Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Folly of Progressive Islam by Michael Mohammad Knight

[ Readers unfamiliar with the subject might want to consider an analogy not just between progressive Muslims and progressive Christians but also the Qur’an as equivalent in some respects to the Constitution, the hadith and tafsir to the narratives and legal precedents surrounding the notion of ‘original intent’, deployed with equal trust and vigor by all positions in the American political polemic.]

For a variety of reasons, many of the great scholars and thinkers who have contributed to the “Progressive Muslim” scene – whether or not they self-identify as ‘”progressive Muslims” – have chosen the Qur’an as the chief terrain on which battles over issues such as gender equality are to be fought.  While the Qur’an is placed at the center of progressive arguments, progressive Muslims often position the hadith corpus and/or its primary advocates as Islam’s greatest obstacle against gender justice. It remains a popular sentiment among progressive Muslims that if we can push away the historically accumulated hadith and tafsir (exegesis/interpretation) that have concealed the Qur’an’s true meaning, finding out way to a new and “direct’ encounter with the text, we will successfully find Islam- defined here entirely within the eternal message of the Qur’an – to be wholly resonant with ideals of modern feminism. Like science-obsessed modernist Muslims who sought to prove that the Qur’an displays miraculously advanced knowledge of natural phenomena, some progressive Muslims would claim that the Qur’an’s original message included a call for gender equality that could only be fully comprehended fourteen centuries later.

The Qur’an-centered nature of progressive Muslim arguments could be situated within the same intellectual trends and historical shifts that made Qur’an-centered Islam so appealing to so many Muslims from the nineteenth century onward. There is also the question of the particular training that progressive Muslim intellectuals bring to their sources. Equipped with Western literary theory and modern hermeneutics, which had first developed through the attempts of Christian scholars to investigate the Bible, progressive Muslim thinkers perhaps find their tool boxes more intuitively applicable to reinterpreting divine scripture than sorting through the unique problems of hadith studies. Meanwhile, for many progressive Muslims, the mere mention of hadiths evokes nightmares of puritanical religiosity, unsophisticated textural literalism, repressive legalism, superstitious  ritualism, sectarian intolerance, and the vaguely defined boogeyman of “Wahhabism, often racialized as ethnocentric “Arab Islam” and caricatured with reference to the beards and clothing choices of its  adherents. Finally, the status of the Qur’an as God’s word means that people can theoretically conceive of it as free from the constraints of earthy patriarchy; while the revelation was delivered through a man, this man does not own  the words as their “author.” In contrast, the hadith corpus remains bound to this earth and is inescapably the work of men who were products of their historical setting, with all the limitations that imposed on them. Again, we must recognize that even when we read narrations attributed to A’isha or any other women of the Salaf, we do not have direct access to her voice, but rather her voice as represented by male-dominated scholarly networks and institutions of knowledge. The hadith corpus can therefore be exposed to varieties of critique from which the Qur’an would be protected.

To get into progressive “Qur’anic hermeneutics” projects, we must first work with a few assumptions: (1) that we have access to the Qur’an in its original and eternal form, its integrity perfectly preserved, absolutely innocent of any human interventions to add or redact content; (2) that the Qur’an can speak in “universals” such as universal justice, universal equality, universal anything; (3) that the Qur’an’s “universal” messages represent broader themes of the text, even if they do not necessarily find harmony with the specific content of every verse; (4) that the relationship of any particular verse to the Qur’an’s universal or thematic truth provides a measure by which we should weigh its value against other verses; (5) because the Qur’an’s universal themes are what really matters, any isolated verse of the Qur’an can be over-ruled by what we have named as the Qur’an’s true heart. By the logic of this approach, if the Qur’an’s universal message calls us to greater justice and mercy, but domestic violence betrays what we recognize as mercy and justice, then domestic violence cannot be possibly endorsed by the Qur’an, no matter what a specific verse appears to be saying.

Maybe the Qur’an’s statements of spiritual equality between women and men should erase verses articulating their inequality, and maybe the Qur’an’s monotheism is betrayed by hierarchal relationships between human beings. I don’t know. This all rests on what you personally assume about the Qur’an’s ultimate purpose and how this text is supposed to work. Maybe the Qur’an’s references to God with male pronouns occur only due to limitations of Arabic grammar, and maybe the divine “he” doesn’t relate to any broader gender logic running through the text. Again, this isn’t simply the self-evident truth of the Qur’an, but a conclusion you might reach with the pre-existing values that you bring to your reading. For the Qur’an to express an obvious opposition to patriarchy, I have to decide this is what want to see. Even if I reject the traditionalists verse-by-verse reading method that progressive Muslims disdain, choosing instead to read “thematically” with an eye for the Qur’an’s broader message, there’s till a reasonable chance that I can find patriarchy fully endorsed by the Qur’an, even as one of the Qur’an’s ‘universal” themes. Contrary to the notion of a god so absolutely transcendent and wholly other that this god could never be contained within human constructions of gender, I can also read the Qur’an as speaking for a he-god who assumes men’s domination of women to be the natural, normative order of the universe. This reading, after all, does not seem to have experienced meaningful challenges prior to the modern interest in gender equality.

