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

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Ode to a Hardworking Wife...!

As salaamu alaikumm one and all...
It's 6:15 pm, at the end of a busy day. I'm waiting here until 7, when I can break my fast and go to my Arabic class (al hamdu lillah). My thoughtful and devoted wife Irum will then collect me shortly after she finishes tarawih prayers... Phew! What a busy life we lead at the moment.
Reflecting on this for a moment makes me realise just how much my wife does for me! Not only does she run our home, she is also my devoted partner and helper. Ma sha Allah! I am, of course, grateful to Irum and though I'm sure I fail miserably, I try to show my love and appreciation as often as possible. I am also, of course, grateful to Allah for sending me such a devoted partner.
I suppose, in essence, I want to record my appreciation in public...!
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Reflecting on the Order of Priorities...

As salaamu alaikum one and all,
Today is the first day of Ramadan 1426/2005. Ramadan mubarak to one and all...
Kullu 'aam wa antum bi khayr wa taqabbal Allah minna wa minkum...
Imam Abdallah ibn Alawi al-Haddad's short book Knowledge & Wisdom (published in 2001 by the Starlatch Press) is a veritable treasure of profound spiritual insight. I bought the book more or less when it was published and have found it thought-provoking and useful. I've read it through several times, although I'm still trying to figure out the first lesson...
In the next few blogs, I intend to offer some reflections on the first chapter of this inspiring work. The first section reads thus...
'Gnostics and scholars focus mainly on making their faith and certitude sound and strong and in purifying their belief in God's oneness [tawhid] from the blemishes of hidden idolatry... So learn and understand!...'

'...making their faith and certitude sound and strong...' is no easy task! Whilst it seems simple enough to say, 'I believe in Allah', it is quite another to put this into practice. Faith requires action and that means hard work. Moreover, action requires a pure intention. The Prophet himself (peace be upon him) underlined the crucial significance of intention (niyyah):

"Actions are [judged] by intention, so each man will have what he intended. Thus, he whose migration was to Allah and His Messenger, his migration is to Allah and His Messenger; but he whose migration was for some worldly thing he might gain, or for a wife he might marry, his migration is to that for which he migrated."

Thus in trying to strengthen my own faith, I must have a pure intention to follow Allah. Purity of intention requires introspection; in order to move forward, I have to know where I am now. Purity of intention also requires honesty. 'Lie to others if you must, but never lie to yourself', as my mother often says!
Purifiying one's understanding of tawhid is also another fundamental. And, again, this requires uncompromising honesty with one's self. In other words, we have to bring the light of tawhid to bear on the dark recesses of our souls. Laying ourselves bare requires both the heart and the intellect in partnership. That is, we need our minds to understand the Sacred Law of Islam, whilst we need our heart to distinguish between what Imam al-Ghazali has called 'the subtleties of hypocrisy and injustice...'.
One must also struggle to grow. Development is always challenging. New ways of thinking and behaving challenge old modes of thought and action; the birth process is indeed stressful, but it ulitmately brings forth new life. The Imam's emphatic command (may God have mercy on him) to '...learn and understand...' thus seems doubly appropriate here. You cannot understand until you learn and you cannot learn until you make the effort.
Time is another factor in spiritual growth. From all that I have learnt of the Prophet's way of teaching (peace be upon him), I see that he introduced new duties in a gradual manner, allowing them to become firmly rooted. Becoming a better Muslim requires time to learn, grow, think, mature and understand (again we come back to Imam Abdallah's injunction to learn and understand)!
May Allah give us all the grace (tawfiq) to grow, learn and understand.
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman