On Being Muslim and Modern

There’s a lot of heartburn in some places over Graeme Wood’s piece in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants.” Getting some traction is H. A. Hellyer’s piece over at Salon, which seems to claim (at least in the headline) that Wood is calling ISIS “representative of Islam.” This seems like something of a straw man, and I see little nonsense in what Wood wrote.

(I cannot speak for the New York Post.)

Wood makes sense to me. He’s written an insightful work that fairly well describes how I understood and experienced Revolutionary Islam (and Muslims who aspired to be revolutionaries) when I worshiped in Columbus, Ohio. I didn’t see much nonsense in Wood’s analysis, especially this:

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

The folks I worshipped with, and studied Ibn Taymiyya, Sayed Qutub and Maulana Maududi with, were not so focused on the end times. But that has been a component revolutionary thinking, and I met Muslims back then who viewed their radical political activism as a part of their understanding of the coming day of judgment and the redemption of the world.

Hellyer is also right, however, when he focuses on the collapse of authority within Islam, especially Sunni Islam. Outside of sufism, the chains of transmission Hellyer writes of — think of it as an Islamic version of apostolic succession — have crumbled in the face of modernity. It has become easy for just about any Sunni Muslim to write a book, or a blog, and if he can gain followers, become a teacher or a leader worth reckoning with. Such a thing happened long ago in Protestantism, as the proliferation of churches shows:

Modern radical tendencies within the Muslim community do away with such systems. For them, the Muslim community has gone awfully wrong – and they’re going to put it right. In short, they create a do-it-yourself kit of interpretation.

Wood is correct when he says you cannot think coherently about ISIS apart from Islam, and particularly a strain of thought within Islam that claims intellectual roots in the 14th century. Hellyer is also correct to say that strain of thought does not represent Islam as a whole. Everyone — both Revolutionaries seeking to make the Caliphate and staunch opponents in the West — want to reduce Islam to an essential. It is foundational, but the Revolution is being made by people just as influenced by other ideas as they are their religious heritage. Read Qutub. He understands the language of third world nationalism and revolutionary socialism to speak it in Milestones. He is, after all, competing with Gamal and al-Nasser. He has to speak Nasser’s tongue. He has to speak to people moved by Nasser’s words and ideas. No 14th century Islamic thinker would have to master European ideas in order to motivate and mobilize other Muslims. But Qutub did. Because he understood whose ideas were ruling the world. That was the whole point of his book.

What’s at stake is what it means to be Muslim and Modern. We compare Islam with Christianity, find our deeply privatized faith, a faith submissive and subservient to the state but somehow separate from it, and we wonder — where does this religious violence come from? But the confessional comparison doesn’t work. It is better to compare the various attempts by Muslims to articulate modernity — because there is no alternative to modernity, and so no one is not modern here — with secular nationalism and the nation-state, which is itself a successor religious faith to Christendom, having inherited the church’s monopoly on truth, meaning, and violence.

I’d always bristled at the “America vs. Islam” comparison, since that seemed to denigrate Islam and elevate America to the status of revealed religion. But I think it’s an accurate comparison. An American Christian with militant and even apocalyptic notions of what it means to be Christian can appeal to and participate in a state that, especially since the 1980s, would on some level allow him to articulate his sentiments and even participate in his understanding of the coming end of the world. (How many proclaimed Saddam Hussein the anti-christ in 1990, and saw the unfolding of the end times in the run-up to Desert Storm?) That state may not be “Christian,” but it could fulfill a certain kind of Christian means to a certain kind of Christian end.

Muslims had so such state allies, and thus Muslims with such ideas and beliefs frequently had to work against the states they lived in and the governments that ruled over them. Right now, Muslims are working out what it means to be modern. And mostly this is working out just fine. But on the edges, some have concocted a violent religious ideology that is equally grounded in a faith tradition AND in political theory. ISIS may speak less of that, but only because people like me talked more overtly politically in the early days. The politics has become water to the fish, and they likely have no idea where some ideas come from.

I’d like to illustrate a bit this tension that Muslims find themselves in.

When I regularly worshiped at the Umar ibn al-Khattab Masjid in Columbus, an African American Muslim named Brother Ahmad would occasionally worship there with us. He was a ferocious and frightening man. I never saw him smile. He always seemed angry, and rarely had a kind word for anyone.

He took being Muslim very seriously. He dressed according to the sunnah, to the custom of the Prophet Muhammad. He wore a turban over his skullcap, a long robe, sometimes a jacket of some kind or other, and the little leather, sole-less boots that some Muslims wear in place of shoes and socks. He always carried a mishwaq — a tooth stick to chew on to clean his teeth (I have one around here somewhere) — and a pocket-sized copy of the Qur’an.

