Islam: Between Old Fundamentalism, New Fundamentalism and Modern Sincerity
By Dr. Sherman Jackson on April 18, 2013
I have long nursed misgivings about applying the term “fundamentalism” to any expression of Islam. Like many, I see no shortage of callous, ‘happiness-phobic’, self-righteous and overly aggressive Muslims who display attitudes reminiscent of those for whom the term was originally coined. But to apply this term to Muslims seems to me essentially to obliterate Muslim history and replace it with that of the modern West. Because early 20th century Protestants sought to preserve Christianity’s “fundamentals” by privileging “literal” interpretations of the Bible, it is assumed that Muslims who burst on the scene with an apparently identical agenda in the late 20th century also had to be champions of literalism. But Islam never really developed a literalist canon, neither in pre-modern nor in modern times. Even Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, the patron saint of Traditionalism and darling of modern Salafîs and Wahhâbîs (the alleged literalists par excellence) shows on occasion just how literalist he is not. In his Refutation of the Jahmites and Crypto-Infidels (al-Radd ‘alâ al-Jahmîya wa wa al-Zanâdiqa) Ibn Hanbal states that the meaning of the opening verse of Surat al-Najm, “wa’ n-najm idhâ hawâ,” which literally reads, “By the star when it tumbles,” is, “By the Qur’ân when it is sent down”! Even in cases, in other words, where there was no critical need to avoid a literal rendering and little to be gained from invoking a non-literal one, recognition of the rhetorical genius of the Arabs underwrote a certain interpretive license if not flair.
Islam’s issue is not and never has been literalism. And yet, there is something in the term “fundamentalism” that seems to capture a certain spirit or ‘attitude’ displayed by many Muslims, an attitude that spawns a lot of nitpicking on the one hand, and its share of hypocrisy, on the other. It can be summarized in what I shall call the “rule of mutual contradiction,” which basically goes something like this: True commitment to religion implies assiduous observance of all its decrees and boundaries. While innocent mistakes might warrant a degree of indulgence, pre-meditated, willful disobedience is an unqualified contradiction of religiosity. Willful sin and religiosity, in other words, are mutually exclusive, and true religiosity can brook no tolerance of willful sin. This is especially – but not exclusively! — the case where the sin in question is counted among Islam’s enormities (kabâ’ir); it is even more so where it is indulged so regularly that it constitutes a lifestyle.
There are, of course, huge and complicated theological issues here. In fact, the controversy over the status of miscreant Muslims, i.e., those who habitually engaged in grave sin, played a significant role in the early development of Muslim theology. Some, e.g., the early Murji’ites, held that such people were unqualifiedly believers, as the heart’s attachment to God (îmân) could not be affected by external deeds. Others, e.g., the Khârijîtes and some Mu‘tazilites, held that such a person was unqualifiedly an unbeliever (kâfir), implying that a heart truly attached to God could neither animate nor sustain such behavior. Mainstream Mu‘tazilism deemed such persons to be neither believers nor unbelievers but to occupy a “status between these two statuses.” What eventually emerged as ‘orthodoxy,’ meanwhile, at least in the central lands, concluded that such persons remained within the fold of Islam but the degree of their hearts’ attachment to God was compromised if not threatened by their engagement in sin. In other words, not only was the heart the actual source of sin, it was also the ultimate object of sin’s harmful effects. This was ultimately the point behind the oft-repeated formula: “îmân increases and decreases; it increases with obedience and decreases with sin.”(1)
For those who endorse it, the “rule of mutual contradiction” rests on a very particular understanding of the ‘character’ of God. We do not tolerate pre-meditated, willful sin or see it as reconcilable with religiosity, because we do not believe that God sees or tolerates it as such. Indeed, a good deal of the animus against religion, even among those who would otherwise style themselves “atheists,” is ultimately grounded in this basic understanding of the ‘character’ of God and its connection with the “rule of mutual contradiction”. Because religiosity cannot in good faith tolerate or be reconciled with sin, inveterate sinners (or at least many of them) almost instinctively reject religion and tend to stay as far away from it as they can.
