argues that every intellectual age is defined by the questions it asks, because each age is defined by certain parameters of thought that permit only certain kinds of questions. The question of “why” create artificial intelligence requires more serious probing and pushing. There is nothing inevitable about anything in the universe. Although, following through with certain actions—as Garland strongly suggests—could very well have serious consequences for the future of humanity.
Ex Machina is an exceptional movie on various levels: it is intellectually sophisticated, emotionally arresting, and visually striking. It provides a much-needed boost to the sci-fi genre of movies—and to movies in general—when, far-too-often, we have to be content with vacuity and Hollywood schmaltz.