I’m entirely devoted to the grand and civilisational way of thinking, talking about, and advocating, true subservience to God. By ‘civilizational’ I mean an understanding of true subservience which resonates with the experiences of those who live in an advanced state of human society, as opposed to villages.
As such, for many of us the time for ‘village Islam’ is over.
And yes, the distinction between village Islam (synonymous with desert-dwellers) and civilizational subservience to God has been made in both the Prophet’s time and later on by fuqaha (jurists). There are many hadith that explicitly speak to the distinction, such as, “The testimony of a villager against one from civilised society (urbanite) is not be accepted.” (Abu Dāwūd and Ibn Mājah, and there’s a discussion on its reliability)
Continuing with the distinction, the distinguished Hanbali jurist Mansūr al-Bahūti wrote about leading salah, ‘The urbanite, one who is raised in a city or town, is ranked above the villager, who is raised in a village, because most villagers are crude and have little knowledge of the injunctions pertaining to the rules of prayer. God said of the bedouins, “They are the least likely to know the limits God has sent down to His Messenger” due to their distance from those they may learn from.’
Al-Shāfi’ī provided a nuanced position in his opus Kitāb al-Umm that intimates how he saw it: ‘And if a villager leads an urbanite then it’s not an issue, if God so wills, except that I would like that the people of fadl take the lead in every circumstance of leadership.’ While taking every situation on its own merit, the latter part of his statement suggests that he saw those of fadl (superiority) as tending to be found amongst urbanites.
To be honest, village Islam was never appropriate for us. But economic migration, largely from poor or rural places, meant that it was inescapable. This is certainly not a value-judgement about that generation, but a wakeup call for THIS one. Civilisational subservience to God isn’t just deep knowledge and insight that integrates various fields of learning and enquiry, but it’s also an attitude and a vibe. A culture behind the thinking that becomes the basis of action.
For far too long Muslims have been palmed off with village Islam.
Even when so-called scholars try to present a pseudo-intellectual argument, it’s merely village Islam with sources and citations. Village Islam is great for the village and being simple is perfectly fine, but that’s about maintaining a humble status quo that regulates basic impulses by providing simplistic solutions. It is nowhere near erudite or rich enough to provide the tools to build and advance as a community in sophisticated societies, and especially in our western context.
Yet your mosques and institutions socialise you with it, most preachers and teachers advocate it as a norm, and it’s the basis for public engagement.
It’s like the difference in business acumen and attitude between running a million/billion-pound corporation, and a market stall. Yes, you can make money with both but they’re hardly comparable in terms of profit, power, and influence. Yet magical thinking has Muslims believe that the market trader, in the aggressive world of unfettered capitalism, has a hope. If this line of thinking wasn’t so widespread and tragic, it’d make for an award-winning comedy show.
The difference between village Islam and civilisational Islam has nothing to do with orthodox vs liberal/progressive – a false distinction made in defence of village Islam, but the extremely variant levels of engaging with orthodoxy. In fact, village Islam doesn’t need to engage with the details of orthodoxy because it’s meant to be simplistic. It all goes wrong because village Islam is ill-equipped to engage at such levels of depth and analysis. Such intellectual inquiry is inherently a civilisational undertaking.
We reliably see its bad effects across the board. For example, many jihadists (for lack of a better term) want change. But because village Islam has no constructive content (it’s about maintaining a simplistic version of subservience) they reductively proceed to destroy what exists merely to replace it with a medieval village. Many callers for “sharia law” are the same – their conception of doing “sharia law” is simply to re-enact village living. Yet, as the Hanbali legal philosopher Ibn al-Qayyim put it in I’laam al-Muwaqqi’in, ‘Whoever gives fatwas to the people merely from what has been related in books differing from the customs, habits, era, social/political circumstances and contextual variables, misguides others and is himself misguided. His injury to the faith is greater than that of a doctor who treats patients inconsiderate of their different customs, habits, era, circumstances and contextual variables, merely seeking to reflect what is in the general books of medicine. Such a doctor is an ignoramus, and such a mufti too is an ignoramus; both are the most harmful they could possibly be to the people’s religion and their bodies – may God help us!’
The vast majority of Muslims are afflicted with this quandary in some way: we’re told that “Islam is the solution” but none of us can see exactly how a village approach will resolve our problems, or the world’s. And no, I’m not merely referring to geopolitics, or the way powerful states influence others, but even to matters closer to home.
For example, we’re plied with populist preaching and ‘heart softeners‘ as if they’ll constructively provide us a consistent godly resilience in modern life. Resultantly, people are taught to confuse an emotional spike with a way of being and outlook that correlates with God’s account of reality. Or we’re told that a ‘good believer’ is always studying and then sold immaterial courses on the particulars of hadith criticism, or the works of Ibn Hazm – entirely academic undertakings absolutely irrelevant to a modern godly life which is what the pitiable participants were actually looking for.
A practical example is where we’re told women should stay in the home, take care of the house, and obey their husbands. But the village lifestyle doesn’t work for those who live in metropolitan conurbations where astronomical prices means both men and women are forced into the workplace. So what inevitably happens is that a women works a 9-5 then comes home and takes care of everyone and everything, whilst the man does little to share the domestic burden (although she’s sharing financial burdens).
Now there’s a refined and nuanced shar’ī way to discuss these issues that’ll probably offend BOTH liberal and conservative sensibilities, but we’ve certainly not had them. Instead its polarised: it tends to be either village Islam, or a rejection of village Islam for secular liberal sentiments. A civilisational (high) shar’ī conversation is by-and-large non-existent in the public space.
These are mundane examples (to some). But the truth is that there ISN’T a realm in which village Islam isn’t having deleterious effects today.
From our conceptions of God and the Law, to personal wellbeing, politics, finance or society, village Islam not only rules the roost but increasingly worsens every situation or fails to provide the direction needed. It’s for this reason that I don’t actually blame Muslims in politics: where village Islam offers little by way of political theory one will inevitably be drawn to other interests (in the name of Islam) such as ethnic minority rights and multiculturalism. And those who don’t, end up on the other side seeming to associate with right-wing conservatism. What’s heartening is that the intentions of many are good, but activists simply don’t have the tools.
But what do you do when your leaders are actually the same as you, and most are no more sophisticated than village elders, or behave like shaman?
Recognise it for what it is and move out of the village. If you’re not ready to, or you find it unsettling because it’s unfamiliar, then you’re free to village Islam but you’re in no place to advocate it as the complete notion of what the Prophets delivered from God, nor should you bizarrely view it as an ambition.