Monday, October 10, 2005

Current Reading: Jihad & the Insider/Outsider Problem

As salaamu alaikum one and all,
Al hamdu lillah, it's Ramadan once again. Once again thoughts of suhoor (the pre-dawn meal), iftar (the breaking of the fast at sunset) and tarawih (special nightly prayers) come rising through the ether. Once again, my mind turns to all of those things I've missed over the past year, all of those things that I've done badly and all of those mistakes I've made. Quite naturally therefore, I suppose, Ramadan is a thoughtful and reflective time of year.
I've been trying to apply this spirit of reflection in my reading. I am currently reading Richard Bonney's Jihad from Quran to bin Laden (published in 2004 by Palgrave Macmillan). Although, so far, I've only the read the first couple of chapters I've found it a thought-provoking work. Some of my initial thoughts are given below...
Unlike many such texts, Bonney devotes attention to discussing questions of methodology and perspective. His book aims to form part of a process of dialogue between 'Islam' and the 'West'. This is a worthy aim, to be sure, and one of undoubted significance:

'This book is intended as a helpful contribution to such a process of dialogue, since it is clear that a 'false consciousness', a misunderstanding of the nature of Islamic history, has potentially devastating consequences in perpetuating myths and misconceptions of the 'other'' (p.xiii)

And, as Bonney rightly points out, '...there is no alternative to an objective account of the historical context, causation, achievements and consequences of jihad in history' (ibid). In other words, we need to discuss the issues before us calmly and clearly if we are to proceed. Well...I agree of course. However, I do wonder about objectivity. At this stage, it is not clear whose 'objectivity' will become the criterion for debate. Many books allegedly set out to offer an 'objective' account, though they are really attempting to make their own opinions appear as 'fact'. At any rate, Muslim and non-Muslim do need to talk.
The first couple of chapters are interesting reading. However, at this stage, I don't think I've completely tuned in to his wavelength or register. That is, there seem to be a few ambiguous phrases which I haven't yet been able to place within their contextual meanings.
The second thing to strike me whilst reading this book is that the author attempts to interpret Quranic passages himself and perhaps more importantly, does so unashamedly. On one level, of course, every author does the same. The difference here, though, is that Bonney sees this as part of his contribution to 'dialogue'. In other words, he seems to offer his interpretations as a fresh look at the evidence.
This all relates to the infamous insider/outsider problem in the study of religion. This debate is based on such questions as: can a 'believer' discuss their faith in anything other than uncritically? Can an 'outsider' truly understand another faith? Are their interpretations to be accepted as any more valid than an 'insider's'?
These are all things I am currently exploring in one way or another. Here are a few initial thoughts...
As a Muslim, I believe Islam to be the Truth. Quite unashamedly so too. As such, when I approach the Quran and Sunnah, I view them as normative. In other words, I hold the Quran to be God's Word, in a literal sense and thus give it greater value than other texts. In attempting to understand these more fully, as a Muslim, I look primarily to Muslim shuyukh (who also treat the sources in the same manner). A non-Muslim's judgement (no matter how learned) on particular verses would not be given the same weight. Does that mean 'outsiders' cannot study Islam? Certainly not, every perspective is valuable. Besides, in any case, 'others' will study it whether I like or not.
More on this subject later, insha Allah...
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

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