Category Archives: Internet

Sheikh Google vs Wiki Islam

The digital age is crucial to reshaping religious authority among Muslims today. The mass media and the internet have changed the way in which religious teachings are disseminated and indeed how religious disputes are projected and replicated to a vast audience. This is not new but arose two hundred years ago when the ulema began to write treatises addressed to the literate constituency of the Muslim masses through the medium of print. Since then the ulema, and the reformers who now contest their authority, have cultivated constituencies of opinion through the mass media.

Yet while the disagreements of opinion formers help define the scope of public debate, Muslim publics exert considerable influence too. By asking questions they have the power to set the agenda, while, in preferring one religious authority over another, they naturally reflect the existence of a competitive market for religious ideas. Religious debate is now primarily conducted through the mass media as everyone understands its power to reach millions rather than through the more traditional face-to-face method. This drive for mass access has created a global religious public sphere into which all scholarly and non-scholarly disagreements get projected.

The nature of the mass media has changed for good. Whereas it used to be hierarchical, elitist, linear and declarative, it is becoming individualised, demotic, non-linear, and interactive. In the age of print, television and to a lesser extent radio, there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to media exposure, but, in the digital age, samizdat multimedia has become the norm and not the exception. Anyone can now publish and project their views globally. They can claim to speak for Islam, issue a “fatwa”, proffer advice, and provide counselling or spiritual guidance. Religious leaders struggle too to project any measure of decorum or scholarly expertise in religious debate in the new media, for it is difficult to be both player and referee in the same game.

Rancorous dispute has gone from street corner discussions in the early nineties to all being preserved in glorious binary digital code, archived and available for retrieval and redeployment. Electronic fatwas and sermons struggle to define a precise audience; they must ignore any original context of time and place to speak for “Islam” globally, for Muslims everywhere, in soundbite format. This loss of context, allied, to bricoloage culture, is injurious to intellectual expertise, proper deliberation and intra-religious pluralism.

The nightmare scenario is that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the virtual umma in which a billion-plus, atomized Muslims project their subjective musings, screaming inanities into the ether in a dialogue of the deaf. Sheikh Google’s umma would be protean, individualised, samizdat, postmodern, unregulated and without any agreed standards in interpretive technique. All differences would become mere subjectivity, reducing everything to the will for recognition manifested as the narcissism of small differences.

Yet is this not a rather dismal prognosis, the bias of the conservative to the peril rather than the promise of the new digital age, predicting chaotic mediocrity rather than creative renewal? Charles Leadbeater in his new book We-Think argues that the better future of the internet lies with its emerging ability to harness mass creativity and innovation if it can garner responsible self-governance.

One success story Leadbeater cites is Wikipedia, a prime example of open-source creative collaboration. In 2007, Wikipedia had six million articles in hundreds of languages; its total cost was 1.5 million and it only had five paid employees. It has a small committed core of volunteers alongside hundreds and thousands of other members of the public. In March 2007, Wikipedia was the eleventh most popular website, the Encyclopedia Britannica, 4,449th. Wikipedia has 250 million words, Britannica, 44 million.

But what of accuracy? Is not Wikipedia the repository of conspiracy theorists, gossips and amateurs as well as experts? A study by Nature magazine surveyed forty two corresponding articles in both and found 162 factual errors in Wikipedia and 123 in Britannica, so the difference is less than we might think. Yet Wikipedia, with greater resources of peer review, has been shown to correct itself more quickly. And it is – unlike Britannica – making the inheritance of human learning available to the world for free.

So rather than Sheikh Google, Wiki-Islam provides a better possible future for Islam online, amenable to its unchurched nature. Creative collaboration between scholars, experts, intellectuals and Muslim publics would allow for the social and intellectual process of ijma and ijtihad to become dynamic, relevant and infinitely refinable. The internet is no panacea: real-world conditions of authoritarianism in the Muslim world, the war on terror and intellectual conservatism may stymie unlocking the true potential of Wiki-Islam. But a crucial first step nonetheless to unlocking that potential is to recognize the collaborative creativity the digital age offers to the Muslim.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 43, April 2008.

5 Comments

Filed under Blog, Culture and the Arts, Education, Internet, Religion

Roll up, roll up! Vote for the best of the British Muslim blogosphere

It’s that time of year again. The fourth annual Brass Crescent Awards, sponsored by City of Brass and alt.muslim, are seeking nominations for the best of the Muslim blogosphere up until Friday, 9th November. Voting, in ten categories, runs for two weeks from Friday, 15th November.

So let me do a bit of shameless plugging for British Muslim blogs.

