Originally Published in The Islamic Monthly
Hasan Azad (HA): Muslims in the West are facing a great deal of scrutiny and questioning as to their “loyalty” to the countries of their citizenship and belonging. You have argued that the greatest challenge to such rhetoric is a committed citizenship on the part of Muslims that is engaged and contributes to the welfare of the wider community. And yet, there is a prevalent narrative amongst Muslims—which seems to me to be a vestige of old narratives of “us” vs. “them”—that makes many Muslims prefer to help Muslims in other countries, than help local communities and people in need, who may or may not be Muslim: as you have noted, poverty and suffering knows no religion or creed. How can Muslims reclaim the Prophetic imperative of caring for the neighbor, over and above identitarian-pettiness, which will only exacerbate the waves of Islamophobia that Muslims are experiencing?
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I finished writing The Patricians of Nishapur, my first book, in 1970. I was 30 years old and had only lived in two places: Rockford, Illinois, then the state’s second largest city with a population around 100,000, where I lived until graduating from high school, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, or more specifically Harvard University. Yet somehow I felt comfortable and confident in conjuring up the lives of the educated elite of an eleventh century Iranian city from the most niggardly of Arabic sources. It didn’t occur to me then to query my hubris.
Two decades later the thought struck me that maybe I had unconsciously populated Nishapur with versions of the educated middle class Protestant families I had come to know growing up in Rockford. I toyed with this idea from time to time over the years, but only recently have I given it serious consideration. Two things have prompted these deeper reflections.
One of the many paradoxes in the modern age is that there is an overabundance of knowledge and information available to the masses; yet, easy access to and dissemination of information has created a space for exaggerated views, simplistic analyses, and uninformed opinions to proliferate. As such, we have more knowledge available to us, yet many of us remain misinformed. With a plethora of uncritical and un-nuanced information bites easily available, a Muslim terrorist dialectic has emerged, reinforcing a narrative that Muslim men are dangerous, violent, and prone to acts of terrorism. It is not uncommon to come across this “dangerous Muslim man” archetype in Western public, political, and media discourses.
This most often occurs when radicalized Muslim individuals engage in random acts of violence, in which civilians are murdered and/or injured. When these acts of violence occur in the US, Canada, and Europe, there’s a concerted effort in the media to portray such random lone wolf acts of violence as being linked to some global Muslim terrorist infrastructure, and in doing so asserting that Islam is the root cause for these actions. However, deep and detailed analyses of the possible psychological, emotional, or social states of the perpetrators to help understand these actions, beyond terrorism inspired by Islam, is completely absent.
Hasan Azad: It seems to me that as “humanity” finds itself at the brink of a precipice, which is entirely of its own doing – the threat of complete environmental collapse, and the sixth mass extinction (a group of scientists published a report in June that predicts that, given the unprecedented rates at which species are becoming extinct, the planet is entering the sixth mass extinction as a result of human-made disasters) – now, more so than ever before in history, the notion of difference vis-à-vis the natural world and other groups of human beings has to be turned on its head into a recognition of a fundamental unity between all of us. What are your thoughts on this?
Talal Asad: Referring to the great achievements of the modern world – I’m going back to just after World War II – people would write about the great achievements of “European civilization.” At that time, as I remember it, everyone talked about European civilization – and even “the crisis of European civilization” that the world had gone through at the defeat of European fascism. (“European civilization,” “modern civilization,” or simply “civilization” were used interchangeably.) This was how the distinction was made between the most advanced part of “humanity” and the other parts that hadn’t reached its level. This is an old, old story, of course, one which has been retold many times, and occasionally criticized. But it also had this implication: “We are able to achieve these wonderful things and defend these wonderful values, not you.”
A friend of mine long ago used to joke whenever we were confronted with something technically sophisticated, saying, “You see how clever the white man is!” And so I’ve used that phrase quite often ever since: “You see how clever the white man is!” My point is merely that this was a common posture, a serious claim in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, and even just after World War II. The idea of European racial superiority was quite commonly associated with claims to inhabiting European civilization, which was, of course, the “highest.”