So far, however, we have spoken more of the “Old Fundamentalism.” “New Fundamentalism” is deceptively similar but adds an important tactical twist, based on what appears to be a specifically modern set of presuppositions and sensibilities. New Fundamentalism shares with Old Fundamentalism both the “rule of mutual contradiction” and the notion of God as ‘hanging-judge’. It replaces, however, the stern, insensitive vigilance of the Old Fundamentalism with an attempt to negate rather than condemn, overcome or offset sin. In other words, for New Fundamentalists, premeditated sin remains irreconcilable with religiosity, and religiosity can only be maintained by avoiding premeditated sin. But where indulging a particular sin is deemed to be central to one’s ‘true self’ or ‘pursuit of happiness,’ this sin cannot be simply overcome; it must be negated. For, to overcome or even condemn this sin would be to do violence to one’s true sense of self and happiness. This explains some of the interpretive calisthenics that seek to redefine the moral status of things plainly articulated in Qur’ân, Sunna or bona fide consensuses upheld for literally centuries.
In his book On B.S. (though he doesn’t use abbreviations) Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt makes the point that an increasingly widespread modern presumption, especially in the West, is that morality no longer resides in any transcendent order of values or truth. Because they are less likely to recognize any sources of transcendent truth, moderns are less likely to believe that morality can be known objectively. As an alternative, the pursuit of moral truth is replaced by a new instrumentality: Sincerity. Now, Sincerity is simply the act of remaining true to oneself, also known in some circles as, “keepin’ it real”. It proceeds on the notion that to the extent that one’s acts are true to oneself one is acting morally. The challenge it faces, of course, is how to validate itself objectively, given that it negates the existence of objective criteria to begin with. Similarly, if knowledge of the moral universe is as inaccessible as proponents of Sincerity say it is, why should we be any more certain about who and how morally constituted we are than we are about moral truth in general? Here, in fact, is where B.S. comes in.
Frankfurt notes that B.S. is not just lies. In fact, the liar differs from the B.S.-er in that the liar has regard for truth (but simply wants to conceal it) whereas the B.S.-er has no regard at all for truth – or for falsehood, for that matter. The B.S.-er simply wants to validate the dictates of his self, and any argument that will serve this purpose will do. “He is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false… except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.” Given, however, the instability, opaqueness and allusiveness of the modern self, not to mention the endless array of accidents, quirks and anomalies that contribute to its making, B.S. can be a never-ending enterprise. This is perhaps why Frankfurt ends his book with the explicit assertion that Sincerity is B.S.
It may seem almost silly to imagine anyone with genuine religious pretensions putting up with let alone embracing B.S. But Sincerity is not merely an occasional indulgence; it is more like a duty or entitlement, something approaching a modern human right. And where religion proscribes or requires something that is impossible to avoid or perform without sacrificing some critical aspect of one’s sense of self, “the rule of mutual contradiction” will compel a choice between remaining true to religion and remaining true to oneself. But as Sincerity knows no truth or falsehood other than that which serves the self, what starts out as an effort to reconcile religion with one’s self can turn into an act of sacrificing religion to one’s self. Indeed, to the extent that a religiously sensitive person remains in the throws of the “rule of mutual contradiction,” this is more rather than less likely to be the case. And B.S. is more rather than less likely to be the medium through which this is executed.
Of course, none of us is immune to the ravages of the self, the beguilements of Sincerity, nor the disgusting utility of B.S. My point, however, is that it is ultimately the “rule of mutual contradiction” that forces this whole exercise to begin with. Recently, for example, I contributed a line or two to an online exchange between a group of scholars and students from across the globe on the issue of ‘gay rights’ in the Muslim world. At one point, one of the professors who supported ‘gay rights’ protested that those who refused to recognize them were essentially – and callously – condemning gays to a life of celibacy, denying them the fundamental human right to indulge their sexuality. He was soon joined by others who adduced various pieces of supporting evidence, from the alleged historical record in the Muslim world to anecdotal data on the views of lay Muslims. Of course, Muslim thinkers who empathized with this position would be forced to find ways to explain away all scriptural evidence against same-sex liaisons. And sure enough, the works of an American Muslim academic who had written in defense of homosexuality in Islam are trotted out as examples of how this might be achieved.