British blogs have done well in the past. Thabet (Muslims under Progress), now reincarnated as pixelisation, got an honourable mention for “Best Writing” in 2004, won “Best Group Blog” in 2004, was a runner-up as “Best Thinker” in 2005. Islamophobia Watch got an honourable mention as “Best Non-Muslim Blog” in 2005. The indefatigable Indigo Jo was a runner-up in “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition” in 2005. In 2006, for “Best Post or Series”, Thabet got shortlisted for “Policy, Profiling, Poverty” and Bradford Muslim for his insightful “The Muslim Condition” (in six parts). Again Thabet got more nominations in “Best Ijtihad” in 2006 for “British Muslims Must Fight Extremism” and “Prattle from the Party” and an honourable mention for “Best Thinker”. Dal Nun Strong’s well-informed A Muslim Think Tank got a nomination for “Most Deserving of Wider Recognition” in 2006.

British-focused collective Muslim blogs are beginning to emerge like the MIAH Project, Umma Pulse, Muslimstan and City Circle’s new blog (yes, that’s two shameless plugs). Many of our bloggers are London-based but there is more regional blogging out there: Rolled-Up Trousers, Noman Tahir and Islam, Muslims and an Anthropologist in Scotland, the eponymous Bradford Muslim, Walls Come Tumbling Down, the hilarious The Islamicist and Muslim Minorities in Birmingham, Alternative Entertainment in Manchester, The Cutting Edge in Brighton, Masudblog in Aylesbury and Abdur Rahman’s Corner in Wales. In London, one should make mention of Cricklewood Blogger, iMuslim, Islam’s Green, Muslims and Musings, Radical Muslim, Spirit21, Suspect Paki and The Thing About This Is… alongside the above-mentioned Indigo Jo Blogs and A Muslim Think Tank. Pixelisation is now out in Dubai but hopefully that’s only a temporary relocation and he’ll be back on home territory soon.

Many of our top activists and commentators have been sucked into the omnivorous Comment is Free website that features Ajmal Masroor, Anas al-Takriti, Asim Siddiqui, Ed Husain, Fareena Alam, Inayat Bungalawala, Salma Yaqoob, Soumaya Ghannoushi and Zia Haider Rahman to name but few, as well as American imports like Ali Eteraz. With the current focus on “the Muslim problem”, if you’re a halfway-decent writer, are a “youngish” British Muslim and know a thing or two about British Islam (and have a penchant for “liberal discipline”), then it is not that difficult to get into mainstream publications and their online platforms. It would be interesting to know whether these are eligible for the Brass Crescent Awards or not.

But for the most perennially underrated British Muslim blog, for its sheer honesty and gutsy writing, its mix of the personal and the political, the academic and activist, the surreal and the real, the political and the spiritual, check out Muslim Recovery. It hits you in your comfort zone as you are meant to be hit. Of those not nominated in previous years, I would also have to single out Rolled-Up Trousers, as one of our most important political blogs, which has gotten wider recognition as well (named as the top Scottish political blog and it came in at no. 92 in a recent top 500 list of the UK’s political blogs, which says more about metropolitan bias than anything else).

I have links to nearly all these blogs (and more) here. I’m sure that there are many great British Muslim blogs out there that I’m totally unaware of, so do contact me here to tell me what I’ve been missing. And don’t forget to nominate a few British Muslim blogs for the Brass Crescent awards too.

Update: Aziz (City of Brass) and Shahed (alt.muslim) think it’s fine to nominate individual bloggers on Comment is Free. Just in case you want to nominate someone. And Muslim Recovery usefully provides the necessary corrective, noting the groupie-ness of bloglists and the vanity of wanting to get that virtual bloggery award but not wanting to be seen to be doing so. The kind of fake nonchalance that some of us are so very skilled at! But notwithstanding all that, the Awards do encourage and highlight the talent that is out there, so get nominating away.

6 Comments

Filed under Blog, Culture and the Arts, Internet, Media

Dirty Tricks? Hizb ut-Tahrir and its Critics

Since May 2007, Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain has come under increasing public criticism from former members and associates. The three most prominent critics have been Ed Husain, Shiraz Maher and Maajid Nawaz. Of the three, Husain has had the widest public impact with his book, The Islamist, whose main target was the Party, becoming a best seller (with apparently over 50,000 copies sold since its release). Perhaps the most authoritative criticism has come from the most senior figure out of the three, Nawaz, who had been promoted to the national executive committee prior to his departure in 2007.

