This post is about some of the responses I receive from both the laity and the clergy when speaking about shar’i matters in a holistic way.
To paint a picture: there are Muslims who are content with praying not knowing what they say but fulfilling the obligation of acting it out anyhow, reciting sounds they call the Qur’an, believing that there’s a supreme creator they should direct these acts to, a special man in the past whom they should venerate, and sticking to an abstract list of do’s and don’ts advocated largely by their clergy.
To be clear, I do not altogether dismiss these things nor do I deny imaan in this context, and I believe the internalised sentiments behind this approach (i.e. the good intentions) are recognised by God.
It would be absolutely absurd to argue this is the standard at which we do faith: a normative understanding of what God wants of us, in how He would want us to relate to Him, and how we should be conducting our affairs and fulfilling our covenant. As a way of registering one’s faith this might be acknowledged by God, but it would be a contemptable misrepresentation of what God has told us if we’re to argue that this is what God intended when revealing guidance to mankind.
Of course, we all know this, both intuitively and through reasoning, and I’ve never met anyone in their right mind who’d seriously argue otherwise. But some fall into a frenzy and fallaciously argue that we cannot negate the sincerity or validity of those people who settle for what I’ve described above. These are red herrings and not what I’m refer to. Sincerity has little to do with the issue, and the validity of a partial act doesn’t speak to the need for its entirety or the requirement of a holistic conception of what God says. Furthermore, I don’t believe they’ve settled for anything, they simply just don’t know and would probably love to.
We gave the Scripture as a heritage to Our chosen servants: some of them wronged their own souls, some stayed between, and some, by God’s leave, were foremost in good deeds. That is the greatest favour.
When I advocate a holistic understanding of revelation, the sunnah, and the shari’ah, I speak to the standard set by God and His messenger, not what people are up to, although I sympathise with why people might be doing things that way. Religious literacy is particularly low, the mediums (such as social media) that facilitate the wildfire spread of assumptions and uninformed opinion are mighty, and unfortunately most Muslims do not have substantially informed people in their lives.
But as witnesses to God we must be candid: this does not reflect the subservience of the final Messenger of God (or any prophet for that matter), nor that of his companions. Even the less well-known sahabah who lived very simple lives (such as shepherds, camel herders, or wood cutters) and weren’t engaged in the communal affairs of the believers were still very much engaged with God in a meaningful way. The desert bedouins understood the meaning of prayer and recognised the utility and functions of what God had revealed even if they deferred leadership to others. To normalise the above is to set a very low benchmark, in fact an illegitimate one unauthorised by God, and thus to justify doing so is blameworthy.
When we talk about the need to understand the scriptures, it’s irrelevant to respond with the ‘legitimacy’ of pronouncing incomprehendible Arabic phonemes as if that’s what God wants. When we speak of the salah not being exotic utterances and physical positions, it’s irrelevant to respond with the ‘validity’ of litanies (with little meaning to the person) and muscle movements as if that’s also what God wants. Such conversations usually enter the realm of the absurd. Of course, there are reasons as to how we came to this bizarre point where daft retorts are considered acceptable, one being the highly legalised or politicised way of defining one’s relationship with the Most High that presents the entirety of the shari’ah as a ritual ceremony beyond the purview of reason and substance. I’d like to highlight here that the entire shari’ah is interconnected, everything has meaning and function; it makes up a beautiful whole, resonates with common-sense which is why God appeals to mankind through it, and speaks to the entirety of human existence in a way that should bring about optimum social, political, economic and psychological outcomes.
A common response is that people aren’t practicing the real shari’ah which is why we see the plethora of issues we do. But when you ask them about their conception of the real shari’ah with a little detail, they’re unable to explain how it would lead to anything more than where we are now. Clearly, the response is ineffective. In such circumstances, speaking about the real Islam or real shari’ah becomes a rhetorical device, a convenient smokescreen to counter the dissonance that most contemporary articulations of the shari’ah induce. Most who engage in critical thinking and in depth study come to similar conclusions: an effective understanding of the shari’ah is one that is irrelevant to polemics and entrenched sectarian positions, it’s these that actually hold things back.
Are the sentiments I’m advocating here unnecessarily piercing? Not really. It’s a stance that is rightly becoming increasingly widespread amongst thinking people. But we need to bring about a communal shift in attitudes and religious understandings. If so, I hold that we would see tangible results that we could be proud of. We’d feel like we were achieving something. We’d be all the more emotionally and psychologically better for it.
Saying something about problematic (and often modern) religious understandings and attitudes doesn’t need to be an indictment of those caught up in them. It’s about highlighting and guiding to that which is wholesome, whilst also seeking to undermine the problem becoming the subconscious norm. Of course, the immediate intent is never to belittle anyone – people tend to be in different places and what’s important is that everyone is willing to journey. Where we start from isn’t all that important, what is significant is where we end up.
Be tolerant and advocate what is right; pay no attention to foolish people.
Of course, the ego is a forceful entity and some raise a wall in defence, but I have never come across a person who, after lowering that wall, couldn’t see the beauty of a holistic understanding of true subservience. As a Friday congregant said to me last week: “It’s just so simple, and so much sense, like you’re telling us what we already intuitively know.”