Now, over the last few decades, as the various global crises have been accumulating – climate change, the threat of nuclear war as well as the dangers of nuclear energy, the uncontrollability of the global financial system, and so on – we now hear people saying things like: “Look at what humanity has done.” Now suddenly the subject is “humanity,” whereas originally Euro-Americans had claimed: “Look at the stunning achievements of the West.” Because if you reread the earlier writings you see that everybody talked endlessly – well, perhaps not everybody but intellectuals, politicians and colonial governors – about the great achievements of European civilization, of the West. And it seemed quite reasonable to talk in these terms – even many reformers in the Third World talked that way because they too had internalized the idea that growing scientific knowledge and military prowess were signs of moral worth. My point is simply that when it comes to global disasters, then it’s all of humanity. Suddenly we hear the claim that humanity is responsible – including, no doubt, the peasants in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the urban poor!
Originally Published at #AsiaNow
I had already sat for several hours, gently sweating, as thousands of people arrived at an open-air building in Solo, Indonesia. The streets outside were full of pedestrians, cars, motorbikes, buses, and the smell of fried tofu. People pressed into the building; some took seats close to the front, while others went to the second level to rest after a long twelve-hour trek, and some stood, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the man they had come to see.
Unceremoniously, Habib Syech bin Abdul Qodir Assegaf appeared. He began to walk through the crowds of people, heading toward the front of the building. Along the way, Habib Syech passed out small amounts of cash to the children, shook some hands, and slipped through the many others reaching to touch him. He eventually made it to the front of the building and sat down, immediately stoking the incense coals prepared for his arrival. Habib Syech asked if audience members had any questions, and for the next two hours he responded to queries about banking, proper Islamic practice, and a wide range of other topics. And then, suddenly, the atmosphere in the room changed.
Habib Syech reached for a microphone and began singing. He is a difficult figure to clearly define, but he typically travels around Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and Taiwan to perform sholawat (sung praises about the virtues of prophet Muhammad) accompanied by 20-30 musicians. The crowd lurched forward, and several limbs became embedded in my back and side. During the question-and-answer session I had come close to dozing off, but I was now fully awake, even as the room grew intensely silent, audience members gazing at Habib Syech. Along with their gazes, they also directed camera phones in his direction. Some individuals were holding two or three recording devices to capture this 90-second performance by Habib Syech. A surprise to me during one of my first field site visits to the Habib’s building, camera phones became a constant presence at all events involving this figure.
A relevant Islamic philosophical theology should not be purely theoretical or historical. It should address intellectual problems actually faced by the general public. The main intellectual problems facing the general Muslim public, in my view, fall under two categories. On the one hand, there are the apparent and real contradictions between Islamic values and those of the globally dominant liberal culture. On the other, there are the apparent and real contradictions between postulates of Islamic theology and those of modern science. These are, of course, inseparable. They are only various aspects of the whole tension between moral and metaphysical reality according to Islam, and that according to the dominant cultural narrative. Here, however, I intend to examine the problems on the moral side of this equation. These problems present themselves to the individual Muslim at various degrees of depth and breadth, depending on how far she goes in the process of thinking through their philosophical roots and implications. The treatment of a problem, in the way of an intellectual resolution, should be proportional to the degree at which such a problem is experienced.
If the purpose of Islamic philosophical theology is, as I have proposed, to treat such problems, then the Muslim theologian in the required role of public intellectual needs to present her ideas in various manners, as appropriate to the various types of audience and their various needs. Contemporary Islamic thought cannot be allowed to remain an exclusively ‘ivory tower’ exercise, relevant only to a few intellectuals, and therefore irrelevant to most of the general public. For this reason, I propose to describe these issues, somewhat ‘phenomenologically’, in order of the depth at which they might pose themselves at different levels of reflection.