Although all three have mounted strong criticisms of the Party’s political ideology, Nawaz has disagreed with the call made by Maher and Husain for the Party’s proscription under the Terrorism Acts 2000 and 2006. After two reviews since 2005, the government has decided that there is insufficient evidence to ban the group, although it apparently remains under review. There are some grounds for the suspicion that the unofficial policy is really to threaten the Party with a ban rather than actually impose one in order to moderate its behaviour. Any ban would certainly be tested through the courts and would potentially criminalise a lot of young Muslim Britons, drastically polarising the political climate. And it would be a post-war first — banning a non-violent group for subversion, something neither contemplated for Britain’s Communists during the Cold War nor for Sinn Fein during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Nawaz has decided to undertake a detailed rebuttal through his blog, Towards Political Engagement, of the Party’s ideological stance on the basis of Islamic theology. His approach seeks to persuade rather than to coerce and is largely directed at serving Party members, surely the best way forward in a period when Muslims face the stripping away of their legal rights, a process that, like the one the British Irish collectively experienced in earlier times, creates a “suspect community”. Nawaz has concentrated rather less on shifting the common public narrative on Islam than his fellow critics.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has taken measures to smear and tarnish the personal reputations of its critics that go far beyond the limits of free and fair rebuttal. One tactic has been to set up spoiler blogs designed to discredit its critics. The first is the faked blog of Rashad Zaman Ali, another former member from Sheffield, who in fact has never had a personal blog on the net. The forgers have put up fake blog entries in his name, written in a naive polemical tone, answered themselves through posting comments and put up links to organisations seen as highly dubious or suspect in Party eyes like the Sufi Muslim Council, British Muslims for Secular Democracy and the Center for Islamic Pluralism, whose Executive Director is the journalist Stephen Schwartz. The implication is that there is no internal community criticism of the Party that is not politically aligned with American neoconservatism or with a betrayal of Islamic rule, one of two “roles” assigned to these organisations by the Party. This is unsubtle stuff but it is nonetheless effective among the alienated young Muslims the Party targets. There is similarly a fake blog for Maajid Nawaz, Toppled Pyramid. Both fake blogs were set up in September to counteract Nawaz’s real blog, Towards Political Engagement, launched at the end of August. The perpetrators did not cover their electronic tracks sufficiently and the blogs have been traced back to known members of the Party.

More serious are the coded threats of violence which Ed Husain has received like the rap poem penned by a Milton Keynes [1] member of the Party, Showkat Ali, in June this year, written as a confessional by Ed in the first person:

No ifs no Butts [Hassan Butt]
Some people after me
To stab me in the heart
Like they did Hassan in Manchester

I dread the return of the Caliphate
Who will apply to extradite me
Put me on trial
And then execute me
As a traitor.

This is totally unacceptable behaviour and it should be exposed. It seeks to end all dissent through a culture of implied violence and must be resolutely opposed. Similarly Nawaz has received explicit and abusive emails and death threats over the telephone which he has reported to the police. There is no positive proof to link these abusive acts to Party members, but Nawaz has noted that the emails contain names and references that could only be known to Party insiders.

The wisdom of putting forward a clear Islam/Islamism distinction to the general public that can be politically exploited by anti-Muslim and authoritarian tendencies is unclear. This binary distinction presents a black-and-white version of a complicated picture of change and adaption among Britain’s Muslim groups and movements, and may serve to inhibit rather than open up debate by provoking a defensive reaction motivated by the spirit of exoneration as much as anything else. An overstated case loses its bite: the trick is how to trigger respectful, constructive but sometimes tough-minded engagement. It remains vitally important that detailed discussion of the essential ideological elements of political Islam and their rather tenuous relevance to life in modern-day Britain and the everyday aspirations of most British Muslims takes place. It also has to be a public debate in order to be taken seriously by those who are being criticised; otherwise, in the normal way of such things, experience teaches that it will be swept under the carpet.

Now it is a tall order of business to take these ideas on in public without playing into Islamophobic stereotypes but that is the challenge ahead that faces British Muslims. And, of the three public critics of the Party, it is Maajid Nawaz who seems to have struck the most considered tone. Yet none of them should face deceptive smear tactics, abuse, intimidation or threats of implied violence. Nawaz has said that, in his time on the national executive committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain, the leadership endorsed the use of the internet to smear critics of the Party or to pose as non-Muslims on internet fora looking to discredit former members. So this is not a new tactic. No doubt in this case, a factor of plausible deniability may come into play, but it is up to the leadership to control its members and its youth (shabab) to conduct their rebuttals in the Islamic spirit of etiquette (adab) and good character (akhlaq). If they believe their ideas are worth defending then they would not feel the need to resort to these dirty tricks campaigns.

This blog has been republished courtesy of the new City Circle blog.

Please take note of the new comments policy here. All posters should give their full name, a verifiable email address, their hometown and/or their institutional/organisational affiliation and abide by all the other rules otherwise their post will not be put up.

Note

[1] Showkat Ali hails from Milton Keynes but was undergoing teaching training in Birmingham as reported in the New Statesman, 14 June 2007.

9 Comments

Filed under Internet, Islamism

Sufis and Salafis of the West: Discord and the Hope of Unity

Last week the question of Muslim unity came up, as it often does, on the English-medium Muslim blogosphere. One of the prominent young American scholars, Imam Suhaib Webb, who is currently studying at the al-Azhar in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s most august centre of Islamic learning, commented that:

Over the last 15 yrs the West has become a waste land for the wars that have taken place between both [the Sufi and Salafi] schools. In their attempt to derive authenticity, each has staked a claim to traditionalism as defined by the parameters of their learning and understanding. The problem with both is that a monolith is eventually given birth to that allows each to, in the name of tradition and tolerance, destroy each other with words, pens and so forth. Initially, one must admit, that our salafi brethren were exceedingly rude and outrageous in their attacks upon the sufis and the asharis. Then, sometime in the late 90’s and definitely post 911 some of the Sufis were given a window of opportunity and, instead of seeking to mend fences with the (moderate) salafis they begin to launch attacks on them from every angle, questioning their ijazas, resorting to tabloid type journalism and excluding them from the discourse. There is a famous Usoli principle [in legal reasoning] that says, “An extreme will only give birth to its opposite.”

