Those of us who have undertaken any form of intensive religious training will find this brave work by Karen Armstrong pregnant with resonance. With gentleness and honesty, Armstrong takes us on a revelatory journey that begins with her decision, at the age of seventeen, to devote her life to God as a nun. Yet once she embarked upon her spiritual training, she encountered a frightening and oppressive world, fossilised by tradition, which moulded, isolated and pushed her to the limit of what she could endure. She artfully paints her transition from the convent life to the secular world as she moves to Oxford University to pursue her degree.
For those of us who have spent time at a traditional Islamic seminary, a darul uloom, we will uncover passages in this book that are sure to resonate with our own experiences. Yet there are differences to be found between a convent and a traditional darul uloom. This book is a wonderful example of the intense level of institutionalisation that can take place within religious seminaries. The few of us that have made the leap from traditional to secular forms of learning are likely to find ourselves regularly in this book.
The way we treat our surroundings says a lot about our inner state. So when we nonchalantly throw our rubbish out of our car and on to the road, we are making a statement: very little is sacred to us. I have seen this happen a number of times – its endemic in certain places. And every time it happens I become enraged. Often times, and if I deem it safe to do so, I will scurry across and place that rubbish where it belongs: in the bin.
Nobody wants a dirty room, house or street. So why do we treat the environment any different? How would we feel if someone casually strolled along and dropped their rubbish in our homes? Perhaps thats the root of the problem. We don’t care. I often wonder what our inner state must be like if our actions are ugly – our outer state is a manifestation of what is within us.
The Prophetic saying reminds us, “God is beautiful and he loves beauty” (Muslim). The seed of beauty only flowers when we have created an awareness of our surroundings in ourselves. And only God knows best.
The situation that Muslims in Britain find themselves in today shares many resemblances with their own experiences in Colonial India. Firstly, we find that Muslims continue to seek explanations for their problems and interpret them in religious terms. This is not surprising given that religion, for Muslims at least, takes all of life in its purview (Metcalf, 1982). Secondly, we are reminded from the pulpit (and more often, on various ‘YouTube’ channels) that the present problems are symptomatic of the failings from our own individual moral corruption. Thirdly, to various degrees and depending on ones religious affiliation we are observing an eschewal of customary practices in favour of a return to the Qur’an and tradition of the Prophet (Geertz, 1968). Finally, many of the various shades of Islamic movements are being led by religious leaders utilising an array of platforms to reach out to thirsty masses seeking leadership in times of confusion. All of this mirrors what occurred in Colonial India. Are the Muslims of Britain awaiting their own mujaddid, the renewer or the Mahdi, the rightly guided one to activate a much-anticipated religious revival in the 21st century? And will our institutions act as the incubator?
Geertz, C. (1968). Islam observed : religious development in Morocco and Indonesia: Chicago. London : University of Chicago Press.
Metcalf, B. D. (1982). Islamic revival in British India: Deoband 1860–1900 (Vol. 1).
After hearing of the Muslims of Lancashire in reaching out to the people of Cumbria in their time of need, I felt compelled to share a short piece.
Given the context of challenges facing Muslims in Britain, this is the sort of positive engagement we need to do more and more of. I say this because as Muslims we need to show that our presence in this country is a means of mercy for everyone. This is our country and the problems facing wider society are also our problems. Their pain is our pain. Their concerns are our concerns. After all, was not the Messenger of God (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) sent as a mercy for the entire world? His mere presence was mercy. If we really are to convince wider society that we are a force for good, then it needs to be shown in our actions. We clearly did that. And we need to do more. A whole lot more.
Some will view the current climate facing Muslims as a threat. This may not be entirely true. Those of us who are of an optimistic disposition will draw strength from the Prophetic example when in its very early days the Messenger of God (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) and the early Muslim community faced indescribable hostility. Yet it was their actions that did the talking. In the same way, let us see our situation as an opportunity. What you are speaks more loudly and more eloquently than what you say.
As always, only God knows best.
When we begin to look at the very early development of Muslim Theology one needs to understand that the Arabians (as opposed to the Arabs – further below) had Atheological “Peripheral Vision” – which basically means that the way they understood revelation was just “common sense.” This is as opposed to “central vision” where its utility comes in use for reading and for focusing on specific areas. Once we understand this at the very basic level we can then begin to appreciate the level of paucity in terms of theological exchanges among the Prophet’s companions and their heirs. For them, there was never a habit to indulge over individual words as the key to apprehending or to make meaning.
Of course, this all changed with the expansion of the Islamic empire in the 8th Century where we see a coming together of various civilisations which shifted the interpretive orientation of Arabs (distinguished from Arabian) Muslims. The Arabians simply interpreted texts according to their own common sense ways of understanding. The newly converted Arabicised people inherited a far more systematic and analytical method of making meaning. Naturally, this led to two broad groups of Muslim theologians: Traditionalism and Rationalism. Much has been written about this, but suffice to say that the only meaningful departure point for both of them was which universe of meanings should be recognised as the proper backdrop to which scripture should be made to make sense.
Parallel to all of this was another development where the designation of “Arab” as it were, was stretched beyond its original application – this had the effect of concealing the different interpretive legacies of the ones who began and those who ended their genealogy as “Arabs.” This led to the distinction between peripheral and central visions now becoming all but blurred.
As a consequence, in its speculative mode, theology became known as ilm al-kalām which literally means: “the science of words”. In response to the many nouveaux Arabes, it was Imām al-Shāfi’ī who produced his al-Risālah (The Epistle) as an attempt to ensure the primordial supposition of the Arabians as opposed to the Arabs.