Whose Agenda for the Twentyfirst Century

We live in an age when the tired paradigms of public perception reign supreme. Stereotype is all. In this respect, the new millennium is no different from the old. Samuel P. Huntington famously talked of the potential clash of two civilisations, a Western Christian and an Eastern Islamic.1 The Kosovan crisis of 1999 provided an interesting example of that within the former communist Yugoslavia, with Serbian forces of the Christian Orthodox faith conducting a policy of ethnic cleansing against Kosovan Albanians.2 The profound irony of this particular conflict, in the light of Huntington's prognostication, was that 'the West' in the form of the NATO Alliance, allied with, rather than fought against, Kosovan Albanian Islam.

Much more omnipresent is that paradigm of public perception whose essence is the clash of two seemingly immovable and invincible stereotypes, rather than civilisations: that beloved in Europe and the USA, especially since 11 September 2001, of a fanatically terrorist Islam,3 and that beloved by some 'fundamentalist'4 Muslims of an utterly corrupt and morally bankrupt West. Both stereotypes are fostered and fed by a press hungry for scandal and saleable copy, but the Western stereotype, at least, is part of an ancient tradition.5

While rejecting such stereotypes, this volume will explore other paradigms and vocabularies, more firmly based in reality, often with particular reference to the concepts of tradition and authority in Islam. As it does so, frequent comparisons will be made with Christian concepts of tradition and authority by way of illuminating the Islamic dimension. In this respect, a major comparative focus will be the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity because of that Church's strong emphasis on both these key topoi. One thinks especially of the Roman Catholic dogma of Papal Infallibility. Our purpose is that of Bill and Williams: 'By comparing two religious traditions that at first sight appear to be quite different and distinct, [one may seek] to advance our understanding of both faith systems'.6 Our hope is that these new paradigms and vocabularies will serve to replace what we have characterised as the tired paradigms of public perception.

Islamic authority on earth is pragmatically 'grounded'7 in what Julian Baldick calls 'orthopraxy'8 and what I will term here 'sacred multipraxis 'or 'sacropraxis' for short. For certain scholars, 'right authority' in mediaeval Islam is seen as having followed an almost jahili (pre-Islamic) paradigm of variegated custom, force and power.9 'Right authority', articulated in reality, derived not from religious 'orthodoxy', 'heterodoxy' or any other such 'dead' category10 but, according to this thinking, from a mixture of practices, political and legal,11 which with luck might be graced with a veneer of the religious or the sacred. It is true that the Ka'ba was, and is, perceived as a semiotic key to the fundamentals of Islamic dogma: it is 'a single site' towards which 'on Friday throughout the world the faithful bow' and 'this attachment of every space on earth, as if to a magnet, by the spiritual center sustains the centricity of the infinite oneness of God'.12 That is the Islamic tradition. But many hold that the locus of real authority over the Islamic community, the umma, lay elsewhere. The mediaeval bay'a, the oath of allegiance, offered by the nobles to an incoming ruler, and other such human devices, provided an essential cloak of sacred order which is at the heart of what we have termed sacred multipraxis. This volume aims to explore and lay bare that multipraxis by a comparative analysis of its objects, signs and sacredness, with a central focus on Islamic tradition and authority. And these twin topoi are as relevant to our new millennium as they were in mediaeval times.

Several questions arise: how will tradition and authority be articulated in a future age? Whose agenda will dominate the new millennium? To what extent, if any, will modern perceptions and categories of Islamic tradition and authority depend on past, mediaeval paradigms? Whose agenda will design and sanction solutions to problems neither encountered in the Qur'an nor prefigured in the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad (ad c. 570-632)? To what extent will ijma', consensus either of the learned scholars or the whole umma, and qiyas, reasoning by analogy, play a role in the future elaboration of jurisprudence in Islam? And whose Islam? Not for nothing did one modern scholar entitle a book Islams and Modernities.13 The double plural is highly significant for our discussions.

It is a cliché that, classically, Islam is an entire way of life in which there is no divide, a seamless robe in which religion, politics and law, for example, are one. The historical reality has, of course, differed profoundly from this classical model: Islam is not, and never has been, a monolith.14 This truism, then, returns us to our initial questions: whose Islam? Whose agenda? Let us briefly survey six possible scenarios. They are by no means exhaustive, nor mutually exclusive.

Digital Islam15

Will it be an Islam clothed in the fashionable garbs of the new technology? Certainly, the Qur'an, hadlth and sira literature have survived for over 1,000 years without computers and will continue to do so.16 Computer applications to sacred and related texts will enhance accessibility; but this is not really the essence of the matter. What we are on the brink of is an epistemological revolution in the Islamic domain which may, or may not, have serious consequences for such foundational themes as tradition and authority.

Profound questions arise demanding answers.

The phenomenal popularization and transnational propagation of communications and information technologies ... in recent years has generated a wide range of important questions in the context of Islam's sociology of knowledge. How have these technologies transformed Muslim concepts of what Islam is and who possesses the authority to speak on its behalf? Moreover, how are they changing the ways in which Muslims imagine the boundaries of the umma?17

The Internet, especially the World Wide Web, has rightly been compared to 'an enormous bazaar' where 'the hawkers are many and the inf-goods, at first glance, seem to address every imaginable need'.18

In terms of the sociology of knowledge, a revolution has taken place akin to that precipitated by the introduction of the printing presses in the fifteenth century by Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton. What might be characterised as a liberation of élite knowledge combined with a fostering of new political discourses has occurred.19 Observing the use of 'book, pamphlet and newsletter' in the nineteenth century by a body of the 'ulama' (the Islamic scholars) appalled at the advance of European imperialism, Mandaville notes that an ineluctable by-product was 'the demise of the stranglehold' of those same 'ulama' 'over the production and dissemination of religious knowledge'.20 But the result of today's new information technologies has been to accelerate that demise to a staggering and, for the modern 'ulama', uncomfortable degree as they find their custodianship of specialist, and sometimes élite, knowledge both challenged and threatened.21 Mandaville quotes Sa'ad al-Faqih, 'leader of the London-based "Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia" and another keen advocate of information technology', as suggesting 'that the average Muslim can now revolutionize Islam with just a basic understanding of Islamic methodology and a CD-ROM'.22 The sometimes cherished gulf between the religious or legal scholar and the ordinary Muslim is bridged at the click of a button and the production of 'relevant texts' at a stroke.23

There are, of course, obvious dangers in this kind of instant and, perhaps, previously unstudied, knowledge for the lay surfer of the Net: how reliable are the texts and sources placed instantly at one's disposal?24 Will the age of the e-mail fatwa signal an intellectual free-for-all?25 But there are epistemological advantages too: a deeper questioning may be provoked as to what it really means to be Islamic. This may result in a sharper set or variety of foci, emphases or definitions.26 The mediaeval search for authenticity, with its inevitable politics and rubrics, has revived and continues into the present.27 Mandaville summarises the modern position very neatly: 'the changing connotations of authority and authenticity in digital Islam appear to be contributing to the critical re-imagination of the boundaries of Muslim politics'.28

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