In an original posting (now deleted), Imam Suhaib declared that he had washed his hands of the traditionalist movement, provoked by a recent polemic from a Sufi scholar against Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi that Imam Suhaib thought overly judgemental and too personalised in tone. A few days later, Imam Suhaib posted a second blog saying that he would continue to work with both constructive Salafis and Sufis to further programmes of religious public education and other forms of community service. However he still wanted to distance himself from what he saw as excessive partisanship on both sides.

There has been much critical examination of Salafi partisanship by self-defined traditionalists in the West (and by reflective Salafis), which is unsurprising given the aggressive nature of the Salafi da`wa, particularly in the late eighties and early nineties. However, calling oneself to account (muhasaba) is supposed to be a Sufi trait. So perhaps Imam Suhaib’s concerns about excessive partisanship among some traditionalists in the West deserve serious consideration.

The phenomenon of rejoicing in groupthink, and claiming some automatic authenticity and superiority is common among camp-followers of any grouping and is hardly unique to traditionalists alone or even to Islam. The harm arises when this is systematically fostered by the leaders of such a movement. Yet the evidence for claiming that the leaders of traditionalism are guilty of this seems thin on the ground: in fact I’ve heard a number of them make explicit condemnations of cultishness or groupthink. How far that is taken on board is another matter of course.

There have been lapses into groupthink on traditionalist internet fora because some people are unable to handle the ikhtilaf of the ulema, and some want to defend their teachers to the hilt, taking it as a personal and not an academic dispute. Partisanship is common too because it so often derives from an excess of loyalty that is not tempered by other considerations. However learned internet sites like Sunnipath manifest loyalty to an interpretive tradition while embodying good manners and circumspection when speaking of others with whom one might have scholarly or even more serious differences in matters of religion.

Traditionalism: Definitions and Development in the West

The basic question — what is traditionalism truly? — is a perennial one. Traditionalism, used in its normative sense, refers to that approach which allows for the authentic perpetuation and embodiment of the Islamic tradition and that contains a collective system of ongoing self-correction and refinement. Historically, while traditionalism has been manifested by the recognised schools of law, theology and mysticism, it has always been clear that no one group of trained scholars among the ulema can claim to embody it absolutely without the correctives of other trained scholars should that prove necessary. Perhaps the tradition in this sense is larger even than the ulema themselves. The ulema are the inheritors of the prophets if they preserve and teach the knowledge of the prophets in each successive generation and attempt to apply the principles of that teaching when new circumstances arise that were unknown to previous generations. So in some sense, their immersion in the interpretive legacy disciplines the entire collectivity of the ulema too, as it provides the gold standard by which all scholarly interpretations are measured and checked by their learned peers and successors. In essence the mechanism of discipline is moral and intellectual peer review. It is no accident that there are similarities in the regulation of scholarly standards between the seminary (Islamic and later Christian) and the modern university, as the latter has its historical roots in the former as George Makdisi showed in The Rise of Colleges.

Some comparative religion might shed some further light on this formula of traditionalism somewhat. The concept of orthodox Judaism for instance only arose during the Jewish Enlightenment when reformers coined the term to describe the age-old Rabbinical tradition that later accepted the use of this terminology to describe itself. Its decentring caused it to be named in terms relative to other new tendencies, i.e. from Rabbinical Judaism to orthodox Judaism. Similarly the Muslim world has arguably been going through something like a Reformation since the eighteenth century (some historians argue that its genesis lies in the sixteenth century) and so traditional Islam was named when its centrality became contested. Today many now claim the right to interpret Islam besides the ulema.

Outside of its more general and normative sense, what is more often referred to in the West today as traditionalism is a particular and recent manifestation. Around the beginning of the nineties, a set of scholars in the West attempted to defend traditional Islam against the polemics of the political Islamic movements and the Salafis. For a young generation in Britain and North America, traditional Islam was in danger of losing serious ground. It was accused of being either backward, hidebound or even unorthodox and heretical. This group of scholars restored the conviction of many in this generation in the intellectual validity of traditional Islam and initiated them in the wellsprings of its scholastic and mystical traditions.

However the nineties are long gone, and the noughties have been a very different decade for the traditionalist movement in the West. There have, I believe, been two key factors here, and God knows best.

The first was 9/11. Since then, Salafism and political Islamic groups have been under continuous attack from Western politicians, commentators, academics and others for their linkages to terrorism and extremism. Leaving an assessment of this polemic aside for a moment, this critique had already been articulated in the nineties by many of the scholars serving the traditionalist movement, chiefly, as mentioned above, as a defence of their beleaguered position. There have been broadly three traditionalist responses to this changed political circumstance.

