08 April 2015

Resolving Crisis

It’s been more than a year perhaps since I have written about Islam. Most of what I had been posting in this blog are quotes, excerpts, photos I took, and videos. And one might even wonder what these pieces imply and what picture are they purported to make? 

A Tough Way 

I have one thing to admit. I went through an internal crisis in faith. It was brought by some unfortunate events that were unavoidable and then - in the process of my study in the religion, I came to encounter some extremely difficult issues that shook my foundations. It was indeed painfully tough and one has to be very strong to go through such kind of experience. I’m not saying that I am strong because I didn’t even thought I could go through and still, there are traces of it. What most people do not know is that even if one is not talking or expressing much, that does not mean that a person does not get affected, disturbed, irritated, or angry when s/he is attacked. We, through the passing of times; surrounded with an endless stream of information and interaction, socially conditioned via media and consumerism, driven by this grand desire to be liked or get fame or be accepted, and with this apparent contradiction between what one says and what one actually does in both private and public in the name of some sort of belief or principle; have become so desensitized that we forgot how it is to be a human being. Superficial and narrow rhetoric based on religion has the same effect of desensitizing the humanity in us.

When it comes to matters of faith and creed, I am extremely meticulous and continuously strive to walk in a sort of road to maintain balance. It is not easy being a lone student of religion, compared to others who have teachers whom they can consult.

In my three years as a librarian, I am surrounded with Islamic books of many different orientations and in my encounters with them, here are some observations: there are authors who are very lenient in their style; some are dogmatic, stern and unaccommodating in their views; others are simply making lists and classifications making the book feel like a manual; some while actively refuting others are at the same time advancing their own propositions; some offer insights and at the end only seem to keep the reader hanging with an open-ended question; others are like specialists dealing with only one topic without considering other equally important perspectives; and some are multi-faceted – meaning that their approach is interdisciplinary – making sense from their insights and offering a balanced perspective of the whole topic at hand.  The last one, like most readers prefer, is my favorite (once again). It used to be so before, but when I decided to study religion, I turned to those books with the kind which are dogmatic and unaccommodating, those which feel like a manual, and those with refutations. While on the process of studying the content of these books, I noticed some changes. I began to see the world around me in black and white. Everything has to be exact, all questions have to be answered clearly, all matters of life have a ruling in them. I felt robotic with no feelings, whatsoever. Everything has to be precise and correct, otherwise, one runs the risk of sinning or ones actions being rejected by God.

And then, to supplement these readings, I decided to listen to lectures. What is very noticeable in these lectures is the way those people talk and deliver their subject. There is a lot of shouting, reprimanding, etc. The effect is not peace of mind and heart, rather that of worry and anxiety. I was kept wondering why instead of developing a sense of nearness and love to God, the opposite was happening. At the back of my mind, something tells me that this is not it is supposed to be, and eventually, the reasons being so began to show.

Two of what I think are the most disturbing that these people made in their ‘lectures’ and written ‘treatises’ is their approach in understanding the concept of Afterlife which belong in the Ghaib (Unperceived), and in their view and treatment of women. They are extremely literal in their understanding and interpretation of it, and when it comes to women – I saw a lot of hypocrisy in the views that they state in contrast with their actual attitudes, and in reality. I remember one speaker making a sarcastic remark which was followed by insulting laughter from a male audience on a topic which concerns women. The speaker was wearing a head cap and a typical long robe and with a beard.  I was shocked by that display of such an unbecoming attitude. The moment I discovered this line of thinking and interpretation, I realized that I have to take a step back. If I entrust my religion and faith on the hands of these people, when clearly there are mistakes in their interpretation and understanding of it, including the display of negative behavior, there has to be a way for me to return to my foundations. Those were the reasons why I have not actively written anything for more than a year and in fact, I stopped reading what I now call those ‘dogmatically-styled books’ that caused so much trouble not only to me but to many Muslims especially the youth who are finding their way back to Islam. 

