Who is a true or real Muslim?
An excerpt from Dabashi’s book ‘Being a Muslim in the World’ dismisses the Western narrative of the ‘Muslim’.
It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of the unfolding events in Egypt, and with Egypt the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. At the writing of this essay, masses of millions of Egyptians are voting in their country for or against a draft constitution that will lay down the foundations of their democratic future. The National Salvation Front of opposition groups had called on its followers to vote “no” in the referendum scheduled for December 15 and 22. According to Al Jazeera, “the opposition fear the constitution ‘gives too much emphasis on Islamic law… They would like to see more emphasis given on rights and freedoms.’ In particular, those planning to vote against the draft constitution want additional rights for workers and women.” Meanwhile, the Coalition of Islamist Forces voting in favour of the draft constitution, again as Al Jazeera puts it, a “‘yes’ for Islam.”
So a vote for or against this constitution has pronouncedly become a vote for or against Islam, by or defied by Muslims and those standing against them. As I have already argued, this is a deeply flawed bifurcation and we need to dismantle it right here and right now for a clear conception of our future.
In a recently published book, Being a Muslim in the World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which I had started writing long before the current crisis in Egypt, I have addressed some of the pertinent theoretical issues that have now assumed urgent pragmatic importance precisely at the root of these historic events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world. I am grateful to my publisher, Palgrave Macmillan for having given me permission to excerpt an introductory segment of the book for an exclusive publication here on Al Jazeera. This introductory passage gives a synopsis of the book in a manner that reflects the more detailed arguments and is of particular significance in these historic days.
The basic proposition put forward in this book is that the idea of being a Muslim, as every other aspect of Islam, has always been subject to historical mutation, and in dialogue with varied circumstances in which Muslims have lived. From their sacred texts, to their schools of thought, to the normative principals of Muslimhood nothing in Islam has been insular from historical re/interpretation, and my contention is that we are now at the cusp of a historic moment when Muslims are reconceiving what it means to be a Muslim, again in existential encounter between their sacrosanct beliefs and the changing circumstances of their lives and livelihoods.
No particular Islamic institution – legal, philosophical, or mystical – has an exclusive prerogative deciding who a Muslim is. It is Muslims themselves, in the plurality of their class, gender, and racialised identities – who are now (as they have always been) on a vastly variegated and open-ended highway making that decision for themselves – a decision between them and their creator, them and what they hold to be sacrosanct in their mind and hearts. Particularly disqualified to make that decision for masses of millions of Muslims are the byproducts of Muslim encounter with European colonialism, now ranging from the deeply invested ideological power mongering by Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, the Wahhabis, or their Shia clerical counterparts. Partaking equally in the exclusively juridical dimension of Islam, and violently dispensing with others, these ideologically driven enclaves of power have laid a false totalising claim on the entirety of Islam that needs to be categorically dismantled.
Quintessential in rethinking the renewed modes and manners in which Muslims may begin to reconceive what it means to be a Muslim in this world, at this time, is to change the language of our coming to terms with that fact and phenomenon. My book is just one way of thinking through that new language.
From Hamid Dabashi, Being a Muslim in the World (Palgrave Macmillan, Pivot Collection, 2013)
Excerpted with kind permission of the publisher.
Civilisation: The West and the Rest – who would write a book with a title like that today, and what could it possibly mean? The British historian Niall Ferguson has made a reputation for himself for being blunt to the point of vulgarity with the crudity of his mental makeup when it comes to theorising “the West” as the defining disposition of humanity at large. But like many other latter-day ideologues of the beleaguered empire, Niall Ferguson is more a panegyrist of “the West” than its prognosticator. He is a Johnny-come-lately who has come too late and wants to pack and leave too early. His tiresome boorishness is self-revelatory for the historian of dead certainties protests too much. He comes at the end of an exhausted narrative, where the historian of the thing he calls “the West” has nowhere to go, nothing to say, and no one to convince, and thus keeps spinning and chasing after his own tale. Some retiring generals in the US and British army may find him suitable bedtime reading – but alas history – oh brute history – has left the historian behind. Accusing Niall Ferguson of racism camouflages the more immediate fact – he has missed the boat. As we wave him goodbye on the abandoned island of “the West”, we, on the other hand, need to turn our attention to the wide and expansive sea and learn and navigate where we are headed…
To be in the world
“The West” is no more – and nor is, a fortiori, all the binaries it has coined and crafted over the last two hundred years plus – chief among them the “Islam” this very “West” needed and invented in order to believe in itself. The Islam that Orientalism invented for “the West” was meant more for “the West” to believe the jargon of its own authenticity than just to rule Muslims. “The West and the Rest” was the language of the European and American imperialism at the height of their normative hegemony that crafted “the West” and subjugated “the Rest”. Niall Ferguson and his ilk come at the tail end of this imperial conquest, at the tail end of that narrative fiction – now hitting a cul de sac. Financially bankrupt (look at Greece, the fictive birthplace of “the West”), politically corrupt (look at presidential elections in the US), economically stagnant (look at the US debt to China), diplomatically inept (look at the Iranian nuclear issue), all signs indicate that this thing Niall Ferguson still calls “the West” has long since internally imploded – with postmodernism and poststructuralism as its paramount philosophical eulogies.