(1) Some emphasised unity in the face of the war on terror, modulating their public critique of these movements, and even moving towards some kind of public entente on occasion. They did not want to be complicit in compromising the fundamental civic and human rights of those Muslims who had been their erstwhile sectarian rivals in the nineties. However they did still largely insist on a misguided theological component to extremism while acknowledging the central role of the war on terror in exacerbating it after 9/11. The nub of their argument is that theological intolerance lends itself more readily to violence than does more tolerant theology, and for that reason alone the issue should be kept on the agenda for discussion whatever the political circumstances.

(2) Other traditionalists (not the majority I believe) saw political opportunity in aligning themselves with the war on terror and attacking Salafis and Islamists as their political star was falling. Their public rhetoric is quite similar to the more hawkish language of Western politicians after 9/11. Their schadenfreude was unsurprising (if inexcusable) given that Islamists and Salafis often used to denigrate traditionalists intellectually and presume to represent them in the name of “unity” while marginalising them politically.

(3) A significant number of traditionalists were keen to stay out of public engagement altogether for various reasons that are outlined below.

The upshot of 9/11 has been that latent political differences within the traditionalist movement have become more manifest. There are many reasons for these differences but the most important is that the traditionalist movement has made a virtue of avoiding centralised and formal mass organisation as it believes this to be spiritually deleterious. Thus, it embodies more an orientation in religious thinking that loosely links together various Sufi orders and scholarly networks through specific styles of religious education, spiritual guidance and collective devotion.

In practical terms how did these traditionalists manifest these internal tensions after 9/11? Many argued that traditionalists should stick to their core task of reviving traditional teachings in the West, a role that was defined in the nineties through deen-intensives, light-study courses, and sending Western Muslims to the great centres of the Muslim world to study and so on. Others saw an immediate need to spend time on public outreach, including interfaith, public speaking, media work, conferences, liaising and working with the authorities and so on. Many of the rank-and-file were uncomfortable with this shift and wanted to stick with what they knew, while others took it up as a necessary duty to preserve the public reputation of Muslim communities and to emphasize the need to make common cause against an extremism they saw as alien to Islam. Some of those who engaged have been politically opportunistic: after all, Islamist and Wahhabi bashing in public has become a viable career option, and not just for Muslims. This opportunism has partly been fed by a traditional deference towards political authority, which has always preferred symbolic political access and brokerage over more modern styles of democratic dissent.

The second reason why the traditionalist movement has changed in the noughties is that a large segment of young Muslims are looking for greater accommodation between their religious practice and liberal expectations within society at large. This is not merely a phenomenon to be found among traditionalists, rather such tensions can be found in nearly all, if not all, the groups and tendencies out there. But within the traditionalist movement a liberalising wing was and is manifested in three ways:

(1) Firstly the“liberal traditionalists” have put more emphasis upon the critique of political Islamic movements and Wahhabism than on adherence to the rigours of the Sharia in their personal lives. Among traditionalists, and indeed their scholars, there are significant differences over the validity of fiqh al-aqalliyat (a jurisprudence for Muslim minorities), the emphasis placed on the maqasid al-Sharia (the objectives of Islamic law), the desirability of adopting the madhhab al-taysir (the way of seeking ease in religion) and the emphasis made upon either the rukhsa (legal dispensation) or the azima (the strongest legal ruling on an issue within a legal school).

(2) Secondly many “liberal traditionalists” seek a personal ethics, a philosophy of Sufism, and have been uncomfortable with what they see as elements of cultishness in Sufi orders. It is a Sufism without spiritual guides (murshidin), spiritual initiation (bay`a) or the rigours of the mystical path (tazkiyat al-nafs). It is clear that a philosophy of Sufism may converge with individualised religion and a liberal sensibility, although this is not a given. In a different way, this philosophical Sufism shares some features in common with notions of tarbiya (moral rectification) found in Salafism and Islamism. It lacks the element of seeking to know the Divine (irfan) within tasawwuf. It is essentially the way of the jurists rather than that of the Sufis.

(3) Thirdly a critique of (Western) modernity, somewhat imbibed in intellectual quarters within the traditionalist movement and influenced either by perennialist, deconstructionist or conservative Christian analyses has often resolved itself into a personal philosophy. But it was held apart from the practical business of seeking to do well in the professions; in other words, this personal philosophy of anti-modernism did not harden into a practical form of isolationism. So for example, when the political crisis of 9/11 emerged, many traditionalists were aware that a concerted effort in public outreach to foster greater understanding was necessary. This outreach has involved taking up the liberal and secular language of the public sphere, in which the premises of the critique of Western modernity were, for all intents and purposes, largely submerged.