There is a tendency for students of religion or any student for that matter to 'accept everything' that they read instead of maintaining a position of an observer and engaging in an internal dialogue with the author by exercising the habit of critical thinking. Especially in the case of religious studies, when one is presented with statements containing a lot of verses from the Qur'an and quotations from the Ahadith, it is very tempting that the entire content written should be accepted as an end in itself. The amount of admiration or emulation of the student with the author, teacher or preacher is proportional to what one has been conditioned or internalized within oneself to believe by hearing what one likes to hear and then gaining the justification to act out in a certain way based on feelings such as frustration, hatred or rage. But if a student was taught early on about the basic principles and values of the religion, and educated with the sciences developed by man, particularly psychology (human nature) and philosophy, she or he will notice the difference and the essence of what is being read. In fact if we are to read some writings by exemplary scholars, studying other disciplines is highly commendable in the sense that when one understands Islam and the sciences together, the more balanced will ones perspective be in contributing to the progress and development of the community. Education is a part of ones obligation towards Allah swt because it is a fulfillment of Amanah (Trust between God and man), and frees one from the shackles of ignorance and unreasonable blind following. 

The lack of insight to reality, life and history as well as into God's ways, or Sunan in His creation, some people will continue to seek or demand the impossible. They will imagine what does not or cannot happen, misunderstand occurrences and events, and interpret them on the basis of cherished illusions which in no way reflect God's sunan or the essence of Islamic law.
- Yusuf al-Qaradawi

In the case of Islamic studies, if the main texts (the Qur'an and Ahadith) are presented along an approach or a premise that contradicts the values and principles of Islam such as mercy, justice, respect, consideration and goodness, and instead presents it as something which is intolerant, violent or oppressive, it should be questioned and evaluated. Being unable to develop that kind of discernment is the root of extremism and deviancy that had corrupted Muslim minds until the present day, and this explains why some people become violent and adopt perverted ideologies (such as ISIS and other terrorist groups) and lose their goodness as human beings.

In the topic of Afterlife, what is to be found in Paradise and Hellfire, what will happen to the destinies of people, etc. – all scholars agree and we have to remember, that the things which are mentioned in the Qur’an and Ahadith are not to be taken literally as these things belong in another dimension which is beyond our perception, hence they are part of the Ghaib (Unperceived). The same is also true when we read of concepts like the the Throne, the Footstool, the Hands of God, His Face, etc. God had hidden knowledge which only He knows and it is not for us to make black and white statements in dealing with these matters for the sake of giving ‘exact answers’ to questions. As to the issue of women, this is a broad topic which is a science in itself within Islam, but my concern is for those writers and scholars who selectively choose references from the Qur’an and Ahadith (either taken out of context or cultural practices subject to change and geography) to justify domestic violence, neglect, sexual abuse, injustice, and preventing education and societal contributions. Unfortunately, these misinterpretations and mispractices by Muslims are being used against Islam as a whole by orientalists and bigoted islamophobes in the media and academe to attack the religion which only contribute to the widespread distortion of information and misunderstanding. This gives them all the more justification to claim the backwardness of Muslims, because the fact is that this kind of backwardness is perpetrated by Muslims themselves. If we are to examine history especially the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization and the basic principles that our religion teaches, this is exactly the opposite. I’m not going to be specific as to the titles of those books/writings, who wrote them, or who those lecturers are, but until this present time, they are regarded as scholars in Islam and are followed by a large number of Muslims.

We are all responsible in safeguarding and defending our religion with tact and knowledge, and we also need to carry out this duty from within, to re-examine these built-in narratives and viewpoints of the ones who are carrying the flagship of Islamic learning through the lens of the universal principles of Islamic Shari’ah: mercy, compassion, justice, wisdom, well-being and welfare of people. 

Word of Advice

If you find yourself in the same situation that I have described and feel that your sense of identity is being hijacked, if the goodness in your character and humanity are being obliterated and in turn replaced by bad manners or violent behavior, and you are transformed into an emotionless, cold being who is functioning like it is merely taking and acting orders - take a step back and reflect: is this what Allah, my Compassionate and Loving Creator want me to be? If you feel like your faith is dependent on the level of loyalty to your group affiliation versus other Muslims who happen not to subscribe to your group, and that every word of the revered scholar/s whom you constantly quote is an infallible word of truth, there has to be some critically deep thinking and re-evaluation of faith, of one’s Islam, of one’s relation to Allah swt. Which is stronger, my loyalty to my group and scholar/s, or my relationship and devotion to my Creator? Which is purer: my prayers at midnight when nobody is watching or my activism on the streets and in social media? What are my intentions, what are their means, and what ends do they purport to achieve? If I was accidentally swept to a remote island with no people, will I still be as eager to practice and reflect on my religion as I do today? 

