Photo by Clem Onojeghuo
Originally published in The Islamic Monthly
by Hasan Azad
Today Muslims are experiencing large scale “psychoses”. Psychosis may be defined as an interpretation of everyday events through a set of lenses that distort the experience of life to such a degree that it is unrecognizable to most others.
This is a considerable claim to make about Muslims, and no doubt I will be condemned for having “gone to the other side.” But this is really my point: there is no “other side,” just our experience of life and events, and how we choose to interpret them.
Contrary to commonly held belief, experience is an active process (albeit oftentimes done passively) of interpreting events as to what they should or should not, do or do not, mean. “Whatever of good reaches you, is from God, but whatever of evil befalls you, is from yourself” (as the Qur’an states).
There are at least two levels at which this verse may be read: (1) if we experience good we should be grateful to God; while if we experience other than good, it is only because we haven’t fathomed the reality that all is good, because everything comes from God; (2) if we experience other than good, it is because we have failed to fulfill our role of creating good in the world as God’s caliphs. Since, according to the Quranic narrative, we are, each and every one of us, God’s representatives on earth. And we all have a responsibility to create good in all that we do.
It appears to me that significant swathes of Muslim populations have forgotten these central Quranic perspectives. Countless Muslims bemoan their plight vis-à-vis neo-colonial incursions into their lives and lands. And, to be sure, such incursions present themselves as brute facts on the ground. However, what is not a given is what we choose to do with these brute facts.
I find it fascinating that liberal values (despite the practical inconsistencies of liberalism, which are numerous, and about which philosopher-anthropologist Talal Asad has written extensively) should, at least in their professed ideals, maintain the principle of equality for all. It is interesting because the Quranic-Prophetic principle of mercy (which entails inclusion and not violent exclusion) overrides all other considerations. It is remarkable that the Prophet of the Quran – and of recorded history – was and is a “mercy to all the worlds,” considering our daily fare of blood-curdling news stories about the latest exploits of would-be Muslims. Put differently, the stories of Muslims – whether in the form of ISIS; the Taliban; Boko Haram; or lone gunmen in coffee shops – implodes this fundamental Islamic principle, erupting in its wake the darkest kind of wrath. One of the seven deadly sins in Christianity, wrath in Islam is one of the quickest ways to land a person in hell. Famously, when a young man asked the Prophet to advise him, he replied: “Don’t get angry.” Unsatisfied with the advice, the young man again asked the Prophet to advise him, and the Prophet replied: “Don’t get angry.” But still the young man insisted that the Prophet advise him, and yet again the Prophetic response was: “Don’t get angry.” The historic Islamic scholastic and ethical traditions have always understood that anger leads to the ruination of one’s good actions in the eyes of God.
The Muslim psyche – and I speak as someone who has been intimately involved in the study of and thinking about Muslims and their contemporary history for over a decade now, so please spare me the charge of reductionism – is riven by a sense of victimhood, by a sense of meekness, and its flip side, wrath. A significant factor behind such boiling anger as well as timidity is a misreading of history, which is underlined by the enormously influential poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) and his famous poem Complaint, where he complains to God about the fallen state of Muslims, and the resultant spread of “infidelity” in the world.
The idols in the idol-houses say, ‘the Muslims have gone’.
At the base of Iqbal’s lament is the belief that Muslims, by virtue of (supposedly) being the bearers of the truth of the message of Islam, are meant to be the leaders and shapers of the world. And this they were, or so it is that history is often remembered – as if there were no dynastic rifts and wars between contending Muslim rulers, as if Islamic political history was a singular, untroubled and congenial block.
In fact, one of the perennial questions that has bothered some of the best and worst Muslim minds since colonial times is “What went wrong?” (note my mis-appropriation of Bernard Lewis). How could Muslims, who had for over ten centuries been leaders in all fields of human arts and science, as well as political ascendancy, seemingly all of a sudden come to occupy a position of inferiority vis-à-vis the West?
Iqbal’s sentiment – with varying degrees of emphasis upon the sense of loss, trauma, quiet, and not so quiet desperation – animates much of present Muslim discourse, not to mention political violence. It is a sentiment that first and foremost takes stock of external facts –neo-colonial incursions, political impotence – and lands the blame squarely between the eyes of an imagined western enemy. Remember: there are no facts, only interpretations. And, crucially, according to the Quranic narrative, the evil that befalls us is from our own selves.
Secondly, this sentiment or psychosis posits oneself – that is, the Muslim self – as embattled and separate from the West. Of course, this is the result of the internalization of the narrative of the “Other” that was historically created by colonial European powers vis-à-vis Muslims, and which was famously described by Edward Said’s epochal Orientalism. However, this is perhaps the most vicious psychosis of all. It leads to anomie and disaffection, and, in the most extreme cases, justifies the most bloodthirsty acts of violence.
The reality, if we take a global view – or perhaps a God’s-eye-view – of things is that we are all of the same fragile flesh and brittle blood, and we all inhabit the same delicate planet that is on the brink of complete environmental collapse. It is far too late in the day to point fingers.
The reality, according to the Quranic narrative – and history amply bears this out – is that civilizations rise and fall with time, and power changes hands with the same rapidity and insouciance as in Game of Thrones. In fact, according to the Quran, the rise and fall of empires is one of the “signs” of God. So it is really immaterial who has the “outward” power at any given time. Political ascendancy was never the raison detre of the Quranic-Prophetic message and example. And bloodshed is bloodshed is bloodshed, no matter how much it is dressed up in long, unkempt beards and disheveled robes.
The question then for humanity as such, and not just for self-professed Muslims, is: To what extent will we succeed or fail in the timeless challenge to uninhabit our psychoses and hallucinations about life and the world, in order to render good – not evil – in the world? The challenge is for all sides (imagined or not) to come together and fight peacefully, but never meekly, for truth, justice, goodness, and light.
For if, according to the Quran, the metaphor of God is light, then it is our human responsibility to unveil that light from within the depths of our soul, and to shine it forth into the world, and towards everything and everyone around us.