What binds traditionalism together today — with its liberalising or more conservative wings — is its commitment to the belief that the ulema retain a central role in interpreting religion authoritatively today. However, this commitment is now continually challenged by the tension between tradition and reason, empiricism and postmodernism in the West. Even our Abrahamic cousins, with longer experience, struggle with the dialectic that now faces Muslims of the West too.

Religious Authority in the Age of the Internet

The “competition for the mike”, as Sheikh Nuh Keller has pithily termed it, has been crucial in shaping religious authority among Muslims today. The mass media and the internet have changed the way in which religious teachings are disseminated and indeed how religious disputes are projected and replicated to a vast audience. This is not new but arose two hundred years ago when the ulema began to write treatises addressed to the literate constituency of the Muslim masses through the medium of print. Since then the ulema have cultivated constituencies of opinion through mass media, and thus the disagreements of the ulema have a large role in defining the disagreements of their media constituencies, although it should also be said that the Muslim masses do exert some influence of their own in terms of their looking for guidance for how to handle changed circumstances through their encountering new customs, thoughts and ideas. The ability to ask questions is the power to set the agenda, which is very often done through the mass media as well.

The tension arises because the ulema can reach a much larger number of people through the mass media rather than on an individual face-to-face basis, and they all see the benefits of doing that. The same is true for all the lay Islamic movements as well. What this means is that there is a religious public sphere out there in which scholarly (and indeed non-scholarly) disagreements now get projected. Where the internet replicates the book, e.g. through treatises, essays, legal rulings and so on, then that form of internet intervention is much more familiar to the Islamic scholarly tradition. But the point is that in the age of print there used to be an editorial process and a relatively high economic cost to getting published, but now through digital printing and the internet anyone can publish on paper or electronically. Samizdat publishing has become the norm and not the exception. (In this I speak with the experience of a culprit.)

If all sorts of opinions are shaped and formed in the blogosphere for instance then how far should the ulema intervene to ask people to behave with decorum or even to arbitrate and get involved? As the ulema project their views on the internet in various ways, being a participant and a referee at the same time is a difficult dual role to play within the interactive part of the internet. Disputes take place all the time on the net between scholars, students of knowledge and those who follow scholarship and those who don’t. Disputation has gone from street corner discussions in the early nineties to all being preserved in glorious binary digital code, archived and available for retrieval and requoting. Who would have thought that?

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), seen as one of the seers of the mass media, considered that “the medium is the massage” by which he meant that all technologies were extensions of human senses and capabilities. The nature of this extension had the ability to alter the way that human beings think and act. Yet he was not a determinist either for he argued that “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (The Medium is the Massage, New York, 1967, p. 25). Until recently the mass media was mostly linear and declarative, whereas arguably it is rapidly becoming individualised, interactive, demotic and non-linear. It engages all the senses and is working towards ever more complex simulacra of real life like Second Life. Science fiction writers, most famously William Gibson in Neuromancer (1984), have imagined the future rise of a seamless machine-human interface when our cortexes would be on-line. This implies that much future social interaction will be disembodied. We still don’t understand how this will change societies over the long term. This is still a new world to which both the ulema and the Muslim masses are adjusting and attempting to formulate an etiquette for. And once a tool is available, especially one of this revolutionary power and sheer utility, people will use it. Yet legal rulings apply to the use made of a tool and not to the tool itself. It is thus through McLuhan’s “contemplation” of the nature of the medium itself that we might stave off somewhat the “inevitability” that Sheikh Google will lead the unified madhhab of the future in an alternate virtual reality universe that might well become our own.

Two Approaches to Unity

Leaving aside the nature of the internet, which may indeed be a major conduit through which to promote unity (as well as disunity), what kind of overall approach ought to inform intra-faith reconciliation? Here I am referring specifically to Sufis and Salafis, although the principles invoked would seem to have wider application. There seems to have been two approaches to fostering Islamic unity, one that is tried and tested and another that seems less likely to work. And God knows best.

The less effective way is to define primary and secondary issues in legal and credal issues from one approach as constituting the centre ground. The attempt to define this as being at the centre of our tradition only results in creating a new movement. Q-News once captured this well with the ironic headline: “Unite, but follow me”.

The more effective way is to stand firm on primary issues and to educate the masses in the matter of the etiquette of differing on secondary issues. Sheikh Ali Goma’a, the current Mufti of Egypt, said that there are approximately 1.25 million matters that have been the subject of legal rulings, and about 100 of these are agreed upon by all Muslims, being matters that are known by necessity to be part of religion. Any approach at reconciliation would do well to be informed by the approach outlined by Imam al-Ghazali’s Faysal al-Tafriqa, which, as people will know, is available in English translation. It reminds us that people will not cease to differ over rulings so long as they differ over the details of the principles of interpretation, particularly in the priority given to various hermeneutic methods. The literal sense has priority and other methods are applied if there is some evidential or logical reasons why the literal sense does not stand on its own.

The Amman Initiative, started in 2005, embodies this second approach and has the backing of a very wide spectrum of senior ulema across the world representing eight legal traditions.