What does it mean to be a Muslim in the post-Western world that is now fast dawning upon us? What world will Muslims inhabit in post-Western societies, in or out of the Muslim world as we have hitherto understood, defined, and located it? In what way can even we talk about a Muslim world, and how is that world different, integral, or embedded in other worlds? Wouldn’t the end of “the West” as a self-asserted criterion also mean the end of Muslim world as it was manufactured in liaison with that divisive category?
The outline of an argument
The first task we face is actively to imagine ourselves in a world liberated from the “the West” and all the false binaries it has generated and sustained. In the First Chapter, “But there is neither East nor West”, I will posit the question of what it means to being a Muslim in the world in the context of the collapsing of “Islam and the West” binary. This transition requires the crafting of a new language of coming to terms with Islam, a language that no longer matters if it is in Arabic, Persian, German, or English, so far as that language is in conversation with the emerging, not the disappearing, world…
Imagining ourselves in a post-Western world requires the dismantling of the regimes of knowledge the fiction of “the West” has historically generated. In the Second Chapter, “Breaking the Binary”, I will explore why and how is it that a post-Western regime of knowledge is necessary and in fact the elements of which are already evident. The habitual binaries between “Islam and the West”, between “religion and secularism”, need to be conceptually discarded. These binaries have concealed much about Muslim worlds rather than revealing anything about them. These binaries have been imposed by the power of the regimes of knowledge production that take “the West” as an ontological a priori and narrate the rest of humanity in terms conducive to that primacy. That primacy must be discarded and all the binaries predicated on it (“The West and the Rest”) dismantled, so we can begin to see the pre-existing worlds giving birth to a post-Western mapping of humanity…
There is no better way of dismantling the dominant regimes of knowledge than retrieving the pre-colonial condition of cosmopolitan worldliness Muslims have historically experienced. In the Third Chapter, “The Muslim Cosmopoles”, I will argue that being a Muslim in a post-Western world requires a critical rethinking of Islamic cosmopolitanism as Muslim have lived it over many centuries before the binary trap of “Islam and the West”. An active recollection of what that cosmopolitanism entailed will enable possibilities of inhabiting the renewed worldliness of Muslims lived experiences. That cosmopolitanism is categorically before and beyond any assumption of “Islam and the West”, and in which “secularism” means nothing…
A key factor in retrieving pre-colonial Muslim worldliness is the historical agency of the Muslim who does this retrieving. In the Fourth Chapter, “Being A Muslim”, I argue that being a Muslim in the emerging worlds is both an ontological question and a proposition predicated on a radical rethinking of the epistemic terms with which new regimes of knowledge might take shape. The formalism of the critical and creative faculties necessary to cultivate that language of existential self-awareness is contingent on the formal disposition of the language that we will have to cultivate in conversation with the vital parameters of our renewed pact with post-Western history…
To come to terms with the world in which Muslims live requires a radical reconsideration of the relation between this and the other world – the sacred sanctity that governs Muslims’ worldliness. In the Fifth Chapter, “Din, Dowlat and Donya: Rethinking Worldliness”, I will ask in what terms can din and dowlat be separated – what does it mean to ask for a secular politics, divorced from people’s sacred certitudes? By going back to three Arabic/Persian words that denote din/religion, dowlat/state, and donya/world, in this chapter I wish to raise the linguistic horizon we need to revisit as we come ashore to a new globality of our consciousness…
We cannot escape asking the critical question of “religion” and what it means in the context of this renewed engagement with the world. In the Sixth Chapter, “Religion – Quote Unquote”, I will turn to the term “religion”, to wonder in what way we may come to terms with what that term entails and all the alterities that it implicates. The world exists as a world because of the worldly disposition of the language that facilities the reading of that world as a lived experience. “Not only is the world ‘world’ only in so fast as it comes into language, but language, too, has its real being only in the fact that the world is re-presented within it.” That Gadamerian insight will have to guide our way towards a renewed conception of “religion”…
Finally in my Conclusion I will bring all these strands together to argue that being a Muslim in the world requires asking an existential question in the bosom of a worldly religion that has all its otherworldly aspirations deeply rooted in the one we fearfully embrace and must wholeheartedly trust in order to hand it over to our children. This world and its fragility require a renewed pact, a planetary self-reflection, a manner and mood of entrusting itself to itself. Thinking through this possibility requires a new agency I wish to identify with the category of a Muslim intellectual, rooted in a renewed organicity that must be conscious of its worldliness.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York and most recently the author of Being a Muslim in the World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).