And Now Medina: Beyond the Elephant’s Shadow
By Sherman A. Jackson
I do not know the specific grievance that drove the suicide bomber to his despicable deed in our beloved Medina, Islam’s second holiest city. I suspect, however, that it had something to do with some perceived decline in public adherence to Islam. Or perhaps it was the feeling that the government was not living up to the standards of Islamic justice. Whatever the motivation, this suicide bomber was somehow convinced that his action was ‘Islamic’. Indeed, I doubt that he saw himself as purchasing some one-way ticket to hell. Of course, his action will ultimately prove totally ineffective in addressing whatever grievance he had in mind. And this is the ultimate tragedy of the situation, which raises a number of questions: Why do Muslims resort to this kind of violence when it has such a little chance of producing the change they want? Why is it so seemingly easy to convince them of the legitimacy of such violence in the name of Islam? And why are Muslim condemnations of this mentality and the vile deeds that accompany it seemingly so ineffective?
This first question reminds me of a film I saw in Egypt many years ago, al-Arḍ (The Land), by the famous director Youssef Chahine. Set in the 19th century, there was one scene in particular that etched itself into my memory, as I suspected, even back then, that it captured something telling about the modern Muslim condition. This scene featured a group of Egyptian peasants sitting around in a barn in an obvious state of mild depression, silently, seemingly telepathically, commiserating their circumstances as objects of British occupation. To make things worse, the British used Sudanese troops to police the Egyptians, who tended to see themselves as their darker-skinned brethren’s betters. As these Sudanese troops, dressed in colonial uniforms and almost comically large British hats and whips, strode on horseback up and down the way outside the barn, one of the Egyptian peasants suddenly arose from where he was sitting and went over to a pile of sugar cane. There he picked up one of the stalks, held it out it front of himself, then violently snapped it over his knee, loudly proclaiming to his compatriots, “Are we not men?” (mish iḥna rijālah!).
What had the snapping of this stalk to do with addressing the circumstances at hand? The Sudanese have a saying that perhaps captures the logic: “They look at the elephant but they only curse its shadow” (yanẓurūna ilā al-fīl wa yaṭ‘anūna fī ẓillih). Because, in other words, they have given up on being able to do anything about the elephant who has trampled all over their crops and because, indeed, they fear the possible consequences of addressing the elephant directly, they simply settle for cursing its shadow, as a safer gesture of protest and would-be saving face. As victims of modern Western violence and dislocation, followed by the exploits of repressive governments that came in their wake, the most immediate impulse among Muslims has been to try to strike back violently, to fight fire with fire. But because no Muslim really believes that Muslim armies have the will or wherewithal to confront the West militarily, nor is the prospect of domestic regime change realistic or within acceptable bounds of what it would cost, sensational acts of mindless violence are deployed as gestures of frustration and would-be defiance. Of course, such violence is no more likely to reverse the power-imbalance with the West or rectify the domestic scene than cracking sugarcane stalks over one’s knee was to send away the British and their Sudanese troops. But such violence does make a powerful statement: mish iḥna rijālah?
This takes me to my second question: Why and how is such violence apparently so easily legitimated in the name of Islam? We might begin, I think, with an across-the-board moratorium on handwringing. We must reject the practice of unilaterally blaming the West or Muslim governments in a manner that negates Muslim accountability on the ground, as if Muslim militants had some right to a communal plea of innocence by reason of insanity. At the same time, we must not absolve the West or Muslim governments of the far-reaching, trans-generational implications – intended or not – of their colonial, post-colonial and imperial exploits. For these actions, coupled with a particular liability in the relationship between modern Muslims and Islamic tradition, cumulatively produced a perfect storm of sorts. As power – brute, raw, rapacious, self-serving power – was perceived to be the cause of defeat and dislocation, power and seemingly power alone (indeed this same kind of power!) came to be recognized as the only means of reversing the situation. This in turn incentivized a certain way of reading the entire tradition of Islam, including its foundation documents, namely, through a prism calibrated to extract and deploy maximum brute power. Of course, Islamic tradition is historically situated in a world where power and violence were often extremely difficult to disaggregate. This, alongside the ‘new’ post-colonial perspective, made it easy, if not natural, for many Muslims to equate power with violence and to see Islamic tradition itself as sanctioning, if not advocating, wholesale violence as a means of procuring and exercising the kind of power needed to protect and promote the ummah’s interests.
Anyone familiar with the writings of pre-modern Muslim thinkers, especially the doctors of sharī‘ah (al-fuqahā’) will recognize the casualness with which violence is sanctioned as a means of addressing threats to the Muslims’ geopolitical interests and ideal public order. Far from being seen as an innovation or deviation from Islam, this mindset was accepted and effectively promoted as part of the normative teachings of the Prophet. We see this, for example, in the way the Prophet’s sīrah or biography is typically laid out, with a disproportionate focus on his military campaigns (ghazw) and dispatches (sarīyah). Ibn Hishām, for instance, among the most relied upon sources for the sīrah, is almost monotonous in his citation of campaigns and battles: the dispatch (sarīyah) of ‘Ubaydah b. al-Ḥārith; the dispatch of Hamzah to Sīf al-Baḥr; the raid (ghazw) of Buwāṭ; the raid of al-‘Ushayrah; the dispatch of Sa‘d b. Abī Waqqās; the raid of Safwān; the dispatch of ‘Abd Allāh b. Jaḥsh — all of this in the months after the Prophet’s migration before the battle of Badr in year 2 AH.