There is a potential tension between affirming one’s own stance on secondary issues and indeed following an interpretative methodology in law or theology and working together for the common good with others. It is noticeable that avoiding differences can lead some to a sheer eclecticism in legal matters: this can confuse people, lending cultural credibility to a soft relativism, or the postmodern conviction that all differences are the same, i.e. they are all “just” differences. This focus leads to the avoidance of difference and controversy for its own sake and lends itself it to anti-intellectualism rather than to investigating matters whilst learning to handle a wider scope of difference.

In other words, in seeking a middle ground between Sufis and Salafis, points of agreement could be defined, but that minimum should not then define the scope of people’s commitments on secondary issues. Rather the scope for a wide variety of positions should remain. From a Sufi perspective, the fear is that if finding a common ground between Sufis and Salafis means dropping Ibn Arabi altogether then where would that leave one? Rather, Ibn Taymiyan and Akbarian approaches ought to remain fully represented and embodied and should seek to engage in a creative and genuine exchange in any process of reconciliation. They can part company civilly without necessarily agreeing but at least understanding the nature of their differences better at an usuli level. An historic example of this is the exchange between Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Ata’ullah al-Iskandari.

For the sake of unity is it right to drop practices or beliefs, which after all make up part of the spiritual methodology of Sufism, or to foster an understanding and an acceptance that others differ and not make that an issue? It can’t be that we drop positions because either ourselves or others are unable to apply the rules of ikhtilaf. Affirming one’s position doesn’t entail letting go of the possibility that one might be wrong and that the other might be right.

To put it another way. Sufis can’t be expected to endorse a position that would seek to make them agree that tasawwuf is an optional add-on, a bad innovation, or, worse, even a heresy. Rather Sufis would like anti-Sufis to accept that placing tasawwuf at the heart of our religion is a valid interpretive possibility even if they disagree with it. It can’t be ruled out of court as an interpretive possibility. Tasawwuf has enjoyed an august and widespread history of practice and support throughout the centuries of the umma’s spiritual legacy and remains a vibrant path for millions of Muslims today. In the final analysis, Muslims believe that God will inform us about our differing in the next life.

Three major issues in Sufi-Salafi reconciliation will be (i) the reclassification of some acts as fiqhi differences rather than as matters of basic aqida, (ii) the recognition that there are primary and secondary issues in credal and legal matters and (iii) that the semantic approach adopted by some scholars of the East provides a means to diffuse differences between Asharis, Maturidis and Atharis over the description of God’s transcendence and immanence.

At the very least for Sufis and Salafis of the West (and elsewhere), a moratorium on polemical exchange, particularly over the internet, should be called for, matched by a process to get religious scholars on both sides to met regularly along the lines of the Amman Initiative. A minimal goal would be to take the heat out of differing so that it becomes that beneficial form of differing that increases knowledge and does not create rancour, hatred and division. It might also open up a way to work together towards common interests and goals that are shared in common. There is increasing recognition that there are structural challenges facing Muslim communities that are best met together. At the very least forging unity involves the recognition that Sufi polemics against the Salafis have taken on very different implications after 9/11 that should now be taken into account.

These reflections are designed to provoke a debate. May God accept this essay as an act of love for traditionalism, and written in the hope that we may aspire towards a greater unity of purpose but not towards a greater conformity of viewpoints. And God knows best. To that end I would welcome any constructive comment, corrections and criticisms on this essay to be posted up here. Most of all we need to define positive ways to go forward.

22 Comments

Filed under Internet, Media, Religion, UK Muslim Politics, Umma, war-on-terror

Wisdom and the Universal Library

Would it be feasible to imagine a convincing universal library, one that contained not only every book in existence, but every possible book? Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the Argentinian writer famous for exploring philosophical conundrums through short stories and fictive essays, once did so in his parable “The Library of Babel” (1941). Well before the age of the internet, Borges, once the director of the National Library of Argentina, “imagined paradise as a kind of library”, a yearning that is reflected in this story.

Borges’ library is eternal and infinite in size, composed of hexagonal rooms, each one housing the necessities of human survival and 640 books arranged on 20 shelves in a completely random order. The books contain all possible combinations of a full stop (N. Amer., ‘period’), a comma, the space and twenty-two letters of the alphabet. Much of the library is gibberish, or perhaps the gibberish is some secret unfathomable language. But at the same time, for the human-librarians whose existence is defined by the library, the hope persists that amidst all the gibberish:

Everything is there: the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary of this gospel, the commentary on the commentary of this gospel, the veridical account of your death, a version of each book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books. [1]

With the discovery of this proposition, orthodoxies and heresies appear among the librarians. Some go in search of the future inscribed in the library. But hope wanes in the infinitude of the library and some argue that searches be given up in favour of the random shuffling of letters and words to produce canonical works by chance. Others think the priority is to destroy useless books (a futile gesture as countless imperfect facsimiles exist that differ by only one character). One persistent hope is the discovery of a book that is the key to all other books, the perfect compendium, housed in a crimson hexagon, which must exist as it is possible that it exist in the universal library.

It seems that six decades after Borges imagined the universal library and futility of discovering the perfect key that would order all human knowledge, the technology to so inventorise this prodigious legacy of human thought and speculation has arrived.

Currently no one knows how many books there are in the world. WorldCat, the largest catalogue, has 32 million titles from more than 25,000 libraries around the world. But the race is now on to digitize texts and to make keyword searches of this ever-expanding digital library available online. Several projects are already underway, one of the largest being Carnegie Mellon University, which has already scanned one and half million books. However, the clear front-runner, at present, is Google, which aims at the very least to scan a number of book-texts equivalent to WorldCat within the next ten years. The scale of this ambition fits Google’s corporate mission “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, and Google Books is regarded by the company as “Google’s moon shot”. [2] The obvious motive for such a huge undertaking is set out by Google’s vice-president, Marissa Mayer:

Google has become known for providing access to all of the world’s knowledge, and if we provide access to books we are going to get much higher-quality and much more reliable information. We are moving up the food chain. [3]

So the technology is available, and, in the grander scheme of things, this looks like a hugely exciting and worthwhile prospect, but one that may stumble not for technical but for legal reasons around copyright. With respect to copyright, there are broadly three categories of books:

(1) Twenty per cent of all books are in the public domain: they have either passed out of copyright or were never originally copyrighted.
(2) Ten per cent of all books are copyrighted and in print.
(3) Seventy per cent of all books are copyrighted, or have an unclear copyright status, and are out of print.

Category One presents no legal problems whatsoever, and Google has agreements with major universities and public libraries to digitize this with the quid pro quo of providing the digital archiving and preservation of their back catalogue for them. Category Two has been the subject of commercial agreements between Google (or Amazon for instance) and its publisher partners to provide another form of searchable advertising for the 175,000 or so books that are published every year, from which Google does get advertising revenue. Publishers understand too that browsing online leads to buying if surfers find a book in print on a topic they are interested in. Usually on Google Books, the title page, contents, index and part or all of the introductory chapter are displayed in full, while the rest of the book is word searchable.

The real problem lies with Category Three, which has become the subject of an ongoing legal dispute in the United States between Google and some its partner publishers. The publishers argue that Google has infringed copyright by scanning in the entire texts of books within Category Three. Google’s counter-argument is that the company only makes “snippets” available, lawful under fair usage rights available to all researchers, that are the product of a keyword search. Thus web research is analogous, in Google’s eyes, to book research. Searchability of texts is not the same as making entire texts available. (And it should be noted that Google does not put advertising on search pages for books from Categories One and Three, which it has obtained from libraries and not from publishers.) The stately progress of the federal legal process means, however, that this case might not be heard until early 2008, thereby increasing the chance of an out-of-court settlement. It is to be hoped that whether the outcome emerges from a settlement or from a courtroom verdict, it is one that favours access to learning over profit.

So if the gamut of human bookish learning does eventually become available online, what would Borges have made of it all? Besides the delights of instant searchability, cutting out the drudgery of wading through the dross, Borges would perhaps have thought that the key to human understanding lay not within the perfect compendium but in the hermeneutical relationship between the reader and the text.

A sheikh once recalled that when he used to visit the home of his teacher, they would meet in his voluminous library. In his early student days, the sheikh hoped to find a book that would be the key to unlocking all the others. The teacher reminded him that it was, of course, a dialogical process, that if we read books that change us, then we see new meanings and attain deeper levels of understanding in what we read (even from books we have read before). In other words, the perfect compendium lies not within a universal library but within the wisdom of the human subject, illuminated by an integration of learning, reflection, experience and imagination. To express it as a counterfactual, books read us differently as we go through a process of transformation.

Notes

[1] Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”, Fictions, trans. by Anthony Kerrigan (London, 1991 [1965]), 72-80, quote at 75-76.
[2] Jeffrey Toobin, “Google’s Moon Shot”, New Yorker, 5 February 2007, available online at http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/070205fa_fact_toobin.
[3] Ibid.

Comments Off on Wisdom and the Universal Library

Filed under Bookish Pursuits, Culture and the Arts, Internet

Blogging the Islamic Anglosphere

Several bloggers have come together to produce a monthly edition of blogs on politics, culture, religion and life by Muslims living in the ‘West’, with contributions coming from North America, the UK and Australia. The second edition has just come out in time for the last ten days of Ramadan. Entitled the Carnival of Islam in the West, all those who sign up come to create a continuous meta-blog, which placed on an RSS feed — say onto a personalised Google homepage — provides a subaltern complement, sometimes an antidote, to the daily deluge of ‘bad news’ about Muslim folk. The range of views is broad — from traditionalist to reformist — but the quality of the writing is generally excellent, often being on a par with or even better than anything which can be found in the Muslim print media.

Comments Off on Blogging the Islamic Anglosphere

Filed under Internet, Media