It is true that the Prophet, peace be upon him and his Companions - the Salaf As-Salih (Pious Predecessors) including the Prophets, were the ones set by Allah swt as those upon the upright path. Their understanding of Islam is the most pure and they are our role models. But we have to broaden our understanding on this concept and how and what it is meant for us.

We cannot go back in time and live on their era to experience true Islam, because each of us lives in our respective environments which have a lot of influences both Islamic and un-Islamic, we speak different languages, we are raised on our specific cultures and landscapes, we have diverse roles and professions in our society and communities. What is meant by them being our role models? It is not to replicate the landscape or era upon which they lived or the style of their clothing, or what they ate, since these are only external aspects. It is the essential values as a human being that we have to take from their examples: their uprightness of character, their noble conduct, their high morals, their courage to stand for the truth, their despise on worldly success, their respect for the creation of God, their integrity, honesty, self-sacrifice, compassion – in other words, it is the universal principles as a Muslim which they exemplified. It is by exercising these principles that they achieved this high level of nearness to God. It is in turn by emulating these principles that we also aspire to achieve what they had accomplished.

It is equally important to maintain that our faith stresses the basic pillars of religious obligations and articles of creed, Aqeedah, what is permissible and what is not and how one is to conduct oneself in observing these obligations and limits.

But at the end of the day, it is not enough to rely alone to correctness and quoting as many Daleel as possible to justify an action, because a deed may be correct but it still rests upon the mercy of God if it will be accepted or not. As Ibn Ata'illah al-Iskandari said,

Allah may open up for you the gates of obedience, but He may not open up for you the gates of acceptance. He may ordain you a state of disobedience which may happen to lead you to the right path. The disobedience which teaches you humility is better than the piety which vests you with vanity and arrogance.

Abu Hamid al Ghazali, a theologian, in turn also said,

Looking at yourself with an eye of satisfaction is the height of foolishness and the epitome of ignorance.

The sense of certainty that what one does is surely correct and accepted results in having a high opinion of and raising oneself to others. This is contrary to what the Prophet, peace be upon him, taught, that one cannot be saved by virtue of one’s own deeds alone, except by the Mercy of God.

Finding the Road

Sometimes, you find that a road that you take to the objective is a rough road, there is difficulty in that road, then perhaps you can take a different road, with the same objective… the differentiation between means and ends. So sometimes, the means that I am trying to follow in order to reach an objective is blocked or there is a problem in it, or there is difficulty, or it’s not suitable for the place or time, or people that I’m dealing with. And then I take a different means in order to reach the same objective. 

The above quote was excerpted from a lecture delivered by Dr. Jasser Auda about Philosophy on Islamic Law, where he discussed very important points on how Islamic law is to be approached and applied in light of the changeable aspects of situations and in people.

It's worth noting that the concept of Shar'iah (which literally means, 'A Path), is widely misunderstood by many people, and many perceive it as a kind of law that implements severe punishments. But if we are to look closely within its proper Islamic context, we will come across a lot of discoveries that dispel the common myth it is associated with. Basically, when we observe the laws of the universe and how it operates, how the body functions from within, how plants grow, how animals interact and behave - this is Shari'ah since they are operating within the law and path that the Creator had ordained for them. If a person takes care of himself, when a Muslim strives to abide by what is permissible and avoid the things which are not allowed for him, while having the firm belief in its wisdom that it is for ones own good - that is Shari'ah. What is being misinterpreted as Shari'ah nowadays is the science of human interpretation and how it is meant to be applied, which is Fiqh (Jurisprudence). It is necessary to know these terms, otherwise, confusion, as what is happening today is inevitable.

In finding the road back to my foundations, perhaps because I walked a difficult road which caused the crisis that is on the process of being resolved. I might take another path, but at the end of the day, the essential principles will remain, and amid the chaos, animosity and sectarianism that is happening, I can still stand firmly and maintain the inner peace within - the true essence of Islam.