Of course, for most of his time, the Prophet was far-more preoccupied with activities that had nothing to do with violence: spiritually educating a pagan people, solidifying their monotheistic attachment to God, breaking down tribal barriers in favor of a new collective identity, teaching liturgy and the basic rules of the religious law, attending to widows, orphans and the poor, to name a few. Absent his success in these and related areas, few of his Companions, men or women, would have been willing to sacrifice and perhaps die for a religion or community in which they only lukewarmly believed. But in the centuries following the Prophet’s death, the primary obsession of the Muslims seemed to lie with the physical integrity of the community and their ability to survive physically in a world perceived as being bent on their destruction. Alien belief systems, cultures or ideologies posed nowhere near the threat posed by indigenous fifth columns or, worse yet, infidel armies. In this context, violence and the willingness to use it quite naturally acquired a premium. Indeed, it would have been odd if not grotesque for such an attitude not to emerge, as we see in the case of the early Americans under similarly perceived circumstances. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson ominously refers to “merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” We get a similar sense of the pre-modern Muslim psychological / emotional universe from the famed Ibn Daqīq al-‘Īd (d. 702/1302) who declared, in expressing fears about protected religious minorities living in Muslim lands, not to mention infidel armies gathered about the borders: “We must be mindful that were they to gain the upper hand over us they would annihilate us and seize our money and our blood.”
Such a mindset, uncritically embraced as a part of the religion itself, will have an obvious impact on the valuation of violence. The fact is that the sources and tradition of Islam contain material that sanctions violence, certainly assuming the circumstances assumed by pre-modern Muslims, and extremist interpretations of this material are often executed in what they and their sympathizers deem to be good faith. Pretending or proclaiming that such precedents do not exist will not send the problem away. And this takes us to the outskirts of an answer to my third question. Publicly condemning groups such as ISIS and their ilk as congenital nut cases who betray Islam is largely ineffective because it smacks of a hollow double-standard. For extremists quote the same chapters, verses, hadiths and ancient authorities as do their detractors. They read these sources and authorities, however, through an interpretive prism of “power/violence as panacea,” which they see as permanently binding and authoritative, as the perspective of tradition itself. While their adversaries reject the results of this approach, i.e., wanton violence, with few exceptions, they fail to obviate in clear, consistent and principled terms, the reading strategy that should replace that of the extremists and produce more humane results. Thus, extremists are effectively told that their conclusions are wrong without enjoying the benefit of being told why they are wrong, other than the fact that they are violent. But if the foundation documents and religious tradition sanctioned violence, how can extremists be wrong for doing so? And how can their adversaries, who claim adherence to Muslim tradition, be right in calling for the renunciation of violence? This is what enables extremists to convince themselves and their sympathizers that they are the ones who are acting with full fidelity to tradition. Meanwhile, by simply ignoring the nexus between tradition and violence, their adversaries end up looking like they are the ones who are looking at the elephant while only cursing its shadow.
Clearly, however, it is the elephant (the interpretive prism of the extremists) that must be attacked, not simply its shadow (the practical results of this approach). Boldly, explicitly and unapologetically, we must affirm that modern Muslims no longer live in the world of their ancestors. Clearly and incontrovertibly, we must demonstrate that tradition itself not only allows but requires modern Muslims to factor this difference into their deliberations. Unlike their ancestors, the greatest threat facing most Muslims in the world today is not physical annihilation but the lack of cultural and intellectual authority with which to develop and gain assent for alternatives to forms of life and thought that challenge or undermine the efficacy of Islam. In such light, modern Muslims can no longer look to violence to serve the interests of Islam in the same way that their ancestors may have looked to it in the past. For the primary threat Muslims face today is civilizational. And that threat cannot be beat back by power or violence alone. It must be confronted, rather, on the plain of civilization. Against the efforts of those who work to convince young Muslims that wanton violence is the highest expression of commitment to Islam, we must work even harder to convince them that producing life-affirming, God-conscious civilization is a route to God’s pleasure, especially now.
None of this should be construed as a call to pacifism. As the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr notes, men will not desist from evil simply because they have been rationally convinced that they are wrong. Instead, it will often be necessary to raise power against vested interests or entrenched wrong-doing. In short, as long as the human condition endures, there will be a role for power and, alas, violence, in our collective lives. But violence must be seen as a last rather than a first resort, and Muslim tradition should not be read in a manner that seeks to establish violence as some sort of absolute, transcendent good or panacean solution.
Of course, the interpretive approach I have outlined as an alternative to that of the extremists entails its share of dangers, not least of which being that the less scrupulous among us may take considerations of historical context as a justification for crass, self-serving relativism, where nothing is stable and everything becomes a matter of “the times we live in.” Prohibitions on adultery, fornication, intoxicants, etc., can all be abandoned on the argument that, while such rulings may have been appropriate in the past, they are no longer appropriate today. Meanwhile, Islamophobes will certainly and shamelessly abuse any admission that Muslim scripture or tradition sanctions violence in any form. These are serious challenges. But they must not deter us. We must press forward to a principled approach to our historical and intellectual past that enables us to separate the transcendent, divinely sanctioned wheat from the historically contingent, circumstantially informed and humanly imagined chaff. And we must work hard to ensure that this approach becomes normative and is decisively elevated above those that fail or refuse to make this distinction. Otherwise, the premium pre-moderns placed on violence will continue, however tacitly, to stoke the Muslim imagination and facilitate the justification of wanton acts of terror and mayhem in the name of Islam and perhaps, as we saw most recently, in the holiest places of Islam. And Allāh knows best.