Gender-sensitive Qur’an hermeneutics works like a shell game in which shells are pushed around to make us miss where the hetero-sexist pea has been hidden. Ebrahim Moses describes this privileging of our favorite verses to control the meaning of less charming ones as “hermeneutical acrobatics or a hermeneutics of wishful thinking.” Though I personally agree with Amina Wadud’s response to Moosa ( that such disparagement from privileged, self-identified ‘progressive” male scholars provide nothing useful and can only be destructive), this doesn’t make the problem go away. What hermeneutics offers seem to be less a critical method than a critical-sounding means of affirming, “The text says whatever I want it to say.”

I would ask what gives us the eyes to claim our universals, especially when the concepts that we hold as universal, such as gender egalitarianism, lead us to radical breaks from the ways in which the Qur’an has been comprehended for nearly fifteen centuries. Isn’t our interest in the Qur’an’s gender egalitarianism itself the product of historical forces that asked new questions of the text? Don’t we also read from within the bounds of time and place, or have our sophisticated methods methods enable us to step out of the world that gave us those very methods? We defend our universal Qur’anic ethics, while exiling other readers to their particular contexts, through our use of modern (and postmodern) Western literary theories; we forget that these theories themselves, rather than universalize our voices, only locate us within particular intellectual genealogies and our own narrow context. While accusing other thinkers of misreading the Qur’an through the filters of their cultural backgrounds, Western-educated scholars find the Qur’an’s “universal” truth with tools developed by the nineteenth- century European Christians who has sought new understandings of their Bible, or mid-twentieth-century European Marxists and Marist-inspired thinkers who examined the importance of power and context in our constructions of reality.

Like a liberal mirror of Salafism, progressive Muslim hermeneutics confidently tells us which methods of interpretation transcend interpretation and which ones have strayed from the pure origins. Like the Salafiyya, progressives plant their flag on the origins of Islam, present themselves as heirs to the Qur’an’s truest spirit, and condemn various traditional authorities as innovators and corruptors. While calling our attention to the Qur’an’s multiplicity of meanings and the subjectivity of interpretation, progressivists nonetheless tend to make proclamations against those whom they accuse of having read the Qur’an wrong. Even when celebrating the individual reader as the true locus of meaning, these emancipators of texts can be as hegemonic and authoritarian as the most rigid literalists, and their flexing of Western academic training and literary theories can execute power plays just as much as mystical hierarchies do appeals to capitalized “Tradition.”

There’s a political stake here, as the progressivist reform project cannot be neutral in matters of empire. Progressive Muslim hermeneutics happens to hare some overlap with the agendas of forces such as the RAND Corporation., the conservative think-tank that associated close observation of Muslim rituals (such as prayer and fasting) and behavioral codes (such as hijab) with “backwardness and under-development, which in turn are the breeding ground for social and political problems of all sorts.” The RAND Corporation has advocated for Muslims to be restrained in their approach to the Qur’an, namely, to be fed new methods of reading that would disenfranchise traditional institutions and modes of authority, creating a new kind of Muslim. Because the Qur’an says much less in terms of rituals and embodied practices than the hadith corpus, Qur’an only Islam ( particularly when the Qur’an is read with what Sabah Mahood has called ‘secular hermeneutics) can more effectively produce the kind of liberal, rational, autonomous, Protestantized Muslim that RAND Corporations want to see…

Various parties make claims that the Qur’an is inherently liberatory or oppressive or progressive or violent. The lived reality of language says that the Qur’an is inherently nothing but uncontrollable…

Here's the pivot point, after a long historiographical prologue: Malcolm, Sunna, Hadith, Hanbal, al-Afghani, crystallization of the Salif in the 1920S, Cold War, 5 Percenters:
" If I'm a stranger to myself , If I'm a product of unknown ancestors, I can't know my lord. So I stare at the big flowcharts of names and these arrows of influence pointing in all directions, trying to tie my religion together ,seeing not an Islam of eternal consistency but only something frail and vulnerable, subject to whatever causes history to move; and it has me wondering about the options for a fundamentalism that looks like apostasy, in which Islam can only come to me as side effects, instabilities, fragments, random molecules, brokenness and rupture and cross-fertilization forever, nothing staying in place, forever new empires promoting new books."
Is this sad? Malcolm X was alive- moving through the vortex of history but now he's dead, finished, nothing more to say about himself. He weeps ,like David Bowie, 'everybody knows me now'. The eternal repose. The infinite 'fuck you' to the living.

 "Why I am a Salafi" by Michael Muhammad Knight

1 comment:

  1. The Prophet is not waiting to be discovered in his true form and unburied. He does not preexist us, but appears with a new body in every point of departure, every break, every disorder, every unacceptable innovation, every hybridization. Islam is what happens tomorrow.