But suppose there was no “rule of mutual contradiction.” Suppose that instead of assuming that gays who wanted to remain religious had no choice other than celibacy, we assumed that gays could be religious, even if they premeditatedly engaged in gay-sex. Of course, this would not negate the moral impropriety or even enormity of gay-sex as a sin in Islam. Nor would it imply that one could be or become a Muslim ‘saint’ while actively practicing gay-sex. But it would challenge – and mightily so – the presumption that one cannot be sinful – and certainly not premeditatedly so — and religious at the same time. And it would do away with the need for all the B.S. that goes into trying to explain away clear injunctions of Islamic scripture in the name of Sincerity.
In one of his many writings on Muslim spiritual education, al-Tuhfah al-‘Irâqîyah fî al-A‘mâl al-Qalbîyah (The Iraqi Epistle Concerning the Deeds of the Heart) none other than the reputedly puritanical Ibn Taymîya makes the point that the human heart and soul are far more complex than any linear logic could accommodate. In this light, he criticizes the view of those early Khârijites and Mu‘tazilites who held that sinfulness and attachment to God could not unite in a single person. As proof of his position, he cites a famous hadith recorded by al-Bukhârî involving a man in the time of the Prophet who habitually drank wine. On one occasion, after the Companions had punished him, they proceeded to curse him for his recidivism. At this, the Prophet intervened and said: “Do not curse him; for he loves God and His Messenger.” From here Ibn Taymiya goes on to make the explicit statement: “This clarifies that one who sins by drinking wine or other such indiscretions may still love God and His Messenger.” So much for the “rule of mutual contradiction.”
Retiring the “rule of mutual contradiction” opens up space to see that the proper response to the inability to overcome sin is not to deny its status as sin but to repent to God in humble earnestness, followed by an attempt to multiply good deeds that offset the bad. As the Qur’ân says, “It is He who accepts the repentance of His servants and pardons their evil deeds, even as He is aware of all that they do” (42:25). And, “Verily, good deeds cancel out evil ones” (11:114). On this recognition, there remains no need to challenge clear scriptural injunctions through interpretive calisthenics underwritten by B.S. And, the self-serving Sincerity described by Frankfurt can give way to a truer sincerity capable of seeing beyond the self.
Of course, among the major reactions to all of this will be that it promotes moral laxity and or denies or plays down the enormity of Islam’s enormous sins. But this to me seems to be based on the tired, arrogant logic that put and holds Old Fundamentalism in place. Ultimately, Old Fundamentalism sees humans, and it sees sin. But it does not see God as the powerfully mediating force between humans and sin, which leaves men and women, including the weakest among them, struggling constantly against sin, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always quietly humbled by their successes as well as their failures. Old Fundamentalism does not see moral struggle as religiosity; it only sees moral success as religiosity. But while it is laudable to try to minimize sin, it is futile and perhaps even anti-religious to try to stamp it out. Whatever the goal might be, we should never overlook the difference between being able to make people feel bad about sin and the ability to inspire and empower them to combat it. Old Fundamentalism might do well to consider this fact.
But there is also a difference between the ability to make people feel guiltless about sin (by denying their involvement in it) and the ability to inspire and empower them to take aim against it. And perhaps New Fundamentalism is little more than an expression of the modern self’s inability to bear the guilt of sin. Humâr (the man who drank wine in the time of the Prophet) may not have been a Muslim ‘saint’ but he was also not a New Fundamentalist. His wine-drinking was not “a mistake,” as we moderns like to describe even the most intentional indiscretions; it was a pre-meditated, willfully executed, habitual act. Yet, rather than seek refuge in interpretive maneuvering that might render wine-drinking permissible and thus enable him to remain “religious” and “true to himself” with “integrity,” Humâr simply accepted his moral frailty and the guilt that went along with it. In turn, rather than allow him to be chased away from religion, the Prophet intervened and assured him and the Companions that his attachment to God was genuine. No Old Fundamentalism; no New Fundamentalism; no slick Sincerity; no B.S. Just Islam, honestly, courageously and sincerely. And God knows best.
(1) Mâturîdî’s have traditionally rejected this notion of îmân increasing and decreasing. My depiction here is meant neither to slight Mâturîdîs nor distort the historical record. Perhaps, however, this could be an issue that Muslim theologians in America could debate – in a spirit of fraternity and mutual respect – with much benefit, given the context I have laid out here and the kinds of socio-cultural challenges American reality poses for Islam and Muslims.
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