Near as I could tell, his sole concessions to modernity were as pair of eyeglasses and a beat-up old white van he drove that also served as his place of business.

Brother Ahmad read (and handed out) very stern little Islamic newspapers published by a group of Muslims in South Africa. By stern, the writers and editors of the little paper were constantly telling good Muslims not to have non-Muslim friends, not to wish non-Muslims “happy birthday” (it’s not sunnah), and not to greet non-Muslims on their holidays. They were joyless little papers. And despite the fact they were written in English, you really needed to know Arabic to read them because they used so many transliterated Arabic terms that many articles were nearly incomprehensible.

One Friday for the mid-day prayer, Brother Ahmad saw me, took me aside, and proceeded to tell how to perform wudu — the ritual washing needed to purify one’s-self for prayer. I don’t know whether he’d been watching me, and thought I needed instruction, or just assumed I didn’t know. He was stern, and almost kind. Almost.

“What was that about? Why did you let him do that?” my friend Rashid, a Lebanese PhD student, asked me afterwards. “You already know how to make wudu, right?”

“Yes,” I replied. “But it didn’t seem like a good idea to say no.”

Sometime later, during another Friday prayer, Brother Ahmad gets up and lectures the entire congregation. None of us are dressed according to the sunnah, he said, and none of live according to the sunnah. Too many people are here for their studies, when they should be working as traders or merchants, or something sunnah, like he did. Brother Ahmad didn’t so much claim himself as virtuous, but he did hold himself up as an example of how to live according to the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad.

“So, where’s your horse?” one young Muslim asked. “The Prophet Muhammad, sala allahu alaihi wa salem, didn’t drive a van. He rode a horse.”

A scuffle ensued, and Brother Ahmad was eventually led out of the building. He was one of those disruptive presences court orders are made for. (His little leather boots also had zippers, something I’m fairly certain the Prophet had no idea about.)

The point is this: Brother Ahmad was all for living according to the letter of the law until he wasn’t, at which point, he began using analogies. “The prophet would approve of driving a van if he were today,” he replied. “He’d might also wear shoes and pants!” someone said.

The Atlantic piece points to a thoroughly modernized organization in ISIS — the sunnah says nothing about Twitter, passports, cellphones, license plates, tanks, and rocket propelled grenade launchers. It is impossible to escape modernity, and impossible to escape dealing with modernity. And ISIS is good at deploying many of the tools of modernity in service of its political and religious ideology. The fact they are an ideology, that they are state building, is itself a testament to the group’s very modernity.

But it also impossible to escape the group’s religious foundations as well. Muslims aren’t struggling with modernity — they are struggling with how to be modern.

This makes how Muslims cope with modernity different in many ways from how Christians cope with modernity. The state in the Christian West swallowed the church whole, domesticated it, placed it in service to the state, and then slowly released its grip once it knew bishops and pastors and congregations would readily come to heel (and those who didn’t weren’t strong enough or numerous enough to matter). This took several centuries, and is mostly done, though somewhat rough on the edges. It happened much more quickly (and roughly) in the Islamic world, was imposed on Muslims largely from the outside, and we forget how thoroughly secular the nation-states of the Arab Middle East were up until about 30 years ago. And they were even more secular in the 50s and 60s. (Which is why Qutub wrote a book in the first place, and got himself hung by Nasser.) Those secular states and the ideologies that gave them energy are largely gone, being undone by military defeat and economic failure. They are the past. They are not the future.

And how some Muslims cope with modernity is going to be religiously rooted. And violently opposed to an externally defined modernity. But modernity itself is not in question. This is what ISIS is — a toxic and lethal combination of religious piety and political ideology, a confessional church (so to speak) with a flag and an army. It is as facile and foolish to say that ISIS represents all of Islam as it is to say ISIS is not Islamic at all. It is a very modern entity. It is also a religious one.

Brother Ahmad was Muslim. A very observant one. And perhaps even a very faithful one; he didn’t invent his faith and practices on his own. But he also annoyed nearly everybody, and his Islam had very little appeal in that busy and crowded masjid. He could cause an awful lot of trouble, but that was about it.

This is where we will be for a while. To argue over whether ISIS is Islamic or not is a matter for Muslims themselves (especially when the dust settles), and for scholars in the distant future. They call themselves Islamic, and much of what they believe and say is grounded in legitimate Islamic teaching. That needs to be taken both seriously and at face value — because they might actually mean it. Anything else is nonsense.

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