Sunday, June 30, 2019

Down to Earth - Video series about Islamic concepts

Most textbooks on Islam tell us that Islam is a way of life. The briefest of reality checks will tell us that Muslims’ way of life is today shaped by a plethora of other influences with Islam as an add-on. This apparent discrepancy has renegaded the notion of true Islam into either the past as a praised but lost historic example from the days of the prophet and his companions or into the future as a utopian dream of a return to the golden age “when the Mahdi comes”. Neither offers much solace or hope for the Muslim struggling with the here and now.

In a previous book (Surrendering Islam, co-authored with David Livingstone whose more recent book Transhumanism is an important contribution to show how pagan religious ideas disproportionately shaped the politics of our age), I have shown how we arrived at this unfortunate state of affairs. As a historical treatise it examined the reasons for having lost our glorious past and is a tale of betrayal. But it does not show the way out. In the attempt to find solutions, serious rethinking is required, namely to deal with ideas or concepts.

Concepts are that which is conceived, initially in the mind, then put into practice; hence the term covers both abstract ideas and concrete plans or intentions. The prophetic saying that “Works are by intention” springs to mind. If the intention is all wrong, the works cannot bear fruit, no matter how diligently they are performed. This is exactly the problem of today’s Islamic reality. Without clear concepts about what Islam represents and aims for, all the effort at Islamic revival is at best misguided and at worst counter-productive.

Conceptual thinking might eventually lead us to a solution to Islam’s ineffectiveness vis-à-vis the dominant secular worldview by re-examining the deeper and wider meaning of Islam. Conceptualising Islam means to move away from the narrow constraints of mere practices and to discover the underlying purpose. Naturally, Islam being a divinely inspired, or rather ordained, way of life, not a man-made system, such a road of discovery must always be guided by the teachings of both the Qur’an and the prophet. Yet, at the same time, it must not get stuck in the environment in which the Qur’an was first taught. Early Muslim scholars well understood this need for adaptiveness. Sadly, most of today’s Muslim scholars are only apt at passing on knowledge, not wisdom.

In trying to re-establish Islam as a living concept, we need to deal with paradigms. The concept remains true, but the paradigms change. Paradigms are patterns or models of how things are, theoretical frameworks within which we operate. They are derived from concepts. One definition of paradigm is that of a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology commonly accepted by members of a specific community. Both concepts and paradigms are therefore ways of making sense of the world around us. Concepts deal with the larger picture and paradigms with the interactions within a given framework. To benefit us, the two must agree, which is exactly the problem of why Islam does not “fit in” in the globalised society around us no matter how hard we try to adapt.

The key problem of Muslims today is that we are trying to hold on to an Islamic paradigm whilst having willingly surrendered to non-Islamic (secular) concepts. Examples for these are heliocentricity, relativism or evolution. We inertly resent some of their teachings, because they challenge the divine origin and destiny of all that is, and that is exactly what they intend to do. Yet we have become unable to assess their merits and shortcomings since we have accepted “science” as the benchmark of truth, adding a little bit of “Islamisation” at the frills, instead of measuring its claims against the yardstick of revelation.

Like Moses, we have grown up in the dazzling world of Pharaoh’s magicians. Like Moses, we are suspicious of its pronouncements. But unlike Moses, we are unable to challenge their magic since we try to compete with them or beat them at their own game rather than expose and diminish the falsehood of their imposing achievement. Modern-day magic is not conjured by sticks and ropes, it is conveyed through words and images. Words are powerful, be they those of revelation or those of deception. Yet the two are not equal – one swallows up the other. Beating the swindler at his own game, therefore, is impossible and merely turns us all into pretenders.

Conceptual thinking is what Allah gave Adam as a distinguishing gift over other creation. He taught man language in order to both comprehend and express concepts. The quest for meaning is thus ingrained and essential to human nature and where it is abandoned, man sinks to the level of or below that of the animal kingdom. Evolution teaches that man is part of the animal kingdom, stripping him of his dignity. Neither is he central to creation, being a mere accidental development from lower forms, nor is the earth he inhabits central, being a mere rock floating in space. The secular worldview permits worshipping God as a fiction of one’s imagination. What it cannot tolerate is to elevate Him to the absolute supremacy a believer is demanded to afford Him, because in the secular mind-set the existence or non-existence of God is non-consequential.

Truth is absolute and cannot be divided. The claim that there may be many truths is aberrant mind game defying basic logic. Whatever is true cannot, at the same time, be false, hence the opposite of an established truth cannot, at the same time, also be true. Relativism, therefore, is an erosion of truth. The common accusation hurled by secularists at believers is that they are fanatics. Yet, so are the secularists, as neither are prepared to compromise their religion. Either is only willing to tolerate the other as long as he doesn’t challenge their supremacy. Thus, the status quo is not only a result of ideas but also of power.

Power can be taken or given. Sometimes, power feels the need to be justified, at other times it views this as a weakness. However, power does not exist in a vacuum. It has both a source and a purpose. We need to understand where a given power is derived from and what it aims to achieve. Hence, simply wanting to usurp power in the hope that this will change everything is a fallacy. The path to empowerment is through education and, again, particularly through understanding concepts. Reviving those concepts should, I hope, lead to empowerment of us Muslims, first individually, then collectively. Entering battle unequipped is suicidal. Seeking a confrontation with the wrong opponent equally so. Knowledge is a source of power, and by that I mean knowledge of both the truth and how it has been covered up. Wisdom is the art of applying knowledge correctly within a given situation, taking account of all circumstances. Knowledge can be learned. Wisdom needs to be acquired through experience. Experience is gained from both success and failure. Too much success tends to make people careless, too much failure, on the other hand, despondent. The latter very much describes our present reality. After too many a lost battle, it becomes necessary to retreat, regroup and go back to the drawing board.

With a view to kick-starting this process I have recorded a series of short talks on Islamic concepts to be screened on my Youtube channel and called them “Down to Earth”. The first of those talks (episode 1: being grounded, staying focused) is available here. My hope is that it will move the discussion from the “niceties” of being a Muslim, to the substantial, and that this in turn might lead to a genuine revival of Islamic thought in the 21st